Monday, June 22, 2015

From Not Again to Never Again: a sermon in three parts

This is the (rather extended) sermon I offered to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, June 21st, 2015.  (You can listen to a podcast if you'd prefer.)  This sermon was spread out through the Opening Words, the normal slot for our "Exloration," and the time normally set aside for sharing Joys & Sorrows.  Before beginning I noted that there are those in the congregation who have been wanting to hear more from their preacher.  I said that, perhaps, after today's service they will be more careful about what they wish for.

I’d like to begin by sharing a quotation:

"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 pm in the lower level of the church. We look forward to seeing you."

That is the invitation to the weekly Bible Study that you'll find on the website of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. "Mother Emanuel," as it is often called, has had what President Obama called, "a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America."  CBS News This Morning, on Friday, said that the church has "played a part in nearly every political and social movement since it opened in 1816."

And on Wednesday night, June 17th, they were having their weekly Bible Study in the lower hall just as they'd been doing for quite some time.  But this would not be an ordinary evening.

 In 1813, Morris Brown, a free black, a shoemaker by trade, wanted to find a church where African Americans were more welcomed than in the Methodist Church of his time, a segregated church that not only kept blacks and whites from worshiping together, but kept them separate in their cemetery as well.  Not seeing anywhere what he was looking for Brown founded the community that would come to be Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

One of its more prominent members – a formerly enslaved man who'd purchased his own freedom from, of all things, having won the lottery – was accused of planning a slave rebellion. Scholars today are apparently divided on whether there ever really was such a plot, yet no matter the truth of the accusation, Denmark Vesey and 34 other men were hanged.  Only nine years after its birth, some of the earliest members of “Mother Emanuel" were lynched.  The violence they’ve known started early.

Now, I have to tell you that when members of an African Methodist Episcopal Church get to studying their Bible, they really get to it.  I know that this might be a little hard for a lot of us Unitarian Universalists to grasp, but these folks had been engaged in Bible study for just about two hours before Dylan Roof entered the building, and they weren’t anywhere near done yet. By most accounts Roof sat with the group for as much as an hour before he pulled out the .45 caliber automatic pistol he’d brought with him. Survivors say that he was clear about his intentions and his motivations.  "I have to do it," he reportedly said, "you rape our women and you’re taking over our country.  You have to go."  Some who know him say that he spoke of wanting to incite a race war.  The car he drove from the scene had a vanity plate on the front:  "The Confederate States of America."

There are those who have been suggesting that he is simply a sick young man; that he's used too many drugs or that he has a mental illness. (They always bring up mental illness, don’t they?  Especially when the gunman is white, right?) There have even been those who've said that rather than being racially motivated this was more likely -- or, perhaps, at least as likely,  -- another example of the ever-increasing war on Christianity in our culture. “… we won't know until we have all the facts”

Well … I don't have all the facts, yet the facts I do have seem pretty clear to me -- this was a self-described racist who said in his own words from his own lips that his goal was not only to kill black people but to incite a race war. One survivor said that he told her he was letting her live so that she could go on and tell others about what had happened. This wasn’t the action of a deranged loner; it was an intentional act of terrorism.

And this is supposed to be a post-racial America!  It's absolutely astonishing to me how hard people who have some measure of power will work to justify their excessively destructive and dehumanizing abuses of that power.  Ask them about slavery and they’ll answer,  “Well, our slaves are happy, you know,and well cared for; they couldn't survive without our beneficence.”  Bring up the subject of Jim Crow and they’ll say,  “It's better this way -- each to their own.  That’s the natural way of things.” And what about the modern practice of the mass incarceration overwhelmingly of African Americans?  “Well ... we can't help it if they commit more crimes.”  (Which, according to law enforcement’s own statistics is, if you’ll pardon my French, foutaise.). But with an act like this that façade begins to break and, so, today the voices plead:  “Please! Let's please call this anything but what it is.”  But here’s what it is:  a terrorist attack on American soil aimed at defending the system of white supremacy that is so engrained in our country that there are people who quite honestly don't believe it exists, and others who believe it but don’t see anything really wrong in it.  Of course, there are those who know it exists all too well, because they are its victims.  Let’s not forget them.

