Monday, June 22, 2015

Battling Giants: Racism and Violence

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was the familiar story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:4-11, 19-23 and 32-49, but the message was changed because of the shooting at Emmanuel AME in Charleston:

I dislike weeks like this past one.  First there was the strange story of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, and who knew Spokane needed an NAACP chapter?  Then there was the announcement by Pizza Hut that they were releasing a pizza that had 21 mini hotdogs baked into the crust, because that’s exactly what we all need.  And finally Donald Trump declared that he was going to be running for president, and every comedian rejoiced.  For a normal week that would be enough and unfortunately, these stories sort of typify certain aspects of American culture.  But then there was the news that we all woke up to on Thursday morning of the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, which sadly is also a part of American culture.  As a pastor I know that such tragedies need to be addressed, but as a preacher I’m never quite sure what to do.  Do I stay with what I was originally going to say, or do I change it all up in order to address these issues?

I had a good sermon about David and Goliath all planned out that I was going to try and somehow connect to Fathers’ Day.  And while I wasn’t really struggling with that message, it wasn’t exactly coming together either, and so Linda asked if perhaps I needed to stop working on that message and instead talk about what happened in Charleston.  And yet the story of David and Goliath I think also has a lot to say to us about this very issue because of two things that are easily overlooked.

But let me start by saying what might be the most important thing and that is that God did not cause this event to happen, or allow it to happen, as some part of God’s master plan.  Because if that is true, then God is not on the side of the victims, but instead on the side of the perpetrators.  But what we see time and time again is that God sides with the victims and with the least, the last and the lost, and that takes part in the story of David and Goliath as well.

This passage can be seen as a story of violence and yet it’s also a story against violence.  Goliath calls to the Israelites and asks for one person to come forward and fight him.  This is known as single combat, and the purpose was to try and eliminate the largescale death and destruction of war, by having only two people fight.  Sometimes the people doing battle would be the best soldiers, and other times it would be the respective leaders who fought each other.  Perhaps this should be something we should think about as it would certainly greatly limit the saber rattling of our politicians if they knew that instead of sending others off to fight for them that they themselves would be fighting.

After 40 days of no one being willing to meet Goliath’s challenge, David shows up on the scene, but he doesn’t go with the normal weapons of war.  And this is one of the crucial points because David says to Goliath that he has come out “so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear.”  The Lord does not save by sword and spear.  Indeed, in the words of the prophets Isaiah and Micah, in the kingdom of God we will turn our swords into plowshares, nation will no longer take up sword against nation, and we will study war no more.  Or as Jesus says as he is being arrested, whoever takes the sword will die by the sword, which is exactly what happens to Goliath.

I believe we take the violence in our culture, in all aspects of our culture, too much for granted, and worse, we believe that there is nothing we can do about it.  And while for the white community,  violence striking the church seems alien and something we can’t understand, for the African-American community, and especially for the black church, this is just one more in a series of incidents going way, way back.  In 1787, St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia was remodeled, which was paid for by both the black and white members of the church, but after the work was done, the white trustees ordered the black members out of the main church and told them they could only be seated in the balconies, because the Bible was very clear on the mixing of the races.

And so Rev. Richard Allen, who was born a slave but later freed, and who was ordained at the founding conference of the Methodist Church in America, led the black members out of the church and founded his own congregation.  In 1816, Rev. Allen brought together other African American congregations to form the African Methodist Episcopal church, and in the same year Emmanuel AME in Charleston was founded, as a result of a white church constructing a building on top of the church’s black burial ground.  But forming their own churches did not mean they would be left alone.

In 1818, South Carolina passed laws greatly limiting the ability of black congregations to meet, including limiting them to only meeting during the day and needing to have a majority of white people present, leading to the continual arrest and even beating and whipping of Emmanuel’s members and especially its leaders.  In 1822, a white mob burned Emmanuel AME to the ground when Denmark Vesey and five other members of the church were accused of trying to lead a slave revolt, because, as you know the Bible is quite clear.  In 1834, South Carolina made it illegal for any all black churches to gather anywhere, anytime.

