2 Corinthians 5:14-21
Looking at Sin in the Mirror
My heart broke, my soul cried, my mouth fell open when I heard that 9 people were shot, in a church, during a Bible Study in Charleston, SC. I was sitting in the living room when of the house we rented for Annual Conference when Alycia got notified on her phone that there was a shooting in Charleston and 9 people died. I remember saying, “That is horrible,” but then I continued doing what I was doing.
This is going to be a very honest sermon and it is a tough sermon but it is needed. I need to preach it and I feel people, you, need to hear it. I continued to do what I was doing because it is all too common these days. My first December as the minister here was marked by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. In the two years since there have been over 100 school shootings. That is one shooting a week at either K-12 schools or higher education. We are surrounded by violence. We are surrounded by hate and we don’t take notice anymore.
When Alycia shared with me that 9 people were shot in Charleston my heart took a millisecond to grieve but then I moved on, like I always do. I have a feeling I was not alone in that moment. However, then I learned more about it on Thursday. I learned that a white 21-year-old, Dylann Roof, sat in on a Wednesday Night Bible Study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. There were 13 people at this Bible study, including the shooter. During the Bible Study he started to disagree when they started discussing Scripture. He soon took out a gun and when asked why he was attacking churchgoers, he said, “I have to do it.”
He yelled racist statements the whole time as he shot 9 people and left only one person alive to tell the story. Two others survived by playing dead. All over the news we heard about the search for the suspect and we know his name, Dylann Roof, who stopped at an ATM in Charlotte and then was arrested in Shelby. We know the shooter but do we know the victims?
I wanted read the names of those 9 who came to Church to learn more about God that day but then found themselves face to face with our Lord.
· Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (54) – she was a manager for the Charleston County Public Library System
· Susie Jackson (87) – she was a devote church and choir member
· Ethel Lee Lance (70) – the church custodian
· Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49) – a pastor who was also employed as a school administrator and admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University.
· Clementa C. Pinckney (41) – church pastor and South Carolina State senator. He was also getting his decorate at Wesley Theological Seminary.
· Tywanza Sanders (26) – he was the nephew of Susie Jackson and when it was obvious that the shooting was going to start he dove in front of her.
· Daniel Simmons (74) – a pastor who also served at Greater Zion AME Church
· Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45) – a pastor, speech therapist and track coach
· Myra Thompson (59) – Bible Study teacher
All of this came out as I sat in on the Plenary Sessions at Annual Conference. We prayed and the bishop sent a letter on behalf of our conference to the AME’s bishop in that area. Later the Bishops of the South Eastern Jurisdiction crafted a statement. They said, “The College of Bishops of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church stands with our Methodist family at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, with our brother Bishop Richard Franklin Morris of the Seventh Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and with our colleague Bishop Jonathan Holston, of the South Carolina Conference. We condemn this act of violence in the house of the Lord. We commit ourselves anew to the work of reconciliation in the midst of hatred. And we lift high the cross of Jesus Christ, as God’s witness to the violence and division that is our human condition. Please join us in acts of prayer, compassion and justice on behalf of our Pan-Methodist sisters and brothers.”
I know many pastor left Annual Conference early to return to preach to their congregation last Sunday and to speak about this tragic event. I wrestled with that idea but I knew the work that Connie and Leslie put into their preparation. I also knew the rarity of being able to worship with my family and have my kids next to me. I also knew I didn’t have the words yet and I needed to worship first.
God laid a grip on my heart and I wrestled with what to preach today. Should I stick with the lectionary or forget it and preach about what weighed heavy on my soul. My soul won out. The Holy Spirit, which has not let me rest yet, won out. Today I feel we need to have a conversation about reconciling ourselves to God and to each other. Today we need to follow the Bishops’ advice and commit our own work of reconciliation in the midst of hatred. Today we need to “lift high the cross of Jesus Christ, as God’s witness to the violence and division that is our human condition.”
If we look at the text in 2 Corinthians we see that the process of reconciliation is to understand that as we become followers of Jesus and let the love of Christ control us we will change. We will no longer stay the same. We will move beyond ourselves and into the likeness of Christ. Original sin, Adam and Eve disobeying God, happened because humanity wanted to be like God. In Jesus Christ, God shows us what it is like and how to become like God and now we aren’t interested anymore. Yet, if I am to be a follower of Jesus then I have to give into the change God’s love and grace does for me and in me. I have to change my ways because I am no longer the same. This thought consumed me as I read articles and blog posts, while I listened to sermons and read scripture. As I learned about the hate, the evil and the sin that occurred in Emmanuel AME Church, I knew that Christ’s love and grace is the answer…but how do we get there.
