Shots ring out in a church basement, the Bible on the blood-stained table opened to the Gospel of Mark, and nine people are dead, including the pastor. Such horror, and yet…
Amid all the words spoken about the event, the ones that stood out to me were contained in a story that described the pastor’s day that Wednesday leading up to the shooting. Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the story said, began his day in Columbia doing some work as a state senator, but then told his colleagues he needed to leave to go to his church in Charleston, where he had an important meeting with the presiding elder of his church district. “There was the matter of the church elevator, long under construction. The budget needed review, and three congregants were officially received as new preachers. One by one they stepped before the group to receive certificates and applause. The meeting in the church basement ended around 8 p.m., and the crowd of about 50 dwindled to 12 of the congregation’s most devout members, who would remain for the Wednesday night Bible study. That was when the visitor, a young white man, came to the door, asking for the minister…the Bible study was open to all, and Mr. Pinckney welcomed him. They sat together around a green table, prayed, sang and then opened to the Gospel of Mark, 4:16-20, which likens the word of God to a seed that must fall on good soil to bear fruit” (New York Times, June 20, 2015).
My mind kept drifting back to this article as I heard other stories: The family of the slain one by one telling the killer of their loved ones that they forgive him, that they are praying for him, because “our faith teaches us to forgive.” The church opens its doors for worship only days after this horrendous event, singing hymns of hope, preaching a word that says evil and death do not get the last word, proclaiming that anyone who expected them to go out into the streets and riot, “doesn’t know us.” The churches all over Charleston – white and black – tolling their steeple bells in support and grief. Politicians abandon their usual partisan warfare to speak a unified word of support, and people across the nation examine once again our fraught history and ongoing struggles with racial divisions. Hope springs up from devastation, nurtured in the mundane like a seed sown in the earth.
We say at First Presbyterian that we are forming disciples of Jesus Christ, that the work of the church is to join God’s Spirit in transforming lives. Our mission statement is a simple one: “Responding to God’s grace through worship, study, and service.” We speak of the mission of the church beyond the walls of the church. We do this work in so many ways, often seemingly mundane. There are committee meetings and budget decisions. There are Sunday school classes and Wednesday evening Bible studies. Sometimes the elevator breaks or the roof leaks or the parking lot needs to be repaved. In the midst of these things, medical teams go to Beirut and high school youth go to West Virginia, Habitat houses are built and ice cream is churned for Martha O’Bryan Center.
People like me, whose vocational life is centered in the church, can sometimes fall into the trap of worrying whether or not the week after week of worship and preaching, the teaching and formation, the seemingly unending meetings, really make a difference. We scatter so many seeds and sometimes look longingly at the ground for evidence of growth, in others, and in ourselves. But then nine people are killed in a church basement at a routine Bible study after a day of meetings, a pastor is laid to rest along with some of the most devout members of the church, and the very next Sunday the doors swing open and words of reconciliation and hope are spoken once more.
It shouldn’t take such an event for us to see what is always right there in front of us: God is at work through the ministries and missions of God’s church, God is transforming lives in ways visible and not so visible each day, and nothing…nothing at all that we do in response to God’s grace is ever wasted, is ever without impact – from the interminable committee meeting to the singing of a hymn to the swinging of a hammer – God takes up all our gifts and uses them, and us, for the healing and hope of the world. We scatter seeds, but God gives the growth, God transforms lives.
We saw that healing and hope, that growth and transformation, with crystal clarity this past week in Charleston. May we see it with the same clarity in our own midst, for it is surely here, even in the “mundane,” which, by God’s grace, is anything but.