On June 17, 2015, nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina were shot to death while participating in a Bible study in the basement of their church. The shooter, a 21 year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist, had wandered into the room that evening. Can you picture it? Nine black church-goers in the midst of prayer and study, look up to see a young white man in jeans and a sweatshirt. Did they politely ask him to leave? Did they threaten to call the police if he did not leave? No. They invited him to join them. For a time, he did just that, he participated in their Bible study. And just as they were ending their session, heads bowed in prayer, he pulled a gun out of his fanny pack and one by one he shot them. Can you imagine the anguish the families of those nine people experienced? I cannot. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to lose a loved one so suddenly and so violently. And that is what makes the next part of this story so stunning. Only three days later, when invited to share a statement at the shooter’s bond hearing, several of the family members turned to the shooter and said, “I forgive you”.
In today’s first reading, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to be holy as the Lord their God is holy, to bear no hatred in their hearts, to take no revenge, to cherish no grudge and to love their neighbor as themselves. And who is their neighbor? Jesus responds to this question in chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel with the parable of the good Samaritan: your neighbor is the one who is not like you. In today’s Gospel as Jesus brings his Sermon on the Mount to a close, he seems to save the most challenging part for last: Love not only those who are like you or even those who are not like you. Go one step further. Love your enemy. In this way, you will be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Few of us will be called to love in such horrific circumstances as those who lost loved ones in Charleston that night. But all of us have people around us who are difficult to love. It might be that co-worker who loudly snaps her gum in the next cubicle, or perhaps the committee chair who never listens to our ideas. It might be the protesters blocking traffic, or a family member with whom we haven’t spoken in many months. The wisdom of the world might call us to be righteous in our particular situation, but as Paul tells us in the second reading, the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God. God calls us to holiness.
The man who shot those nine people was certainly not a friend. He was indeed their enemy. Yet, even in the midst of unimaginable pain, their family members knew that this man was still their neighbor. From somewhere deep inside themselves they knew that they were called to love that neighbor, to love their enemy. Did their forgiveness mean they no longer hurt? No. I am quite sure the family members of those victims continued to ache deeply. Yet their decision to love and forgive not only stopped a potential cycle of violence and vengeance, it made it possible for good to follow.
These family members reflect the spirit of today’s readings. They show us how to be holy and perfect as the Lord our God is holy and perfect. It cannot have been easy for them. But they show us that with God’s grace, it can indeed be done.