June 21, 2015
The Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor
The Honorable Reverend Clementa Pickney
The Reverend Daniel Simmons, Sr.
The Reverend Sharonda Singleton
It is both a privilege and a source of tremendous grief to me today to recite the names of these faithful people, the slaughtered members of a Wednesday night Bible Study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A privilege, because these nine people lived and died as I hope to live and die – loving God, serving the people of their wider community, reading scripture, welcoming the stranger. It is an honor simply to say their names.
But it is also a source of tremendous grief, because once again someone with a gun got into a room full of random and innocent people and blew them away. It is a source of tremendous grief because this random mass shooting also leaps from the dark well of the original American sin – racism. A sin our nation has yet to fully repent, fully atone for, and fully forgive.
And it is a source of tremendous grief because this shooting happened in a church, in the very sort of small group gathering we host here at All Saints throughout the week. It could have been the Monday Night Prayer and Study Group, the Tuesday Noon Bible Study Group, the various Speaking Our Faith groups, the Daring Way group, the Sunday Morning Study Group, the Readers’ Group … these sorts of groups are where we gather to learn -- to learn how to love God and love each other. And into a group like that, a group focused on the love of learning and the desire for God – hate intruded. Evil intruded.
As Saint Paul said, “When one part of the body suffers, all the other parts of the body suffer with it.” And so we suffer with our sisters and brothers at Mother Emanuel AME Church. And we suffer with the family members and survivors. We weep with those who weep, and we mourn with those who mourn. We raise our voices in lament with the Psalmist who said, “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.” We groan impatiently like the prophet Habakkuk, who said, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” We demand a response from God, like the prophet Isaiah, who said, “O that you would rend open the heavens and come down!”
It is right, and appropriate, to lament and to grieve. To grieve all of it – the violence, the deaths, the ready access to guns, the many-headed Hydra of this nation’s legacy of racism, and most importantly, to grieve the sad and simple loss of human life, of good people, wise people, people who made a difference – whether that was in the state legislature, or the public schools, or the library, or in the church.
But at some point, the lament must end and we will raise our heads – again -- and look around us – again -- and say, “Now what?” Again.
Now what? Will this be the event that spurs our fractured, contentious nation to some sort of action? Will it move us to lean in to the question of race in this country, the question that has been boiling and bubbling since the events in Ferguson, Missouri, a year ago? Will this be the event that somehow gets us off the dime, in a way that Ferguson couldn’t, Baltimore couldn’t, Staten Island couldn’t? Will it move us to lean in to the question of the American attitude towards guns … guns at any cost, guns and more guns? Will it get us off the dime in a way that Columbine couldn’t, Virginia Tech couldn’t, Fort Hood couldn’t, Sandy Hook couldn’t?
I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen in our country after this. Probably more of the same. More of the same hand-wringing. More of the same anxiety and opinions and outrage flying across all the social media outlets. More of the same failure to act, to change, to reform. More of the same willingness to be completely distracted by the next media frenzy over some celebrity’s heinous Twitter post.
But I do believe there is a way to respond differently. A way we might walk, if we are willing. A way rooted in scripture, a way hallowed by God’s grace, a way walked before us by the people of Emanuel AME Church. It is the path of love, the path of courage, the path of hope, and the path of faith.
Paul describes it in his second letter to the Corinthians today. Paul had suffered greatly as he carried the good news of God’s love across the Mediterranean. Some of his churches had suffered as well. “As servants of God,” he describes it, “we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.”
It sounds very much like the life of those members of Emanuel AME … not only those who perished this week, but all the way back to the church’s founding. Emanuel AME was founded in 1813 by Morris Brown, a freed shoemaker. He was joined by Denmark Vesey, a man who had been brought as a slave from the Virgin Islands. In the U.S., Vesey earned enough money to buy his freedom, but his master refused to sell Vesey the freedom of his wife and children. As the congregation at Emanuel grew, whites in the town feared that Vesey was planning a slave rebellion. Vesey was tortured, along with dozens of others, and a white mob burned Emanuel Church to the ground.
The congregation continued. It met in secret throughout the Civil War, and after emancipation, one of Vesey’s grandsons helped to build the new sanctuary of Emanuel AME. But in 1872, that building collapsed in an earthquake. The congregation rebuilt the current brick and marble structure, and notables from Booker T. Washington to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached there.
Those nine people killed on Wednesday night were just like their spiritual ancestors. Rather than run from the world that so hated them, rather than fear the rejection of the wider culture, they engaged with the world. They challenged the culture.
They knew themselves to be beloved of God, a God powerful enough to lift them above the petty hate that surrounded them on every side, a God who equipped them to see beyond the “wall paper of racism” as Jon Stewart called it – from the Confederate battle flag flying at the State Capitol, to the streets named after Confederate generals on which they had to travel.
They refused to accept themselves as “less than.” Instead, they served their neighbors. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor, sat in the state senate. Sharonda Singleton, an assistant pastor, coached the girl’s track and field team at a local high school. DePayne Middleton-Doctor was an admission counselor at Southern Wesleyan University. Cynthia Hurd was a branch manager for the library system.
And they were not just Sunday morning Christians. When that strange white man wandered into their sanctuary on Wednesday night and asked for the pastor, they welcomed him in. They invited him into their midst, to pray and to sing and study the word of God. He sat right next to Pastor Pinckney for an hour. “They were so nice to me,” he reportedly said later, “that I almost couldn’t carry out my mission.”
And one of the survivors of Wednesday night … along with family members of the slain … stood in a courtroom Friday and forgave that man. “Everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that those people lived and loved, and their legacies will live and love. Hate won’t win.” That’s what Daniel Simmons’ granddaughter said. “We have no room for hate,” DePayne Middleton’s sister said. “And so we have to forgive you. May God have mercy on your soul.”
How can this be? After all of that, all that history, all that struggle, and then this outrageous shooting, how can this be? As St. Paul said, after listing all his struggles, there is only one way to walk like that through the sufferings of this world: “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.”
This is the only way to challenge the unjust structures of this world. This is the only way to respond to the evil that is loose in the world. This is the only way to face the unfaceable – to look it in the eye and declare that it has no power. To stand in the power of God and the love of God and the spirit of God and to claim the truth of that power, that spirit, that love – in the face of incomprehensible hate.
When that happens, then we live in the power of that strange, Christlike paradox that Paul writes about: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”
On All Saints Sunday, I love when we sing that old children’s hymn about the saints of God. It has that wonderful chorus … “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” Well, the nine people in that room Wednesday night were just folk like me. Just folk like you, too. They had jobs, they had children, they had homes, they had work to do in the world. Just like us.
And we honor and remember and pray for them today – St. Cynthia. St. Susie. St. Ethel. St. DePayne. St. Clementa. St. Tywanza. St. Daniel. St. Sharonda. St. Myra.
Because of where they stood – in faith on the power of God, trusting in the boundless love of God – these nine saints worked miracles. In their lives, and in their deaths. If it is possible for them, it is possible for us. The world can change, because we can change.
The saints of God ARE just folk like me. I mean to be one, too.