Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
This was supposed to be a sermon about tenderness.
This was supposed to be a sermon about the power of words—and how we cannot allow to stand the steady drumbeat of racist, dehumanizing, and divisive attacks by the president on immigrants, women, elected officials, people of color, and, most recently, an entire city.
This sermon was going to acknowledge the toll those words have taken on us all, even we people of privilege—how they have contaminated our shared culture, how it is almost impossible to sustain the outrage they provoke, how these hateful words wear us down, and how we are torn between simply ignoring them for the sake of our own emotional and spiritual health, and decrying them for the sake of the people and places whose reputations, jobs, and lives they endanger.
In this climate of presidential and normalized hate speech, this sermon was going to offer the tender words of our loving and anguished God as a balm and a corrective, to encourage us to let ourselves be transformed by that heartbroken yet inexhaustible love.
Perhaps you’ve seen the T-shirt or bumper sticker that says, “Lord, help me be the person my dog thinks I am.” Well, this sermon was going to inspire us to become the people God thinks we are—the people God taught to walk, the beloveds God delights to gather in her arms and lifts to her cheeks, the needy children God lives to feed and heal, liberate and protect, empower and delight, the prodigals God runs out into the street to welcome home.
This sermon was going to praise the God that simply can ’t quit us, no matter how many times we quit God, no matter how often we turn away, no matter how regularly we pretend not to know God. This sermon was going to praise the Mama Bear God who—excuse the mixed metaphor—roars like a lion to call us home. This sermon was going to give thanks to the God who is good all the time; it was going to invite us to remember all the times and the many ways God has delivered us, and it was going to invite us to continue to sing our songs of joy and praise, even in this strange and hateful and broken land.
Which is to say, I ’m sorry to confess, that this sermon might have ended up being more about us and our needs than about God’s tender mercies and unfailing love.
But that ’s a moot point now.
Because we have broken God ’s heart again—and between the time I went to bed and when I awoke, again. Again and again, God is grieving humans’ violence, idolatry, injustice, and godlessness.
Again, God is in anguish to see how her children treat one another. Again, God weeps over the victims of yet another mass shooting—and another; that’s three in less than a week.
How many more, O God?
(Because this sermon was already changed once, and because we don ’t yet know anything about the identity or motives of the Ohio shooter, I’m going to focus primarily on the reasons for the El Paso shooting, rather than gun violence in general.)
Because again and again we and God witness the impact of hate speech. Again and again we see what becomes of concerted presidential and white nationalist efforts to unite poor- and middle-class whites against people of color and immigrants.
Violence and threats of violence. Bullying. Family separation. Mass incarceration. The subversion of our democracy. The perversion of evangelical Christianity.
And death. Death by violence. Death at the hands of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and haters of Muslims. Death at the hands of police officers and government employees. Killings by white men who right racist manifestos. Killings by their legally purchased automatic weapons.
Killings in El Paso, Texas; Gilroy, California; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Virginia Beach, Virginia; Christ Church, New Zealand—and now, Dayton, Ohio. At a Walmart, a food festival, a workplace, two mosques, and outside a bar.
Home-grown, hate-fed terrorism. Most recently, and all too often, a white man shooting black and brown people.
In El Paso, at least 20 people dead and at least 26 others injured. And in the current nation ’s anti-immigrant climate, the concern that some of the wounded might not seek treatment because of their immigration status.
God knows we all need a little tenderness right now. God knows we need a lot of tenderness. But the harshness just keeps coming; the hateful tweets just don’t stop.
God ’s anguish doesn’t stop, either, but neither does God’s goodness. Despite it all, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
So how can we love God in these times? How can we love our beaten-down, separated, and locked-up neighbors? How can we sing the Lord ’s song in this violent and racist and xenophobic land?
How can we not?
The Lord ’s song is an anthem of welcome and love for all. God’s song is a psalm of praise and peace and justice—for all. God’s song is a canticle of turning, of liberation and redemption, of lifting up the powerless and bringing down the powerful. God’s song is a song of joy.
(Speaking of singing, late last night I considered changing our joyful communion hymns to something more solemn and mournful and, therefore, more appropriate for the morning after 20 people have been killed by racialized hatred. But then I thought better of it; let our joyful hymns be songs of love and resistance. But with this morning ’s news of 10 more dead in Ohio, I could no longer justify joy. So we will sing the different hymns, as announced.)
Last Tuesday, the leaders of the Washington (Episcopal) National Cathedral issued a public statement in response to President Trump ’s most recent series of racist tweets and statements.
“Make no mistake about it,” they said, “words matter. … When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists … Violent words lead to violent actions.”
“When does silence become complicity?” they asked. “What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency [than] ours.”
“As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over,” they concluded. “We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled against us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation. We must say that this will not be tolerated. To stay silent in the face of such rhetoric is for us to tacitly condone the violence of these words. We are compelled to take every opportunity to oppose the indecency and dehumanization that is racism, whether it comes to us through words or actions.” 1
Beloveds, this will be the second time in just over a month that I am asking you to prayerfully consider how we, as First Church Amherst, will respond to unjust policies and pronouncements. How will we be God’s hands and feet in these circumstances? How will we love God and our neighbors?
Surely, we cannot be silent. Surely, we must repent of our complicity. Surely, we must resolve to call out racist words and policies.
May we allow our hearts, like God’s, to be broken open. May we allow God’s love for all to change us. And may we live tenderly, as we have been loved.