by Whitney Stofflet // June 18th, 2020
Today, on the 3rd anniversary of the death of Pastor Christopher P. Nelson we remember and give God thanks for his life and ministry. Last night Pastor Ben shared a portion of Pastor Chris’ sermon from 5 years ago this week ( https://youtu.be/_6ROaF4B1iY?t=705). Chris’ words continue to inspire and challenge us to be about Kingdom work in these challenging times.
Originally Preached Sunday, June 21, 2015
This is one of those days that Karl Barth, the famous 20th-century theologian, said we need to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. I suppose if he said it today, he would include tablets and other electronic devices…
I’m talking about the atrocity in Charleston, South Carolina that happened last week. Nine brothers and sisters murdered while they were at a prayer meeting at the Emmanuel AME Church, by a stranger, whose name I will not say now, (but who grew up in an ELCA church), and whom they welcomed in the name of Jesus. Hear their names; their lives matter–black lives matter:
Sharonda Coleman- Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Pastor Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Pastor Daniel Simmons, Pastor Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Pastor Clementa Pinckney.
And with Pastor Pinckney, there is a Bethlehem connection: Pastor Mark Peterson, who is serving in Massachusetts, was a Bethlehem member when God called him to serve as a pastor. He attended Southern Seminary, supported by the Bethlehem Foundation, and one of his classmates and friends was Clementa Pinckney. Brothers and sisters, we are all connected!
It is good that we are in the middle of a sermon series on the Psalms, because the Psalms lift up every emotion we have as we sing them to God, as we engage God, and God engages us throughout our lives.
An event like Charleston leads to strong emotions- anger, frustration, and sorrow, to name just a few I’ve been feeling, as we hear yet again of a mass shooting, this one so clearly racially motivated, in a land where we have yet to exorcise the racist demon that has plagued us from the beginning, and which plagues us all still…
Our psalm today is proclaiming the author’s steadfast trust in God in everything, but especially when threatened with calamity, whether that calamity is internal, or external. That, by the way, is the wonder of poetry- it can be read literally, or figuratively.
It is a bold statement of faith, starting from the beginning: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh- my adversaries and foes, they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet will I be confident…”
Do you see how this could be read in two ways- literally, before a battle with external forces, or figuratively, some kind of internal struggle- an illness, an injury that threatens your life…
Rolf Jacobson, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary (who has spoken here often) has battled cancer that took his legs; he’s been in a wheelchair most of his life. He’s also one of the authors of a splendid new commentary on Psalms. In his writing about Psalm 27, Rolf mentioned the comfort he received from this Psalm- from being able to find God’s healing presence for him in it, and it is there!
Rolf has learned to trust God. You learn to trust someone by knowing them…there’s a relationship that is built up. For those of us who follow Jesus, we know that everything we can say about God we know through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection- that is, our relationship with God is based on God knowing us, by name, and loving us in Christ. We know that God hates illness and death- that those are a function of our fallen world, because we see Jesus heal the sick, and raise the dead… Indeed, in his death on the cross and in his resurrection, we know that no matter what happens, God in Christ will be with us through everything, including our deaths, and will be with us forever!
Rolf can testify to God’s work in his life, through his journey with cancer.
This can be a powerful psalm if you are seeking strength in a time of sorrow, in a time of illness, in a time of loss. God is there for you and will give you the strength you need to continue. As you read it, as you meditate on it, you will begin to grow in the confidence and comfort of God’s presence! But let’s have another, more literal look at this Psalm. Let us put in the mouths of our African American brothers and sisters as a call, and a promise for God’s presence, strength, and ultimate victory in the struggle against racism and for civil rights…This will be neither comforting nor comfortable for most of us, I fear, certainly not me.
There were, perhaps, only two hundred years in Israel’s history of roughly 3500 years that Israel was anything approaching a military power. The rest of the time they were pretty much pawns in the battles of the major powers of the day- Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon. The northern kingdom disappeared from history at the hands of the Assyrians; the southern kingdom- Jerusalem- Mt. Zion- was conquered by the Babylonians and the people were taken into exile for 70 years. When they returned, they were vassals of the Persians, then the Greeks and finally the Romans…
This psalm, then, is truly remarkable in its declaration of trust in God for the final victory. It speaks of someone (or a people) who cannot defeat their enemies alone; it will be up to God to “conceal me under the cover of his tent,” that is, the Temple. “He will set me high up on a rock. Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me…” What’s more, the psalmist declares “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage!” The author declares that he shall be vindicated while he lives- but that patience is necessary…
Remember I said that everything we know about God, we know through Jesus, who was God? And we know that Jesus loved those who were downtrodden and outcast. We know that in his first sermon in Luke, one of Jesus’ primary tasks was to “set at liberty those who are oppressed…His crucifixion was the ultimate act of solidarity- that death was reserved for those who were on the bottom- non-Romans, slaves, traitors to Rome (freedom fighters, you might call them…) And his Resurrection was vindication of everything he said, and everything he was- and who he was and is!
