Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor
Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.
These are the names of the victims from the shootings that took place on Wednesday evening in Charleston, SC at the Emanuel AME Church after Bible Study. These are the names that we can not forget.
When I first learned about the events in Charleston on Wednesday night, I immediately began to wonder--how does this happen. How does this kind of thing happen in a church? I have asked this question too many times lately, just with a different location--how does this happen in our neighborhood, in our schools, in our malls, in our movie theaters. How does this kind of thing happen in places that we think are safe? Aren’t we supposed to be able to walk down the street, go to church, the movies, school, do a little shopping...things that “normal” people do on a daily basis without fear or trepidation? Aren’t we supposed to feel safe and secure in our daily living?
I don’t live my life from a place of fear. I live my life from a place of hope, joy and love. I may experience moments of grief, anger or anxiety, but these feelings don’t rule my life--they are part of life.
I am just trying to make sense of it all.
In listening to the news reports on Thursday night, I remembered two brief interviews that were given. One was of a woman who said that even in the midst of this tragedy, she was living with Jesus whose peace passes all understanding...those were words I recognized immediately...words from the Blessing that is found in the Prayer Book. The second was a pastor saying that we are called to live in a world that respects the dignity of every human being...again, words I recognized immediately from our Baptismal Covenant. This connection of words linked these men and women to my heart on an even deeper level.
And I felt inspired by the courage of these two interviewees. I felt that all hope was not lost; that there will be peace again. But sometimes before there is peace, we have to weather the storm.
I was going to speak this morning about the gospel story from Mark of Jesus stilling the storm. I was going to talk about how it serves as a metaphor for so many moments of confusion and anxiety in our lives and how we just need to persevere, pray, and wait for Jesus to still these storms in our lives. I was going to talk about how in many ways, this gospel is a metaphor for the church right now--riding the waves of media reports about how we’re “dying” and how the N-O-N-E-S are the largest identified group in the US, and how this is part of what we’re wrestling with on a national level at General Convention--and that Jesus is offering us peace if we just don’t give up hope. You see, I had this whole great sermon all set up and ready to go...my waves were calm and it was smooth sailing between now and Tuesday’s flight to Salt Lake City.
But then life happened. But then a young man walked into a church, sat in a prayer meeting, and killed nine people. A young white man filled with rage and hatred, walked into a black church, sat with them, heard about their lives and listened to their prayers, and he shot them. Was Jesus asleep while the tides turned?
I don’t know. What happened at Emanuel is inexcusable. What happened at Emanuel is the result of systems that are broken--gun laws that aren’t strict enough, mental illness that has not be treated, and the fact that racism still exists in our neighborhoods. We can pray, we can listen, we can stand in solidarity, but we need to also be aware of how we participate in these broken systems. How do we confront the injustices that allow for events like this to occur? When will we say enough is enough?
I can’t tell you when that moment is. I can’t tell you exactly what you should do about it. But for me, I will pray, I will name it, I will stand against it. I will live with the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. I will live in a way that respects the dignity of every human being. I will see my neighbors--regardless of their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, class status, legal status, ability or ethnicity--as children of God, created in the image of God, knowing that Jesus walks with them.
On Thursday night I turned to my colleagues for help--help to find the words, help to make sense of it, help to pray. I want to share some of that wisdom with you now.
The Rev. Denise Anderson asked “what about your life demonstrates that you walk in solidarity with others who experience life differently from you because of their skin color, legal status, or sexual orientation?” (http://soulascriptura.com/2015/06/allies-the-time-for-your-silence-has-expired/)
The Rev. Wil Gafney said, “We are your fellow citizens, your neighbors, your sisters and brothers sharing a common humanity, we are all children of the same God. I should not have to remind you that we who are blessed with radiant blackness are the image of God. When you grind our faces into the dirt, you grind the very face of God into the dirt. When you slaughter us you slaughter God.”
The Rev. Teri Peterson said, “They are us. And just as they are ours, we are theirs. That's what it means to be part of one nation under God, or the Body of Christ...when one suffers, we all suffer. When one dies, we all die. When one hurts, we all hurt. When one does harm, we all bear some of that guilt and pain. When one celebrates, we all celebrate. After all, we celebrate when one of our kids graduates. We grieve when one of our neighbors dies. We groan alongside our friends who are ill. We would be outraged if one of our Bible Studies were the scene of terrorism. And we would wonder what happened and how we could have done something differently if the shooter were one of ours.”