Those who have ears, can hear the incessant drumbeat of death, after death, after death of young black men.  Those who have eyes can see the mounting evidence that apparently black lives do not matter as much as others’ do.  Those who have been paying attention are aware of the ever-increasing rumbling that portends the coming of a massive storm, a storm of, as we might say, a storm of Biblical proportions.  I fear – and in some ways I guess I hope, too – that that storm’s coming soon.  Really big storms are scary, often dangerous things, yet sometimes they’re the only thing that can end the oppressive heat and make everything seem new again.

Back in January I preached on the subject of race in America, and then again in March, but I must confess that in the context of the all that is happening, and all that has been happening, and all that is most surely going to keep happening, I really have been silent.  Too silent.  And in that silence, yes, there is some fear, some cowardice.  And, yes, in that silence there is complicity.  And, yes, that silence is an example of the white privilege that grants me the freedom to be silent, to hope that somebody else is going to do something, or to cynically and conveniently believe that nothing can be done.

I recently saw a Tweet which expressed the hope that we would, in this time, come together for healing.  In response I wrote, “With respect – this is NOT the time for coming together for healing; this is the time for coming together to really work for real change.”  Actually, I think the demand of this time is even more fierce that that – this is the time when we must change things.  And that “we” means largely white America, because only those who are privileged by a system have the power to change that system.

I know that I’m preaching to the choir here, but as a colleague of mine says, “I know I’m preaching to the choir, and what I’m preaching is – get off your buts and sing!”  Our opening hymn is #149, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Every time we lift our voices to sing our opening hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, I make note that this hymn has such a prominent place in this history of African Americans in this country that it is often been called “the African American National Anthem.”  I’ve usually mentioned, also, that it was the Rev. Dr. King’s favorite hymn. 
The lyrics originated in a poem written in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson, who was the principal of the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida.  The occasion of its first public performance, in 1900, was a celebration of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln.  The poem was part of Johnson’s introduction of the day’s guest speaker, Booker T. Washington.  (As an aside, 9 years later Washington would preach at the very same Emanuel AME Church that’s in the news today.)  Johnson’s brother John set the poem to music that same year, and it had gained such celebrated importance in less than a decade that the NAACP dubbed it, “The Negro National Anthem.”  
Ninety years later, the Rev. Joseph Lowery used the third verse nearly word-for-word to begin his benediction at the inauguration of the first African American President, Barack Obama. 
Let’s sing together ...

Nine people are dead in Charleston, South Carolina. The youngest was 26; the oldest was 87.  I was watching the news with my older son the other night. Both of my children are adopted, and both are what is called, “multiracial.”  The younger one, the 10-year old, Les, has African and Cherokee ancestry from his birth father’s side of the family, but he really takes after his Irish and Scottish birth mother. His brown skin, as he used to say when he was little, is on the inside.

The older one, the 13-year old, Theo, absolutely favors his East Indian birth mom, with hints of his birth father’s Haitian and African roots.   His brown skin is most definitely (and, I have to add, so beautifully) on the outside. 

Over the years I have tried to help Theo, especially, to understand that the world he’s living in now – the world my wife and I have lived in all of our lives; the world, simply put, of white privilege – is not where he’s going to live out most of his life. 

In the past year or so, especially, I’ve tried to have “the talk” with him.  Not the talk about sex, or the talk about drugs, but the talk about how to stay safe in a racist world.  I’ve told him, as so many others have had to tell their children, that he’s now on the pivot point at which people are going to stop seeing him as an adorably cute brown-skinned boy and begin seeing him as a scary black-skinned man.  That day is no doubt  coming sooner than either of us can imagine, if it hasn’t come already.

Theo and I talked some after the murder of Trayvon Martin, and that takes us back three years ago now.  More recently we talked more after the murders of Jordan Davis, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown – and unfortunately I could all too easily go on for quite some time with that list.  And when I’ve talked with my son about this terrible and terrifying dimension of black life he’s responded with the kind of bravado only really possible during your teen years, and the kind of dismissiveness only really possible if you live in the world of white privilege.  “Oh, that won’t happen to me, dad,” he says.  “You don’t have to worry.”  “I’m not like that,” he adds, and by “that” I think he means that he doesn’t listen to rap, doesn’t low ride, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t hang out in the wrong part of town (wherever that is), doesn’t sprinkle the “f word” into every single sentence or use the “n word” as if it means nothing.  He seems to think that because he speaks standard English, goes to a good school, and has never gotten into any real trouble  he seems to think that these things will keep him safe in this world.

