A Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Canon Anne Marie Richards
Trinity Church, Newport, Rhode Island
Sunday, August 13, 2017 (Proper 14A)
Good morning. What I say to you now is not what I had planned earlier this week. It is not a carefully crafted message of theological cleverness, but is, instead, a perhaps still too raw, too new, word spoken to a world gone mad – again. A word that reflects on the events of Friday night and Saturday in a small college town in Virginia, at a university founded by an imperfect founder of our country.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, a group of heavily armed Americans marched and shouted such phrases as “You will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil” and “Keep America White.” And those are just the ones I can speak in this holy place and with children present. They carried torches and beat students who countered their violence and anger with silent opposition. They carried weapons, such fire power as is hard to imagine – chilling images of automatic weapons slung over the shoulders of men and women driven by hatred of the “other.” They marched to proclaim a twisted and perverse understanding of what it means to be safe, to be pure, of what it means to be human.
And they drove a car into a crowd of innocent bystanders and killed a 32 year old woman who was just crossing the street. Heather Heyer was murdered, literally run over by hate and fear.
So, a sermon about silence, or even about walking on water, though these are some of my favorite passages of scripture, seems out of place on this day. A sermon that let’s us sit comfortably in our pews this morning is out of place. A sermon that follows the same carefully crafted formulas of preaching – one story, three points, a few rhetorical flourishes – those words are out of place today.
Because my heart is broken. My love of my fellow human being is tested to the breaking point. Created in the image and likeness of God- that is what humanity is. We are the dream of God. The dream that completes creation, creation that is named by the Almighty, “Good.” We, God’s people, God’s beloved ones, the people for whom God gave, freely gave, his only son, are so beautiful, so marvelously made, and yet, possess the potential for such horror as can not be imagined.
When I sat for my ordination exams one of the half-day questions was “What is sin?” I’m sure there were some other parameters set for the essay, but all I can remember was that one big question. And for the life of me I could not answer it. I eventually wrote something, threw in a whole lot of multi-syllabic seminary words, and filled whatever the required page count was. But I just kept coming back to the same short answer – Sin is anything that separates us from the love of God. Sin breaks our bond and covenant with the love that is God. The pure and powerful, the creating and creative, the endlessly forgiving, love of God. Sin rejects God’s love and the law that He has given us to live out that love, and replaces it with something else. With our own judgment. With a worldly idol such as money or power. Sin replaces God’s perfect love with humanity’s imperfection made manifest in hate.
Hate is sin.
We cannot justify it by citing societal woes – unemployment, economic hardship, immigration. We cannot justify it as ignorance. We cannot justify sin. Period. Full stop.
What we witnessed in Charlottesville was not a continuation of this country’s proud heritage of free speech, free assembly, and peaceful protest, of disagreement within a structure of mutually understood citizenship. No, what we witnessed in Charlottesville was sin on parade. We saw, we heard, we witnessed hatred and a desire for false purity. We saw radicalized men and women not of Arab descent, not of the Muslim faith, but white, American, men and women. Home grown terrorists is what a tweet I read called them. The term brought tears to my eyes.
We saw hate. We saw sin. We saw swastikas and one-armed salutes that our soldiers helped defeat less than 75 years ago, once again proudly and publicly displayed.
What are we, as followers of Jesus Christ, what are we supposed to do with that? We cannot pretend that nothing happened. We cannot point fingers left and right, or alt-left and alt-right, claiming no part of it because it was caused by the other side’s flaws. For the Christian man or woman, this isn’t about politics, about who you voted for or what party’s flag you fly. For the Christian, it can only be about sin. About how we acknowledge and confront sin in our midst In our communities. In our families. In our selves.
Because the sin of racism and nationalism, or sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. – the sin of hate is not the problem of the “other.” It is the problem of me. Of you. We are marvelously made, and deeply broken. We carry subtle, and not so subtle prejudices in our hearts – we may not even know they are there.
Some of you will recall the piece of artwork that we displayed in this church in early July. It was a fabric sculpture, animated by a fan, and it swayed and waved and moved right back there, right behind our holy table. Not everyone liked it, but it did generate some fascinating comments. And the ones that have stuck with me, and come back to me many times these last few days, all had to do with the color of the fabric. The piece was made of a dark grey, almost black, material. And it had a hood, and red drawstring ties. And more than a few people said to me, “I would have liked it better if it were white.”
“I would have liked it better if it were white.”
We can rationalize those words – white is prettier, white matches the church better, white is the good-guy color, etc. But today I just want us to be honest. I just want us to search our hearts deeply and perhaps painfully, and admit quietly to ourselves that maybe, just maybe, on an unconscious level, we would have liked a white figure better because it would be white.
I say this not to stand above you in this lofty pulpit and judge, but to confess to you and with you that there are times that I have had the same sort of thought about a group of “other” human beings. Maybe not black folk, but other groups. I have to work, and pray, and confess, and seek God’s love to heal me of my prejudices. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t have to admit to my own moral failures, to my own false judgments. So I’m not saying the work we’ve been given to do is easy, or simple, or something that we can accomplish in one day, but I am saying that Jesus calls us out of our fallen-ness, pulls us up out of our own drowning, and gives us the power to walk on water.
Jesus saves us from ourselves. Jesus saves us.
The images out of Charlottesville will, I hope, call us to confront the sin of hatred in our lives, in our communities, in our government. We should be shaken and angered and “woke” by the presence of such hatred in our country. But there is a better image than the many photos of the angry crowds with torches and firearms. That better image is of a group of clergy standing arm-in-arm along the edge of the protest area. Side by side, they are singing. Over the shouts and noise of the white supremacist hate mongers, these men and women of faith are singing the old songs. Singing of Jesus’ love. Singing of freedom. Singing of peace. Their stand is firm. Their line is unbroken. Their resolve is strong. Hate goes no further. Sin is not tolerated here.
The Psalmist writes,
I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Mercy and truth. Righteousness and Peace.
May it be so.