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A sermon by Bishop Lull for the Commemoration of the Emanuel Nine 2020
Zoom Service - June 17, 2020
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Living God. AMEN.
I go way back with this story of the sower and the seed and probably you do, too. When many of us were kids this was a favorite text for teaching children in the church. The teacher would read this Bible story and then we would do a hands-on project, planting seeds in a paper cup filled with soil. We would add water – but not too much – and leave the project on the classroom windowsill. A week later the bean or the zinnia seed would have poked out its head. The teacher would remind us that we were to be those rooted in good soil; those who listened well to our parents and to God.
Though this parable itself is rooted in an ancient farming culture where seeds were cast on the ground and then plowed into the soil, like many lessons in the church, stories of abundance were intermingled with stories about how to succeed in life. Pay attention to your elders so that the devil doesn’t snatch away your faith. Avoid the rocky ground where shallow conviction fades away when life gets tough. Watch out for thorns – for those things like money and having a good time – values that distract and tempt – as though faith didn’t matter all that much or matter all the time. Be those with deep roots, those who flourish in the eyes of God.
Yes, we heard this parable from Jesus as a story with us at the center. And that’s the intended effect in telling a parable. A parable is simply a story where the meaning sneaks up on the listener, luring the one who truly hears to orient their life in a particular way.
These past weeks – following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, so many others and now Rayshard Brooks, many of us, who are white, have been asking much harder questions about ourselves and the way that the values and practices and systems that make up our world have shut out and shut down and even killed those who are people of color, especially those who are black.
Maybe you have known about these disparities in access to economic opportunity or education or health care or a fair shake in the judicial system for a long time. Or maybe, the social unrest after George Floyd was killed while in police custody, and the loud protests and the civil outrage and the fires spread in our own Twin Cities, maybe then you were brought to a halt in a new way. Many of us have moved from wondering if what the protesters say is right when they chant “Black Lives Matter” to wondering what on earth we do now to make the communities in which we live places of justice and welcome and prosperity for people of every color, every identity.
We, who are white, know that it is going to take more than a slow reform or simply better intentions to transform a world that keeps in place systems that benefit at all costs the white community of which we are a part. There needs to be legislation and reforms, for sure. But there is no more putting off the soul work of wrestling with the very idea of white supremacy, which has seeped into so much of what we value as a way of life. Call it white privilege, if you choose. Racism is what it is – through and through. What it means is that we who have been slow to listen to the deep cries of the African American community, slow to listen to all those who have borne the weight of injustice for four centuries and more, we need to quickly learn to pay attention. To listen first and then to act in a new way. Now.
Five years ago, on this very night a small group of Christians gathered at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina for Bible study and prayer. All were African American. Many were leaders in their denomination and state. They came from many generations – young and old – gathering midweek to study God’s Word. After they had begun a young white man appeared at the church door. They weren’t expecting him but they invited him to join them in their church. Picture that. Picture that forever in your mind, dear church. They said to him even you are welcome here.
The text they read that night – I am told – was this very story of the sower and the seed, in case you were puzzled why it is the text for this evening’s service. The young white man, who had grown up in an ELCA congregation, had not come to learn. He had come on purpose to kill blacks. An avowed white supremacist, he wanted to start a race war. To once and for all, put black people in their place – not as fellow citizens, not as those with equal civil rights, not as those with full standing as beloved children of God but in a hate-filled place of enslavement and diminishment as human beings.
That night nine beautiful, strong, faith-filled African American women and men died. Hear their names: Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Mrs. Cynthia Graham Hurd, Mrs. Susie J. Jackson, Mrs. Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. DePayne Vontrease Middleton, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Mr. Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders, Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr. and Mrs. Myra Singleton Quarles Thompson.
A lot more would unfold in that story of these nine saints of God but on the fifth anniversary of the martyrdom of the Emanuel Nine, let me say simply this. We could have learned then what we must learn now.
“Listen,” Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” (Mark 4:9)
Listen to the word of a Living God. What we may not have known as young children is that sometimes the Word of God stings with an honest rebuke. Sometimes, a parable – or a dramatic, gut-wrenching, historic event in real time – can bring us up short and force us to see our lives in a brand-new way. That experience may make us incredibly uncomfortable or defensive or cynical. We may be afraid of what the future holds. But if the Word of God has power at all, it has the power to transform even as unwieldy a principality and power as the deeply-rooted, life-denying system of racism that runs through all our lives, here and now.
This parable of the sower and the seeds is actually about God. You see, God is more powerful than the systems and the privileges we, who are white, idolize and cling to until their unrelenting violence and horrid injustices can no longer be denied.
How do we know that God has such power? Because God raised Christ Jesus from the dead. Right then, God showed us a power greater than evil. A love deeper than hatred. A life more victorious than the grip of fear and death.
That’s not about little seeds, sprouting in a cup. That is the fundamental proclamation of good news that is the heart of our world and at the heart of our lives in Christ. God in Christ can raise even you and me to a new way of life as children of God. And this God – as the scriptures proclaim from beginning to end – is on the side of justice and the arc of the God’s moral universe bends 1 and does not break.
In God’s way of life there is no room for white privilege. No tolerance for white supremacy. With this God there is no absolution without soul-searching and repentance. No excuse for disparities that place neighbors of color – black, Latino, Asian or indigenous at a disadvantage in every facet of life.
This time are we ready to no longer turn away or forget or be distracted by the pleasures of life? Are we ready to trust the Living God to remake us, to scald us clean of our silence, our failures and our sin? Are we ready to rebuild communities not as they were before but to build up communities as they are meant to be as places of dignity and justice and human flourishing for all? I pray we are. I pray we are. AMEN.
Bishop Patricia Lull
1 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” speech given at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., March 31, 1968.