21 June 2015

With Hearts Open Wide

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost/ 21st June 2015

This morning I feel a little like Jon Stewart.  The host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, Jon Stewart is the anchor of a fake daily news show that reports on current events.  He’s funny and brilliant and insightful.  He has a marvelous way of giving witness to what’s happening in the news, cutting through all the fluff and lunacy and sensationalism of the 24-hour news networks, all of them.  Here’s the irony, this fake news show has become the chief way many actually get their news.  He has the courage to say what others in the media should be saying (but aren’t) and he keeps us honest and real and helps us to laugh.  Stewart is about to leave the Daily Show, which will be a very sad day for many, including me.  Stewart helped to keep me sane post-9/11 and during the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Several years ago Stewart had Jim Wallis on his show.  Wallis is the founder and editor of Sojourners, a Christian evangelical & social justice magazine.  Wallis hailed Jon as one of our contemporary prophets because he has a way of helping us see the truth and to laugh. I would agree.

On Thursday evening Stewart began the show in a somber tone.  In light of the massacre this past week at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Stewart said, “I have no jokes tonight.  I have nothing for you.  Nothing but sadness.”  That’s a little how I feel this morning. It’s how I felt Friday afternoon while I was working on the sermon.  I have nothing.  Nothing but sadness. 

What can one say?  What is there left to say that hasn’t already been said countless times before?  We’ve been down this road.  Then why are news network anchors and the politicians they interview still so shocked and appalled that something like this could happen in America?

Stewart said to his audience, “So I honestly have nothing other than just sadness once again that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend it doesn't exist… I'm confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won't do [a damn thing.]” His language was actually stronger here. “Yeah. That's us.”

Yes, we’ve been down this road before.  Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church south of Baltimore, sadly, has been down this road many times before.  Prior to this week, I wasn’t aware of this church’s extraordinary witness (to my shame).

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
Emanuel was organized in 1816 when 4,736 black Methodists left their white-controlled church in protest when the leadership decided to build a garage over a black cemetery.  One of the church’s early founders was Denmark Vesey (1767-1822).  Originally Presbyterian, Vesey left Second Presbyterian Church, “outraged by the pro-slavery message coming from the pulpits in Charleston.”[1]  White ministers were advised to lecture their black congregants on their “duties and obligations,” and avoid troublesome stories, such as Israel’s exodus out of Egypt or Jesus’ sermon on the mount. Vesey, a lay leader, taught the members of the church to read and write, which was against the law.  In 1818, city authorities raided the church, then arrested and whipped 140 “free Negros and slaves.” In 1819, the church was closed down for a time and in 1822, the minister, the Rev. Morris Brown (1770-1849), was warned not to allow his church to become a “school for slaves.”

Vesey went on to plan what would have been one of largest and most brutal slave revolts in the history of the South.  The plot was foiled. Vesey and dozens others were arrested and executed, and the city razed the church.  It was eerie to discover this week that the proposed date for the revolt and mass exodus of blacks out of Charleston was June 17.  Did the shooter this week know this or was it a coincidence?

Emanuel church then went underground and worshipped in secret.  At the end of the Civil War, missionaries from Baltimore were allowed past the Union blockade at Hilton Head, made their way to Charlestown and reorganized the church.[2] Vesey’s son rebuilt the church on the site where it stands today, dedicated in 1865. (The present building was constructed in 1891.)  The minister, the Rev. Benjamin Randolph (1820-1868), served as a chaplain in the 26th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops during the war.  Several years later he won a seat in the State Senate.  In 1868, Reverend Randolph was assassinated by three men in broad daylight as he boarded a train in Abbeville County, South Carolina.  Emanuel’s pastor who died on Wednesday, the Rev. Clementa Pickney, was the latest in a long tradition of pastors serving in public office, both in South Carolina and in Congress.

Nine people murdered on Wednesday night at a Bible study—a Bible study.  Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, the Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, Myra Thompson, the Rev. Clementa Pickney.  Extraordinary people of faith.  Leaders, counselors, mentors. 

What do we do with this?  How do we make sense of this?  Like so many other tragedies we have faced lately, it’s beyond comprehension.  But this is different.  Truly innocent people were slaughtered in a church, in what should be a safe place.  This hits us a little too close to home.
There are no easy answers.  There will be—there already are—people who will politicize this event or direct our focus away from what really happened in Charleston.  It was a hate crime.  It was about hate.  It was a terrorist act.  And it was blatantly racist.  It was about racism.  It wasn’t an attack on faith or the church.  It’s not about treating the mentally ill; although the shooter was very ill, there’s no evidence of mental illness.  It’s not about gun violence, although this horrific act involved violence with a gun.  There’s nothing ambiguous about this.  It’s there for us to see, that “gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend it doesn't exist.” There’s no avoiding it.  And, yet, we would rather avoid it, pretend it’s not there, believe we live in a post-racial society.  That’s just delusional.  The pain of the past and present are real—and it’s more real in black than in the white communities.  The sin of our racist past is real and it continues to play itself out from generation to generation.  Racism needs to be removed out from the shadows and brought into the light of day.  It needs to be acknowledged and confessed, publicly, honestly, for what it is: sin.  Individual sin and corporate sin. Yet, why are we so reluctant to name as such? I watched a news show on Saturday morning with a panel of guests discussing what occurred in Charleston. The question was asked, “Can we say racism is sin?” One person avoided the answer. Later I discovered that he was a pastor.[3]  Why are we afraid to say racism is sin?  Confession is required in order for grace and healing, forgiveness, and, ultimately, reconciliation to occur. 

