I started to write a post last night about what a moron Dylann Roof is. I got one sentence down and stopped. Didn’t really know where to go with it and ran out of time.
On Sunday, however, the associate pastor of the Olathe church Patty and I attend — Saint Andrew Christian Church — deeply moved about 150 of us attending the 10:45 a.m. service, and she gave me permission to reprint her sermon.
Erika Marksbury is a very smart person and a gifted preacher, and she is one of those rare clerics who can rise to the biggest and most unsettling events. She has the ability, in times of great distress, to hold a mirror up to a congregation and help the congregation see itself in the context of a broken but ever-hopeful world.
This morning, Erika used as her stepping-off point St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, in which he urged the Corinthians to “open wide your hearts.”
Here’s what Erika said…with the exception of an anecdotal section, which I omitted for space considerations.
So you decided to come to church this morning. We came to church this morning. We sang, and prayed, and have just heard scripture together.
We did this despite what happened on Wednesday, in a church, to people who sang, and prayed, and heard scripture together.
Maybe you thought it would be ok because here is not there. Because Kansas is not South Carolina. Because a twenty-four-year-old suburban church is not a hundred-and-ninety-nine-year-old southern church. Because most of these people are white, and all of those people were black. And so we are not like them.
Except that doesn’t hold up. Especially here. Because the story we tell every Sunday at church is our intentional effort to break down those boundaries. The story we tell says that in this place or in that place, new or old, white or black, all who gather around the story of Jesus are one. When we sing, our folk songs blend with their gospel choruses. And when we pray, our celebrations and our sadnesses mingle with theirs, because our hearts carry all the same stuff.
And when we break bread and drink from the cup, we remember brokenness and love, bodies and blood. Some of the earliest church fathers used to say that the bread we share is the body of Jesus and it is our own. This morning it is that of Jesus, and it is ours, and it is Clementa’s, and Cynthia’s, and Sharonda’s, and Tywanza’s, and Ethel’s, and Susie’s, and Depayne’s, and Daniel’s, and Myra’s. We are none of us, really, separate from each other.
We do not come to church to be reassured that we are unaffected. We come to church to be reminded that we are bound. We come to church because the songs remind us that we belong to God and to each other and the prayers acknowledge that there are some things we cannot do alone and the scriptures make clear that justice is hard and it has always been the call of God and the work of people of faith.
We come to worship because the sanctuary has historically been a safe space. People who were persecuted could come seeking refuge. They would run into the building and collapse on the floor beneath the cross and know that inside those walls they would find amnesty. Even though much of that old meaning has slipped away, still, when people find themselves afraid or unsure, they often find their way to a sanctuary. And when that very principle is violated, when people are not safe in their holy places, it is up to other people to create sanctuary outside of those walls once thought to contain it.
The people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church opened their hearts. They did not withhold their affections or their faith. They prayed and sang and studied scripture with a stranger, and they acknowledged him as fully human. They made themselves vulnerable.
But what else could they have done? Deny him? Allow within their walls only people that they already knew and trusted? They are a congregation named Emmanuel – a people named God-with-us – so that really wasn’t ever an option. Maybe they knew that invulnerability was impossible. They surely knew it was anti-gospel.
What Paul is asking in these scriptures – open your hearts – takes on a strange and sad and scary new resonance today. What does it mean to open our hearts in a world where welcoming strangers means risking our lives?
But that’s not really a question for our context, is it? Or it’s only one of them. Our questions are: how brave, and how vulnerable, will we be? How many difficult conversations will we have with our friends and relatives? How hard will we work so that Grandmothers Against Gun Violence will have a voice that can be heard over the NRA’s? How will we tell our kids the hard and horrifying stories of our racist past, a history that stretches from centuries ago to just last week? How much rearranging of our lives will we do to make sure we have chances to learn more, to stand with, to speak up, to reach out? And how will we treat all our neighbors as fully human, not just as people with sad stories but also as people with dreams? How will we learn to trust and celebrate one another? How will we open our hearts?
We were never those people that believed racism was over with the Civil Rights Act or the election of Barack Obama. We have always been those people who have believed that white privilege is real and that most of us benefit from it and that something is fundamentally unjust about that. And believing those truths is the tiniest beginning. But knowing the truth does not change it. Sitting down with it – confessing our gain from it – sharing our fears connected to it – speaking our dreams to strangers, and hearing theirs – that’s movement towards real change.
I mean, I hope it is. I hope we’ll at least try. And when we fail, I hope we will try again, and not be afraid to fail again, and then try again, and fail some more, and keep trying. I hope we won’t get tired. I hope we won’t get lazy. I know that’s easy to do, and it’s easy for white people, for privileged people, to turn away. I do it all the time. I like to think of myself as an ally but that can be exhausting and some days I’m unwilling to be exhausted by anything other than my own kids. But we turn away at the risk of coming right back around to here, to this place of mourning and horror, and despite all the ways I will mess up I want to commit to doing what I can to create sanctuary outside of these walls. If you want to also, here’s a small way we can start:
Get out a pen. If you don’t have one on you there should be one in the red book – you can pass it on when you’re done.
Write this address down: Emanuel AME Church, 110 Calhoun Street, Charleston, South Carolina, 29401. And sometime this week, send a card. If you don’t have one at home there’s a stack in a basket near the door – feel free to take one of those. Write a note of sympathy and solidarity, and drop it in the mail.
Paper may be flimsy. But even walls are no protection to people committed to welcoming neighbors, strangers. And if these cards carry our love, maybe they can help to create a sanctuary, and a space for dreams to be shared again, for those who are mourning now.
I put my card in the mail Sunday…It won’t change anything, but it’s better than just stewing, being angry and wringing my hands.