It’s Just Not Safe – Reflections on the Massacre in Sutherland Springs

It’s just not safe.  Those are the words I recently heard from a man I invited to church.  We were hosting our Fall Festival at a central location in the community.  As I went around talking with families and inviting them to church, some expressed interest in coming.  Others said that they already have a church.  Still others came up with some other reason why they would not be able to come.

But one response caught me off guard.  The man was a veteran.  And based on our brief conversation, it seemed clear that he was dealing with some emotional and psychological issues resulting from his military service.  After a little small talk, I invited him to church.  His response surprised me.  I’ve heard a lot of excuses…ehr…I mean…reasons why people don’t go to church.  But I had never heard this one.  He said, “It’s just not safe.”  He went on to tell me that he believed his family was safer at home.  I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  To be honest, I kind of dismissed his concern in my mind.  I chalked it up either to his PTSD issues or just a general lack of desire to come to church.

Then on November 5, 2017, a gunman walked into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas and opened fire on the vulnerable congregation gathered there for morning worship.  The death toll now stands at 26.  Others are injured.  This is a small church.  The percentage of the congregation either killed or injured is extremely high.  And this wasn’t the first time something like this happened.  Nine people were shot and killed at Emanuel AME Church in June 2015 by a white supremacist.  It seems that hate crimes against churches are on the rise.

Was the man at our Fall Festival right?  Is it not safe to attend a church service in America?  I have to be honest.  I did not have any feelings of fear or uncertainty as I drove to church yesterday morning.  And even recognizing that something like this could happen to any church anywhere, I doubt I will be overcome with fear or uncertainty this coming Sunday as our church gathers again.  But maybe the guy at our Fall Festival was right.  Maybe it’s not safe to attend church anymore.

Yesterday  was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.  I’ve been preaching through the book of Acts and am now halfway through chapter 17.  So yesterday in my sermon, I took the opportunity to survey Acts and the persecution we’ve seen through the first 17 chapters.  I spoke of the reality, root, and result of persecution in Acts.  I hope you like my Rs.  I then ended my sermon by considering the early church’s response to persecution in Acts.  Another R word.

We do not yet know the motives of the murderer in Texas, but perhaps the early church’s response to the persecution they faced can help us think about how we should respond in the aftermath of another deadly shooting in a church.

1) They rejoiced.

This one was hard enough to preach yesterday before the shooting.  It’s even harder to write today.  I’m not sure I know exactly what rejoicing looks like in the midst of a tragedy like yesterday’s shooting.  But I can’t get around verses like Acts 5:41.

Acts 5:41
Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.

Paul wrote in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”  Paul wasn’t out of touch when it comes to suffering.  He knew what it was like to be beaten, stoned, and imprisoned.  Yet he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

The early church rejoiced in the midst of persecution because they knew that their suffering was part of their identification with Christ.  They knew that to suffer with Jesus meant they would also be glorified with Him.  Their hope was in the Lord and not in their circumstances.  They knew that either God was going to deliver them from their suffering or they were going to leave and go be with God in heaven.  I really don’t mean to sound trite or insensitive here.  But even (especially?) in the midst of intense suffering, as Christians, we must find a way to rejoice in the Lord.

I believe that the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas will find a way to do just that.  We know that the surviving members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston did just that when they looked a murderer in the eyes and forgave him, forgiveness that is only possible because of Jesus and His shed blood on the cross.

2) They prayed.

This is how the early church responded in Acts 4 to the very first instance of Christian persecution.  After Peter and John were released, the church gathered together and prayed.  It’s interesting that while they may have prayed for God’s protection, their primary prayer was for boldness in the face of persecution.

This is how we ended our service yesterday.  We prayed for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world.  We prayed for those who persecute.  We prayed that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ would continue to go forth in even the darkest places in our world.  Little did we know that God would hear our general prayer for the persecuted as a specific prayer for the people of FBC Sutherland Springs.

