Sleepily, I went to be with a dear friend in the hospital this morning, as she waited through her husband’s surgery. As I walked in, police were walking a man out in shackles and chains. Real ones. The sound of it shook me.
Sleepily, I went to be with a dear friend in the hospital this morning, as she waited through her husband’s surgery. As I walked in, police were walking a man out in shackles and chains. Real ones. The sound of it shook me.
When God’s People Cry Out, We Will Respond With Love
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by Rev. Erin Counihan on Sunday 8/9/15 at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, MO.
FIRST READING EPHESIANS 4:25-5:2
SECOND READING 2 SAMUEL 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
“Almost from the start, Absalom had a number of strikes against him. For one thing, he was much too handsome for his own good, and his special pride was such a magnificent head of hair that once a year when he had it trimmed, the trimmings alone tipped the scales at three and a half pounds. For another thing, his father, King David, was always either spoiling him rotten or reading him the riot act. This did not promote stability of character. He murdered his lecherous brother Amnon for fooling around with their sister, Tamar, and when the old war-horse Joab wouldn’t help him patch things up with David afterward, he set fire to his hay field. All Israel found this kind of derring-do irresistible, of course, and when he eventually led a revolt against his father, a lot of them joined up.
On the eve of the crucial battle, David was a wreck. If he was afraid he might lose his throne, he was even more afraid he might lose Absalom. The boy was the thorn in his flesh, but he was also the apple of his eye, and before the fighting started, he told the chiefs of staff till they were sick of hearing it that, if Absalom fell into their clutches, they must promise to go easy on him for his father’s sake. Remembering what had happened to his hay field, old Joab kept his fingers crossed, and when he found Absalom caught in the branches of an oak tree by his beautiful hair, he ran him through without blinking an eye. When they broke the news to David, it broke his heart, just as simple as that, and he cried out in words that have echoed down the centuries ever since. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son,” he said. “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son” (2 Samuel 18:33).
He meant it, of course. If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal of him, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history was to prove, it takes the King himself.”
These words from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner paint the portrait our lectionary text only outlines today. Buechner fills in the missing parts of the story, but I think he also shades in the pain, the loss and the weeping of a grieving father.
This week, another grieving father painted a similar portrait of sadness, of crying out, when he spoke with CNN’s Moni Basu as the anniversary of his son’s death approached. With all of the political conversation, the differing viewpoints, the protests and marches, the vandalism, the organizing and the tweeting; with all of the controversy and turmoil in our city over the past year, the one thing that can and does get lost in the conversation is a family’s grief. Basu explains…
He had stood waiting, numb, about half a mile from here on Canfield Drive, with his wife of three weeks, Calvina. He rushed there after the police called him and his son’s mother, Lesley McSpadden. They all stood before a body covered by a sheet, surrounded by police cars, flashing lights, yellow crime scene tape and a crowd that grew larger by the minute.
He was there for four hours and 32 minutes before the sheet was lifted and he saw his son, and what he did not want to believe was confirmed. His 18-year-old boy, named after him, had been shot dead by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson.
One year later, Brown utters the same words he uttered then: “I should have been there to protect him.”
From the afternoon of August 9 to the funeral of “Mike Mike” 16 days later, Brown felt as though he were in a trance. On the funeral program, he wrote:
“I think of you day and night and just wish I was there to save you from harm. I always told you I would never let anything happen to you. And that’s why it hurts sooooo much. I will never let you die in my heart.”
I stood in that same spot this morning, just as the sun was rising, on that street in Ferguson, in a circle, holding hands with more than 100 clergy, to acknowledge those tears of a grieving father. To witness to that pain and emptiness. To remember that this isn’t just about statistics and hashtags, this is about a father’s lost son. A mother’s lost daughter. A sister, a brother, a niece, a nephew, a friend. And each day there is another new name to mourn. 705 names added just this year. And every time a new name is added to the list, each time a new hashtag is trending, another parent is crying out: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! O my son Mike Mike, O my daughter Renisha, O my son Tamir, O my son Walter, O my daughter Tanesha, my child, my child!
