Mother Emanuel – We Weep With You

Sermon for Sunday, June 21, 2015 || Fourth Sunday After Pentecost,  Proper 7B || Job 38:1-11, Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41 ||  Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Postulant for Holy Orders

I appreciate being here on this stormy Sunday morning, after what feels like a long absence, and to have the privilege of preaching on a day when our readings line up so beautifully with the national events we are being challenged to navigate. Each of these passages invites us to consider some version of what difference our faith makes in the face of struggles or adversity, or whether  we can trust God in the midst of bad stuff happening, particularly when we really don’t understand.

In fact, our readings line up so beautifully, that I’m going to confess I had outlined a pretty soft summer sermon with the thematic reassurance that even when unexpected and unwelcome things happen in our lives– like the death of a loved one, or a scary diagnosis–we are assured of God’s unfailing and perfect love and presence in our lives.

That was my plan before I read about this week’s horror in South Carolina, which has brought me low. Since Wednesday night, I have been pained and have struggled mightily to understand. So as a warning, this is not a tidy sermon, but one composed by a rattled and deeply saddened and heartsick preacher.

I have taken the murder of these nine church-going, God seeking people personally, partially because it challenges my theology, while seeming like an incredible — as in unfathomable – violation of those who are our faithful brothers and sisters, who gathered to do exactly what we do during bible study, to better understand God. I have taken this personally because it seems like such a supreme defilement of the sanctity and sanctuary that is promised at churches. I know that loved ones have been killed at schools and movie theaters, at carnivals and military bases and hospitals – each of which is horrific, but this one, this one at the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the south, hit me as horribly wrong and an outrage.

So I have been reading. I went to Emanuel’s website, which has not been changed to reflect Wednesday’s carnage. I read the church’s invitation to Wednesday Bible Study. This is what Emanuel in Charleston says about its bible study:

“Is something missing from your life? Are you doing all you can to have a closer relationship with God? If you have a desire to learn more about God, then join us on Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m. in the lower level of the church. We look forward to seeing you!”

And so our brothers and sisters, fellow Episcopalians, gathered to better understand God, and were joined by a stranger. Perhaps I feel connected to the bible students because I am spending so much more time in church, or because these shootings occurred just as, locally, we were grieving  the killing of 16-year-old Jonathan Dos Santos, who died exactly a week before in Dorchester. Jonathan, a teenager riding home on his bike, was allegedly killed by two other teenagers, one 16 and one 14, which has unsettled the neighborhood and shaken some of the young people in the B-Safe program based at St. Stephens Boston. Jonathan’s murder is also baffling and so wrong.

I can’t say with certainty why this has completely invaded my concerns and prayer life, but this morning I’d like to honor those who have died, consider what we know of God and our faith through this heart-breaking adversity, and pray and act fervently so that we change the status quo, and not let this shooting pass without making some sort of lasting change.

I am completely disinterested in politicians’ verbal faux pas, or what the NRA is saying or prescribing. I’m too sad to argue or affirm their points. I am curiously interested in the language used and the attention given to the 21-year-old perpetrator, and am touched by the tributes and information that has been shared about those killed. I have read wise and articulate scholars mulling over the significance of the Charleston shootings and their thoughts of what should be done. I have been most struck by those prophetic voices that have unapologetically called out this act as evil, and ask us to understand it as such. From Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today: “We do not take into sufficient account the depth of evil roaming this world, and in this particular case, the radical evil that lies at the heart of racism.”

I’m certainly guilty of discounting evil. The murders at Mother Emanuel may be a wake up call that racism is alive and terrifying, and that we won’t soon be free of it. What has been among the most difficult realizations for me is the notion that racial reconciliation won’t come through just talking. I have long felt that we must have a national conversation about race, but there is no amount of talking or reasoning– or perhaps even radically loving–someone like Dylann Roof that will melt prejudice or transform racism. Perhaps among the lessons for me are those echoed in today’s readings – awful things happen, storms and struggles– and we can not control them, nor do we have any idea what God’s plans are or why things like the Emanuel murders happen. Evil is irrational.

This week an image from my trip to Ferguson, Missouri last September has been swirling around in my head. I keep seeing the tired woman sitting in a lawn chair by the side of the road holding a homemade cardboard sign that said “Stop Killing Us.” Stop Killing! Black Lives Matter! What is my responsibility?  What can I do to make racially tinged murders cease? What can I do to advance this cause?

I can be impatient for progress. I can reaffirm my understanding and rock solid belief that racism, even endemic, systematic and centuries old racism, is not stronger than God’s love.

