The Sunday after Charleston

[This article is, subtaintially, the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 21, 2015 to those worshipping at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit, Michigan. I offer it to you prayerfully and humbly.  SSH+] 

The audio version can be heard here or it can be downloaded from the Cathedral’s Website .

Early in the week, when I began looking at the proper (the collection of readings) appointed for this Sunday, the readings from 1 Samuel and the Gospel from Mark seemed to come together with the precision fit of one of Glenn Miller’s (a parishioner and craftsman) dovetail joints.

The disciples are freaking out over the storm on the lake, and the Israelites are freaking out over the Philistines and their giant warrior Goliath. In similar but different ways, the Divine Presence enters in:  To the disciples in the boat. Jesus says, effectively, “I got this” and he calms the water. David, a youth, judged to be inexperienced at best, and laughably incapable by many of the Israelite leaders, particularly those who didn’t look into his experience with lions and bears, says “I got this” and armed only with a few smooth stones and faith, he steps up.

Then comes the news that I first heard on Thursday morning: Nine people murdered at their church, at a Bible Study, by a person they welcomed into their midst and who spent time with them.  We need to hear their names.  I have no doubt they will, in due course, enter the Church Calendar as the Martyrs of Charleston:

Cynthia Hurd – 54, a librarian
Susie Jackson – 87, a longtime church member
Ethel Lance – 70, a 30 year employee of the church
The Rev’d DePayne Middleton-Doctor – 49, admission counselor of a local university
The Hon. Rev’d Clementa Pinkney – 41, SC state senator, pastor of Emanuel AME Church
Tywanza Sanders – 26, recently earned a business admin degree
The Rev’d Daniel Simmons, Sr. – 74, a retired pastor
The Rev’d Sharonda Singleton – 45, track coach at a local high school
Myra Thompson – 59, church member

If you do nothing else today, if you remember nothing of what I say, of the lessons read, or the prayers prayed; if you do nothing else today remember these people, remember their family and friends who mourn, and remember our brothers and sisters of Mother Emanuel.

I have more to say:

Some have asked why I haven’t made a statement of some kind before now. In the immediate aftermath is there anything I could have said that you didn’t already know: Roof’s actions were disgusting, cowardly, racist, and hate-filled. You already know that. Those who died, those present who survived physically, but whose emotional and spiritual wounds may still be unidentified, and those of Emanuel Church did not deserve this – no one does, ever. You already know that.

I have a complicated relationship with Charleston. Many of you, know that I am a native son of South Carolina. I grew up in what is called the Upstate. Upstaters know that Charleston believes it alone was the first colony, and the rest of the area around it, meaning all of North America, is an afterthought – and a poor one at that.

This place, with the remains of a slave market in the midst of the old town, is called the Holy City. Really?  It is not that Charleston is any holier than anywhere else, but as you approached from land or water you would see the many church steeples rising high above the city because no building in old Charleston was allowed to be higher than the highest steeple. The old slave market is now a street merchant market – every time I go into it my heart grieves.  It is a disturbing “Ellis Island” of sorts, as around half of the Africans that came to this country came through the port of Charleston.

Charleston is steeped in history and traditions: You probably don’t know that SOB means South of Broad (a street in the old town), and it means that other thing too.  If you are not from there, and you are curious, read some Pat Conroy novels to get a closer understanding.  From all this you may glean that there is an attitude to Charleston – plenty of good, humble, wonderful, and down-to-earth people mind you – but an attitude nonetheless. A good while back, an Episcopal bishop of the then Diocese of South Carolina shared with me that he found Charleston both a city and a religion.  It was, he added, a magnificent city and (I’ll clean it up and say) a piddling poor religion.

