Love from the Center of Who You Are 8-31-14

I love the passage which Brian read this morning from Exodus. In my mind it is as foundational as all the other texts we have been reading this summer. And it speaks particularly well to the subject I want to address this morning. Bishop Johnson is back from Congo and sent out a blog post this weekend asking us to pay attention to what’s going on in Ferguson. I want to reflect this morning, as a white person – talking particularly to white folks here -  on the events in Ferguson this summer. The reason I emphasize who I am and who I’m talking to is that we have to listen to this scripture not for what we think it would say to someone else, but for what it says to us. This is important. Listen for the word of God for you today.

Romans 12:9-21 9-10 Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. 11-13 Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. 14-16 Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. 17-19 Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” 20-21 Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

August 31, 2014    

Love from the Center of Who You Are

This summer has been absolutely gorgeous and delectable. I am not letting go of it easily just because Labor Day is here. I’m taking at least one more week to swim every other day and walk every day, and thank God for the beauty of summer. This picture is from a walk Cathy and I took on Thursday down in Stone Harbor, New Jersey. It was an exciting, beautiful day.
Every year at this time, I think of Rainer Maria Rilke’s prayer poem
    Lord, it is time.  The summer was very big.  
    Lay thy shadow on the sundials, and on the meadows let the wind go loose.  
    Command the last fruits that they shall be full;
    give them another two more southerly days,
    press them on to fulfillment and drive the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

I was so blessed this summer to be able to enjoy these days fully – to work hard on the transformation of this sanctuary, and to take a weekend off here and there to play and relax. The last few weeks, I have been paying attention to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and it has made me felt privileged to live here and not have to deal with the hard things going on there. At the same time, I have greatly admired my pastor friends here who decided to go to Ferguson, who decided they need to be there to try to help in the situation that has been going on.
You may not remember Bishop Dwayne Royster, my friend who did a TV interview with me here in this sanctuary for Heeding God’s Call. Bishop Royster makes me look small. He is a very big man. Along with running his church Brother Royster has been working as a community organizer in Philadelphia and he and a few others decided they could be helpful, trying to channel the anger of people in Ferguson into non-violent responses, trying to help people express their frustration in the most productive ways.
I’m sure everyone here has heard about what has been going on in Ferguson. Maybe you, like me, have not wanted to pay too much attention, but we haven’t been able to avoid it, have we? You know that Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenage boy, was gunned down by the police while walking to his grandmother’s house in the middle of the afternoon.
You know that his body was left in the middle of the street for 4 or 5 hours, enraging people at the lack of respect. You know that when people showed their outrage by demonstrating, that police over-reacted with military responses, tanks, tear gas, camouflage uniforms, that made things worse rather than better.

The reason I say specifically that I want to speak as a white person to white people today about important spiritual issues, is that the research shows that we white folks react very differently to the news about Ferguson than do people of color. We are much more likely to minimize the problem, to say that we have made great progress in dealing with racism and that this problem in Ferguson is just an aberration.
Because we don’t live the consequences of it every day, it is harder for us to realize how the history of racism in our country effects all of us today, how the racialized history of our country still effects people of color in our time. You may have read in the Inquirer this week that fifty years ago in Philadelphia, similar protests happened in our city. I remember some of those events in Cincinnati and across the country, and I would have hoped that we made more progress than we have. As a white person, I know that I want to over-emphasize that progress, and ignore the reality that continues to confront people of color, the reality that became obvious in the killing of Mike Brown this summer, and the killing of Eric Garner, who was strangled by police in New York City, because he was selling ‘loosies,’ individual untaxed cigarettes.
These incidents are hard for us to comprehend or believe if we don’t understand the history and the system of oppression. In our passage for this morning, God calls out to Moses from the middle of a burning thorn bush. Moses turns from the path, curious about the burning bush and even more curious about the voice coming from the bush. The voice says, “I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt; I have heard their cries under those who oppress them; I have felt their sufferings. Now I have come down to rescue them from the hand of Egypt, out of their place of suffering, and bring them to a place that is wide and fertile, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
For decades and for centuries Black folks have heard those words as a promise that there will be an end to slavery, and end to police harassment and shootings, an end to mass incarceration and a war on drugs that focuses intensively on the Black community. We White folks can hear the words as liberation promises for us as well – freedom from blindness, freedom from isolation, freedom from denial, freedom from fear.
That’s why I call our response to the events in Ferguson a deeply spiritual concern for us. When Paul enjoins us to “love from the center of who we are,” he is inviting us to know Jesus as one who frees us from fear, denial, blindness, and isolation. All of us are in this together. God’s message from the burning bush is a message for all of us. None of us are free until all of us are free.
I have to say that I hesitated about speaking about this on Labor Day, because police are workers too and they have a really hard job and deserve our respect. Then I read a message from one of the pastors who went out to Ferguson with Rev. Royster. This pastor was with the others when a group of young people, teenagers near by came by and asked them to come and talk with them. The pastors and the teenagers gathered in a big circle and they talked about what they were going through.
And this pastor said that she felt this strong urging to have all the pastors pray individually of each of the young people in the circle. So she asked all the pastors to pray for each teenager. She said she’ll never forget the first person she prayed for in that circle. She held his hands and he just grabbed her in a tight hug like he would never let her go. And he cried and said that he thought the police were supposed to be “the good guys” (or maybe that was the white 8 year old who asked his mother that, but this young man wanted to say that.) He said, “I’m 13 years old. What am I supposed to look forward to? Mike Brown was getting ready to go to college. He was just a little older than me, and he was going to go to college! What am I supposed to do?”
The pastor said she will never forget the opportunity she had to pray for and with that young man, to walk with him in prayer. And that prayer was a prayer that God would walk with the police too, a prayer that we can all be freed from our fear, freed from our isolation, freed from our denial, freed from our blindness. God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. God is speaking to us today from Ferguson, saying “I will walk with you” and from New York City, saying “I will walk with you” and from wherever people are facing fears and working for real liberation for all of us. To the young people, to the police, to the pastors, to people of all races and all neighborhoods, and all religions – to all God’s people, God says, “I will. I AM what I AM will  walk with you.”

Responsive hymn 521 I Want Jesus to Walk with Me