Do You not Care that We are Perishing?

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7), Year B
1 Samuel 17:1-49; Psalm 9:9-20; Mark 4:35-41

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Nearly 200 years ago, in 1816, a group of worshipers at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, were tired of the discrimination that plagued their lives, even at church. You see, these worshipers were black, and mostly slaves. They weren’t allowed to be buried in the church graveyard. It was for whites only. They weren’t allowed to be literate or even have someone teach their children to read. They weren’t even allowed to worship after dark.

Fed up, they left their local ME church and founded Emanuel Church. This too was illegal. Local ordinances demanded that a majority of a church congregation be white. What were the white slave-owners afraid of? The leaders were arrested, whipped, and imprisoned. But the people of what would become known as Mother Emanuel would not be deterred. They kept meeting, even under the threat of arrest. Eventually their congregation would number over 4,000. One of the founding members was a former slave named Denmark Vesey. On June 16th, 1822, he attempted to lead a slave revolt in Charleston, was caught, and was lynched for doing so. In retaliation, local white supremacists burned Mother Emanuel to the ground. The people rebuilt her.

Mother Emanuel lived on. Generation after generation of families were baptized, married, and buried from the church. No doubt the words of Psalm 9 were recited in her sanctuary, with powerful emotion, “The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.”

In 1928, a new baby was baptized, Susie Jackson. She was a member of the choir. She was a regular attender of the Wednesday night Bible study. This past Wednesday, one day after the 193rd anniversary of Denmark Vesey’s arrest, Susie and eight other members of that Bible study, including her nephew, were shot and killed by a young man who had sat in the prayer meeting with them for an hour before opening fire.

Mother Emanuel baptismThe head pastor, Clementa Pinckney, was killed, along with Daniel Simmons, and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, two other pastors who were there that night. (I put a picture of Clementa and Sharonda on my sermon blog – they are baptizing a baby. You should see their smiles.) Ethel Lee Lance died that night too. At 70, she was the church sexton. The young man confessed to having murdered these innocent people simply because they were black. He said he hoped to start a race war in America.

The reaction to this horrific act of racial violence has been swift and passionate. People have rushed to take sides, to point fingers, to blame everyone else, apparently, but themselves.

We have hard questions to ask ourselves as a nation and as individuals. Racism exists, and, especially when it is armed, racism is deadly. Why aren’t we making any progress in ending racism? Why is there still so much violence and hatred in America?

For one thing, I think many if not most of us are truly unaware what it is like to live as a racial minority, to be judged and then treated differently because of your outward appearance first. We don’t know the stories of our black and Asian and Latino neighbors. Right after 9/11, Maya Angelou was asked in an interview how we would be changed now that terrorism had affected the lives of Americans, she said as only she could, “My people have lived with terrorism for over 300 years. Aren’t we Americans too?”

“America, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Another reason we can’t seem to make any progress, I believe, is the nature of our media-saturated culture.

One night, in the days right after the shootings at Virginia Tech, where I was chaplain at the time, I got a call from a grad student. He had been in an adjacent building while the shootings were going on. “I can’t sleep,” he said. I could tell in his voice that he, like most of us, was emotionally exhausted. “Can you come over?” he said. I went to his apartment. I found him in front of his television watching CNN. The videotaped manifesto of that gunman had just been released, and there on the screen was a picture of the gunman pointing a gun at the camera. I grabbed his remote and turned off the TV. “You’re not allowed to watch the news anymore!” I told him. “Watch the ‘Wizard of Oz’ or ‘The Golden Girls’! Something else! Anything else!” He said through tears, “But what if I miss something?” I told him, “The news is that people are grieving. That’s all we need to know.”

Our minds have become so saturated by a culture of 24 hours news, networks desperate to keep our attention so that they can make money off of tragedy. Meanwhile, we are constantly re-traumatized. We watch horrific images over and over. No wonder we can’t sleep! Right after 9/11, I was one of those who watched the coverage for days on end. Little did I realize that just six years later, I would be one of the voices begging for the news media to leave us alone. “Go away and let us grieve!”

But bad news sells. Fear sells. I think many of our news sources want us to be afraid and to stay that way. It keeps us hooked. They want us to be spectators, powerless witnesses to tragedy. We’ve got to break the cycle. Instead of being told what to think by the news media, let’s talk to each other. Let’s spend some time asking the hard questions, even if we don’t have any answers.

Parents, talk to your children honestly, especially if they have questions. Don’t dwell on the tragedy, but don’t ignore it either. Our children are growing up in a post-9/11, post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech, post-Sandy Hook world. They will hear the stories someday. I’m sure you’d rather they hear from you first.

Wherever you stand on the debates over guns and flags, none of us can deny that innocent blood has been shed, yet again. How can we not feel shame as a nation that once again, hatred has led to death? How can we deny that racism is real, and it kills?

“White America, do you not care that we are perishing?”

What can we do? Will our church be a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble? What will we do?

Some of us start first with tears, others of us with anger. Some of us feel hopeless, others may feel like the disciples in the boat, wondering are we next? What did the disciples do? They called out to Jesus. In the end, we all must call out to Jesus. We all must begin to pray, even if we don’t know how to pray. If you can’t find your own words, use the Prayer Book.

lives matterBut our response must not end there. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come. How would I describe that kingdom? A kingdom of peace, a kingdom of justice, a kingdom where all lives matter: black lives, white lives, Asian lives, Latino lives, immigrant lives, illegal immigrant lives, veteran lives, blue lives, gay lives, straight lives, unemployed lives, young lives, old lives, disabled lives. When we stand against racism and prejudice, against violence and injustice, we may feel like David standing in front of Goliath. To truly change the hearts of our racist neighbors, our violent neighbors, and most of all our indifferent neighbors may seem like the impossible dream, but Jesus never told us, “Oh, if it gets too hard, give up. If you face opposition, stop and try again another year.” David must have been terrified when we faced down Goliath, but his courage and his faith helped him win the day.

The writer of Hebrews tells us to “pursue peace” – that’s active, not passive. We have to try and keep trying. Some of us know what it is like to protest, first-hand. Others of us try more subtle ways – writing letters to the editor, or to elected officials. Others roll up their sleeves to see what can be done to help, working behind the scenes. Regardless of what you do, do something. If you don’t know what to do, ask. Rather than just being spectators, turn off the TV, look around you, and help us bring God’s kingdom now.

When members of black churches across this country cry out, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”, what will our answer be? Do we care? Do we care that so many veterans are homeless and suffering from PTSD? Do we care that transsexuals are still committing suicide at an alarming rate? Do we care that people desperate to get to America are treated as criminals instead of refugees? How will we respond? Do we care? Will we allow this moment to change us, for the better, and for good? Or, once the shock has worn off, will we become indifferent again? Will we count on Jesus to save them, with no help from us?

I would invite us to spend some time now in silent prayer. There are no easy answers. We have more questions than we can even ask this morning. But we must begin somewhere. Amen.

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