This morning, in that circle of faith, as we wept for and with the parents of lost children, as we prayed for God to protect all our children, one mother in the circle lamented that she could do nothing to take away that grief, to stop the tears of grieving parents, to but that she could work and pray that God might make something holy come from those tears.
Because that’s what we do, that’s all we can do when people are grieving, when our neighbors are weeping. We show up with love. God’s people show up with love. Usually with love and casseroles, but always with love. As imitators of God, as beloved children, living in love, as Christ loved us, God’s people show up at the worst of times, still, to witness to God’s love.
So, yes, sometimes we show up with God’s love in the form of a frozen meal and a tray of cookies, and but also, at other times we show up with God’s love in our voices proclaiming, “That’s enough violence! Not one more!” Sometimes we show up with God’s love as flowers and condolence cards, and other times it’s with letters drafted to our elected officials saying, “We need better schools, more jobs, programs to keep kids off the streets and out of prisons and in school, we need opportunities for all!” Sometimes we show up with God’s love in the form of an embrace and a prayer, and other times it’s holding hands, marching down the street, promising not to forget, to keep asking the hard questions, and demand answers and changes.
God calls us to show up with love.
O Church- fathers, mothers, siblings, grandparents, family and friends are weeping. Right now. More and more of them every day.
How might we show up with love? How will we witness to God’s love?
 Interview from “Michael Brown’s Father: ‘I think of him every single day’” as posted at http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/07/us/michael-brown-sr-interview-ferguson/ and accessed on 8/8/2015.
Are We Ready to Slay the Monster, the Beast, The Giant: Goliath/Racism?
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by the Rev. Erin Counihan at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church on Sunday, June 21, 2015.
Text: 1 Samuel 17: 1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
This Wednesday, we sat in that room.
Right over there. On the other side of the wall. Sitting, in a circle. Was it nine of us? Or eight? I can’t quite remember.
But there we were. On Wednesday.
And I like to think, because I’ve come to know the people who gather in that room each Wednesday, that had a stranger come in, through our unlocked door and joined our Wednesday bible study, that stranger, too, would have been welcomed.
Someone would have motioned to an open seat. Someone else would have slid their book over to share the lesson. Someone else might have gotten up to offer the newcomer a bible, so that when we went around the circle reading the passage, our new guest would have had the opportunity to read in turn. We would have invited them to share- their opinions, questions, ideas, doubts, and prayer requests. Then we would have bowed our heads and closed our eyes and prayed to God with our new friend.
As the news of the terrible tragedy, the act of terror, the violent hate crime flooded our worlds Wednesday night, I couldn’t get that scene out of my mind. Hadn’t I just sat in such a room, with such faithful people, that very day? I fell apart weeping over the idea.
Because, at first, when I first heard the news, that there had been a shooting in a church at a prayer meeting, that was as far as I got. And in my disbelief, I dig deeper. I searched for more information, for details. How could this be? What kind of monster could do such a thing. And then when I read the rest of the story- that the shooting was at an AME Church, at THE AME Church, at Mother Emanuel, in the deep south, a church and denomination created because the white church wouldn’t let them in. A church that had been burned to the ground out of hate. That the victims were all African-American, and the shooter was white. My heart shattered into a million pieces. Because now I could imagine what kind of monster had done such a thing. Because I knew that monster. I knew that monster’s name- Racism.
That monster has been destroying lives, churches, communities, and unity in our nation for centuries. That monster we here in St. Louis know well. We know it well in the stories of our schooling, in the stories of the changes in this neighborhood, and especially over the past 10 months we know it well in conversations about policing and the deaths of Michael Brown, Kajieme Powell, Vonderitt Meyers, and Ledarius Williams.
