By Greg Byman
How do we comprehend the death and destruction in the wake of the shooting spree at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas? The November 5 massacre took the lives of 26 people, including children and an unborn baby, leaving a church, a town and a nation to grieve.
One week later, Pastor Greg Byman of St. Joe Community Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana prefaced his planned November 12 sermon with a response to the tragedy. Specifically, Pastor Byman reflects on a Christian perspective in the wake of mass murder.
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The follow is an edited transcription of commentary presented by Pastor Greg Byman at the Sunday morning service of St. Joe Community Church on November 12, 2017, one week after the tragic shooting that claimed 26 lives and left 20 injured at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Sunday morning, November 5. The transcript has been edited for editorial readability and clarity.
We were all shocked to see the news coming out of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas last Sunday. It was just horrific to imagine. And yet, even as those news reports rolled out, it was just a reminder that we live in a very different day.
Last Sunday, we chose not to raise this story during our service. We probably should have. November 5 and November 12 have been marked by an organization called the International Day of Prayer for the persecuted church as the worldwide annual remembrance of the persecuted church. The organization is known as IDOP and is on the web at www.IDOP.org.
What took place in Texas was child's play compared to what continues to go on, week after week after week, in countries where the freedom of religion is nonexistent, where Christians gather wondering if their pastors and leaders are going to be dragged out and burned, stoned, beaten, imprisoned or summarily executed. In these places, church buildings are nothing but charred remains, burned out by people who want to eradicate Christianity from their village through the installation of some kind of caliphate that rages against the Church of Jesus Christ.
This persecution is a Satanic movement that began at the moment God made this world. Satan’s objective has always been to pervert man’s created purpose, namely, to prevent man worshipping the one true God, and faith in him through Jesus Christ. And so, we saw one more chapter in this sad book played out last Sunday, where some disturbed young man sought to solve his vendetta against a member of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, by taking lives and wreaking havoc.
I’m not going to glorify the gore by going into the details of the massacre, because those want to know those details can easily read about it on the internet. Be careful, however in how much you read. Guard your heart; just because something is available to read doesn’t necessarily mean that is healthy for you to read. Know how to discern, and how to prayerfully read and then pray for God to somehow use this for good.
I don't know who decided to do this, but a condolence card is circulating through the aisles right now, and I am heartened that our congregation would take this up. Please consider signing it and offering a measure of comfort to this sister church in Texas. I think Karen is in charge of this project. Karen, please raise your hand so that the card successfully gets back to you.
I sent an e-mail out to the congregation last week, and Jamie Arnold suggested that we take up a love offering. I heard that the Michigan Baptist Association is paying for funeral costs for several people. Steve, did you hear anything about that?
(Steve responds. Inaudible.)
Okay, it’s the North American Mission Board that is doing that.
There are more resources pouring in to support families. Who would think to have a life insurance policy on a little kid? I mean, many do, but not everybody does. There are horrific consequences in both lives lost and finances, from this tragedy. So there's an outpouring of support going to this church and I encourage you to consider personally participating. Consider sending an email to the pastor. I’m sure that he would appreciate hearing just a note of affirmation and appreciation from you. You don’t have to be wordy. Just say, “We’re praying for you,” or something similar. Brevity is probably best right now. Just let him know that his congregation is being prayed over.
What do you do? How do we respond? You know, we're not a whole lot bigger than that church. Let's just say 80 people were taken out. Say, for example, those who have birthdays in April, May, June and July, were to stand up. Don't do that right now, but that would equal about 80 people from our congregation. Look around at the random number of the people of ages and that's who disappeared. In one fell swoop. The grief is almost unbearable.
So how do you handle that? What do we do? What does our church do? What have we been doing? I want you to consider a couple of verses in response to what happened last week.
First of all, we look at Matthew 10:16. (Next week, by the way, is our final message on the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, and it will focus on Jesus’ promise that blessed are those who are persecuted for his namesake. We're going to talk directly about the issue of persecution and how the church responds, and the meaning of “blessed” in the face of persecution.) Today, today we are focusing on Jesus’ promise that peacemakers are blessed.