I can’t stand up here and call others out. I cannot jump on the bandwagon to bash other people. The only thing I can do today is to make a confession. I confess that I thought we as a culture and me personally had moved past racism. I saw what I thought were remnants of it in conversations I would have with people or the way others talked. I chalked it up to an older generation or an outdated way of thinking. I was born in Detroit, MI back when whites were only the slight majority at 55%. Sure, when I moved to Charlotte in 3rd grade the majority of my classmates in Elementary school were white but that was because we lived on the outskirts of town. When I went to Ranson Middle School our demographic changed and there were more black students then in my elementary school. At West Charlotte High School I was one of the minorities where only around 35% of the school was white. I grew up in diverse schools so I thought we had moved past all of this racism simply because I was in close proximity to people of other races.
However, as I looked back at my life growing up this week I confess it wasn’t always the case. My close friends were 99% white. My Boy Scout Troop was 95% white. My church was 99.9% white. My schooling may have been diverse but outside Middle School and High School, I lived in white America. Not only that but I realized that many of my friends were extremely racist. In middle school we would tell each other racist jokes and say horrible things about getting out of school for Martin Luther King Day. I look back at those moments and I am completely humbled by shame and grief. This is not how God wants me to treat people.
I confess that in the culture I grew up in I was taught to see non-white people as different and to be scared of them. I can’t place why or where. This is not something my parents taught me on purpose. This is not something that I remember having a lesson in or a special class on. No, it is something that was ingrained in my white culture that told me to be more scared of a black man than a white man. I am sure it is because of media and news coverage. I am sure it is because of the movies and TV shows I watched. I am sure it is because of the people I grew up with and the subconscious decisions I made along the way. I confess though that still to this day I view people of other races differently. This is not how God wants me to treat people.
I confess that I did not realize the level of racism that is ingrained in our history and culture of our church. In 1844 the Methodist Episcopal Church split into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South because the south wanted to keep slaves. After the Civil War and the freeing of slaves the church still remained split until 1939, 95 years later. When this church was founded on September 21, 1902 it was named, Indian Trail Methodist Episcopal Church South. We were part of a system that wanted to keep a race of people enslaved. This fact is in our name itself.
When we look at where this tragic event in Charleston happened we also get a picture of our racist past. Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded 199 years ago. It is part of the AME denomination, which is one of the Pan-Methodist denominations. The reason the AME denomination exists is because of acts of racism, segregation and discrimination. In St. George’s church in Philadelphia Richard Allan was a slave who purchased his freedom and started the Free African Society. He lead prayer meetings among black members of the church. But the people of St. George’s didn’t like the movement. They segregated the sanctuary and cast the black members to the gallery upstairs. Finally after two black worshipers were pulled out of the church while they were praying, Allan had enough and started Mother Bethel Church and the eventual start of a new denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Both AME and the AMEZ denominations were born out of the discrimination and racism of the Methodist Church and movement here in America.
I say this not to bash us on the head but for us to recognize that this is in our country and our culture’s past. We have not escaped it and we can’t ignore it, like I did for much of my adult life. To do so is a sin. This week I recognized in myself how much racism has played a part in my upbringing, my culture and my country. I wrestle with this fact and I hope you will too.
Yet there is good news. It can stop with us. Nelson Mendela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” He is correct. A child doesn’t see someone and focus on the color of their skin or their socioeconomic make up, they see another person. We, as their parents, their church, their fellow citizens, teach them how to view that person. Do we or will we teach them to hate, to judge or to love?
1 Corinthians 5:21, “God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.” God knows our human tendencies and our need for that saving Grace. We are in desperate need because sin abounds in our world. Sin is everywhere and we need to be reconciled to God and each other for it.
The 3rd verse of the hymn, Just As I Am, we are about to sing sums it up wonderfully. It says, “Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” If we are going to actually move past our racist history, reconcile with one another and live as on earth as it is in heaven, then we need to come to Jesus. We need to recognize the racism and the sin inside ourselves and say, “This stops with me. I won’t pass it on to the next generation.”
As I have grappled with how I see others that are different than me I always pause and say to myself, “How does God see this person?” Does God see them as their race? Nationality? Sexuality? Language they speak? Political party they vote for? State they were born in? No! God sees them as one of his children; someone who has the image of God imbedded into their souls.
May we reconcile ourselves to God and be given this sight as well. May we move into the future not repeating the sins of the past. May we reconcile ourselves to God in order to be the people of God to this world.
And all God’s people said…Amen.