Charlottesville. Sermon, 8.13.17.
Let me begin by saying that, on Monday afternoon, when I read the lessons for this Sunday morning, I was excited. Once in a very, very blue moon, preachers get three lectionary readings that they just love and aren’t confused, irritated, flummoxed or stymied by. So when I read the three readings appointed for today, I felt soothed and wonderful. These readings practically preach themselves. All you need to do is read them and hum the refrain from “Peace Like a River”: It is well, it is well with my soul.
So I put off writing my sermon.
But then Friday and Saturday came and I heard about Charlottesville, Virginia.
Suddenly it was not well, not well at all, with my soul.
Let me tell you a little bit about what I know of Charlottesville. The University of Virginia is where I earned my graduate degree in writing. I got to know the town very well. It was then—as now—a beautiful spot.
Charlottesville was where I first saw daffodils in February and understood that in some places there is actually a season called spring.
It is full of gracious architecture and a rather formal way of life.
The University—which was always referred to as “Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village”--adhered rigorously to tradition. When I was there it was standard procedure for students to write at the end of their examinations: “On my honor as a student and a gentleman, I have neither given nor received aid on this examination.”
Of course, when the state-funded, public University of Virginia finally admitted women to their undergraduate programs in 1970, the phrase, “as a gentlemen” was dropped, officially--long before I went there, though I still saw it written on papers I graded.
Old habits die hard, so they say.
Now—Charlottesville was also where I returned to church after a seven year hiatus. It was where I encountered my first female pastor. It was in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Alderman Road, while hearing a reading from the book of Romans, that I first felt truly and powerfully called to serve God as a pastor. Put plainly and simply, I preach about a loving God because of my time in Charlottesville.
So, Friday night, my heart broke a bit.
Please understand that the lawn on Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village is not some random gathering place; it is the formal heart of the university. And on that lawn on Friday night, protesters with torches chanting the Nazi slogan , “Blood and soil” gathered—as far as I know, without any kind of official permission to do so. That phrase—in German Blut und boden--had been a rallying cry for German farmers in the 1930s, celebrating rural farm workers and vilifying Jews who were stereotyped as foreigners usurping land and taking power away from native Germans.
Larry Sabato, director of the University’s Center for Politics tweeted: "I watched every minute. Sickened by their torchlight parade up the Lawn. Outraged by their behavior at the Rotunda. Beyond disgraceful… In my 47 years of association with @UVA, this was the most nauseating thing I've ever seen. We need an exorcism on the Lawn."
But things got worse on Saturday.
The “Unite the Right” rally had been given judicial sanction to hold its protest against the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee located in Charlottesville’s postage-stamped sized Emancipation Park. The rally became violent early on as many in combat gear and Nazi regalia began to use pepper spray on counterprotesters. Many of the counterprotesters were clergy, marching the street in silent protest. The governor called a state of emergency and gave Unite the Right protesters a timeline to leave, but to little effect.
Then at mid-day, a car with darkly tinted windows drove into the crowd of counterprotesters, killing thirty-two year old Heather Heyer and wounding 19. Five of the wounded pedestrians were in critical condition. Four others were suffering serious injuries. Six were in fair condition, and four others were listed in good condition, officials said Saturday night.
Among the Unite the Right protesters were prominent white nationalist figures Richard Spencer and David Duke, the latter a one-time imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Many of the white nationalist protesters carried campaign signs for Mr. Trump. “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump” to “take our country back,” Mr. Duke told reporters Saturday.
But subsequently, David Duke strongly criticized Mr. Trump later in the day after the president condemned the violence in Charlottesville.
What is Charlottesville like? Well, CNN describes it this way: “Charlottesville, once home to Thomas Jefferson, is known as a progressive city of about 47,000 people. During last year's presidential election, 80% of its voters chose Hillary Clinton.
Charlottesville, we are told in news reports coming out, Charlottesville is not known for its racism. It is a small town that voted largely Democrat in the last election. It is touted as a genteel place. One news report described it as a “sleepy place. *** *** ***
Now—I have to pause here. I have to pause here because I am so saddened and sickened and appalled by all of this. But I also have to pause here because I want to also tell you these things about Charlottesville.