The Bible says,
"I'm sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as serpents, and as harmless as doves.” – Jesus Christ, recorded in Matthew 10:16
I have preached on this verse many times, exhorting our congregation to be shrewd or as wise as serpents including toward those that would wish to harm us. We need to be wise, just as a serpent is wise, but harmless as a dove. What kind of dove does anything to hurt anybody? The dove is a symbol of peace.
The leaders of St. Joe Community Church have been working for some time on a plan that tries to strike that balance of wise and harmless in regard to the safety of our congregation and building. We just submitted that plan to a police officer here in town, and he's reviewing that plan to offer some advice to improve or revise the strategy. The eventual master Safety Plan that we adopt will be the main resource we use to train all leaders and staff to be both wise and harmless in the administration of the St. Joe ministry and the church building. We do this, of course, not with the hope that we would have to implement it, but we recognize that we live in a fallen world, and we must try to be ready for the potential ramifications of that fallen world. The Safety Plan will be adopted not just prevent and respond to horrible situations like the violence that visited First Baptist Church, but other emergencies and disasters like medical incidents, fires, tornadoes and the like.
This is an old building, built in a time with different building and safety codes, and the Safety Plan will help us bring us up to date with better exit awareness signage, among other improvements. These are just a few things to think about when we come in. We are asking ourselves questions like, “In an emergency, how would I leave with my family? How would I help others who can't leave easily?”
The Safety Plan will prompt a number of changes in the way we conduct our worship service and administer our various ministries. Some of which will probably be invisible to the average attendant, and others that will be more noticeable. If you want to know more about the coming changes, come and see me.
The governing value, however, is to seek to obey the Lord’s command to be both harmless and wise, and balancing the two imperatives can be challenging. How do you barricade your church from evil and yet keep it wide open for anybody to come? Other public venues have a similar problem. Football stadiums, for example, are, by their very nature, supposed to be public venues and available to anybody willing to pay money for a ticket. They probably don’t think of their mission in terms of Jesus’ mandate for the church to be both harmless and wise, but they have to think in a similar way in order to have security measures in place.
The church of Jesus Christ is an open door for everybody, as much as possible. We are trying to be both generous and careful about who can come. We want to greet everybody with a welcoming attitude, including troubled people who may simply be looking for a little mercy, manifested even by somebody kindly inquiring, "Hey, how's it going?” Yes, that might include getting a little closer to somebody that may not look like they are here to do the right thing.
Striking this balance is not easy. Please pray with us and help us be the hands and feet of Jesus. When people walk in and you get that feeling in your gut that something might be wrong, take the initiative to engage that person(s) or, if you’re not comfortable doing so, tell somebody else about the matter. But other than that, let's resolve to continue being a place of peace and welcoming, because whatever changes are coming from the new Safety Plan, that’s not changing. Regardless of the circumstances, the Church of Jesus Christ is a mission, and it is on a mission. Because Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 10:26, “Don't be afraid of them.” The Bible tells us over and again that his church is not to live in a spirit of fear. We live under the protection and guidance of the Lord.
Sometimes, mysteriously, God does not provide protection, physically. Ultimately, however, our Lord reminds that he is in control, and that we should not fear man, but fear God. That is, we should fear what God can do to both our body and soul, not what man can only do to our body.
Russell Moore, who is one of our denominational leaders that speaks to issues of morality and legislative issues, said that if those people who are trying to inflict evil and harm on the church looked overhead, in almost any of the churches they attempted to destroy, these killers might see what they missed—the cross. The very leader that we follow died on a cross. He was crucified. Their present act of terrorism pales in comparison to the worst act of terrorism that ever took place, in that Satan, trying to intimidate the world from following God through Jesus Christ, thought he had won when he manipulated circumstances of the day to crucify the Savior. In that perverted act of injustice, God used to save the world. We follow a risen Lord. We follow Jesus who chose to die for us. What less could we expect, and what more could they do to us, than to kill us? If I died in the name of Jesus Christ, what is that loss for me? I've lived for Jesus. I go to heaven, and my testimony is that I lived for Jesus, even unto death. The disciples were grateful to die for Jesus. Are we?
This is not a license to throw caution to the wind, or to go around looking for opportunities to get flogged or executed for Jesus Christ. I’ll be careful and look both ways for I cross the street. A Safety Plan means that you look for ways to manage down risk, if you can’t eliminate it completely. You don't do things that are silly.
