“And Riot Gear Will Collect Dust”

10846452_10205005538156557_3165016420734450036_nLast week our Advent gospel included the words of Jesus: KEEP AWAKE! I believe that many people woke up this week when Eric Garner’s murderers were not indicted. Many people shook off the weight of despair or apathy and found themselves on fire with moral outrage.

People shook off the weight of whyareyousurprisedwhatdidyouexpect and victimblaming and wedon’thaveallthefacts and picked up the mantle of #Blacklivesmatter which should not require the explanation that of course all lives matter but that black lives clearly do not matter to those sitting on many juries and grand juries in our country, at least not as much as white power and control matter, and so the lie which is perpetrated in our courts and prisons (not always not by everyone but by too many and too often and too systematically) needs to be contradicted by voices that say outloud and clearly and persistently that #Blacklivesmatter.

The numbers of people protesting here in NYC and in Ferguson and around the nation is a sign of people rousing themselves from business as usual. Of waking up. But waking up is one thing, keeping awake, as Jesus calls us to do, is another. We wake up. Then what? What does it mean to keep awake? To sustain wakefulness?

Isaiah has come to church to help us this morning. Let’s listen to his voice anew.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Ferguson, to Cleveland, to Brooklyn, to Staten Island, and cry to them that they have not been forgotten, they are loved deeply and from the Lord’s hand hope shall be given.

A megaphone cries out: “In the streets prepare the way of justice, make straight in city parks a highway for our God. Every empty lot shall be a home, and every Trump tower – rent controlled apartments; unfair minimum wages shall be living wages, and riot gear will collect dust. Then the presence of God shall be unveiled and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry out? Is it for the unjust deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley or Tamir Rice? Or the giant gap in economic inequality? All people are fragile; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of God blows upon it. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. But the breathe of God infuses hope and rises in communities where truth cannot be suffocated.

Get us up to the main streets, O Ferguson, bearers of another world; Shout with strength, O New York City, heralds of justice, shout louder, do not fear; say to the police departments across America, “BLACK LIVES MATTER! BLACK LIVES MATTER!” See, the God of justice comes with might, and her hands serve the lowly; her comforting presence ushers in change. She will bring water for those too tired to shout anymore; she will rub the feet of those too tired to march anymore, and she will carry all in her bosom, and gently lead us to a new heaven and new earth, one without murders by choking or trigger happy cops.” (re-told by Timothy Wotring)

Isaiah first wrote to a group of Jews who had been uprooted from their homeland and taken away to Babylon where they are forced to live under an alien regime and to accept it’s notions of reality as if their own reality is not real. But Isaiah also wrote for us. His words will sound familiar to many people, particularly those who live under authorities that do not see reality in a way that corresponds to their reality.

Many of those who benefit from the unjust systems in place may mean well and be in fact, quite nice. Listen to the anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise: Their niceness, however real it may be in some abstract sense, means nothing. It will neither bring Eric Garner back nor prevent the deaths of more just like him. So too, I suspect there may be at least a few nice white folks on that grand juryfor instance, who have nursed a wounded bird back to health or taken soup to a shut-in. But from this possibility, we are supposed to conclude what, exactly? Perhaps only this: that nice people can watch cold blooded murder on videoand still see nothing at all in the way of a crime. Clearly whatever part of the brain controls niceness is not remotely connected to one’s optic nerve.

Isaiah’s people lived in the midst of this insanity too and so did he. The exiled Jews he lived among had given up hope. Isaiah cites their pain: The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me. (Is.49:14) My way is hid from the Lord and my right is disregarded by my God. (Is.40: 27) These are the cries of people who feel that no one has their back. Not even God.

Isaiah’s word begins with God calling a heavenly court, a heavenly grand jury, to overturn the perverse decisions that have come down. “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her sentence of injustice is upended. Undone. Liberation is at hand.”

Then Isaiah gives us a poetic image for the way forward. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Isaiah speaks of a divine highway construction program that will level mountains and raise up valleys. Uneven ground will be made even. Rough places will be smoothed out. In other words, for this new exodus through the wilderness, major structural changes are required. The dismantling of uneven structures, which all racist structures are, is required.

