(Galatians 3: 23-28)
Alright folks, I need to give you a heads-up: today’s sermon may not be a lot of fun to listen to. If it’s any consolation, it wasn’t a lot of fun to write. Probably won’t be a lot of fun to preach, either.
And the thing is, I had what I thought was a pretty good sermon when I left the office on Thursday. I still think it’s a good sermon. Just not the right one for today. So formerly-prepared sermon, don’t take this personally, but you’re going to have to wait till next week.
The headline on CNN’s website yesterday morning in large, bold font: WHO CAN HEAL AMERICA? Who indeed. Within the span of four days: two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, doing nothing more than selling CDs outside a convenience store and reaching for license and registration after being pulled over for a busted tail light, both shot and killed. And then a dozen police officers gunned down, five dying, in an ambush/sniper attack as they were presiding over peaceful demonstrations in downtown Dallas.
It’s not that stuff like this hasn’t happened before. And it’s very, very sad to say that. But it’s true. It is a fact that African-American men have been shot and killed by white police officers. It is a fact that police officers have lost their lives as they protecting the people they’ve called to serve.
But something about this past week feels different. A heavier, depressing different; a “what-in-the-world-is-wrong-with-us” different. Maybe it’s the video of the shootings, streamed live on Facebook and Periscope in real-time. Maybe it’s the image of Alton Sterling’s 15-year old son, heaving sobs into his grandfather’s chest at the press conference screaming over and over, “I want my daddy, I want my daddy!” Maybe it’s the cold and calculated way that an obviously trained sniper took out law enforcement officials. Maybe it’s because all of this happened on the week of July 4th, a time set aside to take pride in our country.
Who can heal America?
I find myself resonating with what our denomination’s leaders said in response: We seek answers, and we have very few at this time. I find myself seeking, looking into the abyss we’ve created, searching for answers as an American, as a Christian, as a pastor, as a human. I feel terribly inadequate and ill-equipped for this. The wounds are so many and gaping, and all I’ve got is a single band-aid. The brokenness is a full-blown shattering into a million pieces, and all I have is a tiny vial of super glue.
Like a skittish kid watching a horror movie, assuming that keeping eyes closed will keep the monsters at bay, I don’t want to fully open my eyes because I know what I’ll see if I open them: that we are a violent nation. We are a gun-obsessed nation. We are a racist nation. This is who we are. And we don’t like to see these things, because we prefer to think we’ve advanced beyond such unpleasantries; the same way we ditched rotor phones for computers in our hands and the horse and buggy for wheels and wings. But we haven’t. We are still facing the same struggles, the same sin, over and over again. We remain blind – sometimes willingly, other times ignorantly. But blind still.
We need to open our eyes.
Perhaps providentially, Grace and I were already slated this week to begin a four-week sermon series on some of the confessions in our denomination’s Book of Confessions: the now-twelve confessions that have spoken to the body of Christ at critical junctures in its 2000-year history. We’ve titled this series, What We Believe. Perhaps a more appropriate title, especially in light of this past week, would be What We See. For confessions not only inform what we believe, but also what we see and how we then live.
Our Book of Confessions has two that deal specifically with racial injustice and reconciliation. The Confession of 1967 came about in the midst of our country’s initial civil rights struggle:
In each time and place, it begins, there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act.
God, how pertinent those opening words feel today.
The church, guided by the Spirit, humbled by its own complicity and instructed by all attainable knowledge, seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations.
And what is God’s will? What should we open our eyes to see? It is this:
God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In reconciling love, God overcomes the barriers and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary.
And how should the church respond to what it’s now seen?
The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it.
That is our confession as the church. But here’s the thing. Our corporate confession means precious little unless we confess individually as well. If this past week tells us anything, it is that we are all of those things we really wish we were not, and the worst thing we can do is shut our eyes to it.
It’s confession time, people. So let’s confess.
I’ll go first.
I confess that, despite my best intentions, I’ve contributed to a reality that inherently places my African-American brothers and sisters at a disadvantage and me at an advantage, for no other reason than the color of our skin. It is an advantage that means, statistically speaking, that someone who looks like me has a better chance of getting into college, a better chance of getting the good jobs, a better chance of not getting arrested.
I confess that I’m prone to walk down the street and, even if for an instant, think about crossing to the other side because there’s an African-American man coming my way – and I confess that I’d most like likely never consider the same if he were white. I confess to watching the news and not thinking twice when the image they put on the screen for Alton Sterling is not his readily-available, happy-looking, smiling Facebook profile picture, but a mug shot from a minor infraction years ago that they had to dig for.
I confess to hearing “Black Lives Matter” and being tempted to think, “But ALL lives matter!” And in so doing, missing the whole point – a point eloquently brought to light by my good friend and this year’s Montreat retreat speaker, David Lamotte, in a Facebook post he made earlier this week:
If the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ feel threatening to you, consider the possibility that you may not understand their intent. The slogan is not ‘Black Lives Matter More.’ If someone wanted to add a clarifying word, perhaps it would be ‘Black Lives Matter Too.’ That is what is intended, and it needs to be said, because they don’t seem to matter as much. The evidence is overwhelming, and the stories I hear from people I love break my heart over and over.
