David, Goliath, and Emanuel Church

Usually I start out my sermon trying to make you laugh. I’m not going to do that today. Usually, I think it’s good to laugh during a sermon. There’s a lot of grace in laughter, and, God knows, we could all use a little more grace these days. But I can’t start with laughter today, not after this week.

We’re lamenting today, the loss of sisters and brothers in Christ. We’re lamenting the state of the soul of a young man who chose to commit such violence. We’re lamenting this morning. Lament is an important and powerful part of our tradition. Lament is at the heart of the majority of the psalms. Lament allows us to express our anguish, before God. We cry out to God the words of the disciples: “we are perishing!” This morning, with the events of this week, with all the history that makes these killings seem commonplace, we cry out “Lord, we are perishing!” And we expect God to answer us. That’s lament: a cry with an expectation of an answer.

We are lamenting this morning, and as we lament I find myself drawn to this story of David and Goliath. If we’re looking for an answer from God as we face great terror, I don’t know of a better scripture to search.

I shortened this reading today. The committee that sets the lectionary wanted us to read an additional 37 verses. I will sum them up for you here, but I also encourage you to take out your Bible when you go home and read the whole David saga. As the chapter opens, the Philistines are gathering for battle against the Israelites and their king, Saul. Young David has come down from the hillside near Bethlehem where he tends sheep. His Father Jesse has sent him to bring food to his brothers on the front lines of the battle. Meanwhile, a champion named Goliath of Gath has been taunting the Israelites for forty days. Goliath stands about nine feet tall according to the text. Every day he steps out in front of the Philistine army and calls for an Israelite champion to come face him. No one has stepped up, until David arrives.

I’m going to pause here, because this is a dangerous moment in the text. In recent years we’ve learned a great deal about the criminals who choose to take lives through gun violence. Often, as was the case this week, a young man imagines himself as a sort of David character. They may not name our story exactly, but the allegorical tale of the little guy standing up against the giant is often a primary driver for violence. The killer imagines they are fighting for the right against overwhelming odds.

You may wonder why I am giving Dylann Storm Roof’s ideology any time in my sermon. As a people shaped by the stories of the Bible, I think we have to engage when hateful violence happens. As people shaped by Scripture, we have to stand up and say: you read this story wrong. As I’ve read and listened to Dylann’s story, I have wondered why his friends didn’t challenge his ideology. When they heard he was planning to use his new gun fight a race war, why didn’t they stop him? If I had been Dylann’s friend, would I have had the courage to call the authorities?

David and Goliath illustration by Matt Murphy for the Guardian
David and Goliath illustration by Matt Murphy for the Guardian
We are facing a Goliath. But our Goliath isn’t a race of people Our Goliath isn’t single giant. It isn’t a murderous monster. Our Goliath isn’t a person, it’s an ideology, it’s a system. Our Goliath was created as women and men from Africa were forced into chattel slavery. My ancestors enhanced the racial biases they inherited. They created and codified a system of race that haunts us today. Especially over the last year of racial tension I have often heard “I can’t believe we’re still here.” It’s been 50 years since the March on Washington, why are murders still happening in black churches?

It feels like we are on the front lines, still, and still our Goliath wakes up in the morning to taunt us. The Bible tells us that Goliath walked back and forth jeering and the Israelites for forty days. Forty days is the Bible’s way of saying “a really long time,” too long. We have been waiting for the end of racism for too long. Why won’t this Goliath leave us alone?

Before I go on I have name another Goliath we have been facing another for too long. This week the twin monsters walked hand in hand. What’s the other Goliath? I was in my tenth grade classroom when a teacher’s aide came rushing around the hallway locking the doors. Our teacher got a call on the classroom phone, and told us all to back away from the windows. A mass shooting was happening at a nearby high school. That was the afternoon of Columbine.

Since that time, I have watched the news of shootings in churches, mosques, synagogues, movie theaters, and schools. We face another Goliath, and like the Israelites, we seem unable to face him. I do not understand why we can’t find a way to address gun violence in our country. Why do we keep passing laws making access to deadly weapons easy? Why can’t we pass sensible gun legislation?