Here in our congregation, we have been attempting to talk about that monster. We’ve held sacred conversations, attended marches and learning events, we’ve offered so many prayers. We’ve been learning new terms, reading new scholars, and hearing new stories. We’ve been listening to new voices. And it hasn’t been easy or comfortable. There are days when even I, the one who talks about this all the time, have thought, man, we’ve got to talk about something else. It’s getting pretty awkward. This is exhausting. We need a break.
But then I read the news, or talk to a friend, or watch how people watch my own kid when we walk into a store and I am reminded that my black and brown sisters and brothers don’t have that luxury of taking a break from the conversation, of hiding from the monster, not even for a break, not ever for a day. So as long as our black and brown brothers and sisters are dying at the hands of the monster of racism, the beast of injustice, and the devil that is gun violence, in our streets, in their own homes, and in God’s home- I have no business being comfortable. The least I can do is talk about it. Pray about it. Learn about it. Listen to their voices, their experiences, and their cries. And hear God’s call to be humbled, to repent, and to work for justice.
Because that monster of racism, I believe is our Goliath. It is this big, bad thing, supported by an army of hate, wearing the armor of indifference, imposing its way on our systems, laws, communities, schools and society. And I believe today, with our broken hearts, we are presented with a choice. We can be the Israelite army, the chosen people of God, armed with the tools of righteousness and love, but stunned, and scared, frozen in awkward fear, refusing to take action. Or we can be David.
David. Who in this moment, is not the great warrior king, but is just young shepherd. No one thinks he’s anything special. But he is called by God. Experienced in the love of God. Confident in the hope of God. Rejecting any armor but that of the Word of our Lord.
We can be David, and show up, stare the monster Goliath of Racism in the face, take every bit of trash talk, of garbage hyperbole, it can spew at us, and boldly say, out loud, “I come to you in the name of the Lord God, whom you have defied.”
We can be David.
What might happen? If our God, the God who uses all kinds of broken, unexpected people, used us?
Our God, the God who called a really old couple to birth a chosen tribe.
Our God, the God who called a stutterer to speak the law to the people.
Our God, the God who called children to be prophets.
Our God, the God who called an unwed teenage girl to give birth to the divine being.
Our God, the God who called an oppressor, a persecutor, to preach and grow the church.
Our God, the God who called a boy shepherd to take on the biggest beast of his time.
What if that God is calling to us now? Can you imagine? For a moment, if we didn’t care how big the monster, beast Goliath of Racism was, if we didn’t worry about how wide and deep and far its arms reach, but if we could be like David, look it in the eye and call it out. Saying THAT IS NOT THE WAY OF GOD!
What if we channeled David every time we hear a just slightly offensive joke?
What if we channeled David every time we noticed discrimination, inequality and underrepresentation in our workplaces, in our schools, on panels and governing boards?
What if we channeled David every time we cringed at a friend’s social media post?
What if we channeled David every time we caught ourselves exercising our own privilege?
We can channel David. We can be David. We can do something. We must do something. Something. Because, we don’t have to be armed with the right words. We have God’s true word.
We can be like David, are little things, called by God into service. To slay the beast. Not with big maneuvers, impressive moves or fancy tools, but with our faith in God and God’s message of love.
Goliath is out there. And in here [points to sanctuary]. And in here [points to my own heart].
Are we ready to be called to service like young David, infused with our faith in the Lord? Or will we sit by silently and watch the beast attack, stuck in our fear?[i]
I will close today with the reading of our Gospel from the book of Mark. Hear now the word of our Lord:
35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”[ii]
[i] This sermon references the theological ponderings of Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson as shared with the RevGalBlogPals. I am thankful for her scholarship and vision and especially for her challenge to us preachers!
[ii] Mark 4:35-40 NRSV
As we approach this Sunday with the massacre at Emanuel AME in Charleston heavy on our hearts and burning passion on our lips, many clergy are sharing their prayers, liturgies, hymns and confessions. Here are some I have written or prepared to use in worship at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis. You are welcome to use or tweak any of these if you need something for your worship or private prayers. May we who lead people in worship of God be bold tomorrow in proclaiming God’s call to seek justice and to love our neighbors. May God have mercy on us all. May God replace our hate, rejection, and silence, with God’s justice, love and joy.
