Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Year B 2015
They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?"
In the name of the X Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
My Homiletics Professor once told me that there are always multiple texts available for a sermon. We have the readings from the Hebrew Testament, the appointed psalm, the New Testament, and a selection from one of the four Gospels. She also said that it was important to keep in mind the particular context of the worshiping community and important events that shape and move us. Many of us, myself included, have been saddened by the tragic event that took place in Charleston, South Carolina.
On Wednesday night, a twenty-one year old white man asked if he could sit with a small group of Christians who were part of a bible study and prayer meeting taking place at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. After sitting with them for about an hour he got up and started to shoot. Six women and three men lost their lives. A little five year old girl played dead in order to survive. He spared one woman saying that he wanted her to tell his story. He wanted to start a race war because he was fearful of black people. He was afraid they were trying to take over the country.
The Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, stated, “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” With all due respect, this is a cowardly statement and it is simply not true. Perhaps she said this out of ignorance or, more likely, for political expediency. We do know what motivated this domestic terrorist – racism. The young man was full of hate. He was full of fear. He said, “I’m here to shoot black people” and wanted the world to know it.
On Thursday, after news of the killing began to flood the media, I began to read about it. My heart filled with sadness. As I headed home from church I realized that I could not simply go home, eat my supper and go to bed. I found out that a prayer vigil was going to be held at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. All people, people from all faiths, were invited to take part. I sat in the back. I was a little nervous because I had never been in that section of town. I saw police cars and officers surrounding the church for safety. The news vans were out front. As I sat and prayed and waited for the service to begin I was approached by a reporter. I was afraid he was going to ask if he could record our conversation, but instead he started to cry. He said that his job was to report the news without bias, but the news seemed to get worse and worse each day. He was afraid the end of the world was coming. I invited him to sit and quietly listened to him. Through tears we tried to make sense out of tragedy.
Just before the service began a distinguished looking black man told me I was sitting in the wrong place. Embarrassed I got up to look for another seat. He motioned for me to follow him and led me to a basement where other clergy leaders had gathered. We prayed together and talked in hushed voices. We were then led back upstairs and sat in one of the front rows.
The service consisted of words of encouragement from prominent religious leaders, the mayor, prayers and worship. Nine candles were lit as the names of the victims were read. We learned that one of the victims was a librarian. As a tribute to her all of the Charleston libraries were going to close. Her own branch was going to be renamed in her honor. Their stories are moving. I kept thinking of their loved ones and especially that five year old girl who will have to live with such a terrible memory. The service concluded with a call to action. The pastor admonished us by saying that the real tragedy will be if, after all of the outpouring of love and concern, nothing changes.
I was glad to see our Bishop, Jon Bruno, on the podium. After the service I caught up with him. We walked together for a minute. I told him my heart compelled me to come. I could not stay away. I said that in Jesus’ time of crisis he asked his followers to watch and pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. I felt that is what we needed to do as followers of Christ that night. We need to watch and pray with our African American sisters and brothers. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder, side by side, and demonstrate that love is more powerful than hate. He offered me a word of encouragement. We hugged and said goodbye.
I believe that most politicians are hoping this incident will quickly disappear from the headlines. As a country our attention span is terribly short. The shooting at the AME Church will recede in the rearview mirror of the American conscience. And this will be a tragedy indeed.
Of course, this time could be different. This time we could confront the sin of racism and systemic sin. Abraham Heschel, an important Jewish theologian and philosopher said, “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” The seeds of racism are planted. They do not arise on their own. They are nurtured by our pride – our ego. Racism’s false ideology makes the claim that a dominant-subordinate relationship naturally arises because of innate physical and biological differences, intellectual and cultural hierarchies, and ethnic and class differences. The crux of racism is the institutionalization of unequal treatment based upon perceived or real physical, biological, and cultural characteristics. This sinful system refuses to acknowledge that we are all created in the image of God. It assumes that God made a “creative mistake” when he brought some people into being. (Friederich Otto Hertz)
Today it appears we are all in the same boat. Our world has once again been shaken by violence and tragedy. The waves beat into the boat. It looks as if we are going to be swamped. We can say with the disciples, “Teacher, do you not care that people are perishing?” But Jesus is with us. He rebukes the winds of discrimination and the seas of systemic sin. He calls for peace for all people. We are called to bear his peace out into the world. We are called to work for justice and equality for all God’s Children. Paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Jr., Let us all hope and pray and work so that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. Amen.