Most of us will never physically wrap our arms around the survivors of this attack.  We won’t be able to offer words of hope or sit in silence, mourning with those who mourn.  But we can pray.  We are FBC Sutherland Springs.  These are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  And when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.

3) They trusted the Lord.

This is an obvious theme in the book of Acts.  The early church was marked by a deep-seated trust in the Lord.  They didn’t always understand their circumstances.  They hardly ever knew what was ahead.  Yet they trusted the Lord.  It was their trust in the Lord that allowed them to rejoice in the midst of suffering and pray for boldness in the face of intense persecution.

We have not yet heard a lot from the people directly affected by this tragedy, but I’m sure that we will.  And when we do, I believe we will hear testimony of how our God is strengthening the faith of His people through suffering.  The Christian’s trust is not in safety or the absence of suffering.  The Christian’s trust is in the Lord, and that trust seems to be only strengthened through persecution and suffering.

4) They kept on preaching.

Paul was stoned, and he kept on preaching.  He was thrown in prison, and he kept on preaching.  He was run out of Thessalonica, so he went to Berea and kept on preaching.  You get the picture.  The people of God cannot be silenced by persecution and suffering.  In fact, God’s people are emboldened by suffering.

Pastor Frank Pomeroy was not present when 26 members of his congregation were murdered, but his 14-year-old daughter was.  She was among those murdered.  The healing process will be long and hard.  It will never be complete on this side of eternity.  But I trust that Pastor Pomeroy will stand and preach again.

So is it safe to attend church?  I’m not sure.  I do not feel scared, but I think I now understand why others might.  But as Christians, regardless of whether or not it is safe, we continue to gather together.  In fact, this coming Sunday, Christians will once again gather in churches across America and throughout the world.  Some will do so under threat of persecution.  Some will do so wondering whether it will be the last time they gather with their brothers and sisters in Christ on this side of eternity.

But one thing is sure: the people of God will gather.  We will keep on preaching.  And we will do so knowing that there is coming a day when all the redeemed will gather around the throne of our God in worship to Him.  We will do so then with no fear of persecution or death.  Only gratitude to the Lamb who laid down His life for us.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

With whom will you pray?

There was a lot of discussion on social media about a prayer gathering that took place in the Oval Office recently.  Several evangelical leaders were present—including Southern Baptists Ronnie Floyd, Jack Graham, Robert Jeffress, Richard Land, Frank Page, and others.  Ronnie Floyd was one of two pastors who voiced a prayer as the rest of the group laid hands on President Trump.  Jack Graham did an interview on Fox News talking about the gathering.  Baptist Press had an article about it.

As you might imagine, reactions to photos and statements released after the time of prayer have been mixed.  Those attending were thrilled with the opportunity to pray for the President in the Oval Office.  Many shared their enthusiasm with congratulatory tweets and calls to pray for our President.  Others though were less than thrilled.  Some even resorted to attacking the motives of those present for the time of prayer.

Of course, the question being raised by those with concerns is not whether President Trump is worthy of our prayers.  We are commanded in Scripture pray for our leaders.  That’s true regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.  The question is whether these leaders are yoking themselves to the President by being present for this meeting, taking part in the photo-op, and posting all over social media about the meeting.  Perhaps of even greater concern is whether these leaders are inadvertently providing credibility to false prophet/prosperity gospel preachers like Paula White by participating with her in this time of prayer for the President.

The answer isn’t easy.  I can see some validity in arguments on both sides.  But the reality is that I wasn’t invited to the meeting.  I don’t expect to need to make a decision on whether I will pray for President Trump with Paula White.  So whether these men should have attended this meeting is really a moot point for me and most of the readers of SBC Voices.

You and I, however, will have to make decisions regarding what events we will attend, who we will pray with, and how our presence and the ensuing photos may lend credibility to false teachers in our own communities.  This was true for me when I pastored in a small rural town in Southern Virginia, and it is true now that I pastor in a growing area about an hour south of Washington, DC.

