09021202~click on this to hear an MP3 recording of the sermon.
Usually when we talk of the prodigal’s father we join him on the race down the road to greet his son, but not today. We like to talk about his grace and long standing devotion to his wayward son, but not today. Today we cannot talk about happy endings and pretend that everything is OK when one of our sons has committed a horrific act of terrorism.Today we gather with thousands of other churches across the nation, across the world, to mourn the terrorist attack on Mother Emmanuel.
Today we must count ourselves one with the parents of terrorists all over the world and sit with the prodigal’s father on the front porch, staring down the dusty road, wondering where we went wrong and if it will ever be put right. Today we must wonder if there is wisdom that we forgot to impart. Today we must wonder if there were times when we were silent and our child took that as affirmation and consent rather than the polite avoidance of conflict. Today we must wonder why we didn’t notice that our son was hanging out with a bad crowd and we might even wonder if we too say things that ought never be said. We must ask ourselves if we clutch our purses a little too tightly when passing a black man. We must wonder how it is that we have arranged our lives so that we ourselves have no friends of color or very few. We must ask ourselves if we have become complicit in the systemic racism that pervades our country.
For surely as we sit on this porch feeling the failure of our parenting we must question everything. We must question the teacher who said “it’s natural for them to segregate. They don’t really like to be around white folk.” We must question those who say, “You don’t want to live on that side of town, that’s where the coloreds live.” We must question the TV shows and movies which make all black men seem dangerous and violent. and black women too sexually available. We must ask ourselves if we have defended violence against black youth by insisting they were “too rowdy,” or “not respectful enough.” We must ask ourselves how often we refused to show up because we were too scared to stand with our brothers and sisters in their time of trial. How often was keeping the peace was more important than protecting the lives, hopes and dreams of our brothers and sisters?
Today we sit on the porch with the prodigal’s father and we mourn and we repent. We repent not because we ourselves committed an act of violence but because we like to sit and discern the truth for a very long time, too long a time, when action is called for. We repent because while we are not necessarily guilty of violence we are responsible because we have the privilege of choosing our response. Unlike the congregation of Mother Emmanuel who has no choice but to engage we can choose not to. We can choose to avoid the matter, to pretend it doesn’t affect us and too often we have. Even when it is our son who is wreaking violence.
The young man who committed this act of terrorism was raised in a church not unlike this one. I am sure they were glad to have him as youth are so energizing to a congregation. He could have been raised right here. Surely he is one of us. He could have been our child’s best friend, a classmate, a neighbor. Today we join the ranks of those whose children have gone off to do horrific things and surely we can now see how horrible it is to wonder if you could have done better. What might we have said that would have helped that man see the image of God in all people? What might we have done that would have helped that man develop empathy? How could we have affirmed for this young man that we are all so intimately connected that we cannot be well if we allow the persecution of others let alone participate in it. And perhaps more importantly what do we need to do now to end the systems of racism and the complicity of our nation in this horror?
In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. gave the eulogy for the four young girls who lost their lives in the bombing of the Birmingham church. His words apply as much today as they did then:
“[The victims] say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
Surely we join the prodigal’s father on the front porch today as he looks for and longs for his son who has gone so far off the righteous path. Even as we seek out and learn to see the systems which shaped and formed this young man we must acknowledge, if not our own guilt then at least our complicity. Too often we have defined racism as the malicious acts or words of an individual and we have been quick to absolve ourselves of these types of behaviors stating that we have not done these things. We fail to notice the racist systems that pervade our country and we have not done enough to stop them.
What will we do to change our legacy? How will we engage this conversation? Some will say, “well, that has nothing to do with me,” and retreat into silence. Others will stand with our brothers and sisters of color and refuse to let them stand alone. How will we change our legacy?
We must also recognize that alone we can do nothing and we raise our cry before God because without him we are powerless. But we must not say that this act of terrorism is beyond our comprehension, or that it is solely the result of mental illness and is not about race. We must not say this while we still benefit from and live in systems that perpetuate and continue the very oppression that fueled this young man’s attack. We must recognize that in the midst of this horrific year of the black lives matter campaign that we are only seeing what has already been happening unseen. We must recognize that it is not that things are worse than they have been but rather that a light has been lit which is shining on our national shame. And even as this light is shining on the evil which hates the light, some places are trying to enact laws to halt the videotaping, to blind us all to what is and has been going on, to try and get us to un-see what we have seen and un-know what we know. Yet we know, we have always known, that evil hates the light.
