Sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket RI by the Rev. Gillian Barr
Sunday, June 21, 2015 Proper 7 B Mark 4:35-41
As we all now know, this past Wednesday night a small group gathered for Bible study in the basement of a church, twelve members and leaders of a historic African Methodist Episcopal congregation almost 200 years old, the mother church of African Americans in the South. They welcomed a white stranger to their circle, invited him to sit next to their pastor, to participate in their sharing. They were studying the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seed, just a few verses before the passage I read a few moments ago. And as the Bible study drew to a close and turned towards the closing prayer, the young stranger they had welcomed into their circle stood up, pulled out a gun, and began shooting people at point blank range, killing 9 of the dozen people gathered before he calmly walked out of the building.
None of us knows what thoughts or words or prayers were on the hearts of the people gathered in the basement of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in the moments when Dylann Storm Roof began firing. But surely there was fear—there had to be. And in the hours afterwards, amidst the words of grief and horror, there was shock that such a thing could happen in a church. A church which had already borne so much pain in its nearly 200-year history—a church which, before this church building in which we are sitting right now had even been built, had endured persecution, arson, and an earthquake. Now they have experienced cold-blooded racist murder.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
“Why are you afraid?”
For the past year a relentless procession of headlines has come from places like Ferguson, Cleveland, Long Island, Baltimore. The list of names of black bodies killed or assaulted in questionable circumstances grows. Trayvon Martin. Eric Gardner. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Michael Scott, and others. And now 9 more names in a case where the motive and context is not ambiguous at all. The shooter said at the time why he was shooting: to kill black people.
Our black brothers and sisters surely have cause to cry out, “Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?” and real reasons to be afraid.
And then there are those of us who have a vision of this country as a place of equality, and fairness, who had hoped that the armed conflict of 150 years ago and the protests and legal fights of the past 50 years had brought real change, who had hoped that, as we elected our first African-American President and see people of all colors in leadership across the land, that we were finally overcoming the wrongs and wounds which predate this country’s founding—we see our optimism and our vision perishing.
One thread that runs through all these narratives is that of fear.
Our black brothers and sisters are
fearing for their lives.
fearing people may shoot them any where, even in church
fearing police or neighborhood vigilantes or people to whom they go for help after a traffic accident may kill them
fearing, actually knowing, that- systems and institutions are still rigged against them, with inequities in the real estate and banking systems (this morning’s ProJo has an article documenting that Rhode Island has the lowest rate of home ownership by people of color in the country), in methods of policing and patterns of incarceration, in voter ID laws, in schools and education funding.
If you haven’t been following this story non-stop in the past 24 hrs—authorities have now found a website by the shooter which explains his white supremacist views, and which shows that he was planning this since February. If you read what he wrote—which I do not particularly recommend that you do—you will find, underneath the vile hatred and racism, fear:
- They fear that a culture and a society which has always given them privileges and advantages isn’t doing that any more
- They fear the loss of power and status
Those of us who are not intentionally racist, but who still, by supporting policies and patterns which benefit us, also participate in structures and systems which are racist–we are acting out of fear as well :
- We fear we will not have enough financial security
- We fear for our physical safety
- We fear for the loss of status and influence
- We fear what we’ve always thought of as ours might be taken away or we may need to share
- We fear what might happen to our young people
- We fear that others who have not worked as hard as we have will get assistance and there will not be any for us
Those of us who are aware of our privilege, who desperately want to do the right thing, make a response, work for a more just and reconciled society, fear as well, or at least I know I do:
- I, raised in the South, fear the racism I may find in my own heart and actions despite my best intentions.
- I fear what I don’t know: other worship styles, cultures, habits.
- I fear what I will hear if I listen honestly and pay attention to our black sisters’ and brothers’ daily reality
- I fear being held responsible either for things I’ve done out of ignorance or things our forbearers did
- I fear being condemned for apathy and ignorance
- I fear I’m not doing the right thing—and admit I don’t even really know what that is
And into the middle of each of these storms of fear, when we think our safety, our hopes, our best intentions, are perishing, Jesus is with each of us, saying “Why do you fear?”
But there is another narrative coming from the people of Emanuel Church, one we heard towards the end of this week. It was not a narrative of fear.
Emanuel: if you remember from our Christmas carols and our theology, Immanuel means “The God who is with us.” (I still remember the day in seminary Hebrew class when I was first able to parse that word and realized “Yes—it really does mean that—‘with us—God’ Cool!”)
When the shooter was arraigned in court, family members of his victims spoke. If you haven’t read the stories about that or listened to the audio, I do recommend you do that. It is amazing.
It is a narrative of forgiveness. Several of the family members said that they forgive the shorter. Others said that they cannot yet forgive, but that they are praying for him. That they pray that he accepts Christ into his life so that he can be transformed.
The family members insisted that love must win, that hate could not be allowed to triumph. That their loved ones who had died had always emphasized love, as had their church, so that was the spirit in which they had to go on.
They know that Jesus had been with their loved ones in those horrible moments in the church basement, and is with them now. And they were able to look at that hate-filled, fear-filled young man and see Jesus with him as well.
The Jesus who they know is with them is not someone who magically eliminates storms, or even danger or death—this is the Jesus who went to the cross, knowing that he had to suffer and die in order for love to finally triumph.
Now, these family members are not talking about papering over their hurt and the shooter’s hate with simplistic sugary words; this is not “Pie in the sky by and by”—and I definitely am not saying that from this pulpit. There is still anger and hurt and pain and loss. Among the families—not all of whom offered words of forgiveness. And among those protesting in the streets and decrying racism. As there should be.
But they and we are disciples of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, in the storm, in the boat. Why are we afraid?
What would our lives look like if, every time we found ourselves in fear, we pictured Jesus standing with us. And standing with the person or thing we are afraid of? If every time we found ourselves about to react to someone in fear, or to make a decision about a policy or a vote based on how it protects us from something we are afraid of, we stopped to remember that Jesus is with us, asking us why do we fear? And if at the same time we stopped to also remember that Jesus is also with whatever person or group is on the other side, or raising their voices, in that moment? How would it change our reactions? Our decisions? Our perceptions? Our responses?
It might not make us richer—in fact it might make us poorer in monetary terms. And it might not make us safer. But it is what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
The Episcopal bishop in South Carolina sent out a letter this week, asking for prayers. He asked us to pray one prayer in particular. So to close this sermon, I ask you to take out your Prayer Book from the pew racks, and turn to page 833. Let us say in unison the Prayer Attributed to St Francis.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace . . . . . AMEN.