Sunday’s Sermon: Livin’ Large!

For a little more explanation and insight into what went into this sermon and the service that went with it, see my previous post.

Texts used: Luke 11:29-36 and 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Cynthia Hurd
Tywanza Sanders
Myra Thompson
Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons
Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor
Susie Jackson

Nine lives.
Nine beloved, treasured children of God.
Nine brothers and sisters in Christ who had gathered on a Wed. evening for a prayer meeting. A prayer meeting.
Nine men and women.
Nine black men and women.

Friends, I have to tell you that when I sat down at my desk this past Mon. morning, I sat down with the intention to write a happy sermon … an invigorating sermon … a sermon that would (hopefully) make you leave this place this morning inspired to boldly and boisterously take your faith out into the world with renewed spirits. I envisioned us leaving this sanctuary this morning with heads held high, with hearts full and spirits lifted, with blessings and praise for God’s greatness on our lips.

And then the news stories started coming in late Wed. night and throughout the day on Thursday.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Cynthia Hurd
Tywanza Sanders
Myra Thompson
Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons
Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor
Susie Jackson

Nine lives.
Nine beloved, treasured children of God.
Nine brothers and sisters in Christ who had gathered on a Wed. evening for a prayer meeting. A prayer meeting.
Nine men and women.
Nine black men and women.

And suddenly, instead of wanting to sing loud hosannas and songs of triumphant praise, I tasted words of lament and even frustration and anger on my tongue. With the psalmist, I wanted to cry out, “God, don’t shut me out; don’t give me the silent treatment, O God. Your enemies are out there whooping it up, the God-haters are living it up; They’re plotting to do your people in, conspiring to rob you of your precious ones.”[1] Suddenly the words of the Scripture passages that I had already chosen for today were cast in an entirely new light: the horrible, glaring, painful light of a nation still battling the hatred and injustice of racism.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Cynthia Hurd
Tywanza Sanders
Myra Thompson
Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons
Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor
Susie Jackson

Nine lives.
Nine beloved, treasured children of God.
Nine brothers and sisters in Christ who had gathered on a Wed. evening for a prayer meeting. A prayer meeting.
Nine men and women.
Nine black men and women.

I spent last weekend at the MN Conference annual meeting, the theme of which feels disturbingly prophetic at this point. It was “Going Deeper: Trusting in Sacred Conversation.” It was a theme centered around the pervasiveness and startling reality of racism that continues to plague this country 150 years after the end of the Civil War and 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement – two large-scale events that we like to hold up as steps that we have taken as a nation in the direction of equality and freedom and justice. And yet …

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Cynthia Hurd
Tywanza Sanders
Myra Thompson
Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons
Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor
Susie Jackson

Nine lives.
Nine beloved, treasured children of God.
Nine brothers and sisters in Christ who had gathered on a Wed. evening for a prayer meeting. A prayer meeting.
Nine men and women.
Nine black men and women. 

At the annual meeting, our keynote speaker was Dr. Jennifer Harvey[2], an associate professor of religion at Drake University in Des Moines, IA. Dr. Harvey told us about an interesting conversation starter that she uses with her students. It goes something like this: “What would you say if you saw a group of African-American students out on the quad holding signs that said, ‘Black is beautiful’? What if it was a group of Hispanic students holding a sign that said, ‘Latino/Latina pride’? What if it was a group of Native American students out on the quad holding signs that said, ‘Native power’? What would you say?” And after a brief pause for a few comments and short discussion, she’d ask this: “Okay, what if it was a group of white students holding a sign that said, ‘White is beautiful … White pride … White power’? What would you say then?” Her point in asking these questions is to highlight just how squeamish we continue to feel where race is concerned. And frankly, in the wake of the unthinkable violence perpetrated at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. this week, I must admit that it feels almost obscene to voice such question, to even put words like “white” and “pride” or “white” and “power” next to each other in the same sentence. But the deep-down, uncomfortable truth, friends, is that we still find the topic of race uncomfortable. We still find our preconceived notions of race uncomfortable. We still find the reality of race and racism in this country uncomfortable. … And well we should.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Cynthia Hurd
Tywanza Sanders
Myra Thompson
Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons
Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor
Susie Jackson

Nine lives.
Nine beloved, treasured children of God.
Nine brothers and sisters in Christ who had gathered on a Wed. evening for a prayer meeting. A prayer meeting.
Nine men and women.
Nine black men and women.

In the first part of our gospel text this morning, Jesus is speaking once again to the crowds – the teeming masses that included those who loved him (his disciples, possibly some of his family, probably his fans) as well as those who despised him (the Pharisees and the Sadducees), and probably a good portion of people that hadn’t made up their minds yet – the curious on-lookers, the “looky-loos.” And in true prophetic fashion, Jesus is giving the crowd a dose of words that are hard to hear: “The mood of this age is all wrong. Everybody’s looking for proof, but you’re looking for the wrong kind. All you’re looking for is something to titillate your curiosity, satisfy your lust for miracles.”[3] He goes on to give them two examples from Israel’s history of people who had gone to great lengths to find God. He speaks first of the Ninevites – the people who were visited by the prophet Jonah (after he rode around for a couple of days in the belly of the whale) – people who, after hearing the difficult and convicting word of God that Jonah had for them, repented in sackcloth and ashes. “They proclaimed a citywide fast and dressed in burlap to show their repentance. Everyone did it – rich and poor, famous and obscure, leaders and followers.”[4] And Jesus speaks of the Queen of Sheba who traveled hundreds of miles just to avail herself of Solomon’s wisdom – a wisdom that was widely known and acknowledged by Solomon himself to have come from God Most High. These are the examples that Jesus lays before the crowd, making it clear to them that while the entire city of Nineveh repented solely based on Jonah’s word – on a stranger’s word – and while the Queen of Sheba traveled far and wide to seek out God’s wisdom, the people in the crowd, though they had more proof than the Ninevites and far less travel time than the Queen of Sheba – the people in the crowd did not believe … did not understand … did not see. They were blinded by things that didn’t matter – things that distracted them from the power of the truth that was literally staring them right in the faces.