Of course, Jesus loves you and always will; there is no question about that. But Jesus also loves the poor and oppressed, and calls all of his people to work for their freedom!
And might that not resonate with our African-American brothers and sisters? That there will come a day when freedom prevails? That God will bring it, and that they shall see it? Someday? Deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome someday…
For the record, I am as patriotic as the next person. I love our country and always have. But the truth is we have had this problem with race from the very beginning, and we hate to talk about it. The Founders wrote into the Constitution that a slave was 3/5’s of a person, for the purposes of counting the population, which determined the number of members of the House of Representatives, for whom the slaves couldn’t vote, of course.
The denomination of Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston was founded in Philadelphia in 1816 by The Rev. Richard Allen, who was tired of dealing with segregation in the churches of Philadelphia (that’s the north!) and wanted to see a church where all were welcome, and African Americans could take their places in leadership.
And yes, a Civil War was fought to free the slaves and end the slave trade. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to our constitution were passed to ensure legal rights, and voting rights for former slaves, but that did not end the demon’s life or work- Jim Crow, segregation, poll taxes were a part of life for the freed slaves. So was lynching…
Minnesota played a key role in the Union Army; The Minnesota First was in the center at the Battle of Gettysburg. But in the 1930s, white folks in south Minneapolis, not far from here at 4600 Columbus Avenue, demonstrated and threatened (stoned their house, threw rocks at them), a black family named the Lees, for moving into the neighborhood. They finally left, but not until they showed they could outlast the demonstrators. African Americans have been lynched in Duluth- it’s a long, sorry list…
And brothers and sisters, I have not ever had to teach my children how to relate to the police, as I know some of my African American colleagues have. I have never been pulled over for “driving while white,” something that happens all too frequently to African Americans for “driving while black…”
I have never been stopped for walking through any neighborhood anywhere, but I know of African Americans who live in predominantly white neighborhoods who have been stopped and questioned about why they’re there.
What I’m saying is that I (and likely most of you) never have to think about my race, or my skin color, when I know black folks do, all the time, every day. That’s how I would define “white privilege”. That’s how I would classify myself as “racist,” unconsciously, to be sure, most of the time. That’s what can get fanned into white supremacy by those who have learned to hate- and they have to learn it; it’s something that has to be taught. As I heard a few days ago, “the only thing my two-year-old hates is his nap…” And it has to stop.
Let me say this, too- it’s way too easy to say the young man was dealing with mental illness, and that’s what caused this. That is an insult to the millions of people who live with mental illness every day and never act with violence.
He was living out his racist, white supremacist fantasy, in his words, to “start a race war,” and he had a gun, which made it all too easy to do… Had he been a Muslim, the papers would have called him a “homegrown terrorist” That would be “white privilege” again. We need to pray for him and his family as we pray for the families and friends of the victims.
The mourning families in Charleston showed the strength of their faith in the crucified and risen Jesus when the young man was arraigned for his crimes. They showed the faithfulness we see throughout our psalm today, trusting totally in the Lord- not fearing anyone or any demonic ideology. Each of them told young Dylan that they forgave him for the horrible things he has confessed to doing, and they invited him to repent, to turn, and receive that forgiveness from them.
I would suggest that as our starting place today, my brothers and sisters. Repenting of the ease with which we dismiss the plight of our African-American brothers and sisters–insisting that we live in a “post-racial society because we elected a black president twice” minimizes the struggle that many face every day.
Our call is to listen, not talk, not be defensive, but to listen and learn what folks who are in minorities are telling us about how they experience life. Those voices are all around us- where we work, where we live, on the web… Our call is to act, starting with refusing to listen to or countenance the countless, subtle racial slurs or jokes. Say something- this is not about being “politically correct,” it’s not about “right” or “left.” It’s about valuing people as people, and not dehumanizing, or demonizing them. Because the simple truth is that if we’re not all free, then no one is free…
That’s where we begin; that’s where we start to see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living… That’s when the “someday” in that grand old prayer and anthem comes ever closer to us all: We shall all be free; we SHALL all be free. Deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall all be free someday… In Jesus’ Name. Amen.