We are taunted by our inability to face our Goliaths. Systemic racism continues to pollute the minds of young women and men. It’s not just about the young white men who turn to violence. Systemic racism makes it quantifiably more difficult for our young sisters and brothers of color to get ahead. At the same time gun violence continues to claim lives. Goliath stalks our nation, heavily armed, taunting us. If anything is going to change, we have to acknowledge the monstrous reality in which we find ourselves. We have to face our Goliaths. We have to call to God and say, “We are perishing!”

As I said, we are in a place of lament. Lament calls to God, and expects an answer. I saw signs this week that God does indeed hear our cries. In some of the stories about the judge setting bail, the reporters paused in their analysis of the killer to talk about the families of the victims. Many of them gathered in the courtroom. The families addressed the young killer on closed circuit television, and family member after family member offered their forgiveness.

How do you do that? How do you even begin to forgive the killer who targeted your grandmother, your sister, your son, your pastor, because of their skin color? Those family members are better Christians than I. Dylann Roof targeted their loved ones, trying to start a racial war, but they refused to see him as a monster. They respected the dignity of their fellow human being. They saw him as capable of being forgiven. He brought hate into their church, and they responded with love.

When David appeared before Saul, the king clothed him in his armor. David had to look ridiculous, trying to walk with all that metal, too big for his young body. How often do we clothe ourselves with old armor? How often do we inherit the armor of hatred, the armor of suspicion, the armor of prejudice? We use armor to protect ourselves, and we use prejudice the same way. We insulate ourselves to protect ourselves. But this week, like David, the women and men of Emanuel took off their armor. They said, “I can’t walk around carrying all that hate.” They chose forgiveness. They chose love. They chose Jesus.

That’s what it is going to take to face our Goliaths. We have to put down the armor. We can’t take up the old stories. We have to let our guard down. We have to face the prejudices in ourselves, and work to set them down. We have to look at all we use to protect ourselves. We’ve got to set it down. If fewer women and men are going to die, we have to be like David and choose not to arm ourselves with heavy weapons. As a nation, we have to make a choice to limit the guns. Christians look to Jesus for protection, not a firearm.

You see, we are a people of Good News. We may live in a world where the news seems grim. We still live in a world where racism and violence seem to hold sway, but being Christians means believing that death never has the last word. Hate never has the last word. God has the last word. God’s last word is forgiveness. God’s last word is life. God’s last word is love.

“We are perishing” say the disciples. Boy does it feel that way sometimes. It felt that way this week. But even in the midst of death, we make our song “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia” because no act of hateful violence can overcome the love of Christ. No act of injustice can overcome the merciful justice of God.

The survivors of Emanuel Church set a high bar. They looked in the face of hate and chose forgiveness. We too can choose that path. We can stop being afraid. We can follow the savior whose way is love and whose justice is mercy. We can stop the taunting and face our Goliaths. We can. We will. And we shall overcome.

Mother’s Day: Love is Costly; Love is Worth the Cost, a sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

On Mothers’ Day, I always like to look out over the congregation, inevitably there are a few new faces. Mothers can exert a powerful influence in our lives. I always like to see who might be here on this day, because mom said: “For Mother’s Day this year, I’d like you to come to church with me.” I don’t know this congregation well enough to know if that is the case for any of you. So don’t worry, I won’t make anyone raise their hands.

But if this is you, good for you. It’s good to do something for your mom. She’s done a lot for you. I want to assure you, you’re not alone. I suspect that many of us who are regular churchgoers owe some of our pattern of attendance to our mothers. I know I do. My mom, after all, is an Episcopal priest. Church was not really an option in my household growing up.

Before I go further, I want to say I have an exceptional mother. I know that I am blessed. When I talk about mothers and motherhood, I know that I am speaking from my particular experience. I know your experience may be different. When I talk about motherhood as an archetype and an ideal, you may need to translate. You may need to think of the people in your life who have showed you mothering love. Nurture takes all sorts of shapes in our lives, and that is a blessing Maybe your relationship with your mother was or is more complicated. Feel free to translate.