This week marked the anniversary of the end of our country’s most notable systemic, federally sanctioned racist constructs. On Friday we celebrated Juneteenth. If part of my family were not African American, I might know nothing about this holiday. June 19th marks the date on which the very last slaves – who had continued in slavery more than two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared people free – were told of the end of their enslavement.

June 19, 1865 – one hundred and fifty years ago last Friday–Union Major General Gordon Granger and his troops landed in Galveston, Texas with the news that the war had ended and the enslaved were now free. There are conflicting theories about why it took so long to get this declaration made and carried out in Texas, from a communications glitch of monumental proportions, to an urging that cotton farmers could have one final harvest using their slave labor, to a lack of union soldiers on the ground able to enforce President Lincoln’s executive order from 1863. Regardless of the reason, there were thousands of slaves in the US who did not go free until June 19, 1865.

This week, I have wondered about the residue from this injustice and elongated enslavement both on those who were finally emancipated, and on their relatives who had enjoyed two and a half years of freedom before them. I don’t know what impact it had, but this week, I appreciated delving more deeply into a holiday that has only marginally been celebrated, mostly by African Americans who mark the end of slavery as a cause for rejoicing and commemoration. Juneteenth is a big deal in DC where thousands of families converge on the National Mall to celebrate the end of slavery and to honor those who made freedom possible. It is a human independence day that took on additional significance for me this week, and I wondered whether anything was said about Juneteenth during Rev. Pinckney’s Wednesday bible study?

One of my most troubling and unsettling realizations this week is that these murders were modern day lynchings evoking grotesque and sickening images the historical purpose of which was to send a message of fear – of terror really, to black people that they were not only not equal, but that they should live in fear and not even attempt to exercise their equal rights, or push for inclusion, change or justice. The mere fact of the color of their skin put them in danger of public humiliation, beating and death. I worry that the debate about gun control which will undoubtedly swirl and rage around Charleston and the gun that was used at Mother Emanuel will distract attention from the fact that parishioners were executed, just as their ancestors and perhaps relatives had been.

I want us to pray for those who died at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday. I ask for your prayers for Cynthia Hurd, who was 54 years old, Tywanza Sanders who was 26, Sharonda Singleton who was 45, Myra Thompson, 59, Ethel Lance who was 70, Susie Jackson who was 87, Depayne Middleton Doctor who was 49 and their pastors, Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr, 75 and Rev. Clementa Pinckney who sounds like he was a force of nature yet was only 41 when he died. Each leaves behind loved ones and family members for us to lift up in prayer.

Today we are called on to better understand the circumstances and threats and dangers that our black and brown brothers and sisters find themselves subjected to. I am angry that this morning there are tens of thousands of churchgoers in this country who are wrestling with going to church today, or are subject to heightened security because of the terror and hatred that a 21 year old spewed and caused in Charleston. Parents preoccupied that there might be copy cat violence on this Sabbath Day. And my anger isn’t enough. God’s love has plenty of room for my anger, but what is required is that I be an ally to those who would worship in safety. I am to be an advocate for the eradication of racism and the firm eventual entrenchment of racial justice.

I don’t know what my alliance or advocacy will look like, but I know that there are a few things that we can do immediately. As we recite our shared beliefs of the Nicene Creed and we share communion, I invite us to be aware of parishioners in AME churches all over this country. I ask that we be particularly mindful of and connected to those worshipping in historic Black Churches. Let’s take today’s Prayers of the People and intentionally pray them throughout the week. We can pray as the Diocese of South Carolina has asked us to: for the families of those killed, the members of Mother Emanuel AME, the members of our law enforcement and first responders community, the members of the Charleston community. We pray that there would be no further acts of violence, there would be peace in Charleston and Boston, that unity may overcome estrangement and that joy might conquer despair.

Let us also affirm our connection and condolences in writing, reaching out to those parishioners who bravely gather even as their hearts are wounded. Offering prayers and notes of support can only help. (Mother Emanuel, 110 Calhoun Street, Charleston, SC 29401)

Finally, I am committed to learning from the people of Charleston, who seem to be demonstrating a level of grace and forgiveness as expressions of their deep faith and trust in God that I find astonishing and inspiring and frankly, reassuring. They are living into Paul’s call to the Corinthians to open their hearts, and are answering Jesus’ question in the boat “Don’t you believe in me” with a very loud and profound “Yes we do!”

May the grace of our worship together and our community this morning be strengthened by our prayers, communion and connections to one another as we echo and are challenged by the witness of those in Charleston. And may each of us live lives that demonstrate our answer to Jesus’ question – “Don’t you believe in me?” –is a resounding, “Yes we do!”  Amen.

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