Sermon on Charlottesville

Below the fold is a written version of my (John’s) sermon from Sunday, August 13, 2017, in which I addressed the previous days events in Charlottesville, Virginia. I have taken a transcript of the sermon and altered it slightly to better reflect what I wished to say. (I was speaking with few notes and often extemporaneously.)

I really like that gospel reading [the lectionary Gospel reading for the day, Matthew 14:22-33, had just been read]. I’ve been thinking about my sermon on that gospel reading for two weeks now.  Then yesterday’s events in Charlottesville happened, and early this morning I made the decision to preach a completely different sermon.

So I’ve gone from a sermon with a lot of preparation to one with very little. But this issue is on my heart, and I simply feel that I must address it. I trust that the Holy Spirit will help me.

If you haven’t seen the news in Charlottesville, there was a protest. The city of Charlottesville, Virginia was getting ready to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee. And so some folks went to protest against its removal.  And then there were counter-protesters against the protesters. And then one of the protesters drove a car into the counter-protesters killing one person and wounding several others.

If you want to know what the protesters look like I think this t-shirt is a good example. [At this point I showed a slide with a man walking away from the camera who was wearing a t-shirt with extensive writing on the back.]  Now you can’t read the t-shirt because it’s too small, but if you could read it you would see that it’s a quote from an Adolf Hitler. And if you’re like me you’re thinking, “who wears a t-shirt with a quote from  Adolf Hitler in America in 2017?”

When I first saw this picture, I thought (actually I just hoped) that maybe this was just one person randomly walking down the street. Maybe this is someone that even the protesters wanted to shun. Perhaps even the protesters trying to keep the statue of Robert E. Lee wanted to shun this guy.

But then I came across this picture [At this point I showed a slide picturing several protesters holding Confederate battle flags and one holding a flag with a swastika]. Folks, that is a swastika. That is a swastika in the United States of America in 2017.

(Sigh) I don’t know what to say. Who does that? How can this be happening? But there’s more. While there may be some who would want to hold on to the statue but get rid of the swastika, there are also people in that picture (and in countless others) holding Confederate battle flags, and I don’t think that’s really any better.

Now, I know I grew up in Kansas, and I’ve lived in Kansas my entire life (actually for two years while we were in seminary our address was in Kansas City, Missouri, but we came back to Kansas every weekend). I love Kansas, and I’m aware enough of Kansas history to know that we fought not to be on that side during the Civil War. I have been to the state capitol. And if you go to the Kansas state capitol, you find there, in a place of honor, a giant picture of John Brown, Bible in one hand and a shotgun in the other (and I do have issues with that). John Brown was a violent man, and I would hesitate to call him heroic, but he is emblematic of Kansas, and he stood in opposition to everything the Confederate battle flag stood for.

I’ve heard the excuse/explanation that the Confederate battle flag is about heritage, not hate. I’ve heard that. And yet imagine, imagine you’re African-American, and someone wants to parade around with the flag of the army that fought to keep your ancestors enslaved. Would you buy that explanation?

Furthermore, when you study history a little more closely, you begin to realize that the Confederate battle flag pretty much disappeared after the Civil War. It didn’t come up as a potent symbol again, and it wasn’t commonly displayed throughout the South, until a century later as a symbol of opposition to school desegregation and the civil rights movement.

I can understand wanting to value your heritage and to honor your ancestors. But another symbol needs to be found. The Confederate battle flag simply has too much baggage and is too emblematic of hate and oppression.

So to recap, there were protesters down in Charlottesville, Virginia. Some were waving the Confederate flag and wearing their clan robes, others raising the Nazi swastika or giving the Nazi salute and others who shared their ideology but were doing their level best to look respectable.

We’ve got to oppose that. The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us we have to oppose that.

As Paul writes in Galatians 3:26-28 (NRSV):

26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is writing to the Galatians. Galatia was in the Roman Empire. There was a lot of trade and the congregations in Galatia were probably quite diverse.

And Paul is here telling them that they are all one in Jesus Christ and if they are all one, then they are all equal in Jesus Christ. Paul makes this argument with a frontal attack on the deepest division that he was raised with—the division between Jew and Greek (gentiles or non-Jews). It was the deepest division of Paul’s day, and it was as deep as any division among people that exists today.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul’s saying that division doesn’t exist. Furthermore, the division between slave or free doesn’t exist. Thirdly, the division between male and female doesn’t exist. Paul only names these three, but the rhetorical effect is that no divisions exist for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

This is what the Gospel tells us. This is what Jesus lived. This is what Christ proclaimed. This is an integral part of the good news of the Kingdom of God, and we need to be willing to speak up for it.

