Holy scripture has many uses: the bible has within its pages, history, poetry, prayer, theology, instruction, and importantly, comfort. Many of us turn to the bible for comfort. Reassurance in difficult times, a reminder of the love God has for us, and for God’s creation. Familiar passages that can calm us, or steady us, favorite words that help us through difficult times.
Students of the bible learn to look for ways that a particular passage was intended to be used by the author. Context can be important, but much of our sacred texts have uses outside of their original purpose. 1 Corinthians was written by Paul to a church in conflict. His intent was to instruct and reassure an anxious church that they could learn to treat each other with love and respect, even if they disagreed. And yet, many pastors find themselves using 1 Corinthians 13 in other settings: weddings, anniversary celebrations, even funerals. Paul’s words on love, originally meant for a conflicted church, has truth and meaning for others beyond his intended audience.
This can be true for much of the Bible.
Today’s gospel lesson from John tells of the time Jesus spoke with his disciples about his departure from earth, how the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, would remind them of all that he had taught them. The disciples were nervous, anxious, unsure of the future. It appears that Jesus wanted to reassure the disciples and comfort them in their anxiety.
The heart of the passage, the core message from Jesus is this: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Comforting words indeed.
In the wake of the racist murders in Buffalo last week, I turned to this passage for comfort. Partly because I was already working on it for this week’s sermon, but also because it is one of my favorite scriptures. Seeking the Peace of Jesus, the peace he gives to us, I sought to find a way for my heart to not be troubled. I looked for a way for my heart to not be afraid.
But try as I might, the challenging truth that keeps coming back to me again and again is that this particular passage at this particular time is only for the family and loved ones and the community of the ones whose lives were taken. This passage isn’t for us. Not today.
In fact, I believe that as a worshiping community, our hearts should be very troubled, and our hearts should be very afraid: the white supremacy, the evil and racist philosophy that led an 18 year old boy to commit murder is alive and well in our world.
And the comfort of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sends in his own name, the peace Jesus left and gives through the Holy Spirit today, is meant for those who mourn the sudden and violent loss of their loved ones, taken because of the color of their skin, or because of their presence in a community of color. Jesus gives those families and the communities of color terrorized by this violence Peace. Unconditional peace. But I believe that our hearts need to be troubled, and they need to be afraid, until we see the hatred and the violence countered by prayer, thwarted by faith, eliminated by love.
There are some ways we can counter the evil racism that threatens our communities: prayer, partnership, participation, promotion, practice and planting.
Whether we are homebound, or working to bring food to the community that has temporarily lost its only grocery store, we all can have a role in combatting the racism that sparked this violence.
We know we can pray. And pray we will. Pray when we light the Peace Candle, pray when another victim is laid to rest, pray when the wounds are reopened at a trial, pray to have the resources and strength to look at our own biases…
But that’s not enough, is it? We can partner with faith communities of color in this important work of fighting racism. Partner with pastors and ministers and individuals and community leaders.
We can participate in learning events that aim to educate us on the evils of systemic racism, and the evils of white supremacy. If we want to eradicate the scourge of racism, we’re going to have to learn how it germinates, how it’s nurtured, how it spreads. And once we learn that, we can find ways to counter it, to prevent it from spreading.
We can promote peace. We can embody the peaceful love of Jesus, and we can promote the sharing of that peace wherever we go.
We can practice our faith. Building relationships with others who wish to fight racism. We can focus our mission, our resources, on programs and organizations that make it their business to counter the effects of racism.
And we can plant Sacred Seeds. We can take risks to plant Sacred Seeds where we might otherwise think they wouldn’t take hold. In our families, in our friend groups, we all have people whose comments and beliefs suggest they are influenced by racism. We can counter those comments with reminders of Christ’s Peace, God’s love, and the Holy Spirit’s comfort.
It won’t be easy. But it’s necessary.
Our hearts should be troubled. Our hearts should be afraid. The comfort and the reassurance from the Holy Spirit that Jesus speaks of in today’s John passage is for the loved ones and communities of: Celestine Chaney, Roberta Drury, Andre Mckniel, Katherine Massey, Margus Morrison, Heyward Patterson, Aaron Salter, Geraldine Talley, Ruth Whitfield, Pearl Young. And for the continued healing of Christopher Braden, Zaire Goodman, and Jennifer Warrington.
We may be shocked, we may be scandalized, we may be paralyzed by the breathtakingly evil act committed in the name of racism, but I can tell you that we are not powerless. We have all the resources and strength we need to affect a positive change in a world that desperately needs our help.
Working to fight the results of racism embedded in systems all around us, working to fight the sin-sick soul of our own biases, there is comfort in singing with our sisters and brothers of color, joining melody and harmony to a powerful spiritual, known for it’s longing for a better world, there is a balm in Gilead.
When we do the work of fighting racism, these words can be for us: we aren’t appropriating them, or usurping them, not when we pray for a better world, and partner, and promote, and practice, and participate, and plant…we can find comfort in words that were used by enslaved people to encourage and support those who were victims of a system designed to keep them helpless and powerless. These words can be for us when we sing about our own sin-sick souls, when we add our voices to those who have been affected by racism and racist acts, for generations.
For now, let our hearts be troubled, and let our hearts be afraid. Let that trouble and fear motivate us to fight the evils of white supremacy and racism, near and far, wherever we can, whenever we can.
The seeds that we plant will flourish, the relationships we build will strengthen the resolve and the resources of our communities to fight racism wherever it rears its ugly head. The love that grows will always be stronger than the hate that hovers around us.
There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.
But the comfort of the Holy Spirit, detailed in John’s gospel, promised by Jesus to his disciples, given unconditionally, let that comfort be for those who lost their lives at the hands of evil, let that comfort be for those who loved them, and for those whom they loved. Amen.