That said, I need to explain that in addition to church, I go to a lot of concerts. I get my concert-going from my mom, just like my churc-going. A few weeks ago I went with a seminary friend to the Sufjan Stevens show at the Peabody Opera House. Sufjan is sort of a mystic Episcopalian folk rock star. (I’ll let you parse that one). In the middle of his concert he broke from the music for a bit of dialogue.

Sufjan started his speech by saying this: “If parenthood is sainthood, then motherhood is martyrdom.” Again, I’ll let you make your own judgements about Sufjan. I’ll tell you, I love his music and I think he’s a little odd. But he explained his theology a bit, and it caught my attention. Sufjan Stevens said he thinks mothers are martyrs because give up their bodies, literally, in carrying a child. Then they give of themselves to give birth. Mothers suffer in order to bring life into the world. I’ve been chewing on that idea for a little while now.

When I read the Gospel we have today to prepare for this sermon, Sufjan’s statement came back to me. “Motherhood is martyrdom.” Jesus tells us that to love is to lay down your life. In fact, “No one has greater love than this.” Does Jesus only mean a literal martyrdom? I don’t think so. In many ways, I think, mothers often teach us about this kind of love, the love that asks you to lay your life on the line for someone else. Mothers know about the day in and day out martyrdom of great love.

I’m struck by this martyrdom because these days, I am surrounded by new moms. Ellis and I are at the stage of life when we have a lot of friends having babies. Our first night in our new house, two kids under a year old were in tow with friends helping us move in and bless our home. My sister gave birth to our first niece just last July. There are a lot of pictures of us on Facebook holding babies, and people are joking that Ellis and I have baby fever. Well, maybe. I’ll say there is something wonderful, probably even hormonal, about holding a baby, but for now I also enjoy handing them back to their moms or dads.

Being surrounded by new moms, moms who are my own age, has been a new window for me into parenthood generally, and motherhood specifically. Before the last year or two, I just didn’t know how scary it was to be a mom. Maybe part of the job of a mother is to make her kids think she is fearless. I do think kids can smell fear. I also think a little son or daughter often needs a momma bear to protect them. I guess I had always seen mothers’ emotions from afar. Now my sister and my good friends have started having babies. I’ve seen for the first time how being a mom is scary.

Laying down your life, risking your life, letting go of control of your body, it’s not easy. Love, life-giving love, is costly. Moms know that well. Mothers who worried about why a baby was kicking, or not kicking; mothers who know what its like to have a screaming kid that you can’t calm down at three in the morning; mothers who know what it is like to fear for your teenager who is on a first date, or performing a solo, know that love is scary. Love costs a great deal.

Love will always be costly, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the price of being a mother is too high today. Too many mothers have lost a child to violence. Too many mothers have too much to fear. Love is too costly in this city, and we have work to do.

But whatever we do to limit the violence, I don’t believe we can totally mitigate the cost of love. Love always costs us something. There’s no way around it. No matter how strong a momma bear or papa bear you are as a parent, you can’t protect your children from everything. And that’s scary. You’ll pay the cost of love in worried nights, in frustrating conversations with teenagers. You’ll pay the cost of love in anxiety because you don’t know the right answer, or worry that you haven’t been a good parent.

I’ve been preaching through the archetype of motherhood, but as I said before, you can translate. Whether we’re talking about the love between two romantic partners, or siblings, or close friends, love always costs us something, or it isn’t love. Loving someone means you worry about them. Loving someone means trying to protect them, and running up against the frustrating limits of our fragile humanity. Loving is costly.

Into the midst of this anxiety and fear, comes another word of Jesus. Today’s Gospel has one of the most important words in the whole Bible. That word is “Abide.” We’ve actually had that word in the last several weeks’ Gospels. It’s funny. I’d challenge you to think of a time outside of church, outside of the Bible or the hymnal, when you use the word “abide.” People used to say, “I can’t abide that,” but they don’t much anymore. We tend only to use “abide” in scripture and church.

Which is a shame, because abide is a great word. In Greek the word is “meinein.” If we’re looking for a way to explain “abide” today, you could say, “hang in there.” If we translated that way, our Gospel would read “You will hang in there in my love.” My former rector, Luis Leon, used to point out that “there’s a big difference between hanging in there, and hanging on.” You hang on with your fingernails. Hanging on is something desperate. Hanging in there, is something else. Abiding is something else. A lot of new moms could use some abiding.

