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Sunday, November 13, 2016 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 145:1–5, 17–21
God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world—this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.
I am, indeed, deeply grateful for those who have served our country and for their families who supported them as they did it. My paternal grandfather, named Ivan, was a veteran. He came from a family farm in southwest Iowa. (It is true: I have Midwestern roots.) The town itself was so small you could just write “Mary Johnson, Gravity, Iowa” on a letter and it would get to her. Grandpa Ivan served in World War II. He was in the 8th Air Force stationed in England and flew in B-17 heavy bombers as the radio operator and top turret gunner. He flew fifty missions, including in the lead formation of the first daylight raid over Berlin. His last mission was on D-Day. As a result of his service, my grandfather received two Distinguished Flying Crosses with oak leaf clusters, a Purple Heart, and an Air Medal. And when his service was complete, he returned back to the States and started a family. I am in awe of his service. But I remain brokenhearted over his silence.
Until my father was going through my grandfather’s possessions, getting him ready to enter a nursing home near the end of his life, my father had very little knowledge of what his father had done in the war. He had not heard the story about how my grandfather had to be the medic on his plane and deal with the dead bodies. He did not know about any of the medals until he saw a White Owl cigar box on a high shelf in the closet and found them nestled in there. Dad barely knew anything about my grandfather’s military service, because Grandpa Ivan refused to speak of it. He came home, put the medals into that box and into that closet, and kept going. I know that is not uncommon. Many veterans, especially of his generation, chose to remain silent about what they saw and experienced, preferring to forget and move on rather than to feel and share. That is just what people did, and I don’t fault them for that. I certainly do not fault my grandfather for that.
But I do know firsthand that his choice to be silent about his suffering did affect his ability to connect with his wife and his sons. He was silent because he saw that as strength, perhaps a way of keeping the peace. But it came with a cost. That silence, driven primarily by pain, kept us all at arm’s length for most of his life, and I believe it also kept him from living as fully as he could have.
I tell you that story because that is not what I want for my own family and that is not what I want for us as church. This might be an aspirational hope, but I don’t want for us to purposefully keep each other at arms’ length, shunning vulnerability, choosing silence about pain or about fear instead of bringing it to speech because it feels possibly confrontational. I don’t want worship or congregational gatherings or classes to feel like a stilted family holiday dinner where you know the political views around that table are so different from each other and so heavily laden with passion and anger that you dare not even acknowledge the difference exists, lest it blow up and hit everyone with emotional shrapnel.
My vision of who I pray we can become is to be a counter-testimony kind of community—a people that actively resist fear-based or division-based silence. I recognize that is a huge challenge, especially in a church this size, a church that has much more diversity than it might first appear. But as activist-poet Alice Walker blogged this week, something we quoted in our pastoral letter to you on Thursday, in the wake of this election, are we going to turn on each other or towards each other? I firmly believe that as a church, as a part of Christ’s body, we are called to turn towards each other.
But not just towards each other. We are also called to turn towards those who are genuinely afraid as the dust of this long, divisive election season begins to settle. Now before you turn on your partisan radar—something so easy for all of us to do in these days, this pastor included—please hold on for just a moment and try to make emotional space to listen, if you can. In response to your graciousness, I will do my best to follow the advice once given to William Sloane Coffin by one of his congregants. His church member said something like, “Pastor, you have to tell us the truth. But if it is a hard truth to hear, please speak it softly.” I will try to tell you this truth softly.
Regardless of for whom you voted in this past election and regardless of the intent behind the vote or the decision not to vote, one result of this whole electoral season—a season full of rancor and divisiveness and meanness—one impact of it is that those who carry hate have been emboldened to hate very loudly. Again, it is not about the intent. It is about the impact, the impact that very loud hate is being expressed in some extremely vivid ways since Tuesday night.
In particular, that hate is being expressed primarily by people who look like me or who love like me or who believe like me, expressed against those who do not fit those categories. Allow me to tell you a few stories of which I have firsthand knowledge. These are not scenarios I have pulled off the Internet. These are true stories told to me by the people who have experienced them. I tell them to you because we are a people who believe in an incarnational God, a God who took on flesh and blood, so it is important for us to take what we call “issues” and see them incarnationally, affecting flesh and blood, as well.
A father who went to church with my husband when they were children told him that his daughter went her school on Thursday and found “Whites only” written in the bathroom. He sent the picture to my husband. A Presbyterian minister friend of mine in Virginia, whose congregation partners with the elementary school across the street—a school made up predominately of second-generation immigrants—told me that sometime early Wednesday morning, people spray-painted “Illegals go home” all over the outside of the school and busted out windows.
Another Presbyterian minister, a man of Mexican American heritage, reported that his own son was told at school that with the new administration he better get ready to go back to where he belongs, even though he, like my own son, is an American. An African American friend sent a picture of graffiti written on her car that used language I will not repeat but that was racist and hateful. An Episcopal priest in a same-sex marriage found a note on his car that also used hateful language in order to threaten him and his family. My Jewish neighbors told me of the pictures their son had sent to them—pictures of swastikas and slogans warning of things to come that were painted in his predominately Jewish neighborhood. One of our teachers in this congregation reported white students shouting “Go back to Africa” and “You’re going to get deported” to other students in the hallway of her school in a Chicago suburb.
And those are just the tip of the iceberg of the stories I have heard from people I know and trust. That is not addressing the videos of the white children in the school cafeteria singing to build a wall as the Latino children wept. That is not addressing the Muslim women reporting men and women trying to rip off their hijabs while telling them it was not allowed anymore. That is not addressing the fact that calls by transgendered young adults to suicide hotlines have spiked. I am trying to say these things softly because these are difficult things. They are hard things.
But friends, honestly, even if it is hard for some of us to relate to these stories or to even trust that they are real, they are. This is the kind of behavior that has been unleashed throughout the election cycle. These stories are illustrative of the impact of this past election cycle. And I know there are also post-election protests that have gotten violent. I saw the video of the man attacked because folks assumed he had voted for our President-elect. That response of that violence is no better.
But for today, I feel called to ask us, as a congregation, to focus on the truth that in this post-civility culture, some of our own church members and staff, undoubtedly some of your neighbors and coworkers, and others all around us in our country, are genuinely afraid and feel honest-to-goodness threatened because of who they are.
If we, people who follow Jesus Christ regardless of our race or class or any of those demographic markers, if we choose to remain silent in the face of such racism, heterosexism, and xenophobia because it is easier that way or because we don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings or because these stories aren’t our stories or because it feels safer to keep each other at arm’s length or because we don’t like conflict or because we are afraid of being seen as partisan—if we, as a congregation and as disciples, do not speak out against the powers and principalities of hatred that have been given permission to be expressed and to flourish, then we are in danger of losing our witness to the crucified and risen Christ.
Our silence would put us in danger of not living out our baptisms, a sacrament that proclaims that every human being is seen as one of God’s beloved ones. Our silence would put us in danger of negating our particular mission as Fourth Church—to be a light in this city, to reflect God’s light in this city, to be a place of welcome for all, a people who work for God’s justice and salvation for all. Again, I hope you trust my intent is not to shame or to blame or to demonize anyone. My intent is to challenge us all anew to practice what we preach. To turn towards each other but also to turn towards those who need to know they have people, communities, places where they can go and be safe and valued and treasured. That is my intent. I pray that is the impact. For if that cannot be here, with us . . . well, we should close up shop.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann has written that the church is to be the avant-garde of God’s new creation. As we preached with each other last week, we are to embody being one of God’s “islands of already” in a “sea of not yet.” We are to be a place, a people, who refuse the temptation of silence and who stand up for each other but who also stand up for those we don’t even know, who stand up particularly for all those who are very vulnerable these days. You can tell me that all of this is way too political for church, but if that is the case, then Jesus might be too political for church.
For Jesus, himself, preached a political inaugural sermon—the one you heard me read—a sermon in which he borrowed from the prophet Isaiah to proclaim that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, because God had anointed him to upset the politics of his day, the systems of his day, in order to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the Jubilee year when all indebtedness was erased and everybody got a clean start. That is a pretty political sermon. And it is a sermon that he lived out, day after day, until they killed him for it. It is a sermon he calls us to live out, day after day, in our lives too, in spite of our fear. There is much work to be done as we move into this next season of our nation’s life. But one thing the gospel compels us not to do is to be silent. It is not who we are.
This past summer, the Belhar Confession became a part of our Book of Confessions—that part of our ecclesiastical constitution that expresses our theological groundings, the “who we are” as Presbyterian Christians. Belhar is a confession that came together in South Africa back in 1986, eight years before apartheid came to an end. Here is part of what it says:
- We believe that God has revealed God’s self as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
- that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor, and the wronged;
- that God calls the church to follow him in this;
- for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;
- that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;
- that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows, and blocks the path of the ungodly;
- that for God, pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering;
- that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right;
- that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream
Hard things. Difficult things. But even if we have to start by saying them softly, let us say them. Let us not shrink back from speaking and acting as those whose first allegiance is to Jesus Christ alone and to his mission and ministry in this world. Amen.