Vicar Meagan McLaughlin
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 13, year B
texts: Lamentations 3:22-33, Psalm 30, 2 Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43
Last Wednesday evening, there was an act of domestic terrorism driven by racism and white privilege at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine people—Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson—were shot to death by a young man who believed their lives had no value, and that their existence threatened his own, not because of anything that they had done, but because of the color of their skin.
Already today, the story about the horrific act itself has fallen a step back in the media. Already, we are beginning to return to “normal,” whatever that is. But for the sake of the nine people who died, their families, and our Black brothers and sisters, and for ourselves, we cannot go back to normal so quickly.
There are many ways we can distance ourselves from the shooting, lessen the horror, isolate it from our day-to-day lives. We can argue that this is the work of one crazy person, and not a sign of an ongoing pattern of systemic racism in our country. But there is a chilling parallel between the violence of last week, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four black girls in 1963. Both churches held central places in the effort to end segregation and bring justice for our black brothers and sisters. Both were places of worship, where by all rights people should feel a sense of safety and belonging. And in both places, people died violent deaths for no other reason than their blackness. That something so unthinkable in 1963 could happen again in 2015 should be enough to wake us up to the reality: what happened at Emanuel AME Church last week is not an isolated event, but the latest in a 400-year history of the violence, intimidation, and disenfranchisement that is systemic racism.
We can try to exonerate ourselves of this brokenness, but today we are called to see truth. The truth of the brokenness of the communities we live in, and the truth of our own complicity in this brokenness. I don’t think that any one of us here consciously believes, as Dylan did, that the lives of black people have no value. And there are those among us here is this sanctuary who have themselves experienced oppression on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, abilities. Today we are called to recognize that those of us who are white are all, whether consciously aware of it or not, bound in the web of sin that is systemic racism, white privilege, and we all benefit from it. As Lamentations says, we need to sit in silence, when the Lord has imposed it. We need to listen, and hear the truth.
We can say that we are not responsible for this act, that Dylan Roof was not one of us. The truth is that Dylan was raised and confirmed at St. Paul’s church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Charleston. His pastor, Reverend Tony Metze, and Reverend Clementa were colleagues, friends, who supported each other’s ministries. Dylan is, as Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton claimed in her letter of last week, one of our own. Today, we join other ELCA congregations throughout the country in honoring Bishop Eaton's call to mourn and repent.
I never worry, when my nephew goes to school, or to camp, or to soccer, that he might be beat up or blamed for a crime he did not commit because of the color of his skin. I am not routinely followed by store security when I shop. Virtually all of my teachers, church leaders, and other role models in my life have been white. Almost no one I know has been to prison. And I take all of this for granted, most of the time blissfully unaware that I am living a very different life from the majority of my black brothers and sisters. And although I hate to admit it and wish it weren’t the case, my automatic response when I pass a black man on the sidewalk who is not wearing what I think of as professional dress is fear or suspicion.
We who are white in this world are all bound, and pretending that we are not only strengthens the bonds of systemic racism, both for us and for our African American brothers and sisters. If there is ever a time for us to listen, to bear the yoke of God’s conviction for our participation in sin and oppression, this is it. If there is a time for us to put our faces to the ground and ask for God’s forgiveness, today is the day.
This, my brothers and sisters, is the truth. We are captive to sin, and cannot free ourselves, as we confessed at the beginning of our worship today. That is, in good old fashioned Lutheran terms, the law. The gospel comes in the words of forgiveness proclaimed to us this morning. We have sinned. God, in his compassion and faithfulness, has forgiven our sins. God’s grace is abundant! And we must not receive this incredible gift as a free pass to return to life as normal, to go back to life as we have always lived it. The realization of our brokenness, and the grace of forgiveness, should change us. But, how? What do we do now?
Paul speaks words to the Corinthians that I believe speak to us, too. Paul speaks to a people living in abundance and privilege, a people who, like us at Mount Olive, want to share that abundance. Paul is speaking to a people who, perhaps like those of us today who have privilege, seem to have gotten stuck or stalled somewhere along the way. It seems that all forms of oppression are based on fear, and on a fundamental sense that resources are limited, there is not enough for everyone, and that ultimately someone will have to go without. And our society seems to hardwire us to think of what we have as ours, and ours alone. If we are not defending it against people of another ethnicity, we will defend it against people of other religions, or nations, or sexual orientations. We go on the defensive, always defining an “us” and a “them,” and so long as this continues, the struggle will never end.
Over time, our well-being comes to depend on another person’s lack. Paul addresses this head on, and reminds the Corinthians of the Mannah provided for the Israelites in the desert, one measure for each person, neither too little, nor too much. Everyone gathered what they could, and everyone had what they needed. Paul encourages the Corinthians to see that their abundance is meant to meet another person’s need. And to trust that another person’s abundance will meet their needs.
Mark’s healing story today is a beautiful example of the abundance of our God. Jesus is called to heal the daughter of Jairus the synagogue leader, a person of privilege among his people, and Jesus is interrupted on his way. A woman who has been bleeding for 12 years, an outcast, sees Jesus, and in desperation and faith, reaches out and touches his cloak. She is healed, not only physically, but also emotionally and socially, as Jesus proclaims her whole, and calls her daughter. Then Jesus finds out that, because of this delay, he is too late to save Jairus’ daughter. Except, he is not too late. The abundance of God is enough for all, and the little girl is healed, raised from the dead. There is enough for all.
There is enough for all. There is room at God’s table for everyone. And out of this day of mourning and repentance, we can act to be a voice for change, a voice for justice.
Last week, African American theologian and minister Crystal St. Marie Lewis wrote: “I understand, my religious friends and colleagues, how desperately you desire to pray, given the tragic nature of last night’s events. However, I have run out of prayers and only desire to ask you: Will you instead talk face-to-face with someone about white supremacy and racism? Are you willing to start a conversation about what the world needs in order to move forward in peace? Is it possible that our prayers for God to somehow “fix” the world seem unheard because we don’t yet see ourselves as the answers to those prayers? And if so, how do we change our faulty perspective?”
What if we began to see our abundance, our privilege, as being for another person’s need? What if, instead of “us” and “them,” we all began to see ourselves as “we”? What if we were willing to take a stand against racism when we see it, at risk of disagreement or even anger? What if we were to commit ourselves to ensure that everyone, not just those like us, has a place at the table?
Today is a day of mourning and repentance, a day to recognize how we have participated and benefited from systems that oppress children of God simply because of the color of their skin. As we go out from here, let us courageously share the truth of our brokenness, and the grace of the good news. No one needs to go without. There is room at the table, for everyone. There is enough for all.