Reconciliation—that’s the backstory of Paul’s second epistle to the church in Corinth. Division and dissension, animosity and distrust torment the Corinthian congregation.  The church, the body of Christ, is tearing itself apart. When a church tears itself apart it’s always an expression of faithlessness, hypocrisy, and atheism—a-theism, because it is acting as if God did not exist, acting as if God is not in Christ reconciling the world to Godself, acting as if love and forgiveness and grace and reconciliation are all lies.  When we act and live forgetting all of this we become a-theists. If we really knew that the Reconciling God was at work in us, then our lives would reflect it, our families, our relationships, our communities, our churches would reflect it. 

Reconciliation, this is how Paul describes God’s mission in Christ.  Hear what he says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, just before we get to chapter 6: “…if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making God’s appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:17-20).

Reconciliation is possible, according to Paul, because we are reconciled to God.  When we know that we are reconciled to God, only then can we be reconciled to one another.  Theologically, biblically-speaking this is the only way.  How can we say that we’re reconciled to God when we are alienated from our sisters and brothers, particularly our sisters and brothers in the body of Christ?  

Back in 1967, in the throes of the Civil Rights struggle, our denomination wrote a confession, known simply as the Confession of 1967.  C-67 addressed the crisis of the church and society at that time.  The theological theme at the center of the confession is reconciliation.  We have come a long way since then, both as a church and as a society, but we still have a long way to go.  Listen carefully to these words from the Confession:

"God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess."[4]

After hearing this, it’s easy to become depressed or despondent. Yes, we have come so far and there’s still far to go.  I understand why people don’t read or listen to the news these days, because it can be so depressing.  There are days when I just want to move to a cottage on an island off the coast of Scotland and I wouldn’t care if it rained every day.  It’s easy to give up, to checkout emotionally.  

Apostle Paul, Catacomb of St. Thekla
on the Via Ostiensus, outside Rome.
Then I think of the Apostle Paul and consider the sufferings and struggles of his life and ministry.  Just consider all that Paul experienced in his life:  hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, hunger.  Treated as an imposter and a fake, on the verge of death, yet living; punished, but not killed. He’s talking about his own experience here, about what he endured for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of knowing and telling others about the love of the Reconciling God! 

And, so, if the Reconciling God is at work in you and me, then don’t be surprised if the world is against you or if people are out to get you or stand in your way or even try to kill you to prevent you from giving witness to God’s grace and love. But also don’t be surprised, when you know that the Reconciling God is at work in you, that is a different spirit at work in you, a spirit of resilience and confidence and hope (the kind you find in so many congregations around the world, particularly the Christians of Emanuel Church that we heard from this week), a determination and energy to serve and to love and to heal and to forgive, a spirit of patience and kindness and holiness and genuine love and mercy.  That’s what happens, that’s how we know the Reconciling God is at work in our lives and in the church: when grace abounds when the world looks like it’s going to hell all around you.  There is a different Spirit at work within us.  It’s the presence of such a Spirit that allowed Paul to write these extraordinary words: we are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:10).  Only a person rooted in the Spirit of the Risen Christ could claim something like this.

It’s significant, then, that after making this amazing affirmation of faith, Paul followed, twice, with an appeal to the church to open wide its hearts.  “Our heart is wide open to you,” he wrote to the Corinthians.  “There is no restriction in our affections,” he wrote to them.  The restriction was in the Corinthian church; they restricted their hearts.  And so Paul invites them, “…open wide your hearts” (2 Cor. 6:11-13).

To know that the Reconciling God loves us, to know that this is the God at work within us and within the world, this is what opens our hearts.  That’s what the love of God does.  The openness of our hearts is a pretty good indication of God’s presence in us.

Open hearts.  That’s what we need today.  More open hearts.  And in the face of so much pain and suffering and tragedy it’s critical that we keep our hearts open—more than just a crack, but open wide.   It’s so easy for us to just close off our hearts, close off the hurt and pain, shut down.  Trauma, hurt, events from the past have a way of closing our hearts, cutting us off from life, making us numb.  So we recoil, go inward (not in a good way), restrict, constrict our emotions—especially empathy—pull back, pull away, become isolated, alienated, lost.

In times such as these, especially during times of crisis and challenge, we often don’t know how to pray.  Perhaps, then, this could become our simple prayer.  This is my prayer.  This is what I have to offer this morning, a prayer to be said again and again: 
Reconciling God, open my heart.  
Open my heart, Lord.  
Open my heart—wide
And keep it open – no matter what.


[1] Douglas R. Egerton, “Before Charleston’s Church Shooting, A Long History of Attacks,” New York Times, June 18, 2015.   See also the interview with Egerton in The Atlantic, “The Fight for Equality in Charleston, from Denmark Vesey to Clementa Pickney.” 
[2] Hear Clementa Pickney narrate the history of the Emanuel church here.
[3] Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, June 21, “Defining Racism in America”.
[4] Confession of 1967, Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (USA), 9.44. Inclusive language text. .

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