In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus teaches on the two greatest commandments: Love God, Love your neighbor. Love God completely, and love your neighbor as yourself. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus teaches that until he comes again, our mandate is to go and share the good news of Jesus Christ with those who have not yet heard.
I don’t pretend to completely understand all the massive biological complexity of genuine mental health issues that can negatively impact a man’s behavior. I do know that the fall affected not only body and souls, but our minds too, and today we have a massive mental health problem.
But I also know that God is in control of everything, and he has given us the message that heals the soul. In sharing Christ with somebody, that person might not become the person who is deranged, who will go on and inflict harm upon a church, or innocent people. Maybe he’ll rescue us from somebody struggling with bottled-up anger and hatred.
The question of why a man hates can be a complex one, and often eludes a simple diagnosis. We live in an age where the gospel has fallen out of favor in the public square, and does not garner the sense of public respect that it held in previous generations. As a result, it should not surprise us to find that when we turn away from God, the good stuff decreases while the bad stuff increases. We live in an age when divorce is rampant, gender is confused, incarceration is at historic highs, chemical addiction and financial debt is endemic and their cousin pathology, homelessness.
Spiritually, a nation that has turned its back on God consequently does not understand big issues like forgiveness, mercy, justice or injustice. Those are matters that need what God entrusted to his witnessing church – the good news of Jesus Christ.
The reality is, however, that some people are spun into a circumstance that they never intended to be in the middle of, because they incurred something perverse or horrible earlier in life. Many people who are homeless, addicted to drugs or alcohol, victims of sexual assault, don't know what to do with the very real, understandable, rage inside, and the worthlessness that they feel. They need to hear the truth that they were made in the image of God and that they are of enteral, precious worth and value, and that their sin does not define their value and worth.
When a homeless person shows up at the Fort Wayne Rescue Mission, he or she does not just get a warm bed and warm meal, but they get the good news that warms the heart and soul from the cold, cruel message from Satan that they are worthless and beyond hope. At the Rescue Mission, they're able to learn the social skills and life skills that they should have received, or maybe did receive but rebelled against.
At the Rescue Mission, the hopeless are given hope. We can also be part of the solution. Next week, we’re going to talk about the fact that everybody who lives for Jesus will be persecuted in some way, shape or form. We need to expect that, even as we take precautions and carefully live our lives in Christ with the peace that he gives us, and then praying for and serving those who have suffered great tragedies.
Heaven forbid, that God would ever allow that here. I find it horrible young people are even aware of this contemporary problem. Recently, I was sitting in the car and marveling at how much my kids know about this whole issue. My kids were saying, "This would be a perfectly vulnerable spot for a terrorist attack.”
I never thought about that as a kid. How many of you, if you’re in your 30s or older, ever wondered, “Oh, I’ll bet a terrorist could really take out our school right now.”
Today, there is zero tolerance for guns, and understandably so. We are a broken culture, with too many wounded people wounding other people sexually, financially, and many other ways. With so many hurting people, maybe it should not surprise us to find that some are lashing out, as in the case of the troubled young man at First Baptist Church. I don't like it, but this is the culture where we live, and the church must figure out how to live out its mandate to be salt and light as we live out our faith in this environment.
Let me pray right now.
Father God, we do pray for this church that is putting the pieces together. I don't know where they're gathering—those that are left—but I pray for your hand to be upon them. I pray for our sister churches, that are around Sutherland Springs in that community. I pray in Jesus' name that you would give them the strength and the energy, Lord. There's going to be a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder going on, with even among the first-responder professionals who responded to the tragedy, and I pray in Jesus' name that you would just bring healing, grace, and forgiveness.
I pray you bring revival and awakening among many people through this tragedy, that evil will not triumph, or win out, but that peace, love that grace, mercy, that salvation will win out in that community. And I pray that a great movement will begin what was meant for evil. May you turn that into a moment of good. I don't know how even that's going to happen. I mean, how is that possible? That's why we're praying to you, because only you can do that. Show us how to be the church that we're supposed to be. To be safe, and yet, and careful, and yet open, inviting, and free. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ.
B: Bible book