"TOGETHER" - from Psalm 23 and Acts 2:42f

 Some of you know that the first church I served as pastor was Pickens Presbyterian Church, in Pickens, SC. From 1988-1997 (nine wonderful years) Ginger and I lived in the upstate of SC and continue to love the people of that church and place. Our children had their formative years there. The congregation in Pickens nourished us, shared faith with us, and taught us so much about ministry.

            There is something else about Pickens. Pickens is infamous as the location of one of the last known lynchings in our country. A black man named Willie Earle was suspected of killing a white taxicab driver. He was arrested and in a cell in the Pickens jail in February 1947 – 70 years ago. But a mob of white taxi drivers came over from nearby Greenville, dragged him out of the jail, took him to a secluded spot, and killed him.

            Now, . . . you might be thinking, “why is the preacher talking about this today?” – a lynching in 1947 in Pickens, SC.

            Well, this year – 2017, famous preacher and our friend, Will Willimon – who preached for us in 2015 – a former Methodist bishop and Dean of Duke Chapel – has a new book out entitled, Who Lynched Willie Earle? (Our “Faith and Literature” class recently read a short story about this horrible lynching.)

Obviously, my connection to both Will Willimon and Pickens inspired me to get this book. I was certainly familiar with this lynching as a pastor in that town. So many of the names and places in the book are well known to me. And though it happened 70 years ago, so much about this story, this incident, continues to play out in our lives and culture. The subtitle of the book is “Preaching to Confront Racism.” We continue to struggle with racial issues and racial tension in this country. Every week there seems to be another story of a race-related killing. We have deep, racial issues that haunt us in RVA and around the nation. Even Major League Baseball is struggling with racism this week. So, . . . as people of faith, people of Easter, we must keep working on this divisive and destructive issue that touches all aspects of life.

            What I did not know, and the first part of Willimon’s recent book, is what happened at Grace United Methodist Church in Pickens on the Sunday following the lynching of Willie Earle in 1947. The Reverend Hawley Lynn, a preacher in his early 30’s – in an era of legislated and enforced white supremacy, and to his all-white congregation – was brave enough to preach a sermon, entitled, “Who lynched Willie Earle?”

            Even though the lynching was done – everyone knew – by a mob of taxicab drivers from the next county, Lynn’s point in the sermon was that the lynching began in a society that promoted inequality, in a culture that had different standards for different people. The lynching happened because certain rules applied to certain people, and most of Willie Earle’s life he had experienced – as Hawley Lynn put it - the white man’s boot standing on his neck. That preacher suggested in that sermon that when you have a society that allows, even promotes, the degradation of people based on color, you are already participating in the lynching. Lynn concluded his sermon with the familiar words of John Greenleaf Whittier’s hymn: “Dear Lord and father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways; re-clothe us in our rightful mind, in purer lives thy service find, in deeper reverence, praise.”

As Willimon says, the most remarkable thing about Hawley Lynn’s sermon was that IT WAS PREACHED. Unlike most SC pastors, and other preachers in in the midst of other tough times, Hawley was NOT silent. (p. 37) On the first Sunday following the lynching in his town, Hawley Lynn preached a sermon to confront racism.

In these days, in our times, large numbers of whites – perhaps many of us - believe that racism is something we have already overcome. But we have to pay attention, keep our eyes open. Education (especially in Richmond City Schools), . . .wealth,  . . . social mobility, . . . infant mortality, . . . incarceration (as we heard from some friends in last week’s Church School class), and so many other issues in our society, remind us that we are a long way from overcoming issues of racism. The median white household income is 13 times higher than the black median household. In fact, and we know this, racial disparity operates in every area of our common life.

There is also the underlying sense that to be American is to be white. Obama is the only president who had to prove he was an American.  Cornel West said that in the attacks on 9/11, all Americans finally got a taste of what it was like to be black – hated for who they were, subject to violence and undeserved suffering. (p. 43)

And in recent days, we continue with far too many signs of our alienation from one another and from God. Our city is held captive by our racist history. Our news includes more reports of seemingly racist acts, like white police officers shooting black victims again, like the number of “hate groups” rising, and more.

Willimon’s recent book reminds us that race is a human fiction, a human construct, . . . but racism is a FACT – a powerful force in our lives and culture. We cannot really say – as we are prone to say “I am not racist.” Racism is so much a part of our lives that we often cannot, or do not, see it.

Another prophet and writer, Jim Wallis, puts it most succinctly: it is time for white Christians to be more Christian than whiteWe have work to do. This is what God asks and expects of us. (see J. Wallis, America’s Original Sin)

Our context for working on this tough issue of race is found in our first lesson – some of the most wonderful words of Scripture. The Lord is my shepherd. We heard it read. We heard it sung so very well.