Jesus invites us to abide, to hang in there. Christ knows, love is costly. As well as anyone, Jesus knew what it was to lay his life on the line for the sake of love. Our God is willing to pay the cost of loving us. When loving others is costly, through sleepless nights, and the anxieties of trying to care for another person, God invites us to hang in there. God will be there with you, hanging in there with you. God knows the cost of love.

And God invites us to abide with one another, to hang in there together through the thick and thin of costly love. It’s part of why your mom might have invited you to church. She wanted you to have some people to abide with, to hang in there with, because what is church if not a community that tries to hang in there together?

We often talk about God as a Father, because Jesus called God father. But Jesus talked about himself as a “mother hen” and God’s care and nurture for creation, God’s costly love, make me think that God is our mother as well. God knows what it is to hang in there through the cost of love.

This Mother’s day, give thanks for your mothers, divine, biological and otherwise. Give thanks for those who gave of themselves for you. Give thanks for those who know the cost of love. Give thanks for those who abide, who hang in there with you. May God bless you with love that costs you something, because love is worth the cost.

God is Love, even in Baltimore. A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

In my sermon last week, I dropped in a brief quote, that I want to follow up on this week. Last week I quoted the great theologian Lady Gaga who once said: Justice is love with its boots on.

I feel like I need to come clean. I couldn’t find the exact quote from Lady Gaga when I looked after my sermon. I remember hearing that she said it, but I can’t find a source. So I have to confess Lady Gaga may or may not have said those words, “Justice is love with its boots on.” I’m not exactly sure, but if she did, Gaga was paraphrasing. The famous quote is “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Those words are from Dr. Cornell West. “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

So, I apologize if I misled you last week. But in any case I found myself thinking about that relationship a great deal this week, the relationship between justice and love. It’s been quite a week. Watching the scenes unfolding in Baltimore made me ask myself a lot of questions about justice.

I know many of you have been following the news closely, and for many of you, the scenes on tv were reminiscent of our own reality here in St. Louis just a few short months ago. If this week felt like deja vu all over again, you weren’t alone.

Some of you have been following one of our local activists Deray McKesson, who is prolific on Twitter. Deray was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer this last week, while he was visiting Baltimore to meet with activists. In the interview, which you can find online, Deray again and again is asked versions of the same question: “Do you condemn the ‘violence’ and ‘looting’ going on in Baltimore?” Again and again, Deray tries to steer Blitzer back to the point of the protests. As Wolf Blitzer talks about the number of people who have been arrested for rioting, Deray quotes statistics about the number of people who have died in police custody. The activist says, “There should be peaceful protests. But I don’t have to condone [property destruction] to understand it.” Deray goes on to say: “Broken windows are not broken spines.”

That’s a strong statement. The charges coming from the Baltimore prosecutor are a strong statement. The riots and the destruction going on in Baltimore are strong statements. There was a Martin Luther King Jr. quote floating around St. Louis in November, and the quote is floating around Baltimore now. “A riot is the language of the unheard.” The riots we’ve seen, the protestors who are organizing peacefully, my clergy colleagues in Baltimore who are meeting, are all demanding justice.

And this week our readings are all about love. For years I carried around the reading we have from the first letter of John in my wallet. I cut it out of one of those pre-printed bulletin inserts that most Episcopal Churches used to use for their lessons, before you could just download the Bible off the internet. I folded it up, and tucked it in my wallet, and I pulled it out and read this lesson over and over again, on the school bus, when I was waiting in line, when I was particularly frustrated with someone or something. This passage is one of the most important passages in scripture for me. “God is love.”

God is love. Let us love one another. I even have a word from this scripture tattooed on my ankle. Because for me, this is it. I thought: Faith is simple. Christianity is simple: God is love, let us love one another. We love because God first loved us. This passage expresses my theology probably better than any other. God is the source of all love. God’s very self is love. When we share love we share God. We are capable of loving because God loved us. When I was in high school, those words helped me to grasp hold of the faith, and to get serious about God. Because it seemed so simple: love.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized just how complicated this simple idea can be. Love, it turns out, takes work.

