Texts: Isaiah 28: 16; Matthew 7: 24-28
“On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Those are words from a popular hymn written in 1834 called “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less,” words inspired by the parable that Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 7. The wise man builds his house on a foundation of solid rock. When the storms come, that house is not moved. The foolish man, by contrast, builds a house upon the sand. When the storms come, that house is swept away. Those of us who traveled on the Wheels of Justice journey sang that hymn when we visited the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston a few weeks ago. We had dinner with members of that congregation, and then the choir got up and concluded the evening by leading us all in that song. “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
All of you know the story of Mother Emanuel by now. You know about how a young white man showed up to this historic black congregation for a Wednesday evening Bible study on June 17th of last year. You might know that he asked to sit next to the pastor during the Bible study, and you probably know that he was welcomed into that space, and was shown hospitality. You might know that the young man sat there for an hour, listening to the conversation. You probably also know that during a moment of prayer, when those in the room were at their most vulnerable, he pulled a gun from the fanny pack he was wearing and shot and killed 9 people, including the senior minister of the congregation, Rev. Clementa Pinckney. You also probably know that he fled, and that he was apprehended a day later in North Carolina by the police, who showed him the utmost respect and courtesy, even stopping to buy him food on the way back to South Carolina. And you know that a day after that, at the bond hearing held for the killer, family members of those who had been murdered publicly offered forgiveness to the killer, saying that they were praying for his soul.
Now, a little more than a year later, the trial of Dylann Roof is scheduled to begin. Jury selection will start this coming week. And amidst all that’s going on around us right now, I’ve been fixated upon that old hymn that the Mother Emanuel choir sang to us that night, replaying it again and again in my head. Most of you know me well enough by now to know that I spend what probably is an embarrassing amount of time trying to discern the secrets contained in the performance of songs. And so it’s not a surprise that ever since that visit, I’ve been thinking about the deep spiritual truth that song conveyed to all of us when it was sung that night in Charleston. And so this morning I’d like to share something about that evening with you, because it felt powerfully significant to all of us who participated in it. But to get at the meaning of that night, and especially the meaning of that song, I think we need to hear the extraordinary story of Mother Emanuel AME Church. It’s a story that all people of faith need to learn, but I think it’s especially instructive to learn it now, as we prepare for an election on Tuesday.
The story begins in the late 18th century, when Richard Allen established a new denomination in the city of Philadelphia specifically for people of color. He wound up calling it the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and it quickly began to gain adherents throughout Northern cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore. But it was slower to catch on in the South. Several decades later, down in Charleston, two leaders within the Methodist church, Morris Brown and Henry Drayton, knew of Richard Allen’s efforts, and so they traveled north to become ordained in the new AME tradition. They returned home transformed and inspired. In 1817 or 1818, we don’t know exactly when, Morris Brown led some 4000 black members of the Methodist Church out of the larger white church, leading them to establish their own independent church in Charleston. It’s stunning to consider that event: several thousand black folks living in the Deep South, during the height of slavery, under threat of racial terror, who dared to establish their independence from white authority and white scrutiny, at least in matters of the church. It’s stunning to consider it, but that’s part of the proud legacy of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in America. Mother Emanuel is called “Mother” because it was that community that wound up giving birth and nurturing so many of the African American churches that were formed in the aftermath of that great exodus.
But the story of Mother Emanuel goes deeper still. One of the first church leaders to emerge after the Charleston exodus was a man named Denmark Vesey. Vesey was a free black man, but he had spent the first 30 years of his life as a slave aboard a shipping vessel, traveling throughout the Caribbean, and most importantly, to Haiti. His owner allowed him to purchase his freedom in 1800 with the winnings of a lottery ticket, and Vesey spent the next several decades in Charleston working as a carpenter, and also reading and teaching the Bible. This remarkable man developed what would later come to be known as black liberation theology, arguing to any who would listen that slavery was inconsistent with the will of God. He identified with the book of Exodus, and he tried to persuade all of those he came into contact with that the slaves of Charleston could share the same destiny as the Hebrew people. Vesey had been to Haiti, and he knew of the successful slave rebellion that had occurred in that country beginning in the 1790’s. He thought it could be duplicated in South Carolina, and so in 1822 he actively began to organize a mass slave rebellion. His hope was to create enough chaos that an enormous slave population could swarm the docks of Charleston and then set sail for Haiti, the world’s single enclave of black liberation. Now, the Haitian Revolution scared the living hell out of white slaveholders everywhere, and the United States was no exception. And so when the white authorities got wind of Vesey’s plot, they ruthlessly suppressed it. 131 people were arrested. 35 people were publicly executed by hanging in downtown Charleston. Denmark Vesey was the most prominent of those who were executed.
