Giants in the Land: A sermon on race, violence, gospel, and telling the truth

Planting rosemary for remembrance and sage for wisdom.

Planting rosemary for remembrance and sage for wisdom.

The Garden Church, June 21, 2015 6.21.
Rev. Anna Woofenden
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49
Mark 4:35-41

Audio

There are a lot of things I could preach about today. Father’s Day. Summer Solstice. We go through what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary for our scripture texts, a series that walks through the Bible, along with churches all over the world. And today we have David and Goliath, the story of the young boy who faces and defeats the enormous giant; we have Jesus calming the storm. And some of these things would be more fun to preach about than what God has on my heart to preach about today.

A wise preacher is often quoted, “preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” We might say now, “Preach with the Bible in one hand and the Facebook feed and the newsfeed and the Twitter feed in the other hand.” So if I’m going to preach with these in my hands this week, we have to talk about racism and we have to talk about violence. And that’s not fun—I quake and pray, and others have been praying about how we can best have these conversations. Because it’s hard and messy and painful. But I believe that if we can’t have these conversations in church, with the infusion of God’s love and wisdom amongst us, well then I don’t know why we have church.

So friends, I invite you to enter into a hard topic today. And to try to find, where is the gospel in it? Because I do believe that God is present, and that Jesus shows us that there always is gospel—good news. Sometimes to find that gospel we have to be willing to engage the hard and the painful, and the things that we’d rather just gloss over.

Thursday morning, I woke up to a news feed filled with articles and shock and grief. The night before, a young white man who has since been identified as Dylan Storm Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where a Bible study was taking place. He sat around the tables with the community for over an hour and then, as they were wrapping up, pulled out a gun and shot nine people.

I read and I watched and I sat down and I wrote.

A person,
            Killed another person.
                        And my heart aches.

A white person,
           Killed another black person. 
                       And my lungs contract.

A young white man person,
            Killed nine black women and men, people.
                        And my back stiffens.
                        My heart pounds.
                        My fingers tighten.
                        My feet press into the ground.

All the words scroll by, “Enough is enough”…“Lord, have mercy”…“When will this end?”…“Stop racism”…“When will we have peace?

Scrolling, scrolling, images flush, other faces, Trayvon and Michael, Eric, young girls and old men, the marches, the media, this gaping wound of racism, violence, pain, and hate.

I keep scrolling. Someone urges us not to  “jump to conclusions” and then black clergy colleague asks, “Will you be silent when it’s me?”

My hands go to my forehead. Again.

To keep feeling, to keep being present, every time there is another giant public witness to racism and white supremacy in our nation. I want to ignore, to numb.

Not to be silent because I don’t care, but because it’s so much work to stay present with the suffering. And name that there are giants in our land. There are giant gaping wounds of racism and inequality, hunger and violence. There are systems and ideologies, structures and places within me that continue to benefit from the oppression of others. And I know, that I, as a white woman, am mostly on the benefiting end. And I worry about this beautiful big-hearted little boy that I know, who I’ve known since he was an itty-bitty infant, who has beautiful beautiful black skin and I know that he is in more and more risk with each inch that he grows. And that, my friends, is so painful to sit with. It’s too much. It’s giant.

We heard today the story of a giant—Goliath—a big, huge, intimidating enemy. When we hear this story, this story of a giant that is so gigantic, so overpowering, the giant who has all the armor and weapons and a reputation to go with it, a story of impossibility. Maybe we can relate. The stories we read in the Word can mix and layer with the stories of our lives. We see ourselves in these stories as we let them come alive, and we see ourselves and the world in the text.

There are giants that we face. Racism. Violence. The insurmountable. The very large that seems so dangerous and impossible to even begin to approach.

There were giants in the land. Send someone else. There are giants in our land. I want to run away, to hide, to make it be someone else’s problem, to explain away why this is none of my business or could never affect me.

But then there’s David, this young shepherd boy, innocent, strong, wise, dedicated and trusting in the Lord’s work in the world and in his life. And he steps forward. He says, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.”

David, and so many courageous people, before and after, who step up and say, “yes, there’s a giant, but there’s also the Lord, and step out in faith and trust and with the courage to face what we all want to hide from.”

Rather than hiding, avoiding, glossing over, I need to show up. Be present to it. I need to continue to listen. I need to particularly listen to my colleagues and friends of color and know and honor that they have wisdom from their lived experience, that I do not, and that I have privilege merely by the skin that I’m born in. I need to listen.

Because when I listen, I hear voices such as Rev. Emma Akapan, a black woman who wrote yesterday, “To my white Christian brethren, I don’t need for you to tell me how angry you are. I need you to tell your white family members, friends, and congregants. I need you to talk about your anger at racism and white supremacy from the pulpit. I need you to urge your congregants to address racism in their own family. White folks know who their racist family members and friends are—now is not the time sit idly by and ignore it. We must face those who we love, and challenge their prejudice. White folks must say, “no more” to racism, especially when it’s a system that they benefit from.”

