By John Pierce

Ministers across the nation this morning are offering pastoral words of hope, challenge and peace following the horrific, hate-driven murders of nine participants in a Charleston, S.C., Bible study.

Finding understanding, however, is impossible. It just doesn’t make sense that fear, ignorance and bigotry could so consume a person’s life and lead to such unnecessary human devastation.

Bringing pastoral words in times of confusion, frustration and pain is never easy but always needed.

So sermon preparation took a turn this week for many ministers wrestling with biblical texts and ongoing issues of faithful living amid continuous change. Today, there is a particularly challenging concern in the news and on the minds of many to be addressed.

In Knoxville, Tenn., for example, pastor Mike Smith of Central Baptist Church of Fountain City is preaching a series on some questions that Jesus asked. In today’s biblical text, Luke 8:30, Jesus asked of the one who called himself “Legion”: “What is your name?”

Mike’s sermon about the importance of names moves through the biblical revelation beginning with Abram becoming Abraham. But the pastor takes a turn toward today’s troubling news of a young man who went to church with hatred in his heart and murder on his mind.

“How do we explain such a thing?” Mike asks his congregation. “Racism, hatred, fear and a host of other features clearly are in play. Most of us, I hope, cannot fathom the kind of hatred and fear and delusion driving such an action.”

And he adds that names played a role.

“The young man who committed the murders had named his victims in various ways. To him they were not persons. Instead he labeled them as “Blacks,” which to his mind meant sub-human. He named them ‘enemy,’ by which he meant those who to his way of thinking threatened his world. He labeled them ‘problem,’ meaning something to be eliminated.

Mike wisely notes that we are shaped by the names we assign to others. And along with pastoral comfort today, he rightly gives a word of prophetic challenge:

“What are the names you use for other humans? Take care! The next time you find yourself labeling another person on the basis of race, sex, relationships, nationality, politics or family of origin, take a deep breath and back off. You don’t want to go where such names may take you! Names matter. Never settle for naming anyone else something less than ‘Beloved Child of God.’”

Thanks to all who stand today to give needed comfort for our pain — and needed challenge for our misguided ways of seeing, naming and relating to others.

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