This Independence Day weekend, our nation pauses to remember, to celebrate, and (at least for some of us) to pray for these United States. We do so in a historic moment marked by both grief and hope. Two and a half weeks ago, when nine children of God were gunned down in a Charleston church, it pulled open racism’s wound once again in our country. We all know that; and we’ve heard voices from all sides mostly talking to people who already share their points of view. It’s usually cast in terms of “our country needs to” do this or do that, as if we believed that, if we only gave people the right answer, the body politic would change.
It’s harder than that. Living into what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” is excruciatingly hard work. From a Christian perspective, it’s the work of discipleship – loving God, loving neighbor, and loving each other the way Jesus loved. Though it’s easy for us to say “those people” ought to change in this way or that, I believe healing our nation begins by healing hearts. Let me tell you about a couple of those hearts – hearts afflicted with blindness.
The first is the heart of a South Carolina state representative, Doug Brannon. Representative Brannon is a third-term Republican from a small South Carolina community, a lawyer, a white man. Had he not run for office, he’d have probably never met state Senator Clementa Pinckney, the AME pastor and legislator who was killed in his Charleston church. But in their time in the state house, Brannon and Pinckney had become friends. Remembering his friend, Representative Brannon said, “When he walked into a room, the smile just lit the room up. As big as he was, he was so inviting. … just a welcome sight.”1
Soon after the shooting, as the calls came to take down the Confederate flag on the capitol grounds, Representative Brannon stopped short in the realization that he had a sin on his heart, a sin of omission, a sin that now weighed on him like an anvil. He’d walked past that Confederate flag hundreds of times, but as he said, “I don’t look at it. That may sound ridiculous, but I don’t look at it. So it didn’t mean anything to me.”1 But now, he said, “It’s time to do my job.”2 So Representative Brannon will introduce a bill to remove that flag, though it will likely cost him his job. He said, “The switch that flipped was the death of my friend. I’ve been in the House five years; I should have filed that bill five years ago. But,” he said, “the time is now.”2 Two and a half weeks ago, Representative Brannon didn’t even see that flag. His friend’s death opened his eyes and, for a moment, let him step into his friend’s world. And with fresh eyes, he could see a wound to heal.
Here’s the second example of a heart afflicted with blindness: mine. I grew up in Springfield, Missouri. When I was a boy, Springfield was 98 percent white.3 At my school, there was no racial diversity. Literally, I didn’t know an African American kid, or any other kid who wasn’t white. The one black person I knew – as trite as it sounds, it’s true – the one black person I knew was the woman who cleaned our house.
Most of Springfield’s small black population lived in the north-central part of town. My friends and I played in a basketball league at the Boy’s Club there; and one day, we were in the game room, playing pool. Three black kids came up to join us. My friends and I had had so little interaction with black kids that we couldn’t understand the words they spoke. We literally didn’t speak the same language.
In an earlier day, Springfield’s population was about 10 percent African American. Black people owned thriving businesses, served on the City Council, served on the school board, served in law enforcement. But in 1906, on Holy Saturday, as Jesus lay in the tomb, three young black men were lynched and burned on the downtown square. Understandably, many black people left Springfield for good the next morning, after Easter services. The governor declared martial law and sent in the state militia. But no one was ever convicted for the lynchings. Eventually, the city’s black population shrank to less than half of what it had been.4
I knew about that lynching because my parents had told me, several times. But I never heard about it in school. In 12 years of public education in Springfield, we never talked about that lynching or any of the rest of the city’s black experience. It’s not that Springfield’s racial history was denied. It just wasn’t.
We are formed by the reality we inhabit, as I said last week. And, growing up, the reality I inhabited was that African American people were “other.” I knew they were there, but I didn’t know them. I didn’t even see them. And when we don’t see, we don’t change.
Of course, over the years, I’ve had the chance to see and hear a bit more. I’ve learned from black conversation partners in college, at work, and in this congregation. And then, this year, a relationship has been growing with a man some of you were blessed to meet in May – Pastor Mike Patton at United Missionary Baptist Church. He’d contacted me about being part of an ecumenical Good Friday service. I couldn’t do it because of our services here, but Pastor Mike and I kept talking. And we decided we’d have a joint service – gathering at their church, with our choir singing, and with me preaching.
