This past Sunday I took advantage of an early return from our vacation to Wisconsin to attend worship at St. Petri as just "a guy in the pews." Some of you probably knew this already, but it can be very difficult for a ministry professional to find a time and place where they can be in worship without being "on the job" and therefore able to just participate without feeling the need to tend to every last detail. It was a wonderful experience, particularly given that our preacher delivered an excellent sermon (well done, Anita!). I walked away feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, which is my hope every time I enter a house of worship, whether I'm preaching, leading, or sitting in the pews as simply one of the gathered faithful.
One reason the sermon was excellent is that Anita paid attention to the world and incorporated it into what she felt the text was saying to us. The massacre of 9 brothers and sisters in Christ in Charleston, South Carolina, was not something any responsible preacher of the gospel could ignore or downplay this week. For those of you who couldn't be there, Anita joined the proclamation of the psalmist, "The LORD is my rock and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" with Jesus' promises to always be with us to remind us that trust is developed over time and, particularly, in adverse circumstances where that trust is put to the test. Now is such a time for American Christians. Do we trust that God will help us see a way forward, together, to re-commit ourselves to overcoming the racism inherent in so many of our communities, or do we believe that if we are simply nice to each other we can go back to ignoring this problem that simply will not go away?
In a sense, I'm thankful we were on vacation in Wisconsin when the news of Charleston broke, because I was already actively trying to stay off technology and enjoy some recreational time with our family. It is, after all, impossible to check Facebook when you're shooting down a waterslide with your brother-in-law and nephew, or careening around a go-cart track with your niece screaming in delight and terror next to you. Even gathered around the campfire at night, we spent more time talking and less time clicking our news feeds.
However, I was online enough to know that there were many voices raised with many opinions about what Charleston means, and what we ought to do or not do about it. Some voices raised compelling arguments. Some voices were annoying. Some were so ready to confess sins of which they were obviously not guilty that I couldn't believe they didn't see that stridency often morphs into disingenuousness with very little effort. We pastors were told what to preach by people who didn't know us or the pulpits we occupy, and what we were told to preach was Law so strict and convicting most pew sitters would have shut their ears only seconds into the sermons we were ordered to give. All this made me incredibly grateful that I knew Anita would prepare an excellent sermon focused on our community here at St. Petri, which would address what we needed to hear without being captive to the many voices clamoring for words that would be foreign to our particular community.
Let me be absolutely clear: I am in no way saying that preachers shouldn't have addressed racism in their sermons on Sunday. What I am saying is this: before we speak, before we proclaim, before we prescribe, the first and holiest practice we must observe is listening. We are called to listen to the voices of anguish from Charleston, to be sure, but also listen to the bewildered voices of people who know something isn't right but also aren't sure exactly how to address the problem.
Something incredibly and painfully ironic happened as I "listened" online these last few days. I grew angry at the voices who insisted that I was a racist because my skin is white. I grew angry at the voices who insisted my church is racist, both here in our local congregation and as a denomination. I grew angry because I felt like I was on trial for crimes I hadn't committed just because my skin was the same as the young man who pulled the trigger, and it was in that anger that I saw the painful irony of my experience: that in being judged by my skin I was finally hearing the voices which have cried for freedom and justice for centuries because they have also been judged by the color of their skin.
No person of any skin color should be made to stand in for anyone other than themselves, for each of us has a particular story which no one else may claim as their own. Racism is a sin which will not be overcome by voices pronouncing guilt and judgment, though we will continue to need voices which can and should call out for justice and peace. First, we are called to the holy practice of listening to one another, and a specific kind of listening: listening to understand, to experience, and to affirm, without defensiveness or stridency or judgment. We are called to listen, brothers and sisters, to each individual as they tell their story, to listen for the voice of God present in all of us, and only in doing this do we have any hope of being healed of our own sins so that we might help others heal as well.
Can we listen? Will we listen? That remains to be seen. It is easy to prescribe what must be done, particularly from a distance. The hard work of listening locally, of thinking critically about our place, our work, our people, is a far more difficult and far more necessary thing. How can I listen here and now to the real people I meet every day, and how can we, together, work to judge everyone as Dr. King dreamed - not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character? This is the work to which we are called, and this is the way we can actively fight racism right here, right now.