And so here we are. I could have tried to get away with preaching a nice sermon on Father’s Day today, but I hope not, I hope that this community demands from each other and from your preacher that this is a place where we take our theology of the table, that all are welcome, we take our commitment to look into the eyes of each other and see the face of God, the humanity of all people, we take our charge seriously, to be a place that’s more like heaven, in and amongst the messiness of earth. Which means, to me, that we are willing to stop and wrestle deeply with what the gospel—the “good news”—is for our country still dealing with the festering wound of racism, violence, and division.

I believe hat the gospel calls us to have the courage to have these conversations, knowing that we’re not going to get it all right. I will say some things that offend some, and other things that offend others, I will likely make myself and others uncomfortable that I am preaching about racism from the pulpit, I may even say things that later I’ll have to go back and say, “I’ve learned more since then.” But I will not be silent. Because we need to speak our truth about these giants in the land.

The good news—the gospel—is in Jesus, as we watch him as he walked on earth, calling to repentance, a changing of our minds and heart, as he reached out across barriers and lines, calling us to pray for our enemies, to forgive the impossible, to knock over the tables of injustice, to stand with and walk with the oppressed and speak truth about oppressors.

Remember, Jesus came from a time when there were giants in the land, the Roman empire was crushing those who were not them, slavery and racism and classism were rampant. And Jesus called for a different way. Jesus didn’t put on the armor of Saul. He didn’t go to the palace and try to play with the power struggle of violence and aggression. He didn’t take up the sword and shield.

Like David before him, who when Saul offered him his bronze helmet and coat of mail and David tried to walk in them, and then said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. David took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

David didn’t use Saul’s armor. He went forward with what was more vulnerable, but true to him. He went out as his own vulnerable self. With the tools and skills he knew well.

Jesus, the all powerful God of Heaven and earth, didn’t come into the world protected by chain mail and with a sword. He came to earth as a vulnerable baby, grew and walked with the people. An itinerant preacher, sleeping here and there, going across the lake in boats, being with the people. Valuing, touching, feeding everyone he met. He didn’t hide behind the religious rule or the protection of Roman guards. He put on his own clothing,—vulnerable skin—and from that place engaged the giants.

Jesus wasn’t afraid of the hard conversations, of stirring things up, Or if he was afraid, he did it anyway, even when it resulted in his own death at the hands of Roman rulers.

And here’s where we reach out for and claim the gospel, where we repent and invite God to keep working to change our minds, to take off the ill-fitting armor of the stories we tell ourselves and put down our weapons of defense that come from fear and hate. Calling us to lament and repent. And then to tell the truth.

In the language of metaphor, stones remind us of truth, and if you think about stones as truth, these stones are smooth, and rounded from the water flowing over them, they’re well used, known, lived truths.

And its just one of these stones—one truth—that slays the giant in this story. Now I’m not suggesting that if we just land on just the right truth that we’ll end these major problems in our world. And I’m not suggesting that we use truth as a weapon. And though I’d really like to be able to wrap up our story as nicely as is the story of David and Goliath, I cannot. Because being human and living in the world today is just so much messier than than this story.

We can’t fix it all overnight. We can’t do one thing and make it all better. We can ignore it for so long, but then it will come back in our faces and in our hearts. Maybe we can start by telling the truth. By speaking the truth, we let the light in. We let God in. Tell the truth about the history of slavery that this country is built on. Tell the truth about the vastly un-equal incarceration rate of black men vs. white men who committed the same crime. Tell the truth about racially charged violence. Tell the truth about how economic and social systems benefit white people. Tell the truth about ourselves and how we are part of these systems. Be willing to engage and stand in hard conversations about race, and be honest and vulnerable and to cry out to God in and amongst it.

I wish I had some more uplifting gospel to give you. But maybe the gospel is just this: Embodying our liturgy and our faith. Speaking our prayers of confession and repentance. Being church side-by-side with people that are different than us. Coming around the table where all are welcome. And meaning it. Even when it’s messy. Even when we disagree. Even when we have to be honest and have hard conversations. That we come around God’s table and be the human family together.

Crying out—telling the truth in the midst of it all. Being willing to put on our own clothing, our vulnerability, voice our confusion and doubts, engage in the hard conversations and cry out to God and to each other.

The disciples out on the boat are in the great storm and afraid. And Jesus was asleep in the stern. The disciples are freaking out and say, “Jesus, Jesus, don’t you care that we are perishing?” And he woke up, and said, “Peace, be still” and the waves stopped. He then said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Let us keep crying out, “Jesus, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Crying out in lament for sisters and brothers, crying out as we repent, crying out for healing and reconciliation. And Jesus, just for that moment, calms the storm. Peace. Be still.

Amen.

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