Emmanuel AME continued to meet in secret when they could throughout these years until after the Civil War when they reformed publically and built their own building, and their pastor, Rev. Richard Cain was first elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, and later to the US House of Representatives, starting a tradition of Emmanuel’s pastors being involved in political life, which was continued by Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was among those executed on Wednesday.  But even though they faced continued violence and even death, Emmanuel AME continued addressing the issues facing the community.  In 1969, some 900 members, including the pastor, were arrested for facing off against bayonet wielding members of the National Guard to help support a strike as part of the civil rights movement.

Wednesday was not a new or a unique event for Emmanuel or its members, or really for the black church.  Instead it was a continuation of centuries of persecution and violence carried out simple because of the color of their skin, but as those who were doing the persecuting and killing would be quite willing to tell you, the Bible is quite clear on the issue, and God was on their side.  And it’s not just this church, of course there was the bombing of the 16th street Baptist church in 1963 which killed four girls and injured 22 others, and there were the 30 black churches that were burned to the ground by arsonists in the 1990s.  Even in the United Methodist Church, until 1972, just 43 years ago, we still had in place separate conferences for black and white churches and clergy, because as you know the Bible is quite clear and white churches would never tolerate scripture being violated by welcoming in a black preacher. This might be shocking for us, but for the African-American community, for the Hispanic community, for the Native American community, this is all too common.

And sometimes these attacks are even more subtle than direct violence.  In our summary of Annual Conference a few weeks ago, John Foley talked about the messages that we heard from Rev. Dr. Kabamba Kibobo, who was the first women to be ordained in the Congo.  She told us that we needed to truly understand that we were made in the image of God, and the accept everything that goes along with that understanding, part of which is to understand that everyone else is also made in the image of God and to see them and to treat them as such.  That means she said, that we need to decolonize our theology.  Growing up, she said, every image they saw of God was of an old white man, and Jesus was a white man with blue eyes, and guess the color, or skin pigment, of satan?  That’s right, he was black.  And it’s not like this has gone away.  When the Bible miniseries was made a couple of years ago, what color was Satan in that series?  Black.  This is the reality we put forth, and we need to move beyond it because when we don’t we reap that effects of it in all aspects of society.

There is a theory known as the six degrees of separation.  It says that anyone in the world can be connected to anyone else in the world in six or fewer steps.  This is Ethel Lee Lance, one of those who were killed on Wednesday.  Her daughter, Rev. Sharon Risher, attended seminary with Rev. Adrienne Coleman who is the United Methodist pastor in Raton.  That means that I am two degrees of separation away from Ethel Lee Lance, and you are now only three degrees of separation.  So this is not just some tragedy, some random event, that happened somewhere else, that affected some people that we never met on the other side of the country, which we can watch from a distance, because we are only separated at most by three people from knowing every one of these people.  This is our tragedy, this is our community, this is our neighborhood, and this is our church.  These are not strangers, these are our neighbors, you know the same ones that Jesus told us we had to love, just as we love God, because first God has loved us.

I don’t know what the answer is to stop these tragedies, but I do wonder how long we can keep going and continuing to let them happen while simultaneously acting as if there is nothing that can be done?  Because here is the truth: If we don’t do anything, they will continue to happen.  But, what I also know is that what some have tried to do, or perhaps what they were told they had to do, has not been effective.  So perhaps we need to look at something different, of doing something different, because that is how David approaches his battle with Goliath.

David is the youngest of eight sons, and is just a young boy when he encounters Goliath.  He holds no real importance in his family, and no one takes him seriously.  But David does two really amazing things.  The first is that he is really the only one to talk about God in the midst of what’s going on, and second is that he rejects the standard answer to who he has to be and what he has to do.  Saul tries to talk David out of it, or really he tells him that he can’t do it, and so David tells him his story of fighting wild animals to keep his sheep safe, but notice what David actually says to Saul.