So the other night when the news was on, reporting on the shooting in Charleston, I turned to Theo and told him pointedly that that’s what I’ve been trying to tell him.  These people weren’t dealing drugs or smoking crack.  They weren’t being threatening or even ever so slightly disrespectful.  They weren’t listening to rap music.  Hell, they weren’t even wearing hoodies and eating skittles while walking in their own neighborhoods; they weren’t even driving!

Not that any of those things should make any real difference, but these folks were sitting in their church, studying the Bible, for God’s sake.  They’d been into it for a couple of hours when Dylan Roof joined them.  One of the survivors told him during his initial bond hearing the other day that they had welcomed him into their Bible study “with open arms, she said”  Another said, “we enjoyed you.”  Roof sat with them for as much as an hour … an hour … so there can’t be any possible doubt that he knew what kind of people he was about to shoot and try to kill; he knew that they weren’t “like that,” either.  I told Theo that the awful truth is that in this world, as it is now, it doesn’t matter who or how he is – who he knows himself to be, who his friends and family know him to be.  It doesn’t matter what kind of grades he gets at school, what kind of work ethic he has, or how much time he spends playing Minecraft on a PC he that he built himself.  All that matters, I told him, all that matters in some people’s eyes, is that he is black.  He’s black and, as Roof allegedly said, “taking over his country.”  His country. 

René Marie is a hardworking jazz singer who began her professional career at the age of 42.  She’s 59 now.  Back in 2008 she attracted both notoriety and acclaim when she was invited to sing the National Anthem at a civic event in Denver.  What made her rendition stand out wasn’t only her musicality.  It was her chutzpah.  She didn’t sing “Oh say can you see …” as everyone was expecting.  Oh, she sang the right tune, but she sang these words instead, “Lift every voice and sing / till earth and heaven ring. / Ring with the harmony /of liberty”  See what she did?  She’d combined the melody of United States’ National Anthem with the words of African American National Anthem.  And in that creative juxtaposition, and that creative tension, she created something truly magical.

I was listening to a recording of it in the car yesterday, while I was driving with Theo somewhere, and he looked over at me and said, “Dad, are you crying?”  And I was.  Barely controllably.  When the dynamic last lines of the music blends with the powerful last lines of the hymn’s first verse, it’s almost too much. “Facing the rising sun / of a new day begun / let us march on / till victory is won.”

Theo asked me why I was crying, and I really wasn’t sure what to say to him, so I said something lame like, “Racism sucks.”  But I was thinking about that so long sought, that so long hoped-for “victory” which we’ll know has be won when no one will any more be able to talk about the United States of America as “their country,” while excluding anyone from that collective pride of ownership.  The victory will be won when nobody – nobody – has to fear for their lives, or worry for their loved ones’, just because they’re out driving, or walking, or talking, or studying the Bible, or simply breathing … while black.  I cried because I was listening to an African American woman appropriating the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner” and using it so that the honor, the dignity, the pride that go with it might be claimed by those for whom such things have for so long been denied.  I cried because I could see a  vision of what might have been.  What should have been.

Let us march on ‘till victory is won.  It’s been such a long march already.  Starting with the landing of that first ship at Jamestown in 1619, carrying those “twenty and odd” kidnapped Africans, millions of African women, children, and men marched off those slave ships to be used, to be treated, to be seen as no more animals.   Sometimes not even that well.

It was a long march for the 100,000 or so who escaped enslavement and traveled north on the Underground Railroad, and for the 6 million who marched north and west in the two Great Migrations.  Then there’ve been the marches most of us think of, and many of us lived through – Selma to Montgomery, the March on Washington, the march for worker’s rights in Charleston, and so many others both large and small.  And today we’re we’re marching still – protest marches and funeral processions.  Always, it seems, the marching continues.

