They Took Jesus with Them, Just as He Was
I imagine God is crying this morning. In fact, I am sure that God has been weeping since Wednesday.
This morning in Charleston, South Carolina, our brothers and sisters in Christ are worshipping God in a church where nine saints of God were killed last Wednesday night during a prayer service and Bible study. A week ago, that church community had come together just as we all do, praying together on Sunday morning, worshipping together in joy and love.
Last Sunday, they had no idea what the week would bring, what violence would enter their church, violate their trust, kill their beloved brothers and sisters during a Bible study and prayer meeting.
And while they grieve, in shock, we are in shock, too. I don’t have answers this morning. I can only shine a light. And try to open our hearts.
But we are part of a world that is racked by incredible hatred. We are bound to it like glue. And we know that an occurrence like this isn’t new. As awful as it is, bringing hatred and violence and death into a church is not unheard of.
Most of us remember the four young girls killed by white supremacists who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. We remember the death of Bishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980, assassinated by the Government of El Salvador, shot to death in his church while he presided at a Catholic Sunday Mass.
Fathers Day, and today family members are without their fathers. The victims in Charleston this week range in age from 26 to 87 years old. Ministers. A librarian. A track coach. A speech therapist. A Bible teacher.
We ask why, but even as we ask why, we know that question is old. It is a question that is growing moss on it. Over and over, as evil acts like these occur again and again, and this time in a church, we ask why.
There is a Goliath in our midst today. There is one who would bring us down. Divide and conquer. Overpower with evil. It is not that 21-year-old man with a heart of hate that brought a gun to a Bible study. He is no Goliath; he is a coward.
The Goliath we must face works in a violent structure. So big that sometimes we do not even see it. For most of us, we don’t suffer at the hands of this Goliath. But we see the damage. For some of us, unfortunately, we think the damage done is not our business, not something that’s part of our lives. But while we ignore this Goliath, it grows stronger. It infiltrates deeper. It is harder to eradicate.
The Goliath that I am talking about is racism. Those of us who are white live in a society, a culture, where we go weeks or even years without thinking of our race. When’s the last time that you thought, “well, I’m white, and that is going to make a difference if I do this, or go there, or say this, or work there.” When you’re white in America, you don’t think about the fact that you are white because you don’t need to.
Whiteness is the privileged status. Rich or poor, educated or not, immigrant or born here, when you are white you fit in with the system perfectly. Here in the US, the Constitution of our country was written with just some of us – people with white skin – in mind. People with white skin count, under the original Constitution, as whole people. African-Americans, slaves at that time, counted as only 3/5 of a person. Something less than a whole human being.
Professor Charles Cogan of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government explains that “the original Constitution of our country contained language which took nearly a hundred years and a Civil War to amend. Many call it the original sin of the American Constitution. According to Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3, ‘Representatives…shall be apportioned among the several States…according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of Free Persons…three-fifths of all other persons.’
What the original Constitution did was to implicitly recognize slavery in one of our most important founding statements of who we are as the United States. Not only that, those words in the original Constitution negate the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal.’ And last but not least, these words gave the impression that a black person was worth three-fifths of a white person.”
After the civil war, in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment eliminated those words and counted each human as one person. But that didn’t really fix it, did it, because then we had decades of Jim Crow, and we still don’t have equality.
Racism was built into the fabric of our country from its inception. There’s just no getting around that. Native Americans, those people who were here before the Europeans came over, they are not counted at all. They were just labelled as savages who were in the way of expansion.
We all have inherited this history. This history didn’t just pop up last year with the more publicly noted white police violence against black citizens. It is part of our collective past. It works to create who we are today, just as good parts of our history work to create who we are today. It is part of us, part of our fabric, our shared history.
In Jeremiah 7, the prophet speaks to those in Jerusalem, telling them not to presume that just because they are of the “temple of the Lord” that they are safe from the dangers of the Babylonian army. In fact, they had become complacent. They were privileged people, and they had become comfortable. They were preoccupied with their own interests, and the problems of others less fortunate than themselves didn’t concern them. They simply didn’t care about them.