Chris Crass a blogger with the A Few Good Men Project writes:
“If we truly abhor this devastating act, then we must recognize it as terrorism and seek to understand the worldview, the institutional backing and political agenda this terrorism is embedded in. We must recognize that white indifference and denial is key to giving space for this terrorism to operate and thrive, and commit ourselves to destroying the vast network of support giving rise to the terrorist attack against Black members of a Black church, rooted in Black liberation struggles and a vision of beloved community for all.“
If our hearts are breaking, Chris goes on to say, then let them break away from white supremacy and let us be brave enough to look at how white supremacy and systems developed to perpetuate it have crept into our hearts and minds. Let us be brave enough to admit that none of us who has been raised in the United States is free of this evil. Let us admit that when we come before God in contrition acknowledging that we need God’s help and cannot achieve salvation nor be righteous aside from God that white supremacy is part of that sin, a sin we cannot wash away by ourselves.
Glennon Doyle Melton writes a blog called Momastery which is very popular with the mothers of young children, wrote in response to the Charleston shootings. I never saw the original blog. She said in a later post, I lay awake all night wondering if my words were any good. Were they fair, were they honest, were they helpful? And who could I ask? And then I wondered how it is that I can arrive at this stage of my life without any real friends who are people of color. I cannot be a good ally, she said, because I am not a good friend. Today she must join the prodigal’s father on the front porch wondering where she went wrong and if there is time to make it better.
You see, white supremacy and the systems that support it rob us of our goodness, of our children, of our friendships, of our possibilities, of our humanity, as surely as it oppresses people of color. We will not be well while our sisters and brothers are not well. We will not have justice nor mercy nor peace, until our sisters and brothers have justice and mercy and peace. This is not a pretty or convenient thing to say nor is it a judgment; it’s just how it is. We cannot evade the reality that we have accepted an evil into our lives, because we would rather not look at it too hard, and because we benefit and that’s hard to give up. Our default in this society is white supremacy and we are fed a diet of it 24/7. We must actively seek to interrupt it, to break it down or it becomes “just the way it is,” fully internalized and accepted.
We gathered here on Thursday, several of us, several members from other churches black and white, Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian. It was pre-arranged as if God knew we would need it in ways we could not have imagined when we first arranged the service. For those of us who attended it was an act of grace; it was a moment when the kingdom began to break in, it was exactly what we needed at that very moment. It was as if, sitting with the prodigal’s father in silence and in mourning we caught a glimpse of dust stirred up on the road and our heart rose wondering if this might be him, could he be coming home, could healing be happening?
I want to tell you that the son is coming. I want to tell you that Cain and Abel are reunited and the murdered blood no longer cries from the ground. I want to tell you that the older brother has gotten over himself and his need to be special, to be above and better than his younger brother and is no longer sulking in the courtyard. But it would be premature.
God has promised to wipe every tear but first the tears must flow, and perhaps that justice which will roll down like waters is in those tears and they must not be staunched nor dried up until justice does roll down. Perhaps that justice which will roll down needs not only black tears and brown tears and red tears but white ones too and it waits until we can humbly say we need forgiveness for things done and things left undone.
For the heart is right to cry out! And perhaps we may stomp our feet and yell in great anger, but we are so right to cry out, like Rachel who weeps for her children and will not, will not, will not be comforted! Go on then and cry out! For our brothers, our sisters, their mothers, fathers, and children have been terrorized, have been murdered, and there is no place of safety. So cry out and let our tears join their tears and let us not stop until justice, peace, and mercy roll down upon us, cleansing us, freeing us and uniting us as one people, one body, one church. Let us raise such a ruckus that God himself will stir in his heavens and say, “My, what a noise you all are making.”
We may not be guilty, perhaps some of us carry some guilt, I know I do, but we are all responsible. We are all responsible adults who can affect the discourse in these united states and who are we really to absolve ourselves of that responsibility? A great light is being thrown on the national shame which is the brutalization of black bodies upon which this nation was built. It is horrific. No wonder we want to look away. But it is also within our purview to change, to create change, to be the change, to demand change. If we will only be brave enough to see what has been hiding in the darkness, if we will only be brave enough to acknowledge our wrongs, then we can begin to heal.
We remember today that we were never called to lives of comfort or security. We were never called to play it safe. We are called to be faithful. We are called to love one another-no exception. We are called to be peacemakers, to be those who bring the good news to those who hunger for it. Today perhaps that is us. And the good news is that we can, if we are very brave and very faithful, begin to dismantle the systems of oppression. We can. We have been entrusted by God with the care and the loving of his very dear beloved children. Let us be faithful to that charge and let us not turn away from the wrongs that have been done, that are being done, and that yet may be done if we fail to intervene. When did we see you Lord? We may ask one day. Let it be for the right reason.