When the Lord is shepherd, it shapes our life. We are secure, comforted, cared for, held – forever. We love to hear those words – the poetic summary of the gospel. He leads to green pastures; even through the shadow of death we need not fear; God goes with us – his rod and staff comfort us. We dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Yet, when the Lord is our shepherd, it also means we live a certain way – toward God – toward loving God and loving others. We are never just comforted. We are comforted so that we can understand our call to live in ways that serve God. We are never just held, we are held so we can work with God in the world.  That means our lives must run counter to our racist inclinations and temptations. God keeps calling us to metanoia – to CONVERSION. God keeps calling us to be transformed – from the way we tend to be – alienated from one another, creating constructs that segregate and separate us from each other. We have to keep working for in-breaking of the Kingdom of God for ALL.

And, we cannot ever say we are tired of talking about race issues and challenges; we have to keep striving for lives and a society where all are equal, where everyone has a real chance, where hope abounds, not just for some. We want God to “re-clothe us in rightful mind, in purer lives thy service find, in deeper reverence, praise.”

We actually get a glimpse of what this looks like in our second lesson today: Acts 2. Listen:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            The setting of this Acts passage is a few weeks following the resurrection of Jesus. The disciples were filled – with the experience of the risen Jesus, and with the movement of the Spirit empowering them - with a new sense about life, about church, about a way in the world.

            “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching”: the teaching always reminds us that God cares about compassion, justice, equality, and hope for everyone. What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God means a life far removed from racistinclinations.

            “Awe came upon everyone,” it says. The Greek word here for “awe” is phobos – which gives us the English word phobia, which is closely related to the word “fear.” Did “fear” come upon everyone following the resurrection, in the call to be the church in the world, filled with God’s Spirit? Well, not “fear” meaning “afraid and dread.” But there was present a powerful sense among those disciples that 1) God is real, 2) God is at work, 3) God is serious about what God expects of us. So the sentiment includes FEAR, but also reverent attentiveness, awe, because there is more at stake here that just what we care about and what we want to do. What is always at stake is what God wants from us, what God asks of us. Racism cannot be tolerated. Racism goes against God’s awesome plans for us and for the world. So AWE came upon them – and they started living life toward God – loving God and loving in the world as God’s people. AWE came upon them and they began to take up the work and words of Jesus – the sick are healed, the lame walk, goods are shared, people care about each other, the blind see, and the Kingdom of God emerges in the world.

            There is an ancient story about faithful people trying to learn how to be more faithful. An inspired teacher of God and God’s ways was on his deathbed. His students gathered around urging him to leave them with one last bit of wisdom. So he spoke softly to the students: “May you fear God as much as you fear people.”

            The students were perplexed. One of them said, “Wait, Master. Has illness confused you? Surely you mean that we should fear God more than we fear people.”

            But the wise man responded. “No. So many people do things of which they know God disapproves . . . but go to great lengths to hide them from their neighbors. If only they feared God as much.” (see, H. Kushner, Living A Life That Matters, p. 139)

            We tend to live so much of life catering to the expectations of others. We are called to live for God – to love God and love as God loves.  

And I want to note today, the word that appears over and over in this passage from Acts about how those disciples lived – TOGETHER. All who believed were together – not segregated – not racist - together. And they shared all things together – not allowing the disparity to grow and inequality to widen. Not racist - TOGETHER - they took care of each, making sure none had needs that were not met. They spent time TOGETHER in the temple – breaking bread (as we are doing today), with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all people. Not polarized – TOGETHER. Not divided by race and class – TOGETHER. Not caring only about what is best for a few – TOGETHER.

This is God’s plan for us. So many people do things which they know God disapproves. If only we feared and sought to serve God!

In these days, as we go through a time of transition with our building, TOGETHER has to be the word for us. We have to work TOGETHER, support and care for each other, have patience and grace as we make adjustments to our wonderful space. It will demand adjustments from our hearts and lives but we go together.

In these days, as we seek to trust God, live life as Easter people, sheep of the Shepherd, TOGETHER is the way forward – working for the light, hope, peace, and possibility for ALL people, even as we deal with tough issues – healthcare, education, equality, and RACISM. It is only TOGETHER – as God’s faithful people – that we can get there: closer to the coming reign of God. May we strive always, in love and faith, to go TOGETHER. AMEN.

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to commit our lives in love and service together – that is to abide forever. We commit to that way following Jesus. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on May 7, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.