Last Saturday afternoon I made a routine run to the grocery store. I checked things off my list, chatted with a friend I ran into in the spice section, stood in line, paid for my items, then went home.
All across America thousands, if not millions, of people were doing the exact same thing — going to the store to stock up for the week ahead. Ordinary Americans doing an ordinary task on an ordinary Saturday afternoon. Nothing remarkable about it at all.
Unless you live in Buffalo, New York.
Earlier that day an 18-year-old white male with an assault rifle, ammunition, and body armor, got in his car in his hometown of Conklin, New York, and drove 200 miles to Buffalo, and Tops Friendly Market, a site chosen because it is in the middle of a predominantly Black section of town.
He began shooting in the parking lot. A security guard shot back and hit him, but the body armor did its job, allowing the shooter to continue into the store, after first killing the guard.
By the time he was finished 10 people were dead and three wounded. Eleven of the victims were Black.
We’ve heard this story, or some variation of it, so many times in the last years that it is difficult to remember them all. Elementary schools, high schools, colleges, churches and synagogues, grocery stores, offices, night clubs, movie theaters, concerts — all have been sites of mass slaughters.
The Buffalo shooting had its own unique twist. Our country’s appalling insistence on valuing guns more than human lives was not the only thing at play.
This mass murder was also grounded in white supremacy and conspiracy theories — specifically the “great replacement” conspiracy.
That theory falsely proclaims that the country’s “powerful elite” are purposefully promoting practices that will make whites a minority in America in the near future.
The Buffalo shooter espoused the great replacement theory. So did the murderer of 23 people, most of whom were Hispanic, in an El Paso Walmart, and the killer of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Interracial marriage, increased immigration from so-called “Third World” countries, and high birth rates among minorities are all part of a plot to dilute white power, according to the theory.
“This is part of a plot to remake America, to replace American citizens with illegals that will vote for Democrats,” one espouser of the theory said.
“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” another said.
It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it?
But the great replacement theory, once promoted only by fringe groups, has made its way into the mainstream, being touted by members of Congress and the media.
A recent poll shows that one in three Americans believes the great replacement theory is true.
Guns, white supremacy, conspiracy theories — they all mix together in a toxic brew that is sickening the very heart of our country. And much of it is being done in the name of patriotism and Christianity.
Let’s be clear — no matter how big a flag you wrap this toxic brew in, or how large a cross you hang from it — there is nothing patriotic or Christian about it. In fact, this brew is the antithesis of Christianity.
We cannot follow the Prince of Peace while worshiping at the altar of guns.
We cannot follow the one who is the way, the TRUTH, and the life while touting conspiracy theories and lies.
We cannot worship the God who created all humans in the divine image while proclaiming that whites are superior to every other race.
We cannot follow the God of love while hating those of other religions.
I confess that the rise of conspiracy theories, the prevalence of guns, and the legitimation of racism leave me troubled and fearful.
What does our future as a nation look like? What kind of world are we leaving for our children and grandchildren?
That’s why Jesus’ words to his disciples leapt out at me this week. “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid,” he tells his followers.
This is not a throw-away line. Jesus says these words on the last night of his life. In just a few hours he will be arrested. In less than 24 hours he will be dead.
The disciples will go into hiding, terrified that the authorities who executed Jesus will soon come for them.
Jesus is talking to people whose hearts are troubled and afraid, with good reason.
Jesus promises them that even in death he will not abandon them, but will send the Holy Spirit , God’s spirit, to be with them.
Notice, he does not say that everything will be hunky dory, that there will not be troubles or difficulties ahead. But he promises that through it all God’s presence, his presence, will be with them.
Jesus knows that fear is often used to manipulate people — like the great replacement theory plays on some white Americans’ fear of losing their privilege and power.
Fear makes people easier to manipulate, makes them do things that they would ordinarily never dream of doing. Fear is crippling. When it takes over our lives there is no room for love and compassion.
The Bible tells us not to give into that temptation of fear. “Do not be afraid,” or some version of those words is repeated more than 100 times in scripture, always in situations where there is good reason to be fearful.
So what do those of us who fear for this country, who fear for our children, and grandchildren do? How do we drive out the fear from our own hearts and respond to it in others?
There is no one answer, of course. But in a few minutes we will hear some of the ways we can counter the evil brew of lies, violence, and fears that beset our nation.
In just a few minutes we will baptize Annie Catherine Corbin, the daughter of Emily and Tommy. Annie will be baptized in the same spot where her mother was baptized 30 years ago by Maggie Harney, and in front of the same altar where her parents were married almost six years ago.
As we welcome Annie into the family of God and mark her as Christ’s own forever, we renew our own baptismal covenant, which tells us how Christians are to live faithfully in the world., even in fearful times.
We promise that we will study scripture, come together in worship and fellowship, and be regular in prayer, to strengthen us and help us have a clearer idea of what God would have us do.
We promise to resist evil, wherever it occurs, and when we fail to do that, to repent and turn back to God.
We promise to live our lives as an example of the gospel of good news in Jesus.
We promise to seek and serve Christ in all people, and love our neighbors — every single one of them.
We promise to work for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.
That’s quite a list of promises, ones that are often difficult to keep. That’s why we answer that we will “with God’s help.”
God’s spirit, the same spirit that Jesus promises the disciples will be with them, is also present for us. That Spirit gives us courage to stand up to conspiracy theories and lies, to work for justice, to combat the evil of racism, and to continue to fight for gun control.
Living by our baptismal covenant will not erase our problems, or our fears and concerns. But it reminds us of our responsibilities as Christians, and how we are to live so that all our children — of all races and creeds — will inherit a country that values truth more than lies, life more than guns, and care for all of its people. Amen.