The Sunday after Charleston: Why We Preached Without a Sermon

Mark 4: 39-40: Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be still!”  Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  He said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

It took me most of 3 days to pull together a sermon that I thought was even half OK for everything that faced our congregation at Second Church in Newton yesterday.  There is an avalanche of change and transition at work at the church.  We are an affluent, predominantly white, community and genuinely in pain and outrage in the aftermath of the death of 9 innocent people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last week.  It was Father’s Day…and though it is a day I am quick to ignore theologically…even though my own father was joining me at church for the first time in my ministry…I couldn’t help but think of Tamir Rice’s father in Cleveland, and the children of the 9 dead brothers and sisters in Charleston…even the parents of Dyllan Roof, the man who killed them….if ever there were a Father’s Day to address in church, this was it.  So there was a lot to accomplish in this 60 minutes of worship.  I was determined to make the most of it.

So I poured through the lectionary texts, and at 12:30 AM Saturday night, just a few hours before I would get up in front of a church full of expectant, confused, uncertain seekers, I finally came up with something passable.  It wasn’t going to move anyone to tears, but it seemed to honestly address reality while being theologically sound:  There are some injustices we will never understand…we can only accept, mourn, and give praise to God for what we do have (see the Job text from this week’s lectionary).  There are, however, other ways in which we are called to serve our neighbors in their suffering, even if it is not something of our doing.  Jesus was asleep, he could have cared less about the storm.  But he responded to his disciples’ call and, for their sake, calmed the wind and stilled the waters.  It could be said that God was showing up in that storm, and Jesus, being one with God, was able to calm the storm, for the sake of his friends in the boat.  At what point will white America wake up to the systemic sin of race that helped to create our identity in the world and say to that disruptive, violent storm, “Be still?”

That was the crux of the sermon, which I liked, I believed in, and even though I knew it wasn’t done at 1:30 AM, I was confident I could wake up 4 hours later, finish it, and go do a good job at my job that day.  I slept until shortly before my alarm went off at 5:30 AM, saw myself in the mirror as I climbed out of the shower…I still looked and sounded like someone who had been shaken and stirred throughout the week and then slept for only a few short hours. I didn’t look like a preacher.  I didn’t sound like anyone’s spiritual guide.  I boarded a train to travel to church and continue working to get my thoughts strait.  I fell asleep in seconds and almost missed my stop.  I walked into a Starbucks for coffee and internet, ready to finish what I was certain was an effective sermon–maybe not a great one, but one that would get the job done that day, on a day when many things needed to be done in worship–and within one click on the Wi-Fi network access panel…I saw a headline that robbed me of my sermon.

Dyllan Roof, the self-proclaimed “race war” initiator, had written a manifesto.

I read it.

Most things there were not news to me.  Racial slurs, blaming others for perceived societal problems…familiar territory.

But I saw something new here.  He recounted his “education” about “black on white crime,” which lead him to his “awareness” and understanding of the “problems” people of other races pose to white people…and then he gave the reason…he actually put in writing…the link between his thinking, his education, his beliefs and the murder of 9 Black folks from Charleston:

“I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”


That was the sentence that took the sermon away from me.  My theology remains the same: Jesus gives us tools and lives as an example of how empowered people can serve those who are being persecuted, and God calls us to tell the truth about what is within our power and what is outside of it…but there would be no sermon preached at Second Church in Newton that day.  Clearly thoughts and beliefs and education alone is not enough to usher in the Kingdom.  If it were…Dyllan Roof would never have been able to “educate” himself into such violent hate.

As I stared into the words of this man, and challenged myself to stare into an image of his face…I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between us.  My education lead me one way…his another.  You know what was the hardest part about reading that manifesto? Some of his phrasing…some of the words he used…it reminded me of things I have written.  I feel nauseous even now.

In seconds, I knew there was no sermon to preach in West Newton on this day.  Because I’m a 33 year old white man…and I probably have more in common with Dyllan Roof than I would like to admit.  It’s why I had such a hard time writing a sermon in the first place…my experience in this world is too limited…my viewpoint–though expanded through my love of God’s people and the varied relationships I keep in my life–too narrow.  To hear God’s full word for us…we had to share in it together.  And, if Dyllan Roof was going to take it upon himself to turn his hate speech into hate crime, then we, as the Body of Christ, were going to have to respond in kind.

If we are going to actually oppose people who hate…if we are actually going to transform this world so that things like the murder of 9 precious black women and men become more impossible…if we are actually going to BE the BODY OF CHRIST in the world, then it is not enough to study theology, it is not enough to write phrases of profound rhetoric and pithy turns of phrase to teach others how to think through their lives in more Christ-like ways.  If there are people who are going to put their hate into action–and, clearly, painfully obviously…there ARE–then we have no business doing anything but the same with our Love: We have all these people talking about a God of ultimate love and justice for all people, we write endless blog posts and sermons and Facebook updates about our God’s great love of humanity and the infinite possibilities available to us through that God, we sing and we pray and we wait…but we have no choice…a lot of people need to have the bravery to take all that talk about Love and Justice to the REAL WORLD.  I guess it has to be us.

2015-06-21 11.23.27

Everyone in church was invited forward to come to our Communion Table.  Upon the table, we were asked to place items–symbols, words, tools, images, etc.–that represent “sanctuary” or “holy space” to us.  And we then dedicated ourselves to concrete actions we would take to provide such sanctuary for those who do not have it.  Everyone was invited to share in as much detail as they wished what their object represented, and what actions it inspired them to take.  We heard from a retired social worker who attended an event on Saturday and bore witness to our African American neighbors in Newton–“even in affluential Newton”–teaching their young men about how to avoid danger and violence with local police.  We heard a Deacon commit to providing shelter to others as his umbrella sheltered him from the rain that morning.  We heard a man confess, “my sunglasses protect my eyes…but they also obscure my vision.  I leave them on this table now so I can see more clearly, even if it means being unprotected.”  A leader of our congregation stood up and rededicated herself to efforts of honoring the identity of others, “I can be here for you.  Let me see you.  I want to see you.”  A longtime member who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. himself offered up a #2 pencil…not yet unconvinced that good education is the key to justice.

The hope is that we will begin acting in the world in a way that creates safe space for those who have none, so when precious people become the object of hate and violence, we are equipped to respond in ways that heal, repair, restore, and attempt to prevent it from happening again.  As a church, we affirmed yesterday that we are all imperfect, we all fail at times…but there are some things we can commit to doing better.  God is calling us to serve…and we may be learning how to do that…maybe even learning slowly…but we are willing to act.  Today.  Now.

Learning from Jesus’ example…we are willing to be awoken to the storm.  To the best of our ability we will dedicate ourselves to calming the wind and stilling the waters…so others may be safe.  We’re willing to set aside worship as usual for a chance to speak together, bear witness to one another, to organize for the sake of others.  And to their credit…when their minister said he wouldn’t be offering a sermon to them…they responded by becoming the Word for Us, in that time and place.

God be praised.



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