Sermon delivered on 6/29/15 at Christ Trinity Church, Sheffield, Massachusetts, a conjoined Episcopal-Lutheran congregation.
Repent and mourn, that is what ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has called us to do today. Repent the sin of racism and mourn the most recent victims.
In one of God’s amazing ironies, today is also the anniversary of the kidnapping of Cinque, the slave who led the revolt aboard the Amistad.
Both the Rev. Sen. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons were graduates of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, and their alleged murderer is a member of an ELCA congregation. So the killing of nine beautiful souls in Charleston, SC, has taken on what Bishop Eaton calls “an intensely personal tragedy. . . One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.”
We can understand that our country is still mourning the deaths of those souls on June 17. Their murders sent a shock wave through the country and throughout the world. As we learned more about them and the alleged shooter, our horror grew. Here were nine faithful people, having spent time at a church meeting, who elected to stay even later on a work night to study Scripture together. Here was one young man who drove a couple of hours to this particular and famous church, and sat an hour with them, all the while planning to kill them.
But repent? What do we need to repent? We didn’t cause this tragedy.
Can silence cause a tragedy? Is silence something that one needs to atone for?
Yes, I answer to both questions. Especially silence that is caused by indifference or fear, by not caring or daring to stand up and say no, these things will not happen in my name. Look at Nazi Germany. Do we think that every single German person alive at that time was an anti-Semite? Probably not, but those who weren’t were afraid, and they were silent. Hitler didn’t come in overnight and take over. But at every step of the rise of the Nazi party, good people were silent.
I cannot be silent, and I offer no comfort to you today; repentance isn’t comfortable. What I say may offend some of you, but here is what the Spirit’s whispering in my heart is telling me:
Mother Emanuel African-Methodist-Episcopal Church has been known since its founding as a place where African-Americans worked hard and often at great risk to themselves to build God’s kingdom on earth. In Charleston and throughout the South, there were many and often secret gatherings of enslaved people to worship Jesus Christ, whom they could only have known about through their white masters. How did they come to adore the God of the people who had enslaved them? I think it must have been God’s way of relieving their bondage, to ensure that they heard the Good News and to let them know that, despite the free will of the humans who enslaved them, they were no less beloved than anyone else.
And from what I have studied on the subject, I believe that they took that solace to heart, and believed absolutely in God’s love for them, in Jesus’s death for them, and in Jesus’s rising again for them, so much so that they risked their very lives to worship Him.
Have you ever listened to real old-time gospel music? Not the fancy stuff that’s recorded in a studio with professional musicians, but the music that was recorded in some hidden-away church in the South and played by Sister So-and-So or Brother So-and-So, who just had to express their faith. A genuine, no-holds-barred faith, that endured despite slavery, despite Jim Crow, despite lynchings and beatings and beheadings and being dragged behind vehicles and being shot by policemen and being shut out of the marketplace, and being shut out of decent housing, and being shut out of decent education.
Listen to these words of James Weldon Johnson, in what has become known as the African-American anthem: “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us; Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.” Did you know that Johnson was introduced to Great Barrington by WEB DuBois? That he had a writing cabin off Alford Road? One of the most famous black composers worked right here among us. At the same time, in the early part of the 20th century, a traveling black person couldn’t get a room at a “white” hotel in Great Barrington.
Faith and hope defines the history of the black church in America, evolving into the most complete and genuine faith I’ve ever witnessed. And genuine faith brings freedom of the mind and spirit, if not always of the body.
Do we have that kind of faith? Do we know that kind of freedom? Do we really believe in the vastness of God’s love for us, that we could never earn and never deserve? How do we express it in our lives outside of church? Do we take risks to fulfill Jesus’s commandment that we love one another as much as He loves us? Or do we remain silent?
Racism is not just about flagrant acts of hostility or inequity toward people of color. It is about accepting, ignoring, or being complicit in all of the institutions of society that, despite the Civil War, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, despite the 13th Amendment, have continued to treat black people as though they were not our brothers and sisters, as if they were not also heirs to the kingdom, as if they too were not beloved of God.
We’re taught to be “tolerant,” and I’m sure we are. I hate that word, “tolerant.” To me it means putting up with, being patronizing, acting as if we are bestowing a favor on black people we accept into our midst. How arrogant it is to be “tolerant.” Is it not we who should be tolerated? Is it not we who should be humbled to be tolerated by people whose forbears endured the worst that human beings can endure? And don’t forget, what they endured was the law of the land, the law of the white power structure, and upheld by churches for hundreds of years.
When I went off to Washington, DC, to college in 1970, I brought with me my northern liberal, “I’m a sister!” attitude. I had befriended black children in school after all; I had talked about civil rights; I had even had an all-out screaming match with a member of the John Birch Society for which I was applauded in a high school history class.
Well, my arrogance was slapped down right away because, in 1970, black college students didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I was white, period. The Black Power movement was in its adolescence, but maturing quickly. The Resident Assistant in my dorm, an African-American woman, told me one night that she would respect me, but would never be my friend. That hurt, oh it hurt, but I grew to understand where she was coming from and, you know what, I didn’t blame her.
Across the hall from me in my second year of college were two rooms in which African-American women resided. Almost every evening they would gather in one of the rooms and sing and, oh, how I longed to join them. But they didn’t want me to join. One of them, Carol Maillard, went on to become a founder of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Two years ago, when they performed at Berkshire Choral, I had a chance to talk with Carol. It turned out that she remembered me and she had recognized even at that time that I was mooning around outside the door wanting to be let in. And she apologized! To me! For not letting me in! What did I say? Well, I can tell you what I didn’t say. I didn’t say, “I’m sorry that I thought my presence in your group would validate you.” Because I do believe that, if white people reached deep down into their souls, they would admit that we feel or have felt that our white friendship, our white patronage, is something that legitimizes African-Americans.
How often do we feel that our existence has been validated by the friendship or patronage of an African-American?
Racism takes many, many forms, and no matter how liberal, how forward-thinking, how open, there is not a white person in this country who can escape one of its forms. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but it must be learned, it must be acknowledged, and it must be repented. We cannot truly reap the freedom of faith without doing so.
Here’s the good news, a script for repentance: The reading from John’s beautiful letter tells us that “if our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts.” So God does not condemn us, but over and over again invites us to love one another “as he (Jesus) commanded us.” How? “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. . . This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence.”
“Actions and in truth”! Hallelujah! Thank you, God! Thank you, Jesus! We have been given a way out of the murky waters of our racism past and present. With all humility, with all love, with all hope, we can take action so that we will know we belong to the truth, the Truth with a capital “T,” Jesus Christ, our Lord and our redeemer, and that truth will set us free.