In my small rural town in Southern Virginia, this issue popped up every November.  The churches in town held a Community Thanksgiving Service on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving every year.  Some of the participants came from very liberal denominational traditions.  Some of the participants came from a charismatic background which had a prosperity gospel flavor to it.  There were things about the gathering that made me uncomfortable, but I always chose to participate.

The issue popped up in my new area of ministry last summer.  In the wake of some of the shootings that had taken place across the nation, the sheriff’s department in the county where I now live hosted a community prayer vigil.  I was new to the community and didn’t know what to expect, but I attended.  There were several prayers voiced from the platform.  As far as I can remember, all of the prayers voiced from the platform were by those claiming to be Christians.  But the event was not promoted as a Christian event.  In fact, there was at least one Muslim man in attendance.  Though he did not pray from the platform, it seemed clear to me that his participation in the event was not considered strange or unwelcome.  It really would not have surprised me if he had been invited onto the platform.

I raise this issue because it’s an important one.  Let me raise a hypothetical situation that does not seem unlikely to me.  The sheriff’s department calls me one day and asks me to participate in a similar event.  They want me to pray from the platform.  I assume that this is a Christian event because I have not been told otherwise and I, as a Christian pastor, am being asked to pray.  I arrive at the event and discover that the local imam will be praying immediately after my prayer.

It seems that I would have a couple of options at that point:

  • Pray without reservation.

After all, I’ll be praying a distinctly Christian prayer which I will end with “In Jesus’ name, Amen.”  How could anyone be confused by that?  Christians believe that they are saved and Muslims are lost.  There is only one way to heaven.  His name is Jesus.  What difference does it make who else is on the program?  This is an opportunity for me to point people to the Lord Jesus Christ.  I can pray with a clear conscience knowing that the desire of my heart is to proclaim the name of Christ.

  • Pray with reservation.

The difference here is in how I feel and what I think about my presence at this event and participation in the program.  The situation makes me uncomfortable.  Had I known that a Muslim man would also be praying, I would have politely declined.  But now I’m here.  I don’t want to make a scene.  I don’t want to do anything that might give my church a black eye or prevent me from being able to build further relationships in the community.  So I step to the podium and offer a distinctly Christian prayer in the name of Jesus.

  • Quietly ask to be removed from the program.

I didn’t know that there was a Muslim praying after me when I agreed to participate.  I may even feel like the event organizers should have alerted me to that fact when they asked me to participate.  This is on them.  As a Christian pastor, I cannot risk confusing people in my church or in my community regarding what I believe about the exclusivity of the gospel.  Participating in this event will risk leading people astray.  So thirty minutes before the event begins I inform the organizers that I cannot in good conscience participate.

Which of these three options best matches what you would do in a similar situation?  How would your choice change if it were a prosperity gospel preacher or a Jew rather than a Muslim?  I do not have a clear answer.  I lean more toward 2 and 3.  I would definitely have reservations, but I’m not sure if those reservations would be strong enough to cause me to back out of the event once I was already on the program.  But if I knew ahead of time that a Muslim would be praying after me, I would likely just very politely decline.

Help me think through this in the comments below.

#SBCPC17 Sermons: Chris Davis – Philippians 1:27-30

All of the sermons from the 2017 SBC Pastors’ Conference are available here.  Over the next few weeks we will be posting the video from each sermon here at SBC Voices along with the text for that sermon from the CSB and some notable quotes from the sermon.  Let us know in the comments what you most enjoyed and appreciated from each sermon.

Philippians 1:27-30

Just one thing: As citizens of heaven, live your life worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or am absent, I will hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, in one accord, contending together for the faith of the gospel, 28 not being frightened in any way by your opponents. This is a sign of destruction for them, but of your salvation—and this is from God. 29 For it has been granted to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are engaged in the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I have.

For Paul, the worthy life is displayed in two indicators found in our life together.

Indicator #1: Unity in the gospel.

“When Paul told the Philippians their citizenship was in heaven he was making a political statement.”

