Scripture: Psalm 150

During my college years I was, like many young people, questioning my faith.  I wasn’t part of a church and I wasn’t sure what I believed and didn’t believe.  It wasn’t that I totally disbelieved in God but I was… atheish.

I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who was a Born Again Christian.  He was great about not forcing his religion on others but, at some point, he did ask me about my faith.  For some reason, I decided to just be open and honest about where I was at that point in my life.  My lack of church-going was less about what I believed and more about my lack of humility.  I told him that I just couldn’t see myself praising or being subservient to a God.  I couldn’t see myself kneeling down to anyone or anything.

I confess, language about praising God still makes me a bit uncomfortable.  Today’s Call to Worship and Psalm make me a bit uncomfortable.  Why all this talk about kneeling before God?  Why do we have to praise God in the sanctuary and skies with trumpets and lyres?  I God so insecure that we are demanded to offer praise at every turn?

As I spent more time with scripture this week and as I looked at the world around us, I began to get a better understanding of praise.

Putting ourselves into a position to praise God reminds us that there is more to the world than just ourselves.  We are not the center of the universe.  Praising God reminds us that we are not alone; God is with us and we share this existence with other children of God.  Bowing down to God should humble us; we have to make the choice between praise or pride.

The kind of pride that led to a rally of the so-called “alt-right” in Charlottesville, VA yesterday.  Participants included members of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and white supremacists.  They chose to rally in Charlottesville in response to the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee; an action they perceived as an attack on Southerners and white people.

Their pride led them to march with torches, bringing up memories of KKK rallies of the past that terrorized and attacked African-Americans.

Their pride led them to march with Nazi flags, drawing on images of a murderous regime responsible for the death of millions of Jews and others who were not part of the dominant culture.

Their pride led them to surround a church full of clergy and other counter-protesters, relying on fear and intimidation, blatantly opposing those who were choosing praise.

Their pride led one of them to drive a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring 19 and killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year old woman who choose to stand up to their hate.

These men – and women, these white supremacists, were not marching in the light of God, they were marching in the darkness of hate.

I have often been a person who tries to understand all sides of an issue.  I don’t often speak in terms of pure good and evil.   But there are not “many sides” to this issue, there are only two: God’s side and the side of evil.  There is the side of love and light and the side of darkness and death.  There is the side of action and the side of ignorance.  We can choose to ignore what’s going on or we can choose to praise God in how we react to this evil.

In her final Facebook post, Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed, wrote “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

The people who showed up to the rally were by and large white Christian men.  They don’t speak for me. I condemn their actions and their motives.  And I wholeheartedly disagree with their interpretations of what it means to be white, Christian, and male.

And at the same time, I need to recognize and confess that I benefit from the same systematic racism as they do.

When communities of color have come together to protest tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Philandro Castile and others, police in riot gear were waiting for them from the start.

When members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protested the Keystone Pipeline being forced through their land, they were met with dogs and pepper spray and the National Guard.

The white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville yesterday were not met with a substantial police presence until into the afternoon, long after reports of fighting had begun, almost a full 24 hours after white men marched through the streets with lit torches.

The truth is: racism, white pride and power are all around us yet are mostly invisible to us.  Most of us in this room have benefitted in ways that we’ve not even realized.  What may seem like hard work and good luck often comes because we are privileged while others face prejudice.

We want to believe that we have nothing in common with the racists in Charlottesville but if we look close enough, we’ll see that we do.  If we truly want to serve God, if we truly want to choose praise over pride, we have to do the work to expose the ways that we ourselves benefit from a rigged system.

We need to confess racism as our own sin and we need to work to eradicate it.

Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister of Justice & Witness Ministries of The United Church of Christ and Senior Pastor of Christ The King UCC in Florissant, Mo., was one of the many clergy who stood up to the hate in Charlottesville.  After facing verbal threats and physical altercations, she wrote: “We cannot hate because they hate. We cannot defile because they defile. What are the weapons of the Lord? Love, compassion, healing, unity.”

In college, I told my friend that I could never see myself kneeling before anyone or anything.  Now, when I’m having a tough time, I’ll come in to this sanctuary and sit at the foot of the cross.  There are times that I’ll fall on my face before God, trying to erase all pride and offer only praise.

If we choose praise over pride, we have some difficult work to do.  In order to find healing and unity, we first need to look inward, examining our own thoughts, actions, and motivations; admitting when we recognize prejudice and racism in ourselves and prostrating ourselves in prayer, asking God to help change our hearts.

We need to have tough conversations – with ourselves and with each other.  We need to open our eyes and minds to the reality of racism around us.

We need to increase and diversify the voices that influence our lives.  Throughout this week, pay careful attention to where you get your news, what authors you read, what musicians you hear, what faces you see and what voices you hear.  Make a conscious effort to seek out voices of people who don’t look like you, who have different experiences from you.  I know, we’ve all been raised that color and race don’t matter, we all try so hard to “not see color,” but we need to.  We need to seek out news from Black journalists, we need to read books from Indigenous authors, we need to find Latinx podcasts and articles from voices that don’t sound like ours and who live lives different from us.

When we hear friends and family making racist jokes or remarks, we need to call them out on it.  The men marching in Charlottesville are not some fringe element living in underground bunkers.  These are people we know, people we meet every day.  When there is a terrorist attack by someone claiming to be Muslim, we often ask “why didn’t someone stop them?  Didn’t anyone see what was happening?”  We need to hold ourselves to the same standards.  As these white men are being radicalized, it’s up to us to put a stop to it.

This work isn’t easy but it is our responsibility as Christians.  If we are really choosing to follow Christ, we cannot hide our faces from hate.  If we want to overcome the darkness, we must march in the light of God.

We need to make a choice:  we can choose our own pride, a comfortable pride that convinces us that our existence is the only one that matters.  Or we can choose praise.

Praise God in Charlottesville and in Sudbury.

Praise God in song and in righteous outrage.

Praise God by not being silent, by condemning racism and white supremacy.

Putting ourselves into a position to praise God reminds us that there is more to the world than just ourselves.  We are not the center of the universe.  Praising God reminds us that we are not alone; God is with us and we share this existence with other children of God.  Bowing down to God should humble us; it is a choice between praise or pride.

And when we are willing to put our pride aside and to work alongside God, we’ll witness love triumph over hate.  We’ll see the awesome power and amazing grace of our Creator.

We will praise God for powerful deeds

We’ll praise God for overwhelming glory.

Praise God in Charlottesville and in Sudbury and everywhere.

Let everything that has breath praise God!  Alleluia and amen.

Praise or Pride: Reflections on Charlottesville