CALL TO WORSHIP (Psalm 9:9-20)
|Voice 1||The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
|ALL||And those who know your name put their trust in you,
for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.
|Voice 2||Sing praises to the LORD, who dwells in Zion.
Declare his deeds among the peoples.
For he who avenges blood is mindful of them;
he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.
|Voice 3||Be gracious to me, O LORD.
See what I suffer from those who hate me;
you are the one who lifts me up from the gates of death,
so that I may recount all your praises,
and, in the gates of daughter Zion,
rejoice in your deliverance.
|ALL||The nations have sunk in the pit that they made;
in the net that they hid has their own foot been caught.
The LORD has made himself known, he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.
|Voice 2||The wicked shall depart to Sheol,
all the nations that forget God.
|Voice 3||For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
nor the hope of the poor perish forever.
|Voice 1||Rise up, O LORD! Do not let mortals prevail;
let the nations be judged before you.
Put them in fear, O LORD;
let the nations know that they are only human.
O God, we are only human. We are so very human. Which is why we turn to you and your perfect love, your abundant grace, and your eternal peace. This morning, Lord, help us to greet one another, not with our human hands, but with your holy peace.
May the peace of the Lord be with you. (And also with you.) Please share a sign of God’s peace with one another.
HYMN #314 Longing for Light, We Wait in Darkness
Call to Confession: When the blood of our brothers and sisters is spilled in your house, O Lord, we have much to grieve, and to confess. O Lord, hear our prayer.
Prayer of Confession: (Unison) Good and loving God, we come to you in pain. We weep for the nine lives lost in your sanctuary this week. We weep for the hurts of our community, nation and world. But we are fools if we weep without admitting our role in hurting your people. We confess now that we have failed you. We close our eyes to the pain of others. We support and maintain systems that abuse your creation and your beloved children. We refuse to acknowledge our privilege. We shy away from awkward conversations. We stand silent in the name of peace and unity, when we should be calling out in the name of your justice and radical love. O Lord, have mercy on us, your humble servants. Forgive us. Renew us. And teach us to boldly proclaim your message of love for all, in our thoughts, words, and deeds. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
(A BUNCH OF OTHER WORSHIP PARTS HERE)
Affirmation of Faith: From the Confession of Belhar:
We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end. We believe that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ; that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells. We believe that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
To the one and only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the honor and the glory for ever and ever.
And here is the link to a prayer I wrote on Thursday for the RevGals website:
For preaching tomorrow.
I’m supposed to be writing a sermon for preaching tomorrow in front of smart, faithful people who trust and respect me enough to pay me to stand up in front of them on a regular basis and talk about the stuff I see in the bible.
And it’s late.
Oh, I am SO supposed to be writing my sermon.
But the book came today.
The book came today with my little story in it and my name in it and some words I wrote months and months ago printed in it, that I can touch and hold and sniff and show to my loves-to-write kid. The kid who dreams of one day holding a book of her own with her name in it.
The book came today.
The book with stories about and by my sisters, my peers, my mentors, my friends, my heroes. The book of their moments, which are also totally my moments.
So I’m laying in bed, under a mountain of bible commentaries and sermon aides, not writing my sermon, but reading the book. Reading The Book.
Laughing. Cringing. Sobbing.
I’m 36 pages in, and somehow it is both too much and not nearly enough. These women. These brilliant, bold, faithful, hilarious women. I’ve followed, lurked, stalked, and visited on some of them for years, through the adventures of the RevGalBlogPals. Others I’m just discovering right now. But this book. Something about holding their lives, their moments, their callings, their words, in my hands.
I can’t put them down.
But I have a sermon to write. And they’re not going anywhere.
This book. Oh, this book.
