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Prattle or Practice: Part Two

Are your sermons prattle or practice? Are they about inconsequential drivel or the habits of grace? Habits of moral thought and action. Practices of Christian spirituality.

I just finished reading Grace Will Lead Us Home by Jennifer Berry Hawes. It’s the story of the Emmanuel, AME shooting. A story of gun violence with nine dead, forgiveness of what is unforgivable, a state making a bit of headway in dealing with a legacy of slavery and racism, a church struggling with trauma, and mixed emotions and thoughts about the death penalty for Dylann Roof.

So, what habits and practices might we preach on this Sunday? One spiritual practice that the Emmanuel story press upon us is forgiveness – offering forgiveness and accepting forgiveness.

        If you haven't read Part One - it's here

But God forgives you. And I forgive you.

The Lord’s Prayer is in this Sunday’s gospel reading.

Forgive us our sins
    as we forgive those
        who sin against us.


And the Lord said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." 


Where might you take that in terms of practice?


I forgive you 

I’d probably begin with the forgiveness stories in the Charlestown shootings.

After Roof was captured there was a hearing before a magistrate regarding bail. Nadine Collier, a daughter of Ethel Lance who was murdered during the Wednesday evening Bible Study, rose to speak. 

 “And you are whom, ma’am?” the magistrate asked. “Her daughter.” “Her daughter,” Gosnell repeated. “I’m listening. And you can talk to me.” Instead, Nadine looked toward Roof. “I just want everybody to know, to you, I forgive you! You took something very precious away from me.” Her husky voice cracked with a muffled sob. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you! And have mercy on your soul. You. Hurt. Me! You hurt a lot of people.” Beneath her spiky black hair, long gold earrings swung with each emphatic statement. “But God forgives you. And I forgive you.” (Grace Will Lead Us Home)

Felicia Sanders was one of the three survivors. Her 26-year-old son and her 87-year-old aunt were among those killed. Her son had pleaded with Roof who stood over him, “We mean you no harm.” Felicia’s Bible had been hit by a bullet and soaked in blood. The shooting cleaning crew had decided it wasn’t in shape to be returned and placed it in a biohazard storage to be destroyed. Police Lieutenant Jennie Antonio knew that Felicia wanted her Bible back, tracked it down, sent it to a company that specialized in restoring such items, and in time was able to return the Bible to Felicia.

After Roof had been found guilty and the jury called for the death penalty came a hearing during which the families would be heard, and the judge would pronounce the sentence.

However, Felicia said, today she had brought with her the best defense. Not a gun. Not a knife. Not her fists. Her voice trembled as she continued. “My Bible, abused—abused, torn, shot up. When I look at the Bible, I see blood that Jesus shed for me. And for you, Dylann Roof.” With that, she picked up her Bible, the one rescued from the fellowship hall, and held it in the air like a wand of faith. Then she pointed it at him. With her fingers, she flipped through its wrinkled, tattered, salvaged pages as if to cast the very spirit of God toward the evil man before her. Maybe one day, yet to come, grace would lead him home, as faith had rescued her. “Yes, I forgive you,” she continued. “That was the easiest thing I had to do. But you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves. And that’s exactly what you are.” Indeed, he sat there with his same mushroom haircut, still staring straight ahead with that same blank expression he’d worn all through the trial. He wasn’t going to acknowledge her now, just as he’d showed no respect, no caring or humanity at all, to the nine people he killed around her. So, she ended with words similar to those she’d spoken at the bond hearing all those months ago: “May God have mercy on your soul.” (Grace Will Lead Us Home)



Many of the survivors and family of the slain lived in a tradition of forgiveness. It wasn’t an option. The Lord required it. You had to forgive to go to heaven and see your loved ones again. Felicia Sanders thought, “Roof’s destiny was in God’s hands now. Her destiny remained in her own. What if she didn’t forgive this killer? She wouldn’t go to heaven, and that’s where she would find her baby boy.”   That didn’t mean it was easy. Not everyone was able to say the words of forgiveness. But many did. One person thought of it as something I can do today. She didn’t know about tomorrow. 

The reviewer for the New York Times writing a very favorable review about Grace Will Lead Us Home had a difficult time with such forgiveness. He didn’t seem to be able to write of it in the religious terms of the Emmanuel parishioners. He wrote of it as though it was about ego – “it shows I am a better person.” The writer had a perspective that may be that of most people in any congregation, “Why did the survivors and family members who spoke at Roof’s bond hearing forgive him, and did he deserve it?”

Governor Nikki “Haley, herself a Christian, wondered: Could I do that?” You can bet there are people in your congregation that would share that view. You might even have some difficulty with it yourself. I’ve known clergy who saw their forgiveness as something to be offered only after apologies and contrition. The notion that they were to forgive up front, to take a stance of forgiveness that invited the offender into relationship, was beyond their understanding. To what extent is that you?

Jennifer Berry Hawes writes of James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology, perspective on forgiveness. He described forgiveness in the church as a form of “deep spiritual resistance.” It didn’t only help ensure salvation after earthly lives spent bearing the cruelties of slavery, segregation, and oppression. It also provided power to the powerless. It freed the forgiver from hating the oppressor. It kept hate from corroding the soul. It offered a higher Christian ground.

Being forgiven

At Morning Prayer today, we said Psalm 51. An antiphon was used, “Have courage, your sins are forgiven.”

An interesting connection. That being forgiven might require courage. Look at the psalm and you’ll see why.

The psalmist is struggling to come to terms with his sin – “I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” There is a need for a troubled spirit, a broken heart. A painful process must be endured – offense blotted out, washing and cleansing, coping with having “my sin is ever before me.”

When faced with the statements of forgiveness Roof would stare straight ahead or down impassively with a blank expression. When the husband of Myra Thompson, one of those murdered, said, “I forgive you. And my family forgives you.” He experienced from Roof a vacant gaze.” Even then, Anthony Thompson had hope, “hope that Roof would repent and be saved." On the many occasions when Roof was asked why he did it, his response was the same, “And I still feel like I had to do it.”


Part One