But Denmark Vesey’s uprising had further consequences for Charleston, and for the community that would eventually be named Mother Emanuel. Fully sixty percent of those executed after the rebellion had been nurtured in the newly formed AME church, and so white authorities in Charleston issued an order that the church be burned, and that its congregation be scattered. As with the earliest Christians, the black church in Charleston was understood to be deeply subversive. The structure was rebuilt, but several years later, after the slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Virginia, a law went into effect that banned all black worship in the city, a ban that wasn’t lifted until after the Civil War. Once again, we can call to mind the earliest Christians among the Romans. As in the early centuries of Christianity, black Charlestonians worshiped underground and in secret in those years, preserving their theology, their spirituality, and their dignity in rooms and clearings safely removed from sight. Even so, it wasn’t enough to reassure the white population of Charleston. They felt a heightened sense of paranoia in the wake of the Vesey uprising, and so they began to envision the necessity of a constant military presence in the city to defend against further revolts. The idea was to integrate enough white men skilled in combat into the general population that the sense of danger would diminish. And so the Citadel was founded in downtown Charleston in 1842. Its original building is located just down the street from the present location of Mother Emanuel. It’s now an Embassy Inn and Suites hotel. Ironically, in the wake of the shooting last year, that very hotel was used as a triage center for grieving friends and family members. Its presence testifies to the unfinished business of truth and reconciliation that still looms in the city of Charleston, and in our country at large.
But the story continues. After the Civil War, a man named Richard Cain became the minister of Mother Emanuel, and it was Cain that established a pattern of civic involvement that Emanuel’s ministers have followed ever since. He founded a black owned newspaper in town, and he vigorously promoted public education. He advocated for laws allowing for black folks to purchase land, and he even organized the purchase of 500 acres just north of Charleston for the creation of a black owned community, a protected and sheltered space for black residents to flourish. While he was a minister at Mother Emanuel, Cain served in the South Carolina State Senate, and in the 1870’s, he was elected to the United States Congress. That’s a pattern that’s been duplicated by nearly every minister who followed after Richard Cain. All of them have been both pastors and committed civic leaders. That was certainly true during the civil rights era, when Mother Emanuel hosted Martin Luther King and served as a base of operations for campaigns around Charleston. And it was true right up to the present, for Rev. Clementa Pinckney served as a state senator in South Carolina, helping to pass legislation that provided health care for poor people, and advocating laws that promoted greater public accountability of police.
You see, Mother Emanuel has never split the difference between the sacred and the secular. They’ve always understood that to be a person of faith is to be, in the widest sense of the term, political. Mother Emanuel has always known that the Bible is a political document through and through, not in the narrow sense of electoral politics, but in the sense of articulating a vision that promotes the flourishing of human lives, especially for those at the margins. And for two hundred years, that’s meant affirming, as a more recent phrase has it, that black lives matter. In a world of relentless assaults against black humanity, Mother Emanuel has said to the wider world: our lives have worth. Our lives deserve respect. Our lives are worthy of dignity. Can you see that? Can you recognize that? Can you affirm that too? The tragedy, of course, is that for two hundred years, the dominant white culture has been finding ways to say: No. We cannot make that affirmation, not really. Not when the Vesey rebellion occurred, and not when the Citadel was formed. Not when the first shots were fired from Ft. Sumter and not during the years of racial terror that followed the Civil War. Not during the era of civil rights and not during the era of mass incarceration and police violence. Dylann Roof said it in ways that no one in their right mind would condone, but in a way, that was just another more extreme instance of a message that’s been reinforced for centuries. Mother Emanuel became the target of violence precisely because they’ve been countering that dominant message all along, affirming a different way.