Friends, I wish I had something positive to say, but it would be cliche and dismissive at this point. I wish I could somehow undo the wrong that has been done to our brothers and sisters, the wrongs that have been done out of a place of privilege, the wrongs done out of fear, anger and hate. And when we say our corporate confession on Sunday, I wish that I could with absolute certainty and peacefulness, absolve us of the things done and left undone. But I can’t.
When we pass the peace, I hope you will look at one another with eyes of love, respect and forgiveness.
When we come to the table to share the Eucharist, come not only to be renewed in your faith, but also in your witness as Christ-bearers to the world.
The storm is still raging.
Partners with God
With the celebration of the feast of Pentecost a few weeks ago, we have shifted from the Easter season to the Season after Pentecost, also known as “ordinary time”. This liturgical season is the longest of all the seasons on the church calendar, and for some perhaps the most boring. But really the season after Pentecost is an opportunity for us to look more closely at the mission, ministry and miracles of Jesus and the early church. What we will find is not “ordinary” or “boring” stories, but really pretty extraordinary moments in the life of Jesus and his friends.
Now before we just jump into the gospel story from Mark, I feel compelled to give a nod to the reading from Genesis. For centuries, this has been the story used to determine the doctrine of original sin...that humans chose to be disobedient to God, that in this choosing we got expelled from the garden of Eden (perfection), and that we have been “broken” ever since. Augustine loved to pontificate on this kind of text, and so did other preachers and theologians since then as a way of keeping us “in our place”. This story of Adam blaming Eve for “tempting” him has been used over and over to keep women in positions of inequality; it was (and still is) used as the reason for why women couldn’t hold leadership positions in the church and for the levitical laws that prohibited women from swearing oaths or owning property.
During the second wave of the feminist movement, women would cite this story not as Eve’s temptation of Adam, but as Adam’s great “passing of the buck” and his inability to take responsibility for his choices. Feminist writers and poets reclaimed Eve as a woman that was curious, bold, and uninhibited. Countless books on spirituality, forgiveness and redemption have been written by Jewish and Christian women who claim Eve as a sister in spiritual awareness, instead of trying to prove that we have evolved to a more enlightened state and need to be redeemed from Eve’s original sin.
I have some very definite opinions about how the scriptural tradition and subsequent church fathers have written and preached on Eve as a way of oppressing women...but perhaps now is not the time.
The nugget that I hope you’ll take away from the Genesis reading is about relationship. In this short piece of text from Genesis, God asks “where are you”--God is looking for Adam and Eve--and in essence, God is looking for us. In the garden, Adam and Eve were companions with God. Perhaps they were created to be partners with God in the ongoing creation and evolution of this good earth. We get a sense that God is always looking for partners throughout the Hebrew Bible--Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Sarah, Miriam, Deborah--all partners in building up the kingdom of God. So if you can, hang on to this idea that God is looking for God’s partners.
Now in the Gospel of Mark, we have another one of those stories, like the Genesis story, that has unfortunately been misread. Here we have Jesus’ “mother and brothers” worried about him and then Jesus denying that they are his family. I have spent the last several semesters reading so much commentary on Mary’s role in Jesus ministry, that when I get to this particular story, I just want to be sick. For our early church fathers through the middle ages, this story was used as a way to remind readers that Mary had “served her purpose” and was no longer important to the story of Jesus. It was again used to oppress women--that their only purpose was to be mothers and then step aside. This story was used to take away the agency of women who might want to be leaders in their communities and churches because clearly Jesus had turned his back on his mother. Thanks early church fathers for making my life difficult! (sorry, I get on my soap box about this stuff)
But let’s try to forget about the early church fathers and middle ages theologians for a moment, ok? Let’s instead try to focus on what is really going on in this story from Mark.
Here we are coming in mid-sentence as it were. Jesus has been busy healing and casting out demons, and everyone wants to know who he thinks he is and where does he get the power (and authority) to do this stuff. His mother and brothers are worried about him because they see the agitation rising against him. We don’t know if they think he’s the messiah or not...the writer of Mark doesn’t tell us. What we do know is that he is surrounded by people who have been looking for him--the possessed and dispossessed, the lame, the cripple, the orphaned, the outcast--and here he finds his partners--his family, if you will--that will become the impetus for his mission and ministry.
