Where is God in Charlottesville?

God’s grace and peace be with all of you.

There’s a well-known saying among preachers, attributed to the theologian Karl Barth: “The pastor should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” It means that preaching can never be divorced from the here and now. If I got up here and gave a lecture on the Bible every week, that wouldn’t be preaching—and it probably wouldn’t feed you very much, either. The point of preaching is to bring a word of God into our real lives, to see what the ancient words of scripture have to say to us today. Preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other is always a tricky balancing act.
Now, a lot of us don’t get a physical newspaper anymore, but if I had a newspaper to hold up in one hand today, it would look like this.

This weekend, Charlottesville, Virginia is a powder-keg. We could trace the roots of this story back to the Civil War or earlier, but the recent history is this: there is a statue of Robert E. Lee in a city park in Charlottesville. A debate over removing the statue led to white nationalists planning a rally they dubbed “Unite the Right.” This weekend, protesters and counter-protesters have descended on Charlottesville. There was a call for 1,000 clergy and faith leaders to come to Charlottesville in prayer and community, and many Lutheran pastors, including friends of mine, have answered that call. There are at least two ELCA Bishops there as well.

 

For the pastors who aren’t in Charlottesville, many of us had to scrap our planned sermons and rewrite them yesterday. To preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other means sometimes the headlines change the context for us. To ignore what is happening in Charlottesville, to stick with a comfortable message about keeping our eyes on Jesus, would be cowardly, and I owe you better than that.

The fact of the matter is, we here in Simi Valley, in this congregation, are comfortable and safe on the shore, while our fellow Christians are caught in a storm. They are battered by the waves, the wind is against them. They fear for their lives. This photograph was taken Friday night, showing a terrified child being comforted while white supremacists surrounded a church and prevented people inside from leaving. My friends who are in Charlottesville report that clergy were attacked by people wearing brass knuckles.
We must speak the truth and name this for what it is: this is evil. It is evil to terrorize a child in a church. It is evil to march through a city carrying torches and chanting the Nazi slogan “Blood and soil” and “Jew will not replace us”—yes, you heard me correctly. The people who descended on Charlottesville for the “Unite the Right” rally are not political conservatives, they are not right-wing Republicans expressing their political views. They are white supremacists. They are neo-Nazis. They are displaying their hatred of difference and diversity with torches and Nazi salutes. They are so emboldened that they do not feel the need to wear hoods to hide their faces.

 

This. Is. Evil. That’s not a word I throw around lightly. But this is evil. If you want to know where to find God in Charlottesville this weekend, it is not among the white supremacists. God is with the people praying together and singing hymns. God is with a frightened child trapped inside a church. God is with those who fear for their safety. God is with those who cry out, “Lord, save us!”
When his disciples were caught in a storm, Jesus walked across the water to be with them. He calmed the wind and the waves to protect them. When Elijah fled in fear for his life, God came to him in the silence, in a still, small voice.
Our Bishop, Guy Erwin, put it beautifully: “They have the torches, but we have the Light.” The Light of the World has come into the world, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

 

What can a preacher say in the face of these things? What can I say when evil is so clearly on display, when sin is marching bodily through the streets?
I can only proclaim that the God we worship, the Savior we follow, is on the side of the oppressed. God is with the marginalized, the fearful, the victims.
In the face of white supremacy that denies the full humanity of our siblings in Christ, I can only proclaim with Paul that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” God does not favor one skin tone over another. There is no distinction; in God’s eyes, we are all beloved children.

 

What can I say about these things? I must say that I am complicit, that my hands are not clean. I’ve never carried a torch or burned a cross or worn a hood, but I am a participant in the same systems that these white supremacists strive to maintain. My parents were never denied a home loan because of their race. My grandparents were never told which water fountain they were allowed to drink out of. My great-grandparents were never held as property. My ancestors were not carried across an ocean in chains. Every part of my life and my heritage has benefitted on account of the color of my skin, and that is sinful.
None of us can control what family we are born into. None of us can choose the color of our skin. But those of us who are white nonetheless benefit from white supremacy. And so those of us who are white are presented with a choice: do we maintain white supremacy or work to break it down? There is no neutral position here. Either we believe all people are created in the image of God, equal in dignity, or we don’t. We must confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, and pray for God’s mercy and grace to bring us out of our sin.

Late Friday night, a fellow Lutheran pastor put out a call for someone to help her write a litany to use in worship on Sunday. And I was still awake, so she and I wrote a litany together. I would like to ask you to pray it with me. The responses will be up on the screens.

 

Gracious and loving God,
In the beginning, you created humanity and declared us very good
We were made in Africa, came out of Egypt.
Our beginnings, all of our beginnings, are rooted in dark skin.
We are all siblings. We are all related. We are all your children.
We are all siblings, we are all related, we are all your children.

Violence entered creation through Cain and Abel.
Born of jealousy, rooted in fear of scarcity,
Brother turned against brother
The soil soaked with blood, Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?
We are all siblings, we are all related, we are our brother’s keeper.

When your people cried out in slavery,
You heard them. You did not ignore their suffering.
You raised up leaders who would speak truth to power
And lead your people into freedom.
Let us hear your voice; grant us the courage to answer your call.
Guide us towards justice and freedom for all people.
We are all siblings, we are all related, we all deserve to be free.

Through the prophets you told us the worship you want is for us
to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke;
Yet we continue to serve our own interest,
To oppress our workers, to crush our siblings by the neck because we are afraid.
Because they don’t look like us, act like us, talk like us.
Yet, they are us. And we are them.
We are all siblings, we are all related, we are not free unless all are free.

In great love you sent to us Jesus, your Son,
Born in poverty, living under the rule of a foreign empire,
Brown-skinned, dark-haired, middle-Eastern.
They called him Yeshua, your Son,
Who welcomed the unwelcome, accepted the unacceptable—
The foreigners, the radicals, the illiterate, the poor,
The agents of empire and the ones who sought to overthrow it,
The men and women who were deemed unclean because of their maladies.
We are all siblings, we are all related, we are all disciples.

The faith of Christ spread from region to region, culture to culture.
You delight in the many voices, many languages, raised to you.
You teach us that in Christ, “There is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male and female.”
In Christ, we are all one. Not in spite of our differences, but in them.
Black, brown, and white; female, non-binary, and male; citizen and immigrant,
In Christ we are all one.
We are all siblings, we are all related, we are all one in Christ.

Each week, we confess our sin to you and to one another.
We know that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
We are captive to the sin of white supremacy,
Which values some lives more than others,
Which believes some skin tones are more perfect than others,
Which commits violence against those who are different.
We confess our complicity in this sin. We humbly repent.
We ask for the strength to face our sin, to dismantle it, and to be made anew
We trust in your compassion and rely on your mercy,
Praying that you will give us your wisdom and guide us in your way of peace,
That you will renew us as you renew all of creation in accordance with your will.

We ask this, we pray this, as your children, all siblings, all related, all beloved, all created in the image of God.
Amen.

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