There’s a Woman in the Pulpit is a collection of stories and experiences shared by more than 50 clergywomen representing 14 denominations. We met and connected online, by doing just that- sharing our stories. What was once a blog ring is now a thriving site where clergywomen and clergywomen supporters gather to share stories, advice, prayer requests, best practices, theological reflections, practical resources, and ministry ideas. This book is now available for purchase through Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.
For you, friends, a story….
There once was a new pastor, who survived her first Holy Week. It had been a lovely week, but a busy one with many long days and nights and not much sleep, and so, so, so many worship bulletins prep’ed. Alas, on Tuesday after Holy Week, she could not bring herself to do ONE MORE bulletin. So she put it off. And off. And off. The church secretary didn’t mind because, she too was totally unwilling to deal with ANOTHER church bulletin. So, on Thursday and Friday they threw something together and claimed to have proof read it, and printed and folded and sorted and printed the bulletins.
Skip forward to Sunday, during worship, where all is going well and there are even a few visitors, and new pastor lady is trying to impress them and so she gears up to dramatically read the day’s text and she starts reading from the bulletin insert, because obviously she forgot to print out the BIG copy she usually uses. She starts: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene …” WHAT THE CRAP!? (she thinks to herself and somehow manages not to scream out loud) What she actually says, into the mic, is “well that’s not right. It’s supposed to be evening now.” She shuffles through her bulletin looking for a different insert. Then, hoping against hope, wishing it to be only her mistake, she cautiously asks, “Is that what your copy says?”
“Yes.” They ALL reply.
All the bulletins were printed with the wrong text.
Slightly panicking, but channeling the most experienced, calm, cool collected pastors she’s ever known, well, (at least telling herself that) Newbie Pastor now starts looking for a freaking bible. In the sanctuary. AND CAN’T FIND ONE. She runs down to the pews, and starts digging through the racks. ALL HYMNALS. Where are the bibles?? Not in the pews. THERE ARE NO BIBLES IN THE PEWS. And for some reason, she doesn’t think to use the huge old church bible on the communion table RIGHT NEXT TO HER, or the OTHER HUGE ONE on the lectern just to the side of the communion table. They both have today’s reading in them. Right there. IN the sanctuary. Nooooo, instead she says to the faithful gathered, “I got it. Be right back.” And she runs out of the sanctuary to the adjacent bible study room where she knows there is a stack of normal sized, tiny-font NRSV bibles. She comes bounding back in, passing behind the lectern, and into that mic says, “Come on, Donna [the thus yet not passed out, but patient and flexible, oh-so friendly liturgist], you let me down! You were supposed to do a little liturgical dance to distract them while I got this….”
Newbie Pastor sprints back to her pulpit, slightly out of breath, majorly purple-faced, and reads the day’s lesson.
Then picks up her sermon manuscript and makes a big, stinkin’ deal of flipping through it, and says, “just checking to make sure this isn’t last week’s, too.”
Welcome to the sit-com that it my life in ministry!
It was one of those moments where you know that it is special and holy and precious and rare, and it is changing you, and that you will cling to it, remember it, relish in it for years to come, and you know that now even as it is happening.
Yeah, it was one of those moments.
My first Easter as a pastor.
Earlier in the week, I’d thought, this isn’t so bad. Why do all the pastors I know stress so hard about Easter? Why do they worry and overwhelm themselves? This isn’t so bad. Fast forward to 5 thirteen hour work days later, two of which were spent in the office WITHOUT WORKING INTERNET ACCESS. After a lot of worships in a lot of different places, after folding bulletins at 9:30pm. After a slight personal meltdown over being a bit homesick. After the Easter Egg Hunt in the park, the protest march up the street, and after the OH MY MARY I ALMOST FORGOT EASTER VIGIL. After all of that, it was 11pm Holy Saturdaynight and I was laid flat on my broken couch watching HGTV on my DVR eating chips and chocolate with not even a hint of a sermon and 6 hours until I needed to be at church to start the Easter action. After a bit of a sermon that I wasn’t too proud of came to the keyboard. After two and a half hours sleep.