“The church you serve is a colony of heaven in America.”

“Our American citizenship is not parallel to our heavenly citizenship. Christ’s Lordship supersedes!”

“We are not a voting bloc. We are not a demographic. We are the people of God. We are a family of sinners made saints by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ!”

Indicator #2: Courage through suffering.

“Even if all the fear-mongering is true we must not be spooked.”

“The sounds coming out of Paul in prison weren’t complaining about his rights violated but sounds of praises to God.”

“If the threat of political disempowerment frightens us like jumpy horses and causes us to turn on one another and split our unity, the message that sends to our opponents is that all this talk about resurrection, eternity, heaven, and hell is just talk. It’s not real to them, if this is all it takes to split them up and frighten them. But if we, like Paul, in the face of suffering, orient ourselves to heaven and eternity and say, ‘To live is Christ, and to die is gain,’ then we become a sign to our opponents.”

“Stephen was a sign to Paul. He could hunt down all the Christians. He could silence all the Christians. He could marginalize or imprison all the Christians he wanted. But nothing he did could change the reality that Jesus is the resurrected Messiah and the only way to eternal life with God.”

“The anthem of our courage through suffering is found in Paul’s simple words ‘this is from God. ‘ “

#SBCPC17 Sermons: John Onwuchekwa – Philippians 1:12-26

All of the sermons from the 2017 SBC Pastors’ Conference are available here.  Over the next few weeks we will be posting the video from each sermon here at SBC Voices along with the text for that sermon from the CSB and some notable quotes from the sermon.  Let us know in the comments what you most enjoyed and appreciated from each sermon.

Philippians 1:12-26

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually advanced the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is because I am in Christ. 14 Most of the brothers have gained confidence in the Lord from my imprisonment and dare even more to speak the word fearlessly. 15 To be sure, some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will. 16 These preach out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment. 18 What does it matter? Only that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice 19 because I know this will lead to my salvation through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 20 My eager expectation and hope is that I will not be ashamed about anything, but that now as always, with all courage, Christ will be highly honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

21 For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 Now if I live on in the flesh, this means fruitful work for me; and I don’t know which one I should choose. 23 I am torn between the two. I long to depart and be with Christ—which is far better— 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. 25 Since I am persuaded of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that, because of my coming to you again, your boasting in Christ Jesus may abound.

The sermon in a statement: “The gospel loves to advance down the avenue of adversity.”

“The pastor’s suffering is not just vigorous, it is vicarious. We often carry the suffering of others.”

“Adversity is not a roadblock, but the avenue on which the gospel travels.”

“Despair doesn’t grow out of bad occurrences. It grows out of a bad outlook on the things that occur.”

Implication #1: If your hope is tethered to the gospel, you are provided with an unsinkable joy.

“Unsinkable joy comes from recognizing that the gospel advances down the avenue of adversity.”

One of the most powerful moments of John’s sermon was when he quoted Jupiter Hammon, a freed black man, who gave an address to slaves in New York in 1787.  Here is the part of that address quoted by John:

Now, my brethren, it seems to me that there are no people that ought to attend to the hope of happiness in another world as much as we. Most of us are cut off from comfort and happiness here in the world, and can expect nothing from it. Now seeing this is the case, why should we not take care to be happy after death? Why should we spend out whole lives sinning against God; and be miserable in this world, and in the world to come? If we do this, we shall certainly be the greatest fools. We shall be slaves here and slaves forever. We cannot plead so great temptations to neglect religion as others. Riches and honors which drown the greater part of mankind, who have the gospel in perdition, can be little or no temptation to us.

“Look for something that will stop the advancement of the gospel and you won’t find it.”

Implication #2: If your hope is tethered to the gospel, you are provided with an unshakable resolve.

“Death robs us of everything except for Christ.”

“Joy doesn’t come by our own strength or resolve but by being tethered to Christ.”

“Circumstances are: inconsistent, unreliable, and unpredictable. Your Savior is the opposite of those things.”