Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 19, 2017
If a youthful, mop-topped blond kid walked into my parish by himself on a Sunday morning, I would be delighted. I’d make every effort to see that he felt welcome. After all, the young are the future of our Church. It is the duty and the joy of disciples to pass on our faith to the next generation. I would be even more pleased if a young man of that description wandered into a Bible Study or a parish meeting. I would see the opportunity for evangelization, or possibly even conversion. I would hop right on it.
I suspect that 19 months ago, in Charleston, S.C., when such a young person walked through the doors of Emanuel African Methodist Church, the Christians that saw him felt the same feelings of delight and opportunity. I suspect that they were pleased…if not overjoyed…to welcome him. And welcome him they did, in spite of the fact his skin color distinguished him from the majority of the folks on hand that day for prayer and study. In fact, two days after unleashing horrific violence in this place of worship, the young man acknowledged that everyone was so nice to him that he almost abandoned the plan that he’d spent months concocting. Nine people were martyred at the hands of this youthful, mop-topped blond kid.
Having been quickly apprehended by authorities, the young man faced a judge at a bail hearing. People watching the televised proceedings must have been as shocked by his harmless appearance as they were by the violence and hatred he unleashed on innocent people at prayer. When someone commits a crime of this magnitude, we expect them to look like a monster, not the kid next door.
Even more shocking, however, were the statements made that day by family members of the nine people who died. Rising out of their grief, they tearfully confronted this unrepentant “white supremacist” with the words: I FORGIVE YOU! I FORGIVE YOU!
From the moment of his arrest until he heard the jury sentence him to death, the young man has shown no contrition…no regret…no remorse. He has persisted in his hatred, his sole defense to his heinous crime being bigotry and prejudice. And still, many of the victims remain as steadfast in their forgiveness as the young man in his hatred: I FORGIVE YOU!
What’s most shocking of all is that any Christian would be shocked by the totally Christian response to such blatant evil. Forgiveness is what Jesus calls us to. The willingness to forgive…at least try to forgive…is what distinguishes us as followers of Jesus Christ. It is our eagerness to forgive even the most grievous offense or insult that makes us images of our God, Who is slow to anger and quick to forgive.
The folks from Emanuel African Methodist Church, who have expressed forgiveness of the man who brought death into a place of spiritual life, are brilliant examples of Christian discipleship. To their great credit, certainly, but also to their great benefit. If they were to harbor hatred and the desire for revenge against him, they would be in the same position as he is today: in prison, facing death! Because that is what the desire for revenge does to us. It imprisons us in a dark cell…and sentences us to the death of joy and peace. Their willingness to forgive has preserved their freedom to live as children of God.
What brilliant images of our God they are!