I sat in the sanctuary alone at 5am Easter morning. I read the days text’s over and over again. I listened to the soft, sad Taize songs of Good Friday, and lost myself in the cross our congregation had made. I read the texts over and over again. Out loud. In the sanctuary. Alone. And then it was time. It was time for Easter. So I changed the music and read the story again and stood in front of that cross and lived Easter morning. All by myself. And burst into tears.
Two minutes later, I was still sobbing, standing in the middle of the sanctuary, blasting Of A Father’s Love Begotten, acapella in four part perfect harmony, when our music minister walked in, silently sat down, and started sobbing herself. It was Easter.
Sunrise worship was short and beautiful. Then those wonderful, holy people came inside and we all turned the sanctuary over from Good Friday to Easter morning. I didn’t cry in front of them. But I wanted to.
We all retreated to our corners for naps- a couple elders went home, one went to the mission building, the music director claimed a couch in the bible study room, and I scrunched up on the big chair in my office. It was still for a bit.
I awoke to the copier printing. Then I heard the choir rehearsing. The door shutting. The band checking. The kids hustling. The bells ringing. Of course, I’d put the cross in the wrong place, so we had to move some things. And of course, I’d forgotten to print things and assign a couple things, and then there was that matter of a children’s sermon. Ack! But everyone picked up a piece and everything was covered and handled and orchestrated and it somehow was time for worship. And then there was this moment. It lasted the whole hour. This precious gathering of beloved family, who know real struggle and controversy, but who sit together in hope and love. And somehow, I got to speak to them. I got to speak to them. I got to tell them that we are all loved and forgiven and loved. I got to tell them that Jesus had already risen, even as it was still dark, even when they didn’t know it yet, even in places they didn’t know yet, that he’d already conquered it and risen and it was going to surprise and shock them and I said all that in a sermon I wasn’t proud to have written but somehow by the power of the Holy Spirit it was special in the moment I spoke it. And I could see it when I connected eyes with so many of them. Them whom I have come to love. And respect. And cherish. I got the words out just barely, and then I sat and burst into tears.
The service went on and I got to preside over the table, and that was a moment. And the day went on and there were conversations and meals and music and other moments. But that one. That one moment will be with me forever. The gift of this job. The gift of this call. The gift of this first Easter. The gift of God’s grace. All in that moment. Forever.
Here’s what I need you to know right now.
I can’t stop talking about this. I tried. I tried to talk and write about one of the other 9 billion causes I care passionately about. But my fingers felt heavy and my words felt far too light. Our city, my new city, the place where God has asked me to live and serve and plant roots and raise my kid, is cracking and steaming and crumbling and folding all at the same time, and in fifteen different directions. It’s happening in the church I serve, in my kid’s school, at every meeting, on every social media page, at the gas station, grocery store, coffee shop, and every fast food restaurant I frequent. Oh, and I frequent them. Because I have to get up from my desk because my head is exploding with every story I read of every violation, of every abuse, of every disrespect, every injustice, every outrage, of every frat boy singing, every federal government reporting, and every gun shot and unarmed black teen murdered by someone sworn to protect him. My heart is breaking anew each day. I cry out, O Lord, how long? How long will we allow this to go on? How long will we sit silent, being nice and avoiding conflict? How long will it take to convince all people that BLACK LIVES MATTER? That the legal penalty for petty theft or resisting arrest is not DEATH? That people who are mentally ill deserve help and not handcuffs? That there are good cops who make smart decisions NOT TO SHOOT PEOPLE every day? And that the ones who can’t make smart decisions shouldn’t be given guns? That white privilege needs to be checked? Including mine. Especially mine. Oh, and how every new day brings another horrible, rage inducing story. So, no, I can’t stop talking about it. Yeah, I am gonna be that girl. You’ll want me to move on. Or to give it a rest. I want me to move on. I really want to stop talking about this. But I can’t. We can’t. We mustn’t. So I need you to know that I’m going to keep bringing it up. And I will listen to you. Wherever you are. Even if you totally disagree with me. Especially if you totally disagree with me. But we’ve got to keep working on it. We’ve got to keep talking about it. We’ve got to. ALL of us. Until the system is fixed. Until the issues are exposed. Until the children feel safe. Until the body count stops. Until saying something like “Black Lives Matter” is no longer controversial.