Some of us want to call for the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to automatically appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute all excessive force and wrongful death cases by police officers, and in particular, to immediately appoint a Special Prosecutor in the wrongful death of Eric Garner. Some say this is impossible.

Is it written in stone that this cannot be? Not according to Isaiah. Not for a God who moves mountains.

+Some of us are demanding that the City and State of New York draft legislation making the chokehold illegal (not just banned as protocol) with significant penalties for any officer who uses it.

+Some are demanding NYC create an NYPD Training Program – modeled on San Antonio’s successful Crisis Intervention Training- to eliminate racial disparity and police brutality.

+Some are demanding a Civilian Review Board to provide oversight and recommendations in cases of racial-profiling and police brutality; and a Borough Task Force, that trains community policing groups in the five boroughs.

Are these things impossible? Not according to Isaiah! Not for a God brings down mountains and lifts the valleys and smoothes over the rough places and levels the playing field so that the words liberty and justice for all are for real.

Then says Isaiah the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. And ALL people shall see it together. The optic nerve and the part of the brain that makes judgments will be reconnected. All people will see the truth and the truth will set us free. Even though, in the words of Gloria Steinem: “The truth will set you free, but first it will really piss you off”

The truth always pisses off those who will find themselves divinely leveled because of it. Those who stand on the mountain top and don’t want to be brought down. When Isaiah says that All people are grass, the grass withers, the flower fades but the word of God will stand forever. Those are fighting words, insulting words for those who wield their privilege like a baton and use their power like a chokehold, but for others, those words bring sweet relief. The baton will wither, the power to choke and crush will fade away. But the Word of God, the Word that breathes life into crushed lungs and broken hearts, that Word will never fade.

Where does all this leave us? After telling us that God’s word endures forever, Isaiah says that WE are the ones who are called to lift our voices with strength, without fear, and to show our bloodied cities with their cavernous divides between races and classes that God is here and will lead us forward. God IS here.

Here, where young people of many races are leading the way in the streets. Here, where elders are cheering them on and joining them to the extent that aging, aching joints allow. Here where teachers and parents continue to bless and love their children, showing them that all colors are beloved by God. Here where people of every shade and hue sing and pray and listen and work together. Here is your God! Here where Jews on the Upper West Side march and sing Shiva for a murdered black brother. Here where 150 Union Seminary students rallied in protest at Foley Square and many were arrested. Here in law offices working to overturn lethal legal fictions. Here is your God. Right where you thought was only unbearable loss, right where you thought was only injustice, here is your God! Here, in the midst of a chokehold, here is your God choking on a cross. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

All flesh is grass, says Isaiah. The grass withers, the flower fades, yet here in the withered grass, in the straw of a manger, here is your God! Not in flexed muscles that choke life but in the tiny arms of a newborn babe, here is your God! … where our deepest human question tears through the flesh of Jesus himself: My God my God why have you abandoned me? Here is your God!…where the shoot of Jesse was uprooted and the Rose of Sharon withered and the flower of glory in the eyes of a mother’s son faded.. the Word of our God will stand forever.

Jesus stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written… the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim God’s jubilee.

This Advent jubilee journey we find ourselves on is a long one that includes loud, relentless shouts in the streets, and soft whispers of faithful love. Comfort, O Comfort my people says your God. The word comfort comes from con forte or strength together. Only together we can be strong. Only together we can remain vigilant and awake. Only together we can find hope for the way forward.

Together does not mean that we all do the same thing. Some will protest. Some will care for the protestors. Some will teach. Some will write. Some will pray ferocious prayers. Some will listen to the pain of others. Listen and learn with humility. Some will organize. Some will nurse and nurture children for a new day. Some will simply use every bit of energy they have to keep on keeping on in a world that doesn’t care. And that itself is a powerful a testimony to the power of God who raises up the valleys and cares for every single blade of grass.

