Sunday, June 21, 2015

SERMON: "Such a Thing as Too Late?" (6.21.15)

A Meditation on Luke 19:29-44

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston

This morning I have to imagine Jesus mounted on a colt, pausing on a hillside above the city of Charleston, South Carolina.  And he’s weeping for the Rev. Sharonda Singleton and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr; and he’s weeping for Myra Thompson and Tywanza Sanders; and he’s weeping for Ethel Lee Lance and Cynthia Hurd; and he’s weeping for the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor and the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.  And Jesus is looking down on the city, on the churches, on the government building where a Confederate Flag still flies.  And Jesus is weeping for us, for America, for our fascination with war and our addiction to weapons and for racism.  And he says through his tears: “If only.  If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace.”

There’s both a familiar sense of urgency in Jesus’ prayer on the hill, and an unsettling kind of despair.  Do you hear that too?  “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace.  But now.  But now they are hidden from your eyes.”  So much violence in our streets.  So much violence in our children’s hearts.  This morning I have to imagine Jesus weeping for 21-year-old Dylann Roof too, and for the hatred that made him a bigot, for the hatred that made him a killer.  We don’t often hear despair in Jesus’ voice, but this morning, on hillsides above Charleston and Ferguson, Oakland and Detroit, Jesus grieves bitterly for Dylann Roof and for violence and for racism in the American heart.  “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace.”

Can you and I even imagine what this Fathers Day is like, how it hits home, in Charleston, South Carolina?  Can we even imagine the grief, the piercing grief in the hearts of Eliana and Malana Pinckney, whose father won’t be home at all today, whose father was shot to death, in church, on Wednesday night?  Who will console Eliana and Malana and all the other sons and daughters in Charleston today?  I wonder if they’ll find it comforting that the right to bear arms makes America the greatest nation on earth.  I wonder if they’ll find it reassuring that gun clubs flying Confederate Fags are keeping careful watch over their neighborhoods and civil liberties.  Probably not, right?

Because it’s a grim Fathers Day in Charleston.  The people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church are drenched in unimaginable grief and lamentation today.  And nothing the NRA can say, nothing the Tea Party can say can change this.  Eliana and Malana Pinckney will not see their father this Fathers Day.  He’s just not coming home.

Now if you’re running for President and you’re building your base, maybe it seems like we have all the time in the world to fix what’s wrong in this country.  We can always talk about gun control tomorrow.  We can always talk about mental health and racism and violence—tomorrow.  And if you’re running Apple or Amazon and you’re swimming in savings and playing golf every weekend, maybe it seems like we can take a step back to review what’s happened in Charleston and Sandy Hook and Columbine and Ferguson and Staten Island and assess the damage and the reasons for it.  We can always sift through policy implications—tomorrow.

But if you’re Eliana and Malana Pinckney, if you’re the kids in the youth group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, if you’re living in a neighborhood where folks fly Confederate Flags with pride and attitude, if you’re black in America or poor in America, it just isn’t true.  Time is running out.  Dylann Roof is not the only 21-year-old with a gun hyped up on fear and hate.  Where you’re located, where you’re living, what color you are, all of this matters.  A lot.  And it very clearly determines your sense of urgency and danger in the streets of Charleston, in the streets of St. Louis, in the streets of Santa Cruz.  If you’re raising a black son or a brown daughter in America, the right to bear arms is something else entirely.  It may well be a death sentence.

Forty-eight years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War in a speech at Riverside Church, our sister church in New York City.  I read that speech again this week, and I get fired up by his passion, by his decency, and by his courage.  With respect to American militarism, with respect to the glaring gap between rich and poor, King perceived that time was short.  Time was running out.  Check this out: April 1967.

We are now faced with the fact, KING SAID THEN, that tomorrow is today.  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. THE FIERCE URGENCY OF NOW.  In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.  Procrastination is still the thief of time.  Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity...We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on.  Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’
King at Riverside

“In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.”  I can imagine preachers in Charleston saying just this this morning, on behalf of Eliana and Malana Pinckney; on behalf of the grandchildren of Ethel Lee Lance; on behalf of the colleagues of Cynthia Hurd at the Charleston County Public Library.  I can imagine, I have to imagine their urgency, their pain, even their despair this morning.  What do you say to a congregation whose mothers, whose fathers, whose pastors have been murdered by a 21-year-old who assumes that integration is the devil’s doing and America is made for whites?  What do you say?


I want to suggest today that the most important thing you and I can do is to listen first.  To listen to those who have lost so much.  To listen to those who have suffered so much.  To listen to those who have borne the devastating blows of history.  The most important thing you and I can do—as white people, most of us; as privileged Americans, most of us—is to listen.

