Sunday, August 2, 2015

While I Was Sleeping…in South Carolina

Shepherd of Israel, listen!
  You, the one who leads Joseph as if he were a sheep.
  You, who are enthroned upon the winged heavenly creatures.
Show yourself before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
  Wake up your power!
  Come to save us!
Restore us, God!
  Make your face shine so that we can be saved!
Lord God of heavenly forces,
  how long will you fume against your people’s prayer?
You’ve fed them bread made of tears;
  you’ve given them tears to drink three times over!
You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors;
  our enemies make fun of us.
Restore us, God of heavenly forces!
  Make your face shine so that we can be saved!
You brought a vine out of Egypt.
  You drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
  then it planted its roots deep, filling the land.
The mountains were covered by its shade;
  the mighty cedars were covered by its branches.
It sent its branches all the way to the sea;
  its shoots went all the way to the Euphrates River.
So why have you now torn down its walls
  so that all who come along can pluck its fruit,
  so that any boar from the forest can tear it up,
  so that the bugs can feed on it?
Please come back, God of heavenly forces!
  Look down from heaven and perceive it!
Attend to this vine,
  this root that you planted with your strong hand,
  this son whom you secured as your very own.
It is burned with fire. It is chopped down.
  They die at the rebuke coming from you.
Let your hand be with the one on your right side—
  with the one whom you secured as your own—
  then we will not turn away from you!
Revive us so that we can call on your name.
  Restore us, Lord God of heavenly forces!
  Make your face shine so that we can be saved! (Psalm 80 CEB)

Psalms like this one have been read for centuries by God’s people. Psalm 80 and others like it have been classified as “Psalms of Communal Lament.” There are times when God’s community needs to come together and lament. I know we don’t hear that much in our congregations today. Today, we just want to praise, we just want to be happy, we just want to celebrate—especially in our worship. But it is not inappropriate to lament or mourn during worship. Lamenting in worship allows us to express our grief or our frustration. It also allows us reach out to the only one who is powerful enough to set things right. Brothers and sisters, there are certainly things in our world that need to be set right!

On the evening of June 17, Dylann Roof, 21 years old, took his seat at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The congregation was having a Bible study on that Wednesday evening, and people were moving into their familiar places. When he arrived, Dylann Roof asked if he could see the church’s Senior Pastor. He was taken and introduced to Reverend Clementa Pickney, and the two of them sat together as the service began. Dylann Roof listened to the prayers, songs, and readings of the service for some time—about an hour. Finally, he did what he had come to do. He reached into his fanny pack and pulled out a Glock 41, .45 caliber handgun. Then he began shooting at anyone near him. And as he shot, he was simultaneously screaming racial epithets.

“I’m here to shoot black people. You want something to pray about? I’ll give you something to pray about. I have to do it. You are taking over our country, and you have to go.” After shooting several people, Roof walked over to one woman and asked her, “Did I shoot you?”

She said, “No.”

“Good,” he said, ”because we need someone to survive. I’m going to shoot myself, and you’ll be the only survivor.”

Then, Dylann Roof turned the gun on himself, pulled the trigger, and found out that the gun was out of ammunition. When it was all said and done, nine people lost their lives. Times like these make us want to cry out:
Restore us, God! Make your face shine so that we can be saved!
Because I am convinced church, we are not going to solve the problem of racism in our country on our own.

Nevertheless, we join God in God’s mission to graciously help a fallen world stand up again.

As many of you know, this issue is one that is near and dear to my heart. I have spent years researching this issue. I have studied the Civil Rights Movement extensively. I have written about the way racism has infiltrated the church itself. And as I set out to prepare this sermon, I thought about recounting some of that data to you. But I finally arrived at this conclusion. You do not need to be convinced that racism is a problem. I don’t need to give you a bunch of statistics. This morning, we do not need to relive Ferguson or Baltimore, Birmingham or Selma. We know racism is a horrific stain on the fabric of America. But here is what I want to visit about this morning: What now? How is God calling us to engage this problem? Because I do know one thing: God is not calling us to stand on the sidelines. God is not calling us simply to say, “Man, I wish things would change.” Or, worse yet: “I guess it will just always be this way.” As steep as that hill may be, God has always called us to join Him in His reconciliation effort. So, first I want to share with you a couple of things that are happening within our own Movement, the Churches of Christ.

Some of you may know Jerry Taylor. Jerry is a Professor in ACU’s Graduate School of Theology and he is passionate about racial reconciliation. He was given a sabbatical by ACU so that he could devote a significant amount of his time to this effort. Over the last year, Jerry has led a series of Race Unity Leadership Summits. In Atlanta, Memphis, Los Angeles, in Abilene and there are others planned. These summits have called together leaders within African American and white Churches of Christ, and I use those labels intentionally—there are now two easily identifiable, racially-defined movements within Churches of Christ. There is very little overlap. But we are trying to change that. These meetings have allowed us to build relationships between these two otherwise disconnected fellowships. We’ve had some tough discussions and some meaningful worship together. Please continue to pray for those efforts!

Let me tell you about something else that is happening later this month. A bus ride has been organized from Tuskegee, Alabama to Nashville, Tennessee. Kind of like the days of the Civil Rights Movement but this bus will be filled with young ministers (African American and white) from within Churches of Christ. The ride will include stops at: Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma and Tuskegee—where they will meet with Fred Gray, the attorney for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Along the way, this group will be able to talk about what happened together and they’ll be able to talk about where we go from here together. They will be able to form relationships with each other—relationships that simply did not exist a generation ago between these two factions in Churches of Christ. I’m so excited about this possibility. Please commit it also to prayer!

Some of you may be wondering, however, “How can I help?” Well, I have something in mind, but first I want to explain why I believe this effort is so important. Our American mindset sometimes fools us into believing that everyone has the same opportunities. “Just work hard,” “Just buckle down,” “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and anything is possible.” I think we have to admit that not everyone is starting in the same spot. Let me give you an example. Following WWII, America introduced something known as the GI Bill, which gave WWII veterans a series of benefits, including: Low cost mortgages, low interest loans, and financial support to allow veterans to pursue an education. The US Department of Veterans Affairs decided who received money for education and who did not. Most African Americans were denied. Banks and mortgage companies also denied African Americans loans. The GI Bill was almost completely irrelevant for the African American community. Which means that while white Americans experienced the biggest boom in American history, black Americans did not. More than half a century later, there is still a wide gap, economically and educationally between whites and blacks in America.

There is obviously much more to say about this issue, but let me just say this: I think one of the best things you and I can do to help heal the racial wounds in our community is by helping to provide quality education to young African American students. I believe this will create generational change. I believe it will allow the African American community to build leadership from within and I believe it will, over time, allow much of the power that has been held by whites in our county to be shared. Because when one group has all or most of the power—financial power, political power, or corporate power—that arrangement is not good for anyone. In fact, it is deadly to both those with the power and those without it. And in the end, it causes division, anger, and violence.

I believe if we can help African American children have access to good, quality education, we can make a long-term difference. For details on how to support a new school providing accessible, Christ-centered education in North Tyler, visit Promise Academy at promisetyler.org.
Restore us God! Make Your face shine so that we can be saved!

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