Thursday, June 25, 2015

Standing on the Side of Love II

This sermon was presented by Doug Trenfield on 21 June, 2015.

Reading 1:
Langston Hughes

I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There's nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began --
I loved my friend.

Reading 2:
1 Corinthians 13, The Bible

 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Sermon: Standing on the Side of Love II
by Doug Trenfield

Last Wednesday night, I’m sure you all know, June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old young man, Dylann Roof, went to a bible study at a historic and still lively church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME). The Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, responded the next morning. I thought we should all know what he said for us, so here goes:

"News of last night’s shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, SC, fills me with a profound sadness. My heart goes out to the families and friends of the victims and to the entire Emanuel Church community.

“Unitarian Universalists are sadly familiar with the tragedy of church shootings. When two congregants were killed and six wounded at our Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in 2008, the entire community reached out and embraced our congregation with love and support. We will pass that love along to the Emanuel Church community in any way we can.

“Emanuel AME Church has faced many hardships over the years, but the church has persevered and thrived. May Emanuel’s faithful find the strength to make their way through the tragedy that has taken the lives of nine of their members, including their pastor. We share their grief, and we stand with them in love and solidarity."

That church has been through a lot. It was burned in the 1820s during the tumult of a slave uprising for which the church was clearly a catalyst. In 1834, black churches were banned in the south, so congregants worshipped secretly until the end of the Civil War in 1865. The first building on the church’s present site was erected in 1872, and it was destroyed by -- a classic case of “can’t win for losing” -- an earthquake in 1886.

So back to last Wednesday night. You know what happened. I suspect you, like Rachel and I (and all our FB buds who’ve posted news and opinion pieces this week), have been a little obsessed by it. But for context, I want to give a recounting of the events that night in Charleston. I’ve chosen a brief piece to read, part of a NYT article from the next day. A just-the-facts-ma’am accounting can be chilling, and, well, even though you’ve undoubtedly warmed up since you first heard this news, I’d like to try to chill you again:

Mr. Pinckney [the 42-year-old pastor] was holding a Bible study session with a small group on Wednesday when, surveillance video shows, the suspect arrived after 8 p.m. — a slight, blond man with a bowl haircut and a gray sweatshirt. He sat down with the others for a while and listened, then began to disagree with others as they spoke about Scripture, said Kristen Washington, who heard the harrowing story from her family members who were at the meeting and survived.

Witnesses to the killings said the gunman asked for the pastor when he entered the church, and sat next to Mr. Pinckney during the Bible study.

They said that almost an hour after he arrived, the gunman suddenly stood and pulled a gun, and Ms. Washington’s cousin Tywanza Sanders, 26, known as the peacemaker of the family, tried to calmly talk the man out of violence.

“You don’t have to do this,” she told the gunman, Ms. Washington recounted.

The gunman replied, “Yes. You are raping our women and taking over the country.”

Then he shot up the room. Victims aged 26 to 87, nine of them, including Rev. Pinckney.

I don’t know what to make of this, but I’m obsessed, like someone picking at a scab. Is this about randomness? Race? Gun laws? Mental health? Parenting? Of course, it’s about all of those. But what can we do? Should we demonstrate? Should we send a card? To the church, or to the families of all the victims? They don’t need canned foods. I don’t mean to make small of efforts to help where sending canned foods is appropriate; I mean only to highlight my desperation. Our desperation? We all want to do something besides talk about our horror and share our analyses. This is getting old, and nothing we do seems to work. I posted lots of good stuff on FB in the aftermath of Ferguson, Missouri, and we still had Baltimore, Maryland, and McKinney, Texas. What the hell?

Silly, I know. Not really funny, but silly. I think you know what I’m getting at. It’s a big, big world with lots of problems, and we all want to help, but very few of us can do more than put a few drops in what we hope is the right bucket. But you know what? We have to keep trying to fill those buckets.

I wish you all could’ve known my dad. And I wish he could’ve known you. You’d’ve all hit it off. He had a little more influence -- that is, drops in buckets to contribute -- than most. He was a college professor, so had an audience and a little more than a modicum of credibility. As a man who felt his obligations deeply, he spoke when he could on behalf of the good fight -- civil rights, funding for education, reasonable foreign policy and generally better government -- and believed it was important that we all speak (even, he’d begrudge, if you disagreed with him). And vote. And if we spoke and voted, we’d fill up those buckets for good.

I agree, but I think there must be more we can do, or we need to do our speaking out in more emphatic and concentrated ways. I don’t want to just bluster away until the scab clears up or my bad feelings go away. But what?

Coincidentally, almost exactly a year ago, I gave my second sermon here. It was on the UUA initiative “Standing On the Side of Love,” an initiative that was prompted by a church shooting. Here’s what I said then:

“In 2009, moved by shootings a year before, on July 27, 2008, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, the Unitarian Universalist Association began a campaign, Standing on the Side of Love. At the church that day, after the shootings -- he killed two and injured six -- a letter was found in the car of the shooter indicating that he had targeted this church to ‘strike out against liberals in general, as well as gays.’

“After the shootings, Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church and the other Knoxville UU Church, Westside, pledged to remain open and welcoming. According to UUWorld, The bravery of these two congregations and the support of the Knoxville community inspired the organization of Standing on the Side of Love.”

I went on then to give information about what we could do to formally participate in the initiative. We could, should, look into it, but I don’t want to talk about that now. I want to talk about generically standing on the side of love. Because it’s clear to me that if I respond meaningfully, helpfully, to the shootings in Charleston, it will come from love.

By the way, did you hear what members of Emanuel Church said at Roof’s plea hearing? One, the daughter of a 70-year-old victim said, “You took something very precious away from me . . . . I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” I didn’t listen to all those who spoke, but all I heard conveyed similar sentiments. Love. Forgiveness. Anguish, of course, but no overt anger. No words damning him, as he verbally damned those at the bible study before he opened fire. Can any of us say with certainty that we’d face the killer of those we loved with this much love? Their very beings must have wrenched them toward words of vengeance, but their better selves wrenched them toward words of love and forgiveness. I’m astounded.

This tells me a lot about love. That’s got to be the source of their strength. I will add with reverent deference to their probable belief that the source of their strength is Jesus, but a conception of Jesus as being a force that would give them such charity that they can forgive Roof is not so different from my conception of love. And I want to stand on that side.

Love listens. Let’s not pull punches. If Roof hadn’t been such a racist (and, by the way, yesterday’s news of his blog posts made it clear he was one, and of the worst kind), he wouldn’t have targeted Emanuel Church. And racists -- hard to believe as this is -- think they’re right. Are we going to argue them out these beliefs? No. Belief is too entrenched. No one’s going to argue you out of your insistence that racism is wrong, either. But when we listen -- not listen collecting evidence for our rebuttals but listen to understand -- we love. And if, in fact, we are right, having shown love (and the implicit acceptance), then those who oppose us just might change.

Don’t tell me I’m naive. I know the arguments. History shows over and over again that the good don’t win just because they’re good. I will not relinquish political tools we have to effect policy. Because one loves a racist does not mean one lets a racist set policy.

So. I think we should send a card. Rachel stopped by and got a sympathy card, big enough for all of us to sign. I’ll mail it tomorrow. Of course Emanuel Church by now has gotten so many cards that it’s entirely possible no one will read ours. But they’ll count it. It’ll be a loving drop in a bucket full of other loving drops. It’s something, and though it won’t on it’s own effect measurable good, it won’t be bad!

Emanuel AME Church

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