And in our Christian tradition, in the tradition of our United Church of Christ, we take particular care to situate those voices at the heart of our theological and ethical reflection.  Just as Jesus identifies with the suffering of Jerusalem, just as Jesus hears the cries of the hungry, just as Jesus himself is victim on the empire’s cross, so he insists that you and I listen closely for the wisdom and the witness of the poor.  This means paying close attention to the stories we hear at Juvenile Hall and the County Jail.  It means staying around the shelter long enough to learn the names of our guests and the yearnings of their hearts.  And it means leaving our own racial comfort zones: crossing the street to listen to friends at the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, and crossing the city to listen to friends at Star of the Sea Catholic Church.

This isn’t to say we’re simply called to pity the poor.  No, we’re called as Jesus was to hear the cries of the poor, to recognize the systemic causes of their poverty (and our own privilege).  And we’re called as Jesus was to act, in courage and compassion, to undo injustice, to undo racism, to undo violence in any and every way possible.  But always, the cries of the poor point the way forward.  Always, the stories of the oppressed invite humility, compassion and our deepest courage.


I want to return, for a moment, to our decision, this spring, to support the UCC resolution backing divestment from 5 companies profiting from the occupation of Palestine in the Middle East.  This is just one of the ways we’re listening to the cry of the poor, to the cry of the church of the poor, and doing what we can to respond in humility and courage.  It’s a model, I think, of how we might, in the church, respond to injustice, racism and violence here at home, here in America.

The resolution that we’re supporting—the resolution General Synod 30 will consider later this month—was in a sense born in a document called KAIROS PALESTINE.  KAIROS PALESTINE is a long, thoughtful, historical, theological letter, written by a dozen Palestinian Christian leaders out of their own experience of occupation, poverty and oppression.  In the letter, these brave leaders asked Christians around the world to support their efforts to peacefully and nonviolently resolve the decades-long conflict in the Holy Land.  And they insisted that the imbalance of power in the region required bold, nonviolent, economic intervention.

In KAIROS PALESTINE, the Palestinian church called on the American Church, the European Church, the global church to participate in strategic divestment.  (The five companies, by the way, include companies with proven records of participation in human rights abuses in the occupied territories.  This is serious stuff.)  Divestment’s a strategy, Palestinians argue, that may well leverage western resources and moral energies in such a way as to pressure Israel to negotiate in good faith toward a viable two-state solution.  The model, to some degree, is the similar campaign waged against South African apartheid in the 1980s.

The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb--preaching at General Synod 30
So the question for you and me, the question for the United Church of Christ is: will we listen to the cries of the poor?  Will we take special care to hear the call of the broken church in Palestine?  Will we situate their theological witness at the heart of our own moral and ethical discernment?  It’s a pretty weighty question, I know.  And it obviously creates tension in other relationships, in other interfaith settings, and (in particular) in our alliances with Jewish religious communities here in Santa Cruz.

But I believe the question drives to the beating heart of Christian mission, social action and global witness.  Do we discern our mission in isolation, do we merely read our bibles on hills like ours and make up our minds based on our own ideas?  Or do we belong to a larger, more diverse, far-reaching Body of Christ?  Do we grant KAIROS PALESTINE, for example, what some might say is a “privileged voice in the church’s reflection”?  I believe that’s the difficult path for us.  I believe that’s the challenge we face not only in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but the racial conflict still simmering in our own country as well.  In the church of Jesus Christ, we acknowledge “a preferential option for those who live under military occupation, who face daily discrimination and oppression, and who experience in their bodies a suffering only they can know” (John Thomas, UCC-PIN, March 2015).  In the church of Jesus Christ, we discern our mission, our witness, our actions in light of that preferential option.  We listen closely for the voice of Jesus in the poor and the wounded.  In Palestine, in Charleston and here in Santa Cruz as well.
At the Sadaka Reut Arab Jewish Youth Partnership in Israel

So when I think of my support for the UCC resolution on a just peace in Israel and Palestine...and you see the letter in your bulletins this morning...when I think of the hard work we’ve done this spring articulating that support and advocating for this campaign of economic nonviolence...I think of the Palestinian voices I’ve heard over many years.  I think of the pastors of Lutheran churches in Bethlehem and Anglican churches in East Jerusalem.  I think of the brave youth workers in Jaffa and the Galilee.  I think of Zoughbi Zoughbi roaming the streets of refugee camps in the West Bank, bringing as much comfort and encouragement as he can to communities who’ve known only suffering for sixty years or more.  I am part of a church that takes these voices seriously, that honors their commitments to peacemaking and nonviolence.  I am part of a church that wants to respond to their cries with courage and compassion.  This, for me, is discipleship itself.  The way of the cross.  The path blazed centuries ago by Jesus of Nazareth.

So, as I conclude this morning, as we hold in our hearts the people of Palestine and Israel, as we pray God’s peace upon the sons and daughters of Charleston, South Carolina, I’d like to return to Martin Luther King’s Riverside speech in 1967.  That moment, too, was dangerous and pregnant with possibility.  That moment, too, demanded courage from the church.  King spoke loudly and passionately about the “fierce urgency of now.”

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message -- of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

So friends in Santa Cruz, let us also begin.  And let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.  For this is the calling of the sons and daughters of God.  And our brothers and sisters--in places like Palestine and Charleston--wait eagerly for our response.