Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | June 14, 2020
Five years ago, Lindsay and I went on a southern road trip. We visited some of the places where she lived when she was growing up. One town we stayed in for a few days was Starkville, Mississippi. It’s the home of Mississippi State University. Lindsay’s dad Perry Biddle was the minister at the Presbyterian Church in Starkville before they kicked him out for his pro civil rights stand in 1970.
Today though, it’s what they refer to as the “New South.” Just off the main street in downtown Starkville there’s a plaza that displays many of the important people and events in the struggle for civil rights in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. It’s a powerful reminder of the pain and suffering that African Americans endured.
We met up with a minister in the town who had been living there for a few years and we mentioned our visit to the plaza. He said, “Oh, I haven’t been there yet.”
Just a few blocks from his church and “I haven’t been there yet.”
Most people say, “I’m not a racist,” because they don’t fit the image of some hate spewing character wearing a white hood.
Many people will say, “I’m not racist, because I don’t see color.”
And that’s kind of like saying, “I haven’t been there yet. I haven’t gotten around to seeing what I need to see.”
These last few weeks have been eye-opening. We are seeing what people of color in our communities have been living with their whole lives. It’s important that we not shift our gaze and that we look within ourselves and into our world to see and act on what we see to do our part to make the world we live in a fair and just society.
In his 1932 inaugural address President Franklin Roosevelt famously stated, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
There was plenty more than just fear to fear in those days. The world was in economic collapse and the very existence of democratic societies was at stake. Fascism and militarism were on the rise. At times fear is a justified response to the world around us.
The times we are living in how have the sense that we are undergoing some fundamental changes. That can be a fearful thing.
If you decide that you will not live in fear, then you will be faced with multiple choices on a daily basis. In the broader sense such an attitude might be a once and for all decision, but you will constantly face the challenge of back it up with choices large and small.
And deciding that you won’t live in fear means creating a society where people shouldn’t have to be afraid – a society of justice and equality. I certainly don’t have all the answers. And it’s not my job to tell people what to think. But I can ask questions and engage the struggle to define the important questions. We don’t have to be afraid of the questions.
The poet who wrote Psalm 27 stated, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Of whom shall I be afraid depends a lot on who is answering that question.
The writer is certainly not saying that we should never be afraid. He, if we assume the writer was male, lived in a world where fear was justified. It was a violent tribal society. If the tribes weren’t fighting each other they were fighting neighboring tribes and they were on the road between greater warring empires.
It’s a bold and daring statement to say, “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” How, brother, how?
The poet goes on to describe the nature of a life that empowers courage and hope in the face of fear. We can rephrase this psalm as if to say, “In the face of fear I choose to…”
I choose to look for beauty and goodness.
Every morning as part of my daily routine I read through the news. I have some paid subscriptions. The same story will be told from different angles depending on the source. Some news services can take just about any story and turn it into a tale of ugliness and fear. I think it’s good to recognize that for what it is and seeing it for what it is, a way to sell news and make money, also reminds me about the choices I make.
Do I want to live my life seeing nothing but ugliness? Or would I rather choose to see the God-given dignity in people, even if it’s a well-worn scrap of dignity, some slight glimmer of beauty?
When I conduct a funeral, I always say that the person we are remembering was created in the image of God and as such, carried within the heart of her or himself, some bit of God’s image, as do we all. There are times when I get the impression that it’s the first time some people have ever been told that. Or a long time since they’ve been reminded of it.
I Choose to be informed.
I want to encourage a community where questions are welcome. If you live with the sense that you know all the answers, or that you need your dogmas and doctrines constantly reinforced, then if you ever have occasion to question, you will find yourself in trouble. Asking questions is the pathway to truth. The opposite of faith is not doubt – the opposite of faith is certainty.
Do not be afraid to ask for help when you need. The image of the loner standing against the slings and arrows of misfortune makes for good drama, but that’s why it sells as fiction. In fact, we need each other. When we face the times of crisis, we long to be with the people who love us most. A place of shelter is a place of safety – likewise a community of shelter.
I choose to address the issues from a faith perspective.
Is God’s presence in life some mystical sort of experience, or is it more like, ‘wherever two or more of you are gathered, I am there with you.’ It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t say, “it takes at least three people before I show up!”
He certainly never said, “The bigger the crowd the more I’m there!”
Just two or more. The presence of God in and with that one other person. How can God be in him!? How can God be in her!?
Of all people…yet how can God be in me of all people? For him or for her.
Sometimes when I am telling the story of a person’s life, if they have faced hard times in life, I will quote the words, “Do not pray for easy lives, pray to be stronger men [and women]. Phillip Brooks.
We have more control over how we travel the path of life than we do the path itself. Finding the level path in life means finding within ourselves, nurturing within ourselves the balance, the evenness, the mindfulness, the intentionality, the strength and the courage to move through life as it is. We can’t always make life what we want it to be. We can’t make people what we want them to be. But we can make ourselves to the best of our ability. And as the quote continues, we discover that “life itself is not the miracle, but we are the miracle of life.”
I choose to try and be a good person.
If you look for the goodness of God in all living things, then you will see that personal relationships can be reconciled.
You will see that misunderstanding and suspicion shall not always win over openness.
Resentment and revenge are no match for forgiveness.
Tyranny and exploitation will not forever trample on justice
Violence, terrorism and war, will not forever outgun peace.
Carelessness and apathy not forever weaken compassion.
Personal and political deceits will not overwhelm integrity.
Prejudice and discrimination and will not shout down goodwill.
Graft and corruption will not prevail over honor and trust.
Ignorance and blind dogmatism will not be victorious over truth.
All that being true, whether it is true and becomes true in my life and your life, depends on how we choose to make it happen. Amen.