Ellis and I are currently halfway through our required pre-marital counseling sessions. We were legally married back in 2013, but our “wedding” will be at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday morning, May 24th. Pentecost. You’re all invited. I’ll say more about that during the announcements, and there will be emails and bulletin announcements over the next couple of weeks.

In order to have our civil marriage blessed in The Episcopal Church, we have to go through pre-marital counseling, just like any other couple. It’s not easy to talk with someone else about your relationship, even when you have a legal guarantee of privacy. It’s not easy, because you have to talk about the ways you disagree with one another, how you work through conflict.

(Before I go on, I should say I got Ellis’ permission to share this little bit about our sessions). Overall, I think Ellis and I do relatively well as a couple. I often am on the other side of the couch, running the sessions, so I know a bit about these things. We’re doing well and even so, airing our laundry with someone else isn’t always comfortable. It requires answering questions we often avoid. Why do you react that way? Why do I respond that way? We’re learning a lot in these sessions, and part of what I’m learning is that love isn’t simple. Love is complicated. The work of love is hard work.

As the complicated nature of love has become more present to me, another line of John’s letter has come into sharp focus. “Perfect love casts out fear.”

I toyed with starting this sermon with the question: “Who do you fear?” or “What do you fear?” Then I decided that it was too early in the morning to start a sermon with that question. It’s too early in our time together. You might not like a preacher who asks you what and who you fear. I need to win you over first. Still, I think the question is valid. We live in a culture of fear. We live in a culture obsessed with security, feeding on fear.

Perfect love casts out fear. Part of why the work of pre-marital counseling is so important, is that the sessions START hard conversations. You face the questions you want to avoid. You talk about things you fear talking about. You may not solve everything, but you break through taboos. You work through the questions you fear.

For justice to work, as for love, I think we need to face our fears. I started this sermon by talking about the relationship between justice and love. I think Cornell West is right. The relationship between justice and love is strong. Justice is what love looks like in public. Justice is what love looks like with its boots on. Which means that justice, like love is complicated.

We know that. We know it deeply. It would be easy to get sucked into the either/or of the news cycle. You’re on this side or that side. Protestors or police. Violence or peace. But it’s not that simple. It’s just not. Justice, like love, is complicated. The pain we are seeing manifest comes from generations of complicated injustice.

We wish it was more simple. I’ve felt in myself, and I’ve heard on the news, the desire that things would just “settle down.” It’s a tempting desire. But here’s the hard truth. If the protestors let Baltimore “settle down,” if we let Saint Louis “settle down” we are indeed “settling.” We are settling for a status quo that is less than justice. We are settling for a status quo that is less than perfect love. We need to keep up the peaceful protests. We need to keep up the hard conversations that work toward reconciliation. Christians never settle for fear.

If scripture is right, only perfect love casts out fear. If Dr. West and maybe Lady Gaga are right, only perfect justice will cast out fear. Until we stop settling, we’re going to live with fear.

We’ve got work to do, as a community, as a city, as a region, as a nation. We have to face our fears. We have to stop avoiding the hard questions. We have to ask about the intersections of race and power. We have to talk about police training and hold officers accountable. We have to keep talking about them, through our desire to just let things settle down. Because without justice, we’re stuck with fear. We will continue to be stuck with fear, until we learn to take God’s love public.

Because, you see, in the midst of it all, God’s love is already perfect. Scripture tells us that God already looks on all of humanity and sees perfection. Where we see fearful difference. God sees perfection. Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American and everything in between. Rich and poor and everyone in between, gay and straight and everyone in between, women and men and everyone in between: God sees perfection. God doesn’t discriminate based on race, language, ability, age, or background. God looks on all of us with perfect love. God sees us all perfectly created. And God longs for the day that we will wake up, and stop being afraid of one another. God longs for the day we will see one another as God sees us: perfect, beloved.

God dreams about the day that we will learn to cast out our fears. The only way out is through, through some long and difficult conversations about race, about privilege, about history, about poverty, about education. But perfect love will cast out fear. God invites us to see one another, not through fear, but through love. Because God is love, even in Baltimore. Even in St. Louis, God is love.