It was a great experience; and afterward, we knew we needed to get together again. But sadly, the next opportunity was an interfaith service the day after the Charleston shootings. Pastor Mike, Mtr. Anne, Fr. Marcus, John Walker, Jim Bridgeford, and I – we all went to that service together, praying for healing in Charleston and for our nation.
After the service, the six of us went to lunch at M&M Deli at 31st and Woodland. In many ways, that meal was a foretaste of the banquet of the kingdom of heaven. It was Eucharist with Ruebens and potato chips and Diet Coke. We even started the feast by sharing a single, perfect doughnut, broken and given among us as we waited in line for our sandwiches. The Body of Christ was truly present around the table as the six of us unwrapped our sandwiches and opened our hearts. And the Body of Christ was present all around that room, too: black people, brown people, white people; folks from the neighborhood, workers on lunch breaks, cops on the beat. Those diverse hearts and hands were united in the fellowship of our common humanity. There was plenty for all, and all the hungry were fed.
There in the church of M&M Deli, the six of us talked about what was next for our two congregations. The worship we shared in May at United Missionary Baptist had been amazing, people from both congregations describing a sense of welcome and an ease of relationship they might not have expected. As a next step, we talked about a couple of options. Now, their congregation is small, 50 or 60 people on a Sunday. And I didn’t want to presume that we’d trump their service by having all of us gather here on a Sunday morning. So I suggested they come to the Feast of the First Tomato, which is this Wednesday – beautiful music and a great party afterward.
Well, Pastor Mike put down his sandwich and said, “There’s nothing wrong with that. But you know, for us, it would be important to sit down at the table with your family for Sunday dinner.” I heard him. What I had feared would seem dismissive – “You all shut down your little church one Sunday and come to our big, pretty church” – what I had feared would seem dismissive was gracious hospitality instead. Who knew?
So on Sunday, Aug. 9, at our 10:15 service, we will welcome the people of United Missionary Baptist to gather with our family for Sunday dinner, here at Jesus Christ’s table. When we went there in May, our choir provided the music and I preached. When they come here in August, their praise band will provide the music, and Pastor Mike will preach. And the kingdom of God will be revealed among us.
All this may seem an odd topic for a Fourth of July sermon. But I heard something in the Old Testament reading this morning, a key to unlock the shackles of racism that bind us and keep us from true equality and freedom. Here’s what I heard: “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome … who loves the strangers. … You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19) And then, in the Gospel reading today, I heard Jesus say this: “Love your enemies. … If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:44,47)
We will never grow into the full stature of the Body of Christ, and we will never grow into the fullness of blessing God intends America to be, if we do not love the stranger. For when we love the stranger – around a deli table east of Troost and around the welcome table of Jesus Christ – when we love the stranger, we come to see that we need not be strangers. We come to see, as Jesus wished, that we are one, as he and the Father are one (John 17:22-23).
All this may sound like pie-in-the-sky preaching from an out-of-touch priest. Maybe. But I’ll let the pragmatic politician in me tell you this: The only way to dismantle the systemic racism that clings like slime to our national body politic is to change one heart at a time. Those of us who never heard a black voice in school, those of us who don’t notice the Confederate flag – we will not change just because we’re told to, no matter how compelling the case. But I have faith in the God who changes hearts every day. I have faith that when we come to see the stranger, when we hear the stranger’s story, and when we share our story, too, then “we will all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). We will be transformed, made new by the Holy Spirit who longs for the Body of Christ, and the body of our nation, out of many to be one.
1. “S.C. State Legislator Hopes To Remove Confederate Flag This Summer.” All Things Considered, National Public Radio. Transcript available at: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=416538096. June 22, 2015. Accessed July 3, 2015.
2. “Calls for Confederate flag to come down after Charleston church shooting.” CBS This Morning. Available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/calls-for-confederate-flag-to-come-down-after-charleston-church-shooting/. June 22, 2015. Accessed July 3, 2015.
3. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. “General Demographic Trends for Metropolitan Areas, 1960-1970.” 1970 Census of Population and Housing, PHC(2)-27 Missouri, Final Report. 1971. Available at: http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/42189394n27-52ch1.pdf. Accessed July 3, 2015.
4. Fillmer, Jenny. “1906 lynchings grew from tensions, racism.” Springfield News-Leader, April 14, 2006. Available at: http://archive.news-leader.com/article/20060414/NEWS01/604140328/1906-lynchings-grew-from-tensions-racism. Accessed July 3, 2015.