I’m a woman.
And a feminist.
I am a parent.
Of a girl.
And the daughter.
Of a single mom.
And a sister, to many moms.
A friend to even more moms.
And to non-moms.
And to grandmoms.
To lots of women.
Because I love women.
All kinds of women.
I love the history of women.
Women who said NO.
Women who said NO MORE.
Women who said, Get out of my way.
Women who said, I think I can.
Women who said, Watch me.
Women who didn’t say a word.
Women who took action.
I celebrate these women.
I celebrate them in worship.
I don’t need one day.
Because I MUST celebrate them every day.
Because I must share their stories every day.
Because I must look up to them every day.
Because I need their strength.
Because I am a woman.
And a feminist.
And I have a bad-ass young woman to raise.
A version of this sermon manuscript was preached by Rev. Erin Counihan on Sunday, March 8, 2015 at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.
Texts: Exodus 20:1-17 and John 2:13-22
Prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
I called my mom last night. I had been checking out some of the coverage from the Selma 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. of that day when civil rights protesters and police in Alabama met on a bridge, and violence was the victor. She wasn’t there. At the time, she was at home, six or seven states away. She was at church that day. And although my parents have always shared with me stories of their experiences during this tense time in our nation’s history, I couldn’t remember my mother ever specifically speaking of this day, I couldn’t remember her telling me how she saw Selma. So I called and asked her about what she remembered from that time.
Now, if you promise not to do the math to figure out her current age, I will tell you that at the time my mom was 26 and living in Bethesda, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. She told me how watching the images of that day on tv, brought the reality of what was happening into her living room. How she could see that violence, right there, in her living room and how it was so completely unavoidable.
She remembered the call going out to “outsiders” the next day, and especially to white clergy, to join in the protest. She told me about going to church, the church she grew up in, Bethesda Presbyterian Church, an all white church just outside of Washington DC, and hearing her minister, Rev. Dr. Carl Pritchett, tell the congregation that he was going to Selma. She remembered the controversy. She remembered that some in the church supported him and that others felt he was out of his mind. Who felt betrayed. He was a southerner, born in North Carolina, how could he be doing this? How could he be speaking out in this way? He caused division, my mother remembered. But she remembered how he told them that he felt called by his conscience and by his God to go and stand for justice. So he went. Dr. Pritchett marched in Selma. He went on, and he organized boycotts and he called the faithful at Bethesda Pres. to participate actively in the Civil Rights movement.
Now, after talking to my mom, I did a little research. Dr. Pritchett was pastor of Bethesda Presbyterian for 19 years, beginning in 1956. But he didn’t start out as an activist. He started out as a southerner, who by the account I read, was a bit of a racist, as he had been raised to be. And when Washington was consumed by the civil rights movement, when the march on washington was called for just two years earlier, Dr. Pritchett was against getting involved. He was clear that marching in the streets was not for him.
That August in 1963, DC area pastors had been asked to house participants gathering for Dr. King’s March on Washington and to feed them. Many had said no. At the time the Presbyterian Church was split in two, the northern PCUSA and the southern PCUS. Dr. J. Randolph Taylor, a PCUS pastor at Washington DC’s Church of the Pilgrims, called his colleagues out. He went to the Presbyterian Outlook magazine and wrote an open letter to his beloved church brothers and sisters saying, “Brethren, all of us must be open to the fresh demands which the eternal Word of God places upon us to be relevant in our ministry to the age in which we live…. One of the crucial problems of our times is racial equality. The church is directly involved in its solution because of the imperatives of the gospel.” This letter from Dr. Taylor was read to the general assembly of the PCUS two days before the March. A prayer service was called for the morning of the march at Dr. Taylor’s church, the Church of the Pilgrims in NW DC. 200 southern Presbyterians, including several ministers, came to that prayer service, including my mother’s pastor, Dr. Pritchett.