Instead of saying that it is all his work, David says that it is God who has delivered him from the paws of the lion, from paws of the bear and it is God who will deliver him from the hand of Goliath.  A nice little play on words.  But then Saul tries to put his armor on David, and it’s like a little boy dressing up in his father’s clothes.  They are just too big.  David says he can’t walk in them, but worse is that if had he gone out to fight Goliath in the armor, if he had gone following all the rules, if he had gone out to fight Goliath as Goliath expected, what would have happened?  He would have been killed, and probably rather quickly.

The Lord does not save by sword and spear David says, and so instead, he did what no one, especially Goliath, expected, and because of that he wins.  When we battle giants, when we take on those things that seem way too big for us to even begin to tackle, if we try and battle them the way everyone thinks they should be fought, we will lose.  But when we look for different ways, different ideas, different means to tackle the issue, then we have the possibility of being successful.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lost his life standing up to another, but similar, form of hatred, said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  Can we continue to remain silent and choose to ignore these events and simply allow them to happen time and time again?   If not, what are we going to do?  How are we going to respond?  As I already said, I don’t know the answer, but here is what I do know and what I propose.

I think the first step is to begin to treat every one of these tragedies not as if they happened to some strangers that we can be upset about for a moment but then return to our regular scheduled programs.  Instead we need to treat them as if they happened to our neighbors, our families, people we know and care about.  Jesus says that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and that we will be known as his disciples because of the love we show to the world.

Second, we need to stop drawing dividing lines and we especially need to stop using the Bible to say who is in and who is out, to say we are loved and you are hated.  Instead we need to see each and every single person as a beloved child of God, just as we are, to see them as a brother and sister, and stop worrying so much about the splinter in their eye, while ignoring the log in our own.  We need to start seeing every act of violence not as something that is done to someone else, but as something that is done to all of us, and that affects all of us.  Let’s stop remaining silent and start standing up and saying this is not acceptable.

And since this is fathers’ day, I think the next step starts with us guys, because let’s face it the vast majority of violent crimes are perpetrated by men, and often it is so that they can prove how manly they are.  The majority of victims of violent crimes are also men.  It’s time for us to begin to work to end that violence, and much of that has to do with redefining what it means to be a man and how men live and work in the world.

But it’s also about more than just us men, because all too often we dismiss comments that are derogatory and destructive of others when they are said by someone we like, while attacking the same type of comments by people we don’t like.  Instead we need to call out all forms of violence, and that includes verbal violence because the truth is words hurt and words cause damage and words matter.  Dylan Roof didn’t just miraculously become a racist, it was something he was taught.  He didn’t just happen to support apartheid, because he wasn’t even alive when it existed.  He was taught that hatred by someone else, and then he acted out on it.  We need to address hatred and evil in all their forms, including in the language we use, especially language that seeks to separate and divide, to create boundaries and divisions, to make groups of us and them, acceptable and unacceptable, loved and unloved, good and bad.

And finally I think we need to start looking at new and different ways to try and tackle the problem of violence in this country, because violence is as much a part of our culture as blowhards who want to run for president and pizza crusts stuffed with hotdogs, but it doesn’t have to be.  Remember when smoking and drunk driving and getting people to wear seatbelts were things that no one knew how to take on? That no one thought were solvable?  And where are we now?

I don’t know what the answers are, but here is what I do know.  I know that we are smart enough to try and figure it out, and we have to stop sitting on the sidelines and pretending either that we can’t do anything about it, or that it doesn’t apply to us, because it does.  “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  Or as Rev. Desmond Tutu said, “If you see an elephant standing on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

The victims of these events are not strangers.  They are our neighbors.  They are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, grandmothers and grandfathers, they are our brothers and sisters and we need to stand up and say enough is enough.  But here is what I also know.  We cannot overcome evil with evil, hatred with hatred or violence with violence.  Instead we overcome evil with love and hatred with understanding and violence with peace because we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves and to turn our swords into plowshares. And I know that these events pain God, and just as God was with David as he did the impossible in battling his giant, so too will God be with us as we do the impossible and stand up to battle out giants because God can lead us to victory because love, not hate, is the most powerful force in the world.  Amen.

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