I also confess that I tend to take for granted the women and men who serve in law enforcement; that I don’t always appreciate the good work they do and the good people the vast, vast majority of them are. I confess to rolling my eyes when I see the check point in the distance or the long line at airport security; all while failing to see how hard these folks work, how little they get paid, and how much they’re prepared to sacrifice simply by putting on the uniform and donning the badge.
I confess that I’m guilty of contributing to a society where things like last week can happen for no other reason than my ignorance of it; for no other reason than choosing to close my eyes so I don’t have to see it.
So that’s my confession. Well, part of it, at least. It’s uniquely mine, although I wonder if yours might sound similar. Let me encourage you in the week ahead to give voice to your own.
Our denomination recently gave voice to a new confession, the Confession of Belhar, which was added at last month’s General Assembly in Portland. Our Affirmation of Faith today is taken from part of it. I know the bulletin says we’re going to do it later, but I’d like for everyone to go ahead and stand as Henry leads us in it now:
We believe that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another; that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain; that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted.
I want you to hear what comes next in that confession; and in particular I want to ask you to listen for how many times you hear the word “One:”
We believe that this unity of the people of God must be manifested in a variety of ways: that we love one another; that we practice and pursue community with one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together know and bear one another’s burdens, suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.
One, one, one….. How many times? Seventeen times it’s in a single paragraph.
You remember the passage from Galatians I read earlier? The church Paul was writing too looked a lot like our society right now. It was rife with division, deep mistrust, misgivings, misunderstandings, eyes tightly shut. Paul pleads with them to be a church together, not a church apart. To open their eyes and see the divisions they’d crafted for themselves so they could bring healing and wholeness and allow oneness to take its place – a oneness bound in the love of God through Jesus Christ, a oneness that was far stronger than anything that could tear them apart.
That, my friends, is not only our confession but our commission: as Belhar proclaims, to share one faith, have one calling, suffer with one another, and fight against all which may threaten or hinder our oneness.
If that is indeed our task – and I’m pretty convinced it is – it is painfully obvious that we have a ton of work still to do. That we have much to confess, as individuals and as a church. That we must speak up and speak out, not just with our own voices but amplifying the voices of those who for far too long have been silenced. That we need to unwaveringly and uncompromisingly live as if violence is not the answer, because violence never can be. That we need to stubbornly hold fast to the vision Dr. King left us with: how one day we will live in a nation where his and all African-American children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
And most importantly, that we open our eyes. No matter how painful it is; no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. Open our eyes and stare into the abyss. Because when we look in there, do you know what we see?
We see Alton Sterling.
We see Philando Castile.
We see Officers Patrick Zamarripa, Brent Thompson, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith.
We see countless other African-American men shot and killed by law enforcement, and we see countless law enforcement who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
We see Sterling’s grieving 15-year old son, Castile’s girlfriend, Zamarripa’s children, and all families of the deceased whose lives will never be the same again.
And if we keep looking long enough, fighting every urge to shut our eyes tight, we see us in there too. Every last one of us. Black and white, gay and straight, women and men, rich and poor, American and foreign, Christian and Jew and Muslim. We are all there. For one’s pain is everyone’s pain, one’s loss is everyone’s loss, one’s grieving is everyone’s grieving, one’s wound is everyone’s wound.
And that, my friends, is where and how the healing begins.
It’s already happening. A Facebook post yesterday that went viral from Natasha Howell, an African-American woman:
So this morning I went into a convenience store. As I walked through the door, I noticed there were two white police officers talking to the clerk behind the counter about the shootings that have gone on the past few days. They all looked at me and fell silent. I went about my business to get what I was looking for.
As I turned back up the aisle to go pay, one of the officers came to me and asked how I was doing. I replied, “Okay, and you? He looked at me with a strange look and said, “How are you really doing?” I looked at him and said “I’m tired!” He replied, “Me too.” Then he said, “I guess it’s not easy being either of us right now is it?” I said, “No, it’s not.” Then he hugged me and I cried.
I had never seen that man before in my life. I have no idea why he was moved to talk to me. What I do know is that he and I shared a moment this morning that was absolutely beautiful. No judgments, No justifications, just two people together.
God in heaven and God on earth, we need more moments like that. Open our eyes. Convict our hearts. Heal our brokenness. Empower us to change. For we are ready for change. We are so ready. We are dying to live new lives.
In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 http://www.pcusa.org/news/2016/7/8/pcusa-leadership-responds-dallas-shootings-encoura/, visitied on 7.8.2016.
 The Confession of 1967, 9.43 and 9.44.
 https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/belhar.pdf, visited on 7.8.2016.
 https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Cm3hvOKWgAA0viM.jpg, visited on 7.9.2016.