Sermon for Sunday, August 13, 2017 || In response to the Violence in Charlottesville, VA
You might be wondering why I didn’t shave today. I have enough grandmothers in this congregation that I assure you someone is wondering that. Well, at about quarter to six this morning, I scrapped my sermon. I had just finished revising it when I decided to check the news and learned what had happened yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you were tuned out yesterday like I was, here’s the short version. A large group of white supremacists gathered on and near the campus of the University of Virginia to, according to them, protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Counter-protesters also gathered. There were verbal and physical clashes, culminating in a car plowing into a the latter group, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Later in the day, a police helicopter crashed, killing both officers aboard (though foul play was not suspected).
NBC news reported, “White nationalists, as well as apparent neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, were met in opposition by clergy members and other groups, who stood in a line singing “This Little Light of Mine” to drown out the profanity and slurs.” I scrapped my sermon this morning because I was not there with those clergy members singing “This Little Light of Mine.” I know Stacey sang it for you in her sermon last week, so she was ahead of the game. So here’s the new sermon. I wrote it in haste this morning. I wrote it to take a stand against hate. I wrote it because God is love, and love wins. That’s my stand, and I hope you will stand with me.
One image from [yesterday*] has burned itself into my mind and heart. A black police officer stands in the foreground in front of a temporary barrier lined with yellow police tape. He has his left hand over his right at his belt. He wears sunglasses above a closed mouth. His face looks down and to the left. He stands there: solid, strong, silent, doing his duty. In the background on the other side of the temporary barrier stand a few dozen white men. The closest holds a confederate flag and a sign that reads, “Jews are Satan’s children.” The man next to him wears red robes and a peaked red hat. Another is holding his arm up in a gesture more at home in Germany in 1939.
When I first viewed the image, I could not take my eyes off the police officer. I noticed more details: Tattooed arms, gloved hands, a watch on his left wrist. Zip-tie cuffs hang from one from side of his utility belt. A holstered sidearm hangs from the other. A body-cam is attached to the center of his chest beneath his radio. I tried to get inside his head, but found I simply had no frame of reference besides growing up in the Deep South where I first encountered the undercurrent of racism flowing through all waters. What could he possibly be thinking?
When I viewed the image the second time, something else caught my eye: the sign held by the man with the confederate flag. Not only does the sign say, “Jews are Satan’s children”; it also cites at least three verses from the Gospel as supporting evidence. And this is where I take my stand. I urge you, I implore you that when you see the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ employed in such a hateful and ignorant way, you take a stand, too. Don’t worry if you think you don’t know enough about the Bible or faith or Jesus. You do know enough. You know that Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves. You know that Jesus welcomed all people to himself, especially those marginalized by society at large. You know that he commanded us to pray for our enemies. You do know enough. You know that God is love, and love wins.
And because that confederate flag-wielding Jew-hater is my neighbor, I will seek to control my own anger over his sign long enough to help him understand the verses he so blithely cites. First, John 8:31-47. This is the most troubling, for a cursory read seems to confirm the man’s statement; after all, Jesus does say to the Jews: “You are from your father the devil.” But what the man does not realize or has not been told is that nearly everyone in the Gospel besides the Roman legions is Jewish, including Jesus. John uses the term “the Jews” in many places and never does the term comprehend the whole of the Jewish nation. Most often, “the Jews” is shorthand for those opposed to Jesus’ message from the temple establishment.
Written at a time of painful unrest as the new Christian movement was breaking away from its Jewish roots, the Gospel of John often places the turmoil of its writers into its narrative. The writers sought to place Jesus’ message into their own context and some anachronistic conflation results, the most blatant of which is the shorthand use of the term “the Jews.” Sadly and unconscionably, such usage has led to a bloody history of Christians demonizing, marginalizing, and killing our Jewish brothers and sisters, as the man’s disgusting sign shows.** You may not have known that about the Gospel of John. But you know enough. You know that God is love, and love wins.
The next passage he cites is John 10:22-33. Jesus is having a verbal sparring match with his opponents, and he says the Jews “do not belong to my sheep.” See the same argument I just made. He’s not talking about all Jews for all time, who are most certainly God’s children too. Jesus is talking about the very people he forgives while hanging from the cross. And yet a white supremacist puts that verse on a sign to justify his hate. He doesn’t know the rest of the story. But you know. You know that God is love, and love wins.
The final verse is Luke 12:11, in which Jesus tells his friends to rely on the Holy Spirit when they make the defense of their faith. I can’t even address this because I start shaking and want to throw up. Such misappropriation of the Gospel is beyond the pale. But it fits the white nationalist worldview, for they believe they are really the ones being persecuted. They see this country changing color, and that is the worst heresy they can imagine. However, what they don’t understand is that from the start, from the very beginning, God places diversity at the heart of Creation. Light and dark, day and night, land and sea, bird and fish, animal and humankind, man and woman: all part of the great panoply of life God made, and all different, and all loved into existence, and all called “good.”*** My confederate flag-wielding neighbor might not know that. But you know. You know that God is love, and love wins.
When I look at that image of the black police officer standing stoically in front of the white supremacists and Klan members and neo-Nazis, I get punched in the gut by the realization that we are engaged in a battle for our nation’s very soul. We can have honest, respectful and productive discussions about what that soul contains and about the policies that support it. But the turmoil in Charlottesville yesterday shines a spotlight on a deeper set of questions. Are we a people of fear or a people of hope? A people of war or a people of peace? A people of hate or a people of love? I stand with love. Please stand with me. For God is love, and love will win.
* It turns out the image is from a different white supremacist rally in Charlottesville from July 8th. Read the story about it here. The timing of the picture does not change the content of the message of the sermon.
** Later this week I will post a longer piece on the use of “the Jews” in the Gospel According to John. Here it is.
*** I first heard this reading of the Genesis Creation story from my bishop, the Rt. Rev. Ian Douglas, and it completely floored me.