“Be the Bridge: An Invitation to Empathize)

September 27, 2020


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Sept. 27, 2020

Be the Bridge: An Invitation to Empathize
Psalm 51

A very promising young man, 18 or 19 years old, a student at WSU, active in athletics, with an academic scholarship, was dating his high school sweetheart. She was still in high school in Wichita. They had been together for some time and they were in love. Both sets of parents approved of the relationship, although they realized that the kids were still young.

And then something went terribly wrong. The couple had consensual sex and the police found them. Because the young woman was underage, the WSU student was taken into custody. He was charged with a sex crime. Although the girl’s parents did not want to press charges, the trial proceeded, and he was found guilty. He served 5 ½ years in prison and still carries the label of sex offender. His college career was interrupted. His relationships were forever changed. His life and prospects for employment altered. His ability to function in the world forever tainted. He chose not to be bitter and rose to the challenge by the time I met him, but he still had to tell me as his minister, that he could not attend church functions if children were present since he was a registered felon and sex offender. I google searched his record and found his story and cried at my computer when I found that everything he told me was absolutely true. A life forever changed.

We are continuing our sermon series today about Being Bridges, based on Latasha Morrison’s book “Be the Bridge”. This week’s theme is about empathizing and lamenting. Our traditional word is from Psalm 51. It is a psalm of lament. To lament means to express sorrow or regret. Lamenting something is the first step to creating a pathway for healing. We must sit in the sorrow for a time. Only after lament can the pain become useful.

For those of you familiar with the story of King David in the Hebrew Bible, you may remember that this enormously powerful man, a king no less, was desirous of a woman who was married to another man. He arranged to meet her, and he slept with her. She became pregnant with King David’s child. In order to take care of this dilemma, he arranged for her husband to serve in the front lines of a battle and to die there. The king learned that his plan worked. But just as his plan worked, he also learned from a prophet that God was not pleased with him and his sin and that his child would die. King David wrote this psalm of lament for his sin, pleading for God’s compassion. It is a public psalm of mourning, confession, and worship.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51 excerpts

Last week, I spoke about the need to listen to one another’s stories when we encounter pain. Today, I am talking about the need to acknowledge and lament with others when we encounter pain. These are spiritual processes clearly outlined in the Bible. Each sermon in this series will be about a spiritual process we can use in our personal lives or in our lives as a community or as a nation.
1. The truth will set you free – finding and listening to truth
2. Acknowledge and lament when there is pain (Confession)
3. Reconciliation (free from shame & guilt)
4. Healing
5. Forgiveness
6. Making amends
7. Restoration
As I mentioned, today’s spiritual process is the topic of lament. There is even a book of the Bible called Lamentations about this important process. When King David’s son died, David wrote the psalm of lament. It was a cathartic process for him. After his true lament, we are told that he rose from the ground, washed himself, and changed from his grieving clothes. And then he went to the Temple to worship God. That is what lament does for us – it is a time of deep sorrow that we must go through to prepare ourselves to reconnect to God and others. We cannot continue until we have properly lamented. There is no shortcut. We cannot skip lament when we grieve or we will end up sarcastic, rebellious, anxious, or depressed. This is a critical point. In my story about the young man who went to prison – how do you think he would have come out of prison if he had not spent some serious time lamenting his sentence and his situation? If you have harmed someone in an important relationship, but skipped over the lamenting process, you will never achieve full reconciliation.

In 1921 the Greenwood neighborhood was a bustling modern area on the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma. During the great oil booms of the 1900’s, many African Americans had moved to that area in hopes that the industry would bring economic opportunity. And over the following two decades, much of the local Black population settled into Greenwood because they were pushed out of the rest of Tulsa by racist municipal laws. Greenwood became an area of sophisticated, highly educated, and prosperous Black community.

This community included a school system, hotels, cafes, modern homes with indoor plumbing. Many citizens in Greenwood were more successful than the white people in the surrounding neighborhoods, which led to some jealousy. The tensions grew between neighborhoods and racial divides. Whites levied false accusations of rape or sexual advancement on White women. There were accusations of theft and other petty crimes. Lynching was on the rise.

Amid this tension, nineteen-year-old Dick Rowland, a shoe shiner in Tulsa, was accused of assaulting a White woman while riding the elevator at the downtown building where he worked. Rowland was arrested and taken to the courthouse, where he was held to await judicial proceedings. The White community demanded justice by lynching and marched toward the courthouse. The Black community gathered at the courthouse to protect Rowland, to ensure justice. Tensions were high, a few shots were fired, and the Black citizens fled to the Greenwood neighborhood.

The next morning, the White mob descended on Greenwood. Buildings and homes were looted. Black men were lynched. Airplanes flew over and firebombed the neighborhood. At the order of the Oklahoma governor, the National Guard appeared and arrested more than 6,000 Black citizens from the area. Not one White person was arrested.

By the end of the massacre, which lasted two days, over 300 African Americans had been murdered. More that 40 square blacks of homes had burned to the ground, and 10,000 African Americans were left homeless. Businesses were lost forever, and the once-thriving community was desecrated in one day by citizens, the police force, the National Guard, and governing agencies. It took 80 years before this massacre was even acknowledged by the American government or the state of Oklahoma. Like so many injustices, the Tulsa massacre has been intentionally buried in the archives of history.

When we talk about America’s racist history, it is important to apply the same rules of lament. If lament is a time of deep sorrow that prepares us to reconnect to God and one another, let me ask if our nation has truly lamented the sin of slavery and racism? Have we looked our Native brothers and sisters in the eyes, listened to their stories, and acknowledged their pain? Have we lamented what has happened on the reservations, to the land, to their ancestors and their traditions?

When we listen to the story of Greenwood in the state next to us, can we honestly say to our brothers and sisters that we have heard the truth, acknowledged that atrocious story, and lamented with them about what has happened to their families, their ancestors, their sons and daughters?

Until we listen and lament, we cannot move forward. There are many people who are walking wounded who have not experienced justice. Former prisoners. Grieving parents whose children were murdered. Women who make less than their male peers. Rape victims. Those who are hurt by violence. People who are older and feel forgotten. Children whose parents abandon them.

Take time to volunteer somewhere this week. Listen, whether it is on the phone or in person. And once you have listened, take time to lament. Read Lamentations. You can even look up the website associated with the book we are studying “Be the Bridge” and take one of the surveys or read about starting a “be the Bridge” group for reconciliation!

By doing any of these things, you will be a healing presence in our divided world! And who does not need and want that today? You have the opportunity to Be. The. Bridge.!