I think what’s hard for us to hear sometimes is that who God is looking for to partner in kingdom building ministry is almost never who we think it SHOULD be. This is especially hard for ministers or other church leaders because we have a sense of calling--that God called us to do God’s work, that we have been specially selected. But friends, I can tell you that personally, the people who have most often ministered to me--those who have been a balm for my brokenness and taught me about healing--have not always been the ones that SHOULD be doing that ministry. It’s been the woman who struggles with depression and anxiety, the young woman who risked coming out to her parents, the unhoused man who looks out for others who are also unhoused, the rejected and the social misfits. And because I’m among those who SHOULD be ministering, I often don’t see God’s partner that’s been part of my journey until after the fact.
My point is this...sometimes we are like Adam--we pass the buck on who’s to blame for what’s wrong. Sometimes we are like Eve--curious, bold, and willing to take risks. Sometimes we are are the elected or chosen ones who SHOULD be sharing the good news and offering healing, and sometimes we’re the ones gathered around Jesus, looking for him as much as God is looking for us. Our boundaries as children of God are not rigid--they are permeable and solely created by us. But God is always looking for us--looking for us to participate as the family of God, kinship builders, healers, and partners.
May 24, 2015
In a few weeks, I’ll be heading to the next General Convention where we will continue wrestling with the question of how the Episcopal Church will continue to transform and grow into it’s mission and ministry. Not unlike the disciples, we continue to wrestle with discerning how to continue the work that God calls us to do. Not unlike the disciples, we have moved into unknown places, wondering if we would experience peace or kick the dust off our shoes. Not unlike the disciples, we have experienced the death of teachers, mentors and friends, and wondered how to make sense of it all. In many ways we are living in the midst of a Pentecost experience.
Now next Sunday, Steve Tyson will be with you and I’m sure he’ll do a fantastic job sharing his insights about the Trinity, so I don’t want to steal his thunder. But when I think of Pentecost, the gifting of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ friends so they could be empowered to do their ministry, I can’t help but think of the Trinity as a whole.
God--our Father and Mother, Creator of all, in whose image we were created--God calls each one of us into ministry. For some this means a calling to ordination, but for all of us it means being called into the further work of the Kingdom. It’s in this work--be it nursing, teaching, accounting, parenting--wherever we find our heart’s passion--that we claim our identity as children of God.
Jesus--our Redeemer, our friend, our teacher--Jesus calls us to be fishers of people. This takes our daily ministry and identity as children of God, and shapes it to bring about justice in the world. Jesus offers forgiveness for all, peace for our troubled souls, and balm for our broken hearts.
And the Holy Spirit--our Sustainer, the wind that moved over creation, the breath of life, the burning passion that motivates, inspires, and enables us--the Holy Spirit is the gift that transforms and pushes us to continue to be prophetic witnesses in our community. It is the Holy Spirit that transforms our volunteer service into outreach ministry because we have been empowered to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
The Spirit is dangerous, playful, and daring. It calls us to be truth-tellers and witnesses to the gospel. It calls us to a place that says “All are welcome” and no one is denied access. It calls us to a place that doesn’t allow discrimination for any reason. It calls us to a place to be prophetic in the proclamation of the gospel that gives us the courage to confront the injustices in our world.
In her poem “Ferocious: A Pentecost Prayer,” Rachel Hackenberg writes:
How great you are, O God our God,
and how foolish are we to all you ours!
Your power cannot be measured,
your holiness cannot be contained.
Without you, we are entirely hopeless…
with you, we are completely unsettled.
How to choose:
between your Consuming Fire
and the embers of complacency?
between your Dance of New Life
and the brittle familiarity of these bones?
between your Righteous Justification
and this world’s systems of injustice?
In the power of your glory,
save us and grant us courage
to draw near to your ferocious grace.
Give us strength to bear down
through the labor pains
of reparation & restoration.
Fill us with visions beyond our wildest dreams,
and as we dream,
we will sing your highest praises
if you will hold our deepest sorrows;
we will remember your promise of life
if you will hold our stories of death;
we will say your name often & loosely as though drunk
if you will hold our names intentionally in your hand.
Be fierce, O Holy God--
the world needs you to be fierce,
and the world needs us to be fiercely convicted
by your power and grace.
We dare to say
that we are ready to be
changed by your Spirit; we are ready.
The celebration of Pentecost reminds us that as a people, a community and a church, we are still a work in progress. Together we work to build the Kingdom of God. And we do this sacred work empowered by the Holy Spirit.
May God’s breath stream within you.
May God’s breath renew you.
May God’s breath invigorate you.
Walk with confidence into this day. Amen. Amen.
(traditional Jewish blessing)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.