Dr. Pritchett hadn’t planned on doing anything more than attending the prayer service. He wasn’t one for violence or marching. He wasn’t one for the streets. But he was moved in that prayer service, he was moved to action. He marched on Washington that day, and it fundamentally changed how he saw the movement, and the church’s role in the movement. He became an activist. He preached the message of justice and equality he found in the gospel. And he called on the Church to see its role in how things were playing out in the streets, he called her out saying, “The Church forced it out in the streets…. if I should ever feel that my place is physically out in the street, it will be because my church has forced me out of the sanctuary…and into the street.”
Being called out by his colleague forced Dr. Pritchett to look at himself and how he was doing church. Forced him to consider which rules he was following and why. And once he had been called out, once he had been transformed by that, he found it is duty to return the favor. To challenge good, faithful, law-abiding church folks to consider how they were being the church.
The good, faithful, law-abiding people of faith at the temple that day in Jerusalem were also trying to follow all the rules. Cesar’s money wasn’t allowed in the temple, with his face on those coins, it wasn’t allowed. So the money changers were there to fix the situation, to turn the money into face-less money that could be properly offered in the temple. For God. They were following the rules.
The animals. The animals were there to be offered as sacrifices. There needed to be a space to clean them off after a long, dusty walk to the temple. They needed to be spotless and clean in order to be sacrificed.The doves were being sold to people who were too poor to have animals to offer. But all this was in accordance with the tradition and expectation and the way that you knew to be a good and faithful person of God. That’s why they were there.
The people were following the rules.
The temple, it was being improved, enlarged. Made to accommodate more. So that more could come and honor God. So that more could do the right thing. So the space would be more beautiful. To honor God. All to do the right thing, the faithful thing, to honor God.
These good people of faith were all following God’s rules.
But they were missing the point.
And Jesus was there to tell them just that.
Jesus was there to call them out. Because they were missing the point.
We all need to be called out every now and again. We need that accountability. That parent’s eyebrow raised as if to say, “are you sure you wanna do that?” That teacher saying, “you can do better.” That teenager asking, “well, what did you do when you were my age?” That toddler questioning, “what does that word mean, daddy?” That federal government report stating in black and white, “this city has a race problem, this police department has a race problem.” Our president saying, “What’s our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?” And our God, who came to us in the flesh, flat out saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Our God who came to us to say, this is not the temple. This building and it’s walls. This set of rules and rituals. They may be tools and building blocks to your faith but I am the way and the truth and the light. I am the temple. I am the active presence of God that you seek. I am the relationship you are looking for. I am the way. And I will be destroyed but in three days I will raise it up. For you.
Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez tells us that “The active presence of God in the midst of the people is a part of the oldest and most enduring biblical promises.” He traces this pattern through the covenants that we’ve been reading these past few weeks. The active presence of God as witnessed in rainbows and generations, in commandments and mountaintops, in burning bushes and prophet voices. But everything changed when the active presence of God became human flesh and walked among us, taught us, healed us, and called us out.
So today I ask all of us, where is the active presence of God calling to us? And what is Jesus calling us out on?
Update: Not sure why I can’t seem to figure out how to get my citations to paste over into the wordpress format, but here they are, in order, but not attached. Sorry!
1. “A Brief Spiritual Biography of Bethesda Presbyterian Church” as posted on http://bethesdapresbyterian.org/about/#ChurchHistory_anchor (accessed 3/7/2015)
2. Southern White Ministers and the Civil Rights Movement by Elaine Allen Lechtreck p.101-110. 2008.
3. A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez, 15th Anniversary Ed. p. 106. 1988.