On Saturday, June 9, a 17-year-old young man who is serving as a summer intern at Pine Run United Methodist Church in Clairton stopped to check on an older parishioner who had fallen a few days earlier, then continued on to his job as a lifeguard at Clairton park pool. Later that afternoon, he was shot in the stomach at the pool. He was recovering. Pastor Michael Airgood wrote this reflection after the shooting and it served as his sermon the following day.
Listen to this Message
Oh Clairton. They call you the city of prayer, the city in need of prayer, they call you the city without a prayer. But Clairton, you are the city of prayer. You are God’s city. You are blessed beyond measure by your people and the God they serve. Yesterday we heard the news that one of our own, a young man who served this church as a summer intern was shot at Clairton pool. He is recovering well, but I grieve with all my heart the fact that he has to recover at all. I grieve that this happened in our community – that gunshots are common and violence is normal in our city. I grieve that this happened at our pool in Clairton Park. That space, In many ways, is the heart of our community and this violence strikes at our very core.
There’s a poem in the Bible. It’s beautiful and haunting and painful. There was a man named Job, you know him well – you are him. His story is one of the oldest stories in our sacred text, and Job was a man who had it all. He had family and friends and health and wealth and he loved his God and lived so faithfully. And it feels like Job has it all together, we would call him blessed and today he would have his own plane and a yacht and his photo would grace the cover of business magazines. He had it all going for him. And then he lost it all.
His fortune disappears, his children die, his health deteriorates – but still he will not curse God. He tears his clothes and crumbles to the ground in agony and defeat.
I think we get this story. We are a city that knows its share of grief and pain. “We used to.” I hear this phrase so much. We used to have three movie theaters, and two bowling alleys, and a bakery. And our school used to be one of the best. We used to have 20,000 people in this city and a mill that employed most of them it seemed. Before the mill slowed down and the race riots haunted our schools and vacant houses took over city blocks. Before gunshots rang through our streets and bullets entered the bodies of our children - “We used to.” Oh yes, City of prayer, we know Job’s story. It’s our story too.
And Job’s friends come and they sit in the dirt with him. They tear their clothes and crumble to the ground and they mourn with him. And they sit in that dirt and grieve with him for seven days and seven nights. Like creation, 7 days. A rhythm and a pattern. A liturgy of silence. There are no words. There often aren’t words and learning that makes all the difference. And Job curses the day he is born, but he won’t curse God. His wife calls him a fool and tells him to curse God and be done with it. His friends come with slithering tongues and they give him all kinds of bad advice. And it all sounds pretty good. I could pluck out any almost any verse and embroider it on a pillow and you’d think it was a great Bible verse to live by. But Job pushes back.
They tell us how to fix our city. People who live far away and who don’t walk these streets tell us what we need to do. The complainers get on Facebook and they are sure that they know the way.
And we learn from Job that God can handle our anger. God can take it. If you’re mad at God, let God know. God hears your prayers whether they last for four hours or four letters. God can take it.
Years ago, when I had torn my clothes and sat in the dirt in sorrow, when my life was in tatters and everything was ashes, I sat with my pastor and I told him that I didn’t believe any of this stuff any more. My pastor was a wise Ukrainian man who loves the Lord and he looked me in the eyes and just said “No. Don’t do that. Come on.” And those words, somehow kept me together in the ways I needed. And he told me to read Job, but I wouldn’t do it. I was tired and mad and I couldn’t read Job. And maybe a year later, I was asked to read the Bible at a church. A church my friend had served had caught fire. They rebuilt but before they opened the church they read through the whole Bible from start to finish. And the scripture I was asked to read included most of Job. I hadn’t planned on it, but there I was. And I stood in that mostly empty sanctuary and I read the words my pastor had begged me to read. And I ugly cried as all my grief and sorrow welled up in my eyes and my heart.
“Deck yourself with majesty and dignity;
clothe yourself with glory and splendor.
Pour out the overflowings of your anger,
and look on all who are proud, and abase them.
Look on all who are proud, and bring them low;
tread down the wicked where they stand.
Hide them all in the dust together;
bind their faces in the world below.
Then I will also acknowledge to you
that your own right hand can give you victory.” (Job 40:10-14)
Because Job was faithful and devout when he had it all, but it wasn’t until Job had lost it all that he really found God. When things are going our way we pay lip service to God, we do our religion thing, our rituals and we get our church on. But when we hit rock bottom we lose our religious ways and find our faith.
Oh City of Prayer, you have seen better days – but God is not done with you yet. City of Prayer, still we are here. We are here. Our young men see visions and our old men dream dreams. We are here. We fling open these doors and go out into the streets with our story and songs. We are here. Young men like Leonard who do what they can to make sure our kids are safe and have something to do. We are here. Our wise elders who pour milk and wipe down tables so no child goes hungry. Our church vows to stay and fight for peace to prevail and for all to know God’s love and grace.
Oh City of Prayer, God is here. In the midst of violence and fear, God is here. In the midst of our sorrow and grief, sickness and death, God is here.
And our theme this summer, as Joshua reminds us, is Be strong and courageous. I’ll say it louder for those in the back. Be strong and courageous. We are here and we will not give up. We will not throw up our hands in despair nor shrug our shoulders in defeat. We will keep on showing up. We will pray unceasingly. And we will walk these city streets until they are safe once more for our children and youth. We will show up at the pool and in our park. We will not give in or back down. Oh City of Prayer, we’re still here. God is still here. Amen.