Why? Well, I came across this quote on my Twitter feed, and it aptly summarizes why we must do something:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

In my twitter feed and elsewhere on the web this saying was attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran pastor in Germany who was executed for his role in attempting to overthrow the Nazi regime).

Now, I have this hang up when I see a quote attributed to someone famous. I want to go verify the source before I share it. I couldn’t do that with this quote. As far as I can tell Dietrich Bonhoeffer never said this, but I believe that he would have wholeheartedly approved of it.

And more importantly, this quote is true. To be silent in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.

We have to speak up. We have to act. We have to make it clear where we stand. It’s hard, and it’s difficult, but it is necessary. What can we do? How can we speak up? How can we make our position clear?

I have four suggestions, and the first suggestion is going to sound like a bit of shameless self-promotion. The first suggestion I have is to go see the musical “Ragtime” at the Great Plains theatre. It sounds like shameless self-promotion because our daughter Liz is active in the theatre, but Liz isn’t in this particular play. So I’m a little more neutral than I normally would be.

“Ragtime” was made into a musical in 1998 and is based on a novel written in 1975. It’s set all the way back in the first two decades of the 20th century. Still, the issues it addresses and examines, issues of race and immigration, that are still terribly and frighteningly relevant today. Tickets aren’t cheap, and musical theatre may not be your thing. Nonetheless, if you’re inclined to go and you can afford to go, I would encourage you to go. Go and be supportive. Show your support for a diverse, talented cast and crew that has taken on issues we often avoid.

The second thing, and this one is more mandatory, is to speak grace and truth to hate. Speak out even when it’s uncomfortable. In high school, I had some friends who once dropped the “N-word” when I was present. I didn’t know what to do because that wasn’t the way I had been raised. So I shared this story. I first heard that hateful word at school as a young boy, but I didn’t know what it meant. I had found that the best way to find out the meaning of a word was to ask my parents. So I asked my mom what it meant, and I got sent to bed without any supper. It’s the only time I was ever punished that way. I told that story, and there was a silence, and then the conversation moved on. (Note: my mom does not remember this happening, and my mom is a very truthful person, but I remember vividly that response and the look on her face and the knowledge that I had done something horribly wrong.)

Telling that story wasn’t heroic, it wasn’t bold, and I don’t think I changed anyone’s mind. But what it did say was “don’t talk like that around me.” They heard that, and every little bit helps. Don’t tolerate that kind of speech. Speak up. Say where you are and thus proclaim the gospel.

The third thing: If circumstances arise, dare to get in someone’s way to shield the vulnerable. There have been some attacks in various cities with public transportation where a Muslim woman will be sitting on the subway or on the bus, and someone will come up and begin to harass her because she’s wearing a Hijab.

What works best in that situation is for someone who’s not in a Hijab, someone, say, like a United Methodist to stand up for the person being harassed. This can be done as simply as exhibiting solidarity by going over and sitting by the person and placing yourself between them and their harassers. There is some danger in doing so, but most of the time the harassers will back off. They’re suddenly less eager to express their hate and spite.

Both of these things, speaking the truth and shielding the vulnerable need to be done with a generous, loving spirit. There is no place for hate or violence, verbal or physical, in the proclamation of God’s kingdom. The civil rights movement of the 1960’s knew this well, and so they actually trained people to turn the other cheek and not return violence for violence. Modern protesters for justice would do well to follow their example.

That same generous, loving spirit is important for the final item on my list. The final thing I have for you this morning is to keep being this church. Not just a church, but this church. I have always experienced this church as an open and affirming place. I’m a straight white man, and I realize this affects how I experience things, but I have always observed this church to be a place that welcomes everyone. I have always experienced this church as a place that extends fellowship to everyone who walks through the door. And by being such a place, you are counter demonstrating against the hate on display in Charlottesville. By being this church, you are showing that a different way of life, a different way of relating to one another is possible.

And that in and of itself is a great deal of the reason that Jesus Christ founded the church. Amen.