Which brings me back around to that powerful hymn: “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.” What was being conveyed when that hymn was sung? What did those words mean on the eve of an election that’s stirred up some of the worst racial tendencies in America in decades? What did that song mean as the trial of Dylann Roof was set to begin? Let’s start with the sinking sand. Many of us have been deeply unsettled by the misogyny, the racism, the Islamophobia, the xenophobia, the paranoia, and the fear mongering that have taken place during this election cycle. Many of us have been appalled by the vile things said about women, about immigrants, about Muslims, about Mexicans and other Hispanics, about African-Americans, about the environment (when it’s been talked about at all), about nearly everyone or everything that exists outside of the affluent white cultural bubble. To believe those things, and to participate in those realities is to build a house upon sinking sand. But I think we have to go farther. We have to say that so much of what we’ve predicated our lives upon is precisely that – sinking sand. Our collective pursuit of wealth. Our trust in wealth to provide us with security. Our continual consumption and acquisition of stuff. Our devotion to work and vocations that enable our overconsumption of stuff. Our determination to wall ourselves off in ever shrinking enclaves of privilege and protection. Our indifference to the lives of the poor and the vulnerable. Our plundering of the world’s resources in order to keep our economy humming. My God, but do we ever stand upon sinking sand right now.
But there is another hope available to us. The folks at Mother Emanuel testified to that hope on the night we visited them. “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,” they sang. It’s tempting to hear those words in a narrow and sectarian way. It’s tempting to hear those words and to imagine the story of old time religion, where Jesus washes sinners clean by dying and shedding his blood for them. It’s tempting to imagine a flight from the hard world of public life and a retreat into the privacy of religion. It’s tempting, but I would have us resist those temptations, because those words mean something different when sung in the context of Mother Emanuel and the long history that congregation represents.
Those words have to do with affirming that in that singular human being, Jesus of Nazareth, a poor and marginalized peasant executed by the state, God was somehow present. It has to do with affirming that Jesus thereafter becomes a lens through which we see God at work in the world. It has to do with affirming that somehow and in some way, God is present first and foremost, not only, but first and foremost with those who struggle the most, among those whose lives are rendered most vulnerable, among those whose blood has too often been shed. In this country, and in the city of Charleston, those words wind up being an affirmation of Richard Allen and Morris Brown, Denmark Vesey and Clementa Pinckney and so many others in that long lineage. That song winds up being an affirmation of ordinary folks who maintain their pride in a culture that vascillates between indifference and open hostility. But more than that, those words are an affirmation that any public policy, any theology, any politics, any life project that forgets or ignores the truth of God’s identification with the least of these, is a house built upon sinking sand. By contrast, to build theologies and policies and life habits that recognize the face of Jesus in the most vulnerable, and that strengthen those whose lives have been rendered precarious, is to build a solid rock foundation upon which to stand, one that winds up strengthening everybody, including you and me.
I’ve told you about Mother Emanuel because I think that church has been and continues to be a beacon to the world. They’re a beacon for all of us here in Old Lyme. Under immense pressure, that congregation has managed to exhibit extraordinary courage and grace for nearly two hundred years. We need that kind of witness now. As we face down our own anxieties, as we head to the polls on Tuesday, let’s remember the song that the choir at Mother Emanuel sang a few weeks ago. Let’s remember that even as we do participate in the political life of our nation, our primary allegiance isn’t to a person or a party or a country or God help us, a flag. Our allegiance is to the broken and bleeding man called Jesus of Nazareth, who links us to others throughout history and throughout the present who know what it is to be broken. Come what may on Tuesday, that’s the solid rock upon which we stand. Mother Emanuel helps to remind us that all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.
Lest you forget, let’s join in singing that song now: My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less Than Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness.