Hope

SanctuaryI try not to use this platform to post sermons.  Today, however, I thought I’d make an exception.  Below is the sermon manuscript for Sunday, June 19, 2016.  It’s not the sermon.  A sermon is an oral event which takes place in a particular context and is addressed to an assembly gathered for worship.  These are just the words of the sermon (more or less).

 

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 19, 2016
Psalms 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29

Hope

Perhaps your soul, like mine, is weary this morning.  Weary from hearing news reports about the killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last Sunday.  Weary from reading  the text messages that came from inside the club as panicked patrons pleaded for rescue and sent their final good-byes.  Weary from watching politicians who have fought so hard against equality for the LGBT community express their new-found empathy.

Weary of the pain.  Weary of the tears.  Weary of the rank hypocrisy. Weary of those who cling to the notion that the best response to all this carnage is to put more guns in the hands of more people.  Weary of the dearth of reason and common sense — in Congress, in the Florida Legislature, and in the public square.

Weary.  Soul weary.  So very, very tired.  As the psalmist says, “ . . . my soul is cast down within me.”

We bring that weariness with us into worship this morning.  We wear it like a mantel.  It becomes our prayer shawl.  The words of Psalms 42 and 43, the psalms appointed for this day, frame our lament:

             As a deer longs for flowing streams,
                   so my soul longs for you, O God,
             My soul thirsts for God,
                  for the living God.
             When shall I come and behold
                    the face of God?
              My tears have been my food
                    day and night,
               while people say to me continually,
                   “Where is your God?”

In times like these God can indeed feel far away, remote from our reality and indifferent to our cries for help.  We would do well if, like the psalmist, we were honest about those feelings.

For many of us, the church is a safe place to bring our weariness, our frustration, and our anger – even our anger toward God.  Here we are able to say to God,

            Why have you forgotten me?
            Why must I walk about mournfully
                 because of the enemy that oppresses me?

We can say this because the psalmist shows us how, because generations have said it before us.  We are not alone in lamentation.  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  Church for us is a safe place to grieve.

Not everyone has such a safe place.

Last Sunday, over at Lake Ella, I joined a throng of people for a candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the shooting that took place early that same morning.  Over and over, speakers from the LGBT community told how the Pulse nightclub had become well known as a safe place for that community to gather.  People went there to celebrate birthdays, to announce engagements, and just to hang out with friends.  It was a setting where they didn’t feel judged or out of place.

That teeming nightclub with its loud music and throbbing lights was a kind of sanctuary for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender people.  As unlikely – even sacrilegious — as it might sound, Pulse was a kind of holy place – or if that is going too far – at least a safe place, a place of refuge from “the enemy” of which the psalmist speaks.

For so many LGBT people “the enemy” can be found at their workplace, their school, or even in their own family.  The enemy’s names are Legion, but we know some of them: homophobia, intolerance, condemnation, and bigotry.

As it turned out, Pulse was not that safe place from the onslaught of the enemy.   A man armed with a weapon that belongs on a battlefield, not a on a street in Orlando, Florida, entered that sanctuary with its loud music, pulsing lights, and mostly young, brown-skinned children of God.  The evil he carried out there is unspeakable, and its roots run deep — not only in soil of Islam, but also in the soil of Christianity.

As the vigil on Sunday ended, I conveyed to the organizers an invitation I knew you would want me to give.  “I know you want to hold tomorrow’s vigil on the steps of the Old Capitol,” I said, “but if it looks like rain, the doors of First Church are open to you.

It didn’t rain the next afternoon, but it was so hot outside, the Capitol Police were afraid a large crowd meeting under the afternoon sun would constitute a health hazard.  They declined to issue a permit, so the organizers decided to come here instead

This room was not a comfortable venue for many in the congregation last Monday  night.  For many LGBT people, the word “church” does not connote “welcome,” or “hospitality.”  It means something else. “Church” means those same enemies who broke into the Pulse nightclub last week: homophobia, intolerance, condemnation, and bigotry.

As I stood at the door, I heard one person say to another, “I thought we were supposed to be at the Old Capitol.  Why the hell are we coming to a church?

The gathering last Monday was not a worship service.  There were no prayers, no hymns, no readings from scripture.  My only role was to give a welcome.

I didn’t come to this pulpit.  I just stood down there and told the folks who had packed these pews about some of the history of this building.  I told them about Col. Richard Shine, a slave-owner and elder in this church back in the 1830’s.  The bricks in these walls were made on Col. Shine’s plantation.  The blood and sweat of slaves is mixed into these bricks and into mortar that holds these walls together.

I told them how the slaves had to sit up there in the north gallery.  Their names were entered upon the rolls of communicate members, but they weren’t allowed to sit down here with their white Presbyterian masters to share the Lord’s Supper.

“This has not always been a place of welcome and hospitality,”  I told our guests.  There are many sins of which the Gospel calls Christians to repent, not least of them being the sins of slavery and homophobia. But I wanted our guests to hear this word specifically to them at that moment of their anger and grief: In the name of Jesus Christ, you are welcome.

These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
   and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
   a multitude keeping festival.

The memory of worship in the temple at Jerusalem helped the psalmist to find some sense of equilibrium in the midst of his lamentation.  I hope that, looking back on last Monday, some of those gathered here in this place of worship might have received a similar blessing from God.

Long ago, the brand new Christians of Galatia were struggling with the question “Who are we?

Are we Jews?  Are we Gentiles?  Are we misfits?  Do we cling to the law of Moses?  Do we ignore the law?  Who are we

You are children of God, Paul wrote.  All of you – children of God through faith.  As many of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  The old categories don’t apply anymore.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer salve or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus . . .

            That good news made all the difference to those first Christians, and what was true of them is true of you and me.

The old categories don’t matter. Neither do the new ones:  Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, gay, straight, bi-sexual, transgendered.  Important as those categories are outside these walls, they don’t matter here.  Not here, where baptism tells us who we are, where grace abounds, where sins are forgiven, where we look into the gospel mirror and see only the children of God.

When I think of those people who died last Sunday at Pulse, the thought that plagues me most is this:  that some of those people died not knowing that God loves them  — that they, too, are children of God, precious and beloved.

I am haunted by the thought that you and I failed to convey to them and to the world the love and mercy of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.  We let the categories that don’t matter get in the way of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.

God will not hold this sin against us, but God does expect us to change.

The psalmist cries: . . . Why have you cast me off?   . . . Why have you forgotten me?  Where is God in all of this?

I know where God was last Sunday. God was in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, right in the midst of the terror, the pain, and the cries for help.  Named or not, summoned or not, even called by some other name, the Triune God was there, amidst God’s very own children, made in God’s very own image.

If I did not believe that, the weariness that I bring into this sanctuary today would be the death of me.  It would be the death of all of us.

The psalmist ends his lament with a question and a command, both addressed to himself:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
   and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

There is no neat and tidy way to end this sermon, just as there are no easy answers to the evils that haunt our violence-prone culture.  But there is a way forward, knowing that God in Christ will not forsake us.

Hope in God, beloved.  Remember who you are and hope in God.

 

See this article in the Tallahassee Democrat.

 

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About Brant Copeland

I was born in Brownsville, Texas, grew up in San Antonio and in Lake Charles, Louisiana. I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Tallahassee, Florida.
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4 Responses to Hope

  1. William G. Heck says:

    I am grateful for and find inspiration in this ministry in Tallahassee. Thank you for your painful, but insightful comments here and for revealing the heart of our faith. You are in my prayers as well as the good people of Orlando this morning.

  2. Sometimes I feel lonely in my part of the Diaspora often seems unremittingly peppered with fear, hate and bigotry. It takes my breath away when someone I know casually tosses out some bigoted proclamation. I struggle to call for what it is with love. For each of the haters is a beloved child of God, too. I am so grateful to be able to rely on the steadiness of faithful First Pres and its beloved pastor, Brant, in proclaiming the Good News that all of us are beloved.

  3. Ann WESTALL says:

    Thank you.

  4. Margaret R Gladney says:

    Thank you, for your leadership,Brant.

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