The One. The Messiah. The Savior who had come to set all the world free.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Cynthia Hurd
Tywanza Sanders
Myra Thompson
Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons
Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor
Susie Jackson

Nine lives.
Nine beloved, treasured children of God.
Nine brothers and sisters in Christ who had gathered on a Wed. evening for a prayer meeting. A prayer meeting.
Nine men and women.
Nine black men and women.

I have to be honest with you, the text from 2 Corinthians is what initially grabbed my attention as I was planning sermons a while back. There is so much audacity in Paul’s words here. There is so much honesty. There is so much life! “Companions as we are in this work with you, we beg you, please don’t squander one bit of this marvelous life God has given us. … Don’t put it off; don’t frustrate God’s work by showing up late, throwing a question mark over everything we’re doing.”[5] You can hear Paul’s drive – the power of his faith and his deepest, heart-felt desire for all those he encountered to feel the transformative power of God in their lives, too. He spends a good portion of the passage talking about all of the ways that having faith is hard, all of the ways that having faith doesn’t pay off, all of the struggles and the pain and the sometimes-paralyzing uncertainty, but he always does so in the light of the grace and the glory of God: “when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.”[6] Brothers and sisters, the fact remains that the most segregated time of the week in the United States is still Sunday morning. We celebrate the glory of God, the grace of God, the forgiveness and the wholeness and the acceptance that we find in God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and yet the fact remains that often, we cannot overcome those most basic barriers that divide us: race, ethnicity, gender, class, and so on. And this past week, we have witnessed the horrible aftermath of this division – the darkness and explosiveness of hatred in its most violent form: mass murder.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Cynthia Hurd
Tywanza Sanders
Myra Thompson
Ethel Lee Lance
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons
Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor
Susie Jackson

Nine lives.
Nine beloved, treasured children of God.
Nine brothers and sisters in Christ who had gathered on a Wed. evening for a prayer meeting. A prayer meeting.
Nine men and women.
Nine black men and women.

But Paul reminds us … and Jesus reminds us … and even the family members of those who were killed this week remind us that fear and division and hate do not have to have the last word. Jesus says to the crowd (and to us), “No one lights a lamp, then hides it in a drawer. It’s put on a lamp stand so those entering the room have light to see where they’re going. Your eye is a lamp, lighting up your whole body. If you live wide-eyed in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. Keep your eyes open, your lamp burning, so you don’t get musty and murky. Keep your life as well-lighted as your best-lighted room.”[7]

Paul tells us, “The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!”[8]

And as some of the family members of those murdered in Emanuel AME Church confronted the alleged gunman in court later this week, many of them spoke of forgiveness and God’s everlasting mercy.[9] Forgiveness and God’s everlasting mercy.

Friends, for too long, we have opened our eyes to the things that separate and divide us, the things that exclude others from within our midst, the things that feed the smallness within our hearts and minds and lives. It is that same smallness that led that young man to bring a loaded gun into a prayer meeting and kill so many innocent people. It is that same smallness that makes us lock our car doors when we’re in “the wrong part of town” or cross to the other side of the street when we see someone not like us walking toward us. It is that same smallness that makes us turn a blind eye to the racism that continues to plague this nation. When we participate in the inappropriate jokes, we become smaller. When we look at others with a sense of entitlement – we’ve earned our lot in life, but they deserve theirs – we become smaller. When we pass judgment before hearing the whole story (or even any of the story), before opening our eyes and hearts to the truth, before walking a mile in the other person’s shoes, we become smaller.

But by the grace of God and God alone, we do not have to stay small. We do not have to stay divided. We do not have to allow the racism, sexism, ageism, and every other fracturing ‘ism’ in this nation to stand. Paul said, “Our work as God’s servants gets validated – or not – in the details. People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly … in hard time, tough times, bad times. … Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!”[10] People are watching us. Friends, we have the responsibility to be the example – to do the hard and uncomfortable work of tearing down those walls in our own hearts and our own lives that separate us from other people, to let the light in and banish the darkness, the smallness, the pain and prejudice and fear. We can and we must choose to stand with our brothers and sisters around this nation and indeed around the world – brothers and sisters in faith, yes, but more importantly, brothers and sisters in the human race. We can stand beside them and say to the nay-sayers, to the fear-mongers, to the plain old haters, “No. Stop. Enough.” Amen.

[1] Ps 83:1-3.

[2] Dr. Jennifer Harvey, http://www.drake.edu/philrel/faculty/jenniferharvey/.

[3] Lk 11:29.

[4] Jonah 3:5.

[5] 2 Cor 6:1, 3.

[6] 2 Cor 6:8-10.

[7] Lk 11:33-36.

[8] 2 Cor 6:12-13.

[9] Jeremy Borden, Sari Horwitz, and Jerry Markon. “From victims’ families, forgiveness for accused gunman Dylann Roof” in The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/south-carolina-governor-urges-death-penalty-charges-in-church-slayings/2015/06/19/3c039722-1678-11e5-9ddc-e3353542100c_story.html. Posted 19 June 2015, accessed 20 June 2015.

[10] 2 Cor 6:4, 13b.

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