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A Sermon for Charleston

from Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper

Lift every voice and sing to earth and heaven ring.... ring out the sure promise of human harmony.

Those who died are:

Rev. Clementa C. Pinckne , senior pastor and state senator

Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, associate pastor

Ms. Cynthia Hurd, a librarian at the Charleston Public Library

Ms. Twanza Sanders, a 26 year old recent college grad

Ms. Myra Thompson, a pastor’s wife at another local church

Ms. Ethel Lee Lance, the church’s sexton

Mr. Daniel L. Simmons, a part of the Emanuel ministerial staff

Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, a mother, minister and musician

Ms. Susie Jackson, a longtime member and an Eastern Star

This sermon was supposed to be about the remarkable biblical literature on housing and place and spaciousness. It was supposed to be about Father’s Day and the urgency many fathers feel to provide a home for their family. Mothers feel it too but today is not Mother’s Day. It was supposed to be about the glory of Solomon’s temple, which surely is and was glorious, till God’s enemies destroyed it. My plan was to talk to you about the agony my daughter, Katie, has experienced in Albany, fighting for Rent Control with Tenants and Neighbors, this last year and especially these last months of corruption and carelessness, ineptness and incompetence. It is hard for a 30 year old to lose so much innocence so often. It is also hard for a mother and father to watch it happen and to be utterly powerlessness to stop it.

It was supposed to flirt with the companion texts to the temple text – the promise Jesus makes to go to make a DWELLING PLACE for us and the promise he makes to his disciples that “in my father’s house there are many mansions.” It wanted to sing with K about how loss of place and space moves beautifully in and out of much rap music.

Then a 21 year old shot 9 people in Charleston and ever since then I have been flummoxed. All the smart people have already weighed in. Jamil Smith: “This is the opposite of sanctuary. Space is closing in on us.”. The mayor of Charleston, himself still undecided about the values and virtues of the Confederate flag, also said, “We can’t have nation where we have to put up security guards to do bible study.

Jon Stewart was speechless and said in my paraphrase: “I got nothing for you. Just to peer into the abyss and the nexus of a gaping racist world which we pretend doesn’t exist. Nothing will happen. If guns weren’t outlawed by the Sandy Hook disaster, we cannot imagine anything will change now. That’s just us. We won’t do jack. There is such a disparity on how much money we pay to keep ourselves safe in the middle east while shooting ourselves at home. This action was a terrorist act on a national symbol. People in South Carolina (yes I went to high school there) have to drive on streets named for confederate general. Their state capital sports a confederate flag. Excuse my pun folks, but this thing is black and white.”

Leonard Pitts described the reigning American myth about race this way: “we have conquered racism and moved into the post racial Promised Land and built luxury condos there.” Same lie, right? All is well, especially as soon as the South wins the Civil War in our myth and mind.

Norman Allen in Tikkun said, “There is a striking advantage that villains hold. Love on the other hand takes time.”

And my favorite came from the cartoonist, Nick Anderson after the Baltimore shooting. The cartoon is in four squares. “Bikers being shot at” is an isolated incident. “Wall Street fraud” is an isolated incident. Police brutality is “an isolated incident.” “Baltimore looting,” evidence of endemic pathology in the black community.

So let me go back to one of the texts about place and its promise and place and its violation. After all they were doing bible study when shot. It is the passage from the Gospel of John (14:1-3) in which Jesus assures his disciples, “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” Gospel passage in which Jesus comforts his disciples, “who were in trouble, moving through trouble, on their way to more trouble,” with the words “let not your heart be troubled.” As Rev Ken Samuels, my friend whom some of you heard preach earlier this year, preaches this text, he notes:

“If it’s not a struggle buying gasoline, it’s a struggle paying your gas bill. If it’s not a headache it’s heartache. If you’re not broke, your best friend is broke. If it’s not a struggle getting married, it’s a struggle staying married. If it’s not a shooting in your neighborhood, it’s a killing in Iraq. If it’s not a problem opening a business, it’s a problem keeping a business open. If it’s not trouble on your job, it’s hell in your home!”

Ken’s take on this important text, for Father’s Day and for Charleston, “God has a place for everybody who’s been displaced.. “Jesus says that I know your place is no longer inhabitable. I know that your place is under siege.” “But there is a place beyond this place. My father’s house. Your home in this place may be unsettled and uncertain. But you always”—it sounds like aaaaalways—“have a home in my father’s house.”

Some of you know that Ken’s Church lost 2500 members the day he preached that “everybody would be welcome in God’s House“ They got that number and more back but it wasn’t easy when they couldn’t pay the mortgage on their building. “Rigid religious systems may not welcome and affirm you,” “Governmental authorities may be unable, unwilling, or too incompetent to accommodate you.” “Storms and calamities may wreck and ravage the places where you live. Life may damage and displace you. But you aaaaalways got a place in my father’s house.” Also says he, “there are no homeless people in God’s Kingdom. Because Jesus said there are many mansions. There is no substandard dilapidated housing” in God’s Kingdom. There are no gated gilded communities for the privileged few while the masses suffer in squalor and poverty in the Kingdom,” because Jesus says, ‘in my father’s house there are many mansions.’” “

, Jesus, the Gospel economist, promises abundance.

