This week I got the bulletin done early, and was well on my way to having a sermon completed early. Then on Wednesday night, it happened. The news of 9 people murdered and one left to tell and child who played dead, at a church, by one who had been welcomed in, hit the news.
And I wrestled. And I prayed. And I read. And I listened, and I prayed. And I worried that I will sound like a broken record and that you might be angry if I dare preach what I was afraid I was called to preach. And I prayed some more.
As I debated what to do – do I go with what I have, or do I start from scratch – I remembered something. We’re taught that preaching is contextual. After all, it was one of the consummate Reformed theologians, Karl Barth, who said one should read the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Our experience is to be interpreted in light of our faith. Our faith is to be interpreted in light of life. There are inexorable connections between life as we know it and the words of scripture. We cannot deny them. We cannot ignore them. We cannot claim those connections on the one hand, and dismiss them with the other. The Bible speaks to us in ways that comfort and in ways that discomfit. And so this week, with the news of people murdered in church in the name of evil, I changed direction.
We have been working through the psalms for a few weeks, a very brief visit to the psalms, but representative of the style and content of different psalms. Psalms speak directly to the circumstances of life. Sometimes it seems as if the psalmist took the words right out of our mouths. They contain all the emotions a person of faith, things that WE might and do experience as we seek meaning for the things that happen to us and in the world. There are psalms that praise exuberantly. There are psalms that are reflective and prayerful. There are psalms that acknowledge the reality of sin, our own and that of others. There are psalms of lament, and psalms of thanksgiving, psalms that quietly proclaim thanksgiving that God has heard our prayers.
This week, I have found myself thoroughly back in the throes of despair and lament. I feel I am crying from the depths, wanting God to hear, desperately hoping that God will hear my voice, OUR voices, our cries of pain. Voices that are tired of violence and hatred. Voices that cry at the reality and injustice of racism. Voices that are afraid to admit that we do indeed have a problem. Voices that wish things were different, that we could just see some sign of change, of progress.
Because the truth is, no matter how difficult it is to hear or how uncomfortable it is to admit it to ourselves, there is something wrong. There is an epidemic of hatred and shrill voices and racism and denial of racism that is flooding through our country. This sin is not only personal, but also corporate, systemic and REAL. And as people of faith, we must face the ugly truth. We have sinned. We have, consciously or unconsciously, contributed to the ways things are and have been.
The psalmist calls us to the same honesty that we see in the psalms. The same exuberant expressions of praise, and the heartfelt lament we feel and a deep acknowledgement of our sin.
“Let your ears be attentive to my cries for mercy. If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?”
We call out to God not just about the evil and wrongs done TO us, but also those done BY us. Because psalms are all about honest communication with God. Psalms are all about laying our souls bare – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And so today, as people of faith, let’s do that. Let’s cry out about the evil done in Charleston this week and the lives lost and the shock and grief that overwhelm. Let’s cry out in weariness that we are again faced with violence, and the reality of racism. Let’s confess to our own denial, and ignorance, and reluctance to act. Let’s cry out about our unease and our discomfort. Let’s even cry out that we’re not sure we believe that racism and violence are endemic or that we are part of the problem.
Honesty is demanded. But lament isn’t just a benign acknowledgement of reality. It isn’t a “poor me” kind of prayer. A lament demands action from God – “out of the depths I cry to you.” A lament contains an expectation that God will act – “I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits……I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning….” And when we demand action, and when we expect God to act, we have to KNOW that God calls us to be part of that action. We will be called to self examination. We will be called to confession. We expect that God will change us, and that God will change the world. It won’t be easy. It won’t be comfortable. But it never is when God is making all things new.
I grew up here in Texas, in the heart of the south. We just celebrated Juneteenth on Friday. I always thought that Juneteenth was a celebration begun in the African American communities celebrating emancipation, two years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after the surrender at Appomattox, because they had not received word of it. But that’s not exactly what happened. It turns out that slave owners in Texas didn’t want to give up their slaves. June 19 is when the US Army took possession of Galveston Island, and began the months long battle, literally, to force slave owners to free their slaves. This battle took hundreds more lives, predominately those of black freedmen.
I remember a conversation I had when I lived in Kansas with two other pastors from Texas, one of whom might described as conservative and one a bit more moderate, who are about a generation older than I. We were talking about growing up in Texas and both of them talked about how racist Texas is. I was dumbfounded. At that time, in my early thirties, I didn’t believe that I had grown up in a racist place, at least not a racist as those other racist states. My parents never used racial epithets, and I don’t remember my grandparents doing it either. My great-aunt and uncle had a close relationship with the black community in east Texas, but one of those close relationships was with the woman who cleaned their homes and received food grown in the garden and hand-me-down clothes from them. I went to school with black kids. I had black friends. But schools in Bryan, where I grew up weren’t desegregated until shortly before we moved there as I began middle school.
I have in my house a wash stand that was my grandmother’s. As we were packing up and clearing out her house after she died, her oldest friend came by. We had been wondering where the wash stand had come from.
There are colloquialisms –“nigger rigged”, and subtle ways of thinking that are ingrained into me that have taken years to see and and to face and to change. Racism is woven like threads into the tapestry my life, in the state and nation I grew up in. It is woven through all of my experiences so well that I can only just now begin to separate those threads from the others.
It has become perfectly clear to me, as I have raised my children, both of whom are biracial, that racism is alive and well, even here in Andrews. The racism we have encountered here and in Roswell is overt sometimes – kids can be meant to one another – and sometimes more subtle – in the ways adults treat and respond to our children. I am ashamed and appalled when I witness these events. I am enraged that it happens to my children. I don’t understand what it feels like completely as I have never personally experienced it, but I see what it does to my children and my friends and my colleagues who are people of color.
It would be easy to be stuck in lament that is just a cry for help. It would be easy to give in to the apathy that says nothing is really ever going to change. But that’s not who God is. And if we are going to lament, and we do, then we must be ready for God to do something in us and among us. We need to be ready to listen to people of color and to hear their experience and pain. We must be ready to speak out against acts and words of racism we see. We must not ignore that it exists, or our part in it.
It may take a loooonnggg time.
The psalmist says “I waited and waited and waited for the Lord, finally, he heard my cry and turned to me.”
It will require new understanding and change.
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have opened,
burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.”
The good news is that our God is steadfast. Our God never leaves us – any of us. God has been present throughout the ages -when the Israelites were enslaved and when they were also the oppressors; as people have been enslaved throughout history; were in our own nation; as they continue to be through human trafficking and other means. God has not given up on us. God has not given up on providing justice for those who suffered and continue to suffer the ravages of racism. God leads us forward, God challenges us, God forces us to face our sin and shortcomings, but God never leaves us. God has not given up on us.
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him.
s the one
who trusts in the Lord,
who does not look to the proud,
to those who turn aside to false gods.
Many, Lord my God,
are the wonders you have done,
the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you;
were I to speak and tell of your deeds,
they would be too many to declare.
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
but my ears you have opened—
burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
Then I said, “Here I am, I have come—
it is written about me in the scroll.
I desire to do your will, my God;
your law is within my heart.”
I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
I do not seal my lips, Lord,
as you know.
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
from the great assembly.
The good news is that even as we lament, we are able to look to the future because we know the God who created all of us in his image. We know his steadfast love. We know just how much he loved us when we remember Jesus Christ and his love even for the least of these.
Paul writes in the 8th chapter of Romans:
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is the assurance we have – that NOTHING can separate us from the love of God. That gives us courage and strength to live into our calling. May it be so. Amen.