We woke up this morning to the horrific news of the shooting deaths of 9 people at Emmanuel AME Church, a historic African American congregation in Charleston, South Carolina. It seems painfully and uncomfortably fitting that a cathedral community like ours—one that has identified gun violence and racial injustice as our two highest missional concerns—should find them both conjoined in this terrible incident. I’ll come back to it later, but for right now let’s hold the people of Emmanuel Church and Charleston in our hearts as we think together about our scripture readings.
The first lesson, from 2 Corinthians, [2 Corinthians 11: 1-11] sounds like a memo from a boss who has gone totally off the rails. When Paul asks that the Corinthians bear with him in a little foolishness, he is being sarcastic rather than playful. In warning this congregation about the false prophets who have come after him, Paul winds up into an exhortation that is at once hostile, defensive, self-justifying, and—well—paranoid. Just like the memos that I draft in my head but never send. It’s too bad Paul didn’t have someone like Tish at his side who could gently talk him down before he pressed “send”.
As cringe-worthy as his performance is, though, Paul still has a point. He’s telling the Corinthians that he did not take any money in support from them because he wanted them to be able to give to the “home office” in Jerusalem. Always robust in his own self-estimation, Paul will continue to boast about his ongoing generosity. “And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!”
Now this sounds a bit like the contemporary slogan, “Beatings will continue until morale improves,” but it does have a certain logic. Paul had founded the Corinthian church, but after he moved on he discovered that they had come under the influence of some bogus preachers. He is angry and hurt, but more than either he is worried. He’s fearful that the church he founded will be corrupted by dangerous influences.
So here’s point one: those of us who serve the church do so because we love it. That’s true whether you serve a big cathedral like this or a small congregation in the inner city or the countryside. But sometimes our love for the church can blur the boundaries between appropriate engagement and obsessive overfunctioning. When reading this passage from 2 Corinthians, I want to shout back at Paul, “Hey, buddy, I know you love the Corinthians. But take a couple weeks off, OK?”
As important as it is that we work hard, it is perhaps even a bit more important that we “step back onto our side of the line” as a former colleague of mine used to say. We all have wonderful, important, and fulfilling jobs. But they are, after all, only jobs. When we get our whole identity from our workplace, we run the risk of forgetting who we really are. And frankly, if we don’t know who we really are we are of limited use in the living and working out of God’s purposes for us.
We have just gone through an incredibly productive and exhausting year at the cathedral. I am deeply grateful for the way in which each one of you has sacrificially given of yourself to make this ministry not only possible but also excellent and worthy of the transcendent space and role we occupy in Washington and in the nation’s life. But Paul’s little hissy fit reminds us that we can all get overly engaged. It’s time, as the kindergarten teachers say, for a time-out. We all need to find some time this summer to disengage, to rest, and to recover a sense of who we are when we’re not in the cathedral building or on the grounds.
That’s point one. Matthew’s Gospel steers us to point two. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his hearers how they ought to pray:
‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [Matthew 6: 7-15]
He then goes on to give them the Lord’s Prayer as the model for how we all ought to address God. It’s simple; it’s direct; and it’s rooted in our need both to praise God and to seek forgiveness for ourselves, each other, and the world.
I don’t know how to make sense of the Charleston shootings. I don’t know how to make sense of all the injustice, suffering, and pain I see in the world. But I do know that if a place like this has any final reason for being, it’s rooted in what Jesus offers us in the simple prayer we will say together as we gather around God’s table.
Washington National Cathedral exists to hallow God’s name, pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, call for the abundance of daily bread for all, and to seek and offer forgiveness. The shootings last night in Charleston call us back to remembering what the church—even and especially a great church like this—is here for. It’s a simple and a noble purpose, and sometimes the tyranny of the urgent can distract us from it. But what we are up to together is the most important and ennobling work there is. It is God’s work, and we do it in this blessed but imperfect community where sometimes we lose our tempers or our patience, but where we always deeply value, respect, and (yes) love each other.
I am grateful for this work we do together. I am grateful for this beautiful place in which to do it. But more importantly, I am grateful for you as my companions on this journey. I guess Paul said it best. “And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!”
Let’s love and support each other so that we can love and support the Charlestons and Newtowns and Fergusons of the world. God knows what we need before we ask. For today, that assurance is enough. Amen.