“Instead of building many mansions we are building many slums; instead of building to accommodate the masses we are building to satisfy the privileges and perks of the wealthy gentry few.” As a result, “we are building houses too small and rooms too narrow. When elected officials advance legislation to benefit the private interest of wealthy donors while they disregard the public interest of the masses, we are building houses too small and rooms too narrow.” “When vital social services for poor and working class Americans are being cut to provide hefty tax breaks to the wealthy, we are building houses too small and rooms too narrow!” “When you appoint yourself the gatekeeper and deputy in charge of who’s worthy to be in the kingdom, and who’s not worthy to be in the kingdom based upon your narrow, myopic, parochial, short-sighted criteria of righteousness, we are building houses too small and rooms too narrow!”

“When we say God bless America and damn the rest of the world we are building houses too small and rooms too narrow!!”

So enough of Ken and Leonard Pitts and Jon Stewart. Let me now say a word to you. I have been in a quarrel with several people over the last few days about you. My first quarrel was as a new member of the Mayor’s Religious Advisory Council. We met Friday to discuss what the mayor should do. White clergy are in the minority on this group. We don’t know each other very well. And somebody said, Your people, Donna, are in denial of the horror of this and will stay in denial.” I begged to differ.

I don’t think that is where you are or we are. Plus we is one of the most dangerous words in the English language. We are mostly white here. We are also integrating, quietly, carefully here. Ain’t no we here. Maybe some of us are in denial and maybe that’s what denial is like. It is a process in the stage of grief and injury. Nobody is at the same place at any given time. Some of the rooms of our spiritual house are well appointed and well kept and others are broom closets and more like cellars. Somebody remembered to freshen the flowers in one of the rooms in our spiritual mansion and in other places the plants are long dead from lack of water or pruning. Still others have great windows overlooking great fields or cities – and some haven’t even changed the light bulb in the hallways. We are not in denial of our hope for beauty. We just haven’t gotten there yet.

I think the word that applies best to us – and to my daughter – is overwhelmed. Over- whelmed. Over. Whelmed. The whelm is high. What is the right thing to do when you are overwhelmed? Take one step at a time. Just one. But take it. Take it with grace and elan and non chalance and awareness that you are a speck. But take one step.

Others say we are in a battle and girding our loins for the long fight, the long haul, the love we know takes time. Others, when we lose our innocence over and over again, learn to use power better. We learn to be mean. That’s what we need to do with NRA. We need to be mean. They are stupid. They are mean. They are slogan eating men who are never going to provide a home, much less a mansion for their children.

Katie called Governor Cuomo a Republican in the Daily News this morning and Cuomo called to say “some tenant leader called him a Republican. He is not a Republican. Yes, some of us are in the anger stage and need to fight. Others of us are just raw. Some of us are numb. And some of us are pissed. Really really pissed. And we don’t know why we should take this kind of crap from our elected or our economy or ourselves.

But we are not in denial. We are flummoxed. We are outraged. We are building. We are in deep mourning. We are overwhelmed. We need to fight violently and non-violently, following the firm Jesus who refused to have an enemy but also knew how to fight.

Beyond the pastoral, we also need to untangle some intellectual and moral tangles. Is this an isolated incident? No. Is this about mental illness? Yes. Is mental illness an isolated incident? No, it is not. And it is the nation as well as a young man named Dylan who are ill, mentally, spiritually, morally, stuck in trying to win a Civil War they already lost. Stuck is another word for mental illness. Cornered is another word for mental illness. No way out is another word for mental illness.

Is this about guns? You bet. And if there is a myth inside the myths about denial and the myths it is the myth that we can’t beat the NRA. In my father’s house there are many mansions – and also many guns. Instead of saying to each other we can’t win on the gun issue, we can say to ourselves that we are in an early battle about guns. And that guns need to be controlled. Yes, controlled. Guns need to be controlled so as to help mentally ill people not be able to get to them.

So yes it is about mental illness and yes it is about guns. And it is also about racism, about people stuck in a past. White people are stuck in a past that they defend and can’t stop defending. “I wasn’t there.” “It’s not me.” A past where we stole labor and land from people. Where we imported people and then deported them to 3/5 status. It is about a crime and a sin that our forbears committed and we need repentance and room to repent and ways to repent and a theology of repentance. If it is true that in our father’s house there are many mansions, there has to be a place for those who have sinned and don’t know how to stop defending sin to move. There is also surely a place for those who have been wronged, wronged again, wronged again and then blamed for their wrongs. Yes, poverty is understood to be the poor person’s fault. WOW! There is surely a place where dehumanization, even the quiet sneaky kinds in micro aggressions and implicit assumptions, gets called out.

By the way Jon Stewart is wrong. The issue of racism being wrong is indeed a matter of black and white. But black people and white people both occupy many different places on the spectrum of healing. There we have browns and greys and muted earth colors. We are in trouble, going through trouble, and also capable of trouble.

So what’s next for we muddled middlers? Anything that takes the dial a step more out of denial is good. Anything that warms the heart and opens space is good. Anything that stops us circling in cages and traps and narrow places is good. Anything that refuses the hate and judgment on ourselves or others is good. Action is good. Anger is good. Best of all is confronting every lie we hear about “isolated incidents.” Quietly, we need to say over and over, “unfortunately I see a connection. I see a connection between you, and me between slavery and today, between them, and us between my white and your black or your brown or your beige. I see a connection.” Isolated incidents isolate people. Connections link and open us and save us. Amen.


Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is the Sr. Minister at Judson Memorial Church - NYC


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