Charlottesville wasn’t only the place where I got my Master of Fine Arts or heard the call to serve God as pastor or saw daffodils in February.
The University of Virginia in Charlottesville was also the place where I never had an African American professor. I don’t remember any African American students in my graduate program—and few among the undergraduates I taught as a teaching assistant—in fact, honestly, not a single one that I can remember.
The University did have a African American presence on campus, though. It was always in a janitorial capacity, cleaning the brass handles on the doors which would be opened for me by polite black men and women, or tidying up the bathrooms or serving coffee or iced tea in the cafeteria.
Since I was a young woman from the north with no car, public transportation was how I got around, as it had been when I was an undergraduate at Binghamton University and when I worked for National Geographic magazine in New York City.
But as I travelled to and from classes and my teaching jobs in Charlottesville, I was always the only white person on the bus.
It was in Charlottesville that I went on a few dates with an old-family-money medical student from Virginia who told me that until a few years ago his grandmother had never eaten a pizza. And so one day she instructed her black maid to order one. They were both excited to try such an exotic delectation. And so the pizza came, to great anticpation. And the women split it, the grandmother sitting in the dining room at the head of her table, the maid eating her portion in the kitchen.
“But it wasn’t a racist thing,” C. told me, “Grandma loved Bessie. And Bessie wouldn’t have felt comfortable eating with Grandma in the dining room.”
I hope you can see why C.’s and my romance did not blossom.
Charlottesville is also where I met my friend, Karen Alexander. Karen had grown up a missionary’s kid in Turkey. She really didn’t know much about the United States, even though she was as Texas as they come in the best of ways. She was beautiful, massively smart, hugely talented. Her husband, Mark, was a Southern Baptist pastor. And after she and I had finished our graduate studies and I had moved to Denver, Mark got a call to a small church a few miles south of Charlottesville and they moved into the parsonage there.
I was active in anti-apartheid work at the Lutheran church in Denver that I had joined. I wrote to Karen, telling her I would happily send her resources if she wanted to embark on some continuing ed about anti-apartheid and anti-racism work in their congregation.
“No,” she wrote back, “that wouldn’t work here. We’re an all-white church. And when we moved into the parsonage, the black men who were our movers couldn’t even come inside the house. They sat on the back porch. I brought them their glasses of iced tea and water out there.”
Little wonder, I sometimes think, that she and her husband, Mark, became missionaries living in Argentina for the last thirty years. She wasn’t raised to be a racist. She was raised to be a Christian.
Look—I know, this is getting to be a long sermon. But I’m almost finished. Almost, but not quite.
Because the text for the sermon is this, from our second lesson, and from my ordination service: "For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on God….But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim God? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’"
I chose this for my ordination sermon because I wanted to have those beautiful feet. I wanted to be the proclaimer of grace, of God’s mercy and crazy, boundless love. I wanted to be the beautiful feet. Maybe that explains my incredible love of shoes, I don’t know.
But for at least over twenty-four years, this has been what I have tried, in one way or another, to do. I have been trying to stir up, inspire and foster belief in a God of radical love, not a God of judgmentalism and exclusion. Clearly, I’m going to go to my grave doing this. And that’s okay. It’s a vocation. It’s one I’m privileged to have discerned.
But you know what? I am coming to believe that it is your job, too—your calling. It’s your calling to also be the beautiful feet that proclaim the good news of God’s grace. Of course, this also means that you have to call out the abuses of that good news. Boots on the ground, beautiful feet in the pasture, we have to stand against hatred and all the isms that enslave and discriminate and kill.
We have to do it. We have to be the beautiful feet. Because these are God-given feet. And we have to be the mouths that proclaim God’s grace for the downtrodden and—frankly—God’s judgement on those who would harm others. Because these are our God-given mouths.
Martin Luther has said that we are all “little Christs.” And we are called to live into the Christ that is us. Little as we are, together we are bigger. Beautiful feet that we are, together we will walk farther. Mouths that can proclaim grace, voices lifted up as one, the more we will proclaim that God’s love is God’s will. Love is fierce and smart.
Love will not be silenced.