But each of us is called be awake, to be vigilant, to do nothing that calls into question the essential belovedness of the other, especially the essential belovedness of those who experience a daily barrage of indications that they do not really matter. That their dear children can be murdered with impunity. Keep awake. What you do with the dear life you still have matters.

 We’ve come this far by faith, 

   leaning on the Lord;

   trusting in God’s holy word,

 God’s never failed us yet…

                  

 

 

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Silence=Death


The words on this church sign say:”OBAMA HAS RELEASED THE HOMO DEMONS
ON THE BLACK MAN, LOOK OUT BLACK
WOMAN, A WHITE HOMO
MAY TAKE YOUR MAN”
This is the kind of hate that we have exported to fuel existing homophobia in other parts of the world.
Recently, a young person in our shelter was beaten to the point of broken bones. Not in Uganda, but here in liberal NYC. Safe spaces like Trinity Place Shelter (https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=trinityplaceshelter&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8) are more needed than ever as we labor and pray for a world that is safe for everyone, everywhere. We can celebrate the spring of marriage equality breaking out in more and more places, but we need to be just as vocal and organized around the ongoing winter of hardened hearts before the isms of our age, what Martin Luther King referred to as “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” monsters that also continue to gobble up poor, queer youth – and some who are not so poor as well. “If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.”

Fifty Shades of Changing the Subject

ImageA friend and former intern who serves one congregation on the US side of the border and one in Mexico mentioned the issue of whiteness in the Transfiguration story that is read this Sunday in many churches. He writes: “In this dazzling display of divine glory, Jesus’ clothes become white. I know that the Biblical text does not say that Jesus himself is white, but centuries of euro-centric liturgical art with a blue-eyed Jesus, as well as the upcoming feature film, seem to suggest otherwise. …In the Church, with our funeral palls and baptismal garments, we often use the color white to symbolize something good, pure, and holy. …Perhaps unintentionally, our liturgical practices seem to perpetuate this white superiority. … I am considering addressing these issues head-on this Sunday, but I don’t know if I want to go there.”

My colleague is expressing sensitivity to race, privilege and power as a White pastor in a Mexican community. His comments reminded me that three days after Transfiguration Sunday, we come to Ash Wednesday and Psalm 51:7, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” I flagged the line and composed my own post alerting fellow clergy who might be preparing Ash Wednesday worship materials to consider the impact of the verse. Soon, the responses rolled in. Some appreciated my post. Many did not.  What’s telling is how frequently my original point about race was forcibly sidelined.

This happened in response to my colleague’s post as well when responders began to zero in on the physics of light. Here is a sampling:

Isaac Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of color based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colors of the visible spectrum…if you ask a scientist, white is a color – it contains the whole spectrum – and black is the absence of color. If you ask an artist – who deals in pigments rather than wavelengths – the answer is the opposite…I am not an artist, but I don’t think white is the presence of all colors. Isn’t black made when many colors are stirred together?

This is the evasive response to a pastor seeking support to discern his ongoing response to issues of race, privilege and power. Race as a reality that shapes our lives personally, as well as the social and economic structures in which we live, was also dismissed more directly: Caucasians are not white, only albinos are white…I think sometimes we need to get over our “whiteness” and join the human race. Sure, when future Trayvon Martins can get over their “blackness.”

In response to my post, the physics of light was not addressed; instead the conversation shifted to snow and laundry. Granted the psalm uses the imagery of snow and laundry (“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow”), but my concern was obviously directed to considering the impact of that imagery in a society that is still divided by race, in a church that remains 97% White. It’s easier to talk about snow:

Compare new fallen snow as opposed to that leftover pile slowly melting at the edge of the parking lot – it’s filled with dirt, leaves, etc. “White” is not the issue unless you are focusing on your own prejudice instead of God’s Word…I’m still trying to figure out how to talk to the youth in my congregation for whom snow is mostly something they see in pictures or maybe if they happen to go to Flagstaff in the winter….Clean snow is white–dirty snow is black, brown, yellow, red–whatever happens to be contaminating it. This is a fact, not a racial statement…in rural, open-country Minnesota, when the snow is no longer white, it’s not because of the gunk from our cars and such. It’s because the wind blows the snow across the fields, and when it’s done with the snow, it picks up the fine, dry, black soil and deposits it on top of the drifts. That beautiful, wonderful, rich, dark soil is what brought our ancestors out here–not the “pure” white snow!