So many miles marched; so many miles to go.  On Friday, at that prayer service at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church here, one of the preachers said in his prayer (and I’m paraphrasing), “How long must we continue to gather in response to events like the shooting in Charleston?  How long?  As long as it takes.”  Till victory is won.

There are debates among preachers.  Some say that you need to end every sermon on a note of hope and optimism; others say that there are times to leave people discomforted.  Some say that it is perfectly permissible to leave things unsettled, encouraging people to seek the answers for themselves. Others say that one needs to give concrete “next steps” for people to act on.  Well … today it’s my plan to try to do all of that.

So here’s some hope.  In response to the report that Roof had said he wanted to start a race war with his actions, Charleston residents – both direct and more indirect survivors,  both black and white and all of the shades in between – essentially said to him, and to all others who share his goals, that it isn’t going to happen.  It’s just not going to happen.  And not only that, but even while expressing the devastating consequences of his action in their own lives, many prayed that God would be merciful and that God might forgive him.  Some even said that they forgive him themselves.

Reminds me of the Amish community in Nickles Mine, Pennsylvania in 2006 who expressed forgiveness toward the gunman who’d entered their small schoolhouse and shot six little girls, killing five, before shooting himself.  Forgiveness.  And that even just some of those whose lives have been shattered by acts of unmitigated … well, “evil” is really the only word that makes sense to me … the fact that even just some of them have the ability to own both the fullness of their grief and stay true to their values is for me a powerful source of hope.  And those values are our values too, you know.  In her benediction last week the Rev. Alex McGee spoke these words:  return to no person evil for evil.  When  even for only a moment any of us are able to do that -- I have hope.

And yet … I really wasn’t kidding when I said that there are those who have become so twisted in their minds that they would really want to argue that this was not an act of racial hatred but an attack on Christianity.  Really?  Even if they don’t really believe it themselves, they believe that there are enough people out here who would believe it that they spew such spurious speculations as if they were facts.  If that doesn’t leave you unsettled, I don’t know what will.  There is so much denial.

Now, this whole sermon may well have made some of you uncomfortable all the way through it, so I can check that off my list.  And that leaves only my sending you forth with concrete steps you can take to resolve the issue we’ve been exploring.  A classic preacher’s ploy.  Except that we all know that there’s nothing we can do – certainly not individually, and not even collectively – that will end racism.  Write the word in the Sands of Forgiveness and Atonement and then wipe those sands clean and it’ll still be out there, and in here … part of the air we breathe as Americans.

But there are things you can do … that we can do.

Read.  Watch.  Listen.  And now I’m particularly talking to other white folk here.  There is no way for us to fully and truly know what it feels like to live a lifetime in the oppressive heat racism.  But we can learn from those who have no choice about it.  We can listen – and try to really hear – the experiences of those who’ve experienced things very different than what we have.  The world will look different through their eyes, and we – again, we white folk – must learn to expand our vision or all we will do is continue to perpetrate the system in which we live.  But we have to be willing to do the work for ourselves; it’s not fair, and it’s just not cool, to ask people of color to be our mentors in all of this.

So go to the Jefferson Legacies Library in the church parlor (and the big plaster bust of TJ) and borrow a book or three.  Read them; return them when you’re done, of course; and invite others to read them too and then discuss together what you’ve read.  Attend the films we offer here, or make a plan to watch them on your own via Netflix or just old-fashioned borrowing them.

Your Director of Faith Development and I are working to bring to TJMC in the fall a remarkable program out of Meadville Lombard Theological School, our seminary in Chicago.  The program is called “Beloved Conversations,” and it’s described as, “an experiential and evocative curriculum that provides a container for exploring the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of racism in our lives.”  It’s good.  It has been transformative elsewhere.  Let’s really engage it here.

For those who are looking for something immediately practical, on July 12th, immediately following the Sunday service, there will be a gathering of some of us who are somewhere on the spectrum between “interested in” and “passionate about” seeing TJMC become more focusedly, more intentionally, more explicitly anti-racist and anti-oppression in our words and deeds, and more truly multicultural in our identity.  Not all who might want to will be able to attend this meeting, of course, but it is to be only the first of what should prove to be a very exciting year here next year.