That same attitude can, in some ways, be found state wide.  The flag of the Confederacy still flies on the Capitol grounds.  It is needs to go. It belongs in a museum – and along with it the full story of slavery, including the greed of northern merchants and shippers made wealthy off of capturing and selling human beings.  The Confederate Battle flag, and even the Stars and Bars, communicate the same message to many that the red and black swastika-ed flag of 1940’s Germany communicates. I do not care if one looks upon it as a part of a heritage of independent spirit or state’s rights.  Our patron, St. Paul, was clear about engaging in things that could lead others astray – even if it means nothing to you, don’t do it (1 Cor. 8).  Jesus reminds us of the consequences of causing others to stumble in Matthew 18 and Mark 9.  We must read of these flags, their symbolism and history, and we must study that so we do not forget the human capacity for societal evil. But, we should not fly them or emblazon them on anything, anywhere, any time.  But you know that.

All the articles, postings, videos, and other communiques of the week, have been bereft of the acknowledgement of the presence of evil and sin.  They are not popular words, especially among the modern sophisticates of the early 21st century, but I know them to be real.  We see their effect writ large upon all our lives, and upon our world, in an event such as this.  This was murder. Yes.  This was an act of terror. Yes.  It was racism and a hate crime. Yes and yes. But, in June 2015, when we want to believe we are past such things, we have witnessed a lynching*. A lynching of nine beautiful faithful people – sinners all – but seeking salvation and trying to walk the walk.  (*def: a terrorist method of enforcing social domination)

And so, I return to words from today’s Gospel: “Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?”

Of course Jesus cares. And Charleston, the Holy City, speak of it. There is a famous 1987 photograph.  In it appears a Grand Dragon of the KKK.  There is a man reading him the stipulations of a parade permit that has been issued such that the KKK may parade that day in Charleston.  The Grand Dragon has an ill look on his face. The man reading the stipulations is the Chief of Police of Charleston. His name was Reuben Greenberg.  He was black, and he was Jewish.

Today, this week, Charleston surely must be embraced in Jesus’ words to the storm and to his disciples: “Peace! Be still!  It is not in flames. There have been no riots, no looting. Wide-ranging parts of the community have come together for vigil and prayer.

Too, there is some serious Christianity being lived, caught, taught, and shared at Mother Emanuel. At an initial bond hearing this week, survivors and family addressed Mr. Roof, the professed shooter. More than one forgave him. He was invited to repent, and confess, and give his life to Christ.  And one, in addition to offering forgiveness ended her words, “As we say at our Bible Study, We enjoyed you. May God have mercy on you.”

As I conclude, there are things I need to remind myself – perhaps these reminders may be helpful to you.

Forgiveness does not negate accountability. More than anything else it frees the forgiver from carrying around the millstones of hatred, malice, rage, and revenge.

We must change our language – many many writings have said we must “combat” racism, hatred, and such.  Other war and violence verbiage has been widely used.  It has to go.  A violent language to get rid of violence will never work.  We must choose a language of love and respect; we must be purveyors of peace – the kind that passes all understanding.

There are those who will point to this and other things, like the aforementioned Third Reich, as evidence that there is no God – or at least no loving God.  I do not believe that is true.  And, I know this to be true: For love to be love at all it must be a free choice – and for choice to exist there must be serious options, not just token ones.

I know for sure that Jesus wept on Wednesday night, and he still weeps now.  I am sure the greatest act of Divine Will must be to allow choice to continue so that love can be real.  The sad fact is that everyone some, and some completely, reject God’s love; and they choose the ways of the world and of the Evil One.  As we observed the Feast Day of Bernard Mizeki, a martyr for the faith in southern Africa, this past week, we were reminded in Luke 2 of Jesus’ words, “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”  God gives us choice because one has to choose love – sadly, tragically, there are those who do not.

Finally, it makes the disciples’ question in Mark today even more curious, don’t you think?  “Who is this that even the winds and the sea obey…” – I’ll add, and the hearts and minds of humankind do not.

In today’s readings, God steps up to do the stuff only God can – still the winds and the sea. God empowers and then expects us to do that which we can do, and we see David step up for his people.  They got this.  To that end, God knows, better than we seem to know, that we can love in a more profound way, and will not take back that which the Divine Self knows we can do: God refuses to say anything other than, “You, you got this.”

We do. I pray we will. And to us, to us in our moments of fear and tribulation, when the storms within us are at their worst, Jesus says, Peace!  Be still!