Rev. Matthew Skinner, a New Testament scholar from Minnesota, explains that “not only were the privileged people of ancient Jerusalem also in an unsafe place, but Jeremiah says that they helped to make it so.”
When we hear God telling them to repent and amend their ways, do we listen? Do we hear God speaking to us? What will we do?”
When our privileged stories are told, will we open the door, will we listen when others who are not privileged tell their stories? Can we open our hearts to understand that our nation’s history was written from a perspective of privilege that hurts others? That excludes them?
Stories that are told to hold up white people and privilege for white people, and that diminish and scapegoat people of color. And are we willing to work to give up the apparatus, the structures, of privilege from which we benefit implicitly and explicitly?
Emanuel Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina witnesses to a narrative of inclusion. Rev. Dirk Lange calls it a church that “testifies to the Spirit working its own history of justice, of peace, of reconciliation for American people who have been ostracized, marginalized, treated as imposters who have no place in … America.”
And this is how God works, isn’t it?! Rev. Lange notes that “scripture … attests to God’s work always from the outside, with those excluded from the story. Surprisingly, in God’s grammar, those who don’t fit, those considered imposters are those who show everyone else the way. With ‘truthful speech and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness’ Mother Emanuel, its pastors and its people, its prayer and its action, has shaped a vision of God’s righteousness that has space for all.”
And what a testimony those church members gave on Friday. At a court hearing the day before yesterday, just two days after their loved ones had been brutally shot and killed, one … after … another … , they got up and prayed for mercy for the shooter. These members of Emanuel AME church expressed concern for his soul. They called him to repentance. They forgave him.
Bethane Middleton-Browne acknowledged that she was angry. Her sister was shot to death! But, she said, her sister DePayne “taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating.” Over and over they said, “I forgive you.” Now that is a testimony of Christian faith in the face of hellish racism. That is the stone in David’s bag that can slay Goliath. Being the family that love built. A family with no room for hate.
You see, the stone that can bring Goliath down is something that many people think is rather weak. Rather tepid. And, it can be weak and tepid. But it can be overwhelming and powerful, too.
This stone that can slay the Goliath of racism is love. But not a weak love. Not a waffling love. Not a divided or self-absorbed love. No. Only a self-sacrificial love will overcome the structures of racism that are built into our culture. Only a love that is willing to die to those things that are contrary to God’s love for ALL of God’s children. Equally. For God shows no partiality, as St. Paul says.
A love like this can change lives! A love like this can raise the dead!
Jesus lived a life of love to the end, spending time with those ostracized by society, those who were considered less-than. He didn’t choose the wealthy and powerful to be his disciples. He chose rather ordinary people. Some were fishermen. They were accustomed to life in boats, and the storms on the Sea of Galilee would have been familiar to them. And when they invited Jesus onto their boat, scripture tells us that he came onto their boat just as he was.
Just as he was.
He didn’t change his clothes. He didn’t change who he was. He didn’t turn into an experienced fisherman before he went for a boat ride with the disciples. He went just as he was.
When you talk to Jesus, do you invite him into your boat, your day, your life, just as he is? Do you let in all of his words about loving your neighbor, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you? Do you let Jesus in, just as he is, with his admonition that we must feed the hungry and clothe the naked? Care for those who are sick and visit those who are in prison? Will we let him come in even if he cries when someone dies? Our Jesus cried, you know. He felt pain and loss. He knew betrayal.
Do we invite Jesus in just as he is?
Because if we invite Jesus in just as he is, then we’ll be working to rid our country of this scourge that is racism. We will examine ourselves and repent of our participation in economic and political and civic and cultural structures that keep others down. We will meet others only with love.
Because that stone that will bring down the Goliath of racism is the same thing that calmed the storm in the boat. The love of God. And the love of God within us for one another.
We are called to nothing less than to be the love of God for each of our brothers and sisters. For all of our brothers and sisters. May it be so. God bless you.