And laundry:

I think this passage is an image of laundry practices. Beating clothes with a stick so that they are washed white… this verse is not about skin color, it’s a metaphor on laundry. You want your whites to be white, and I hate it when my clergy blacks begin to be a bit gray… Did you know there’s a special laundry soap for darks?…My guess is that part of the appeal of whiteness, in this context (i.e. laundry), is that it requires a tremendous amount of work. We forget this because we have white fabric everywhere so we think it is the default… Maybe it’s because I still do the laundry in my household, but I have always associated those words with the ability of bleach and stain spray to remove the yuck we got all over our clothes…If you’re so concerned, translate it as “De-lint me and I will be blacker than my clergy shirt.”

But I was not asking for a detailed consideration of snow and laundry. Some who addressed my comment directly stated that our words do not matter, it’s actions that count. I agree wholeheartedly that words without actions are empty, even dangerous if we convince ourselves that we have done our duty by voicing a concern. But in my experience, words can have a mighty impact for good or for ill. Words can inspire or incite. Silence can be holy or complicit in evil. It was also pointed out that skipping or omitting texts is always a BAD idea even though our lectionary omits texts all the time and I was not necessarily suggesting we skip a text. As some pointed out, other translations are available.

As in the response to my friend’s post, the very reality of racial privilege was diminished as in a comment stating that White is not always preferable—because think of the expression, “white-washing.” Yes, white-washing. I’m thinking about it. When a colleague says that he is all for sensitivity and addressing painful issues from our past, but… to me, that white-washes the ongoing pain in our present.

Facebook is probably not a good place for such a discussion, and yet, perhaps it allows our true colors to come out. As we approach Ash Wednesday, I am also thinking of Jesus’ words to remove the log from my own eye before zeroing in on the speck in my neighbor’s eye. White privilege is not an illusion. It is not something in the past. It is a log in my eye that I cannot remove by my own power and so on Ash Wednesday, I will mark the sign of ashes on my sisters and brothers and I will wear it myself. I will remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return. And I will give thanks that God’s mercies are new every morning and that our conversation and conversion continues…

Better than Football

Image
I got a call this week from a celebrity football player whose name I do not remember. It was a recorded call and the football player wanted to tell me about a life-changing new movie being released later this month called “Son of God.” He felt the need to tell me that Jesus is even better than football and he wanted me to urge my congregation to go see this movie. He also suggested that I order group tickets for the church. I won’t be doing either one. The more “powerful and inspiring” this movie turns out to be, the more dangerous it is because in this movie, as in every Jesus movie I have ever seen, Jesus is White. 

Is that such a big deal? Can’t we enjoy the film and all it’s strengths while knowing that Jesus was not White? Recently, in our Sunday School, one child pointed to another saying that “I’m Brown and you’re Black.” This was not just a factual comment; there was a belief on the part of the first child that being lighter-skinned was better. Both children were Latino immigrants and they were not born with this idea. The teacher decided to read a book about God being a God of all colors. “But God is White!” the children said. These children, in a Spanish language class where none of the children happened to be White, were certain that God is White. 

Children are concrete thinkers. Young children do not say, “This is how this artist draws Jesus. This is how this film-maker depicts Jesus. Jesus was born in the Middle East and while we don’t know exactly what he looked like we do know that he wasn’t White.” If children observe in every movie and picture that Jesus is White, then Jesus is White. And if Jesus is the Son of God, then God is probably White too. Like it or not,  we are communicating to children that a White identity is God-like and that a non-White identity is inferior. We are teaching children that God and church are aligned with White supremacy.

Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”  I am going to tear my eyes away from this kind of movie and cut off my support. Then, I’m going to take the money it costs to see the movie and donate it to Crossroads anti- racism organizing and training which does a lot of great work in churches. 

http://crossroadsantiracism.org