There is energy behind initiating our Public Witness Process so that we might, as a congregation, get clear about what kind of public witness we are willing to make.  Could we hang a #BlackLivesMatter banner on the front of the building like our Marriage Equality banner?  Many of us think that we not only could, but that we should.  The process that was developed for making a public witness is intentionally slower than many think such things should be; it is intended to ensure that a truly congregation-wide and truly deliberative conversation takes place so that before we go out to speak with one voice we find out what we want to say.  In the meantime, I am going to take the prerogative you’ve given me to exercise responsibility for our common worship as the Lead Minister, to put a smaller one here in our sanctuary.  All lives matter, yes, of course.  Yet right now our nation needs and explicit and specific reminder that black lives matter.  I want all who enter this sacred space to know that we know.

And, of course, there’s an elephant in the room, isn’t there?  For years, now, we’ve wrestled in both formal and informal ways with the question of what it means for a liberal religious community in the city of Charlottesville, in the 21st century, to be named after a man who thought it acceptable to own other people.  Jefferson said and did a great many things for which he should be deservedly praised, and of course no individual can be expected to live up to their ideals in all things, but we’re not talking about an indiscretion here or there.  So … what would it say to the surrounding community, what would it say to us who call this place home, what would it say about our reverence for the values of freedom and tolerance, what would it say about our abhorrence of slavery and modern-day racism, were we to change our congregation’s name?  What would it say if we were to intentionally choose to retain it?  This is a conversation we must take out of the parking lots, and the coffee shops – and our FaceBook page – so that we might all and fully participate.  It is that important – how we choose to identify ourselves and with whom and with what we choose to identify ourselves is that important.  One of the things we’ll be talking about at the July 12th meeting will be how to structure a process that will help this conversation move forward.

One more thing – individually and as a congregation we need to get out there more.  Oh, some of us seem to be everywhere – Pete Armetta, Elizabeth Breeden, Edith Good, Jen Larimer, Frank and Linda Dukes, Bob Gross and Jean Shepherd, Greta Dershimer, and a host of others I’m no doubt forgetting in the moment.  We currently have a relationship with the Ebenezer Baptist Church, but there are other churches and organizations we could, and I’d say should, get to know better.  And we can collectively get better at practicing the four Ss of the work of being an ally – show up, sit down, shut up, and, when invited, stand up and be both counted and counted on.

My friends, I have talked now for far too long.  But these are things I’ve been needing to share; I hope they’ve been worth your hearing.  When I began to write I was definitely unsettled, despairing, even.  But as I thought about all the things we can do, all the things we’re planning to do, and all the things we’ve been doing for some time now, I began to feel hope.  Perhaps – well, definitely we won’t see an end to this in our lifetimes, but we can certainly be a part of its ending. To paraphrase Edward Everett Hale,
 We cannot do everything, but we can do something.  And because we cannot do everything we must not hesitate to do the something that we can. 
Let’s keep hoping, let’s keep praying, let’s keep working, let’s keep marching … till victory is won.
Amen, and amen.

Closing Words:  “If You Had Lived,” by Bernice Johnson Reagon  (annotated)

If you had lived with Denmark Vesey    
Would you take his stand?

If you had lived during the days of Nat Turner    
Would you fight his battles?

If you had lived during the days of John Brown     
Would you walk his path?                                     

If you had lived with Harriet Tubman    
Would you wade in the water?

If you had lived with Marcus Garvey    
Could you see his vision?

If you had lived during the days of Joe Hill    
Would you sing his song?

If you had lived during the days of Paul Robeson    
Would you live his life?

If you had lived with Sacco & Vanzetti    
Would you know their names?

If you had lived during the days of Scottsboro
Would you stand till the end?

If you had lived with the Rosenbergs    
Would you hold up your hands?

If you had lived with Fannie Lou Hamer    
Would you shine here light?

Where were you when they killed Malcolm?    
Do you hear?

Where were you when they killed Martin?    
Do you hear?

Where were you when they killed George Jackson?     
Do you hear them calling?                                            

Are you living today?
Are you fighting today?
Do you know our names?
Do you hear our cries?

"If You Had Lived" begins at about the 2 minute mark;
as an extra bonus this recording begins with "Biko"

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1 comment:

Lynn said...

Here is a link to the audio podcast:ω-®