(Here’s the audio – it includes some silence at the beginning for lectio divina practice – a meditative way of reading Scripture.)
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
As we work together, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For God says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections. In return—I speak to you as to children—open wide your hearts also.
So, you decided to come to church this morning. We came to church this morning. We sang, and prayed, and have just heard scripture together.
We did this despite what happened on Wednesday, in a church, to people who sang, and prayed, and heard scripture together.
Maybe you thought it would be ok because here is not there. Because Kansas is not South Carolina. Because a twenty-four-year-old suburban church is not a hundred-and-ninety-nine-year-old southern church. Because most of these people are white, and all of those people were black. And so we are not like them.
Except that doesn’t hold up. Especially here. Because the story we tell every Sunday at church is our intentional effort to break down those boundaries. The story we tell says that in this place or in that place, new or old, white or black, all who gather around the story of Jesus are one. When we sing, our folk songs blend with their gospel choruses. And when we pray, our celebrations and our sadnesses mingle with theirs, because our hearts carry all the same stuff.
And when we break bread and drink from the cup, we remember brokenness and love, bodies and blood. Some of the earliest church fathers used to say that the bread we share is the body of Jesus and it is our own. This morning it is that of Jesus, and it is ours, and it is Clementa’s, and Cynthia’s, and Sharonda’s, and Tywanza’s, and Ethel’s, and Susie’s, and Depayne’s, and Daniel’s, and Myra’s. We are none of us, really, separate from each other.
We do not come to church to be reassured that we are unaffected. We come to church to be reminded that we are bound. We come to church because the songs remind us that we belong to God and to each other and the prayers acknowledge that there are some things we cannot do alone and the scriptures make clear that justice is hard and it has always been the call of God and the work of people of faith.
We come to worship because the sanctuary has historically been a safe space. People who were persecuted could come seeking refuge. They would run into the building and collapse on the floor beneath the cross and know that inside those walls they would find amnesty. That’s the definition of the term. Even though much of that old meaning has slipped away, still, when people find themselves afraid or unsure, they often find their way to a sanctuary. And when that very principle is violated, when people are not safe in their holy places, it is up to other people to create sanctuary outside of those walls once thought to contain it.
Two Thursdays ago the high schoolers and I served dinner in a church basement to about a hundred and twenty neighbors. I grabbed a used tray from a man who was trying to balance too much and was on my way to dump the scraps in the trash can when another man, maybe just twenty years old, fell in step beside me. As soon as I met his eyes he told me, “My dream is to go to England.”
I said, “Oh?” and he told me about a friend of his who had gone and come back with some great stories, and about an athlete he follows who was born in England. And I was so struck by that – not that his dream was so striking, just that he offered it so quickly – before any “hellos” or “how are yous” – almost as if he was saying, “Listen, our time here might be short, so I just want to tell you: my dream is to go to England.”
Almost as if he was saying, “Listen, before you notice my empty glass and offer me a refill, or take in my ragged pants and point me towards the donated piles of clothing near the entryway, let me say this: my dream is to go to England.”
Almost as if he was saying, “Listen, I know you’re already telling yourself a story about me – about my hard life, my bad choices, my unfortunate circumstances, about how I ended up needing to come to a church basement for a free dinner tonight. But what I want you to know is: this is how human I am. I have a dream.”
And here’s my confession – if he hadn’t opened his heart like that, if he hadn’t offered up his dream… I wouldn’t have thought to ask. I might have asked how he was feeling, or if he’d grabbed an apple to take with him, or if he’d grown up nearby. But not if he had a dream. And I sure wouldn’t have thought to tell him mine, or to start a conversation that way.
But he did. He was vulnerable, and he was brave. He began to build a sanctuary, right there in line for the trash can. For no reason at all, he welcomed me into his world, and trusted me with his dream.
And now I think maybe he had to. Because if he was going to convince me that his story was more than a sad one, that he was more than someone to be pitied, he didn’t really have the luxury of time to work through all the proper introductions. I was about to dump that tray and turn away to my next task.
This convincing each other that we are human is urgent business. And it has consequences.
The people of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church opened their hearts. They did not withhold their affections or their faith. They prayed and sang and studied scripture with a stranger, and they acknowledged him as fully human. They made themselves vulnerable.
But what else could they have done? Deny him? Allow within their walls only people that they already knew and trusted? They are a congregation named Emmanuel – a people named God-with-us – so that really wasn’t ever an option. Maybe they knew that invulnerability was impossible. They surely knew it was anti-gospel.
What Paul is asking in these scriptures – open your hearts – takes on a strange and sad and scary new resonance today. What does it mean to open our hearts in a world where welcoming strangers means risking our lives?
But that’s not really a question for our context, is it? Or it’s only one of them. Our questions are: how brave, and how vulnerable, will we be? How many difficult conversations will we have with our friends and relatives? How hard will we work so that Grandmothers Against Gun Violence will have a voice that can be heard over the NRA’s? How will we tell our kids the hard and horrifying stories of our racist past, a history that stretches from centuries ago to just last week? How much rearranging of our lives will we do to make sure we have chances to learn more, to stand with, to speak up, to reach out? And how will we treat all our neighbors as fully human, not just as people with sad stories but also as people with dreams? How will we learn to trust and celebrate one another?
How will we open our hearts?
We were never those people that believed racism was over with the Civil Rights Act or the election of Barack Obama. We have always been those people who have believed that white privilege is real and that most of us benefit from it and that something is fundamentally unjust about that. And believing those truths is the tiniest beginning. Knowing the truth does not change it. Sitting down with it – confessing our gain from it – sharing our fears connected to it – speaking our dreams to strangers, and hearing theirs – that’s movement towards real change.
…I mean, I hope it is.
I hope we’ll at least try. And when we fail, I hope we will try again, and not be afraid to fail again, and then try again, and fail some more, and keep trying. I hope we won’t get tired. I hope we won’t get lazy. I know that’s easy to do, and it’s easy for white people, for privileged people, to turn away. I do it all the time. I like to think of myself as an ally but that can be exhausting and some days I’m unwilling to be exhausted by anything other than my own children. But we turn away at the risk of coming right back around to here, to this place of mourning and horror, and despite all the ways I will mess up I want to commit to doing what I can to create sanctuary outside of these walls. If you want to also, here’s a small way we can start:
Write this address down: Emmanuel AME Church, 110 Calhoun Street, Charleston, South Carolina, 29401. And sometime this week, send a card. Write a note of sympathy and solidarity, and drop it in the mail.
Paper may be flimsy. But even walls are no protection to people committed to welcoming neighbors, strangers. And if these cards carry our love, maybe they can help to create a sanctuary, and a space for dreams to be shared again, for those who are mourning now.