Hello! Today, I’m launching a new podcast series looking at the Spirituality of Doctor Who, a favorite TV Time Traveler for the past 50 years on BBC. You can hear the first podcast on “The Shakespeare Code” over here.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on Christmas Eve 2014. It looks at the story of the Magi and the origins of what it means to be grateful through gift giving.
There’s a comic making the rounds this year of the little drummer boy in the manger next to Mary. He’s about to give the only gift he has, playing his drums, when a harried Mary stops him saying, “Thanks, but please no. I just got him to bed.” I imagine many of us have been there before – with our own kids, or baby-sitting for friends or family. Or if you’re like me, with no kids of my own, but with a very industrious cat at 4am.
The Christmas hymn, “Little Drummer Boy,” always struck me as a little odd, even if it is quite beautiful, for this reason. The last thing an infant needs is a drum solo at bed time. But the song teaches us that we don’t have to have much in terms of worldly riches, to find a way to be generous. It’s a good message, and a helpful reminder, and yet, I think in some ways, it misses the mark for the holiday.
The gift giving scene in the Nativity is about a few markers. Kings of the world themselves, will bow down to this spiritual king in the manger. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were all associated with standard gifts befitting a king. Others would note their representation of Jesus’ respective roles of king, his priestly role and an omen of his later death. They’re appropriate gifts to signal his station and his purpose. And over the millennia, they’ve been the foundation for what has brought us to the consumer frenzy we see from Black Friday through Christmas, and the return sales to follow the holiday.
So the Little Drummer Boy does his yeoman best to move us back to one of the meanings of the season, calling across the centuries to turn away from the consumerism that pervades our lives these days. I’m grateful for that message. We need to hear it year after year. And yet, aside from the three kings’ gift of gold to a poor family sleeping in a manger, a late night drum solo is about as helpful to the baby, as frankincense and myrrh.
On this past Sunday’s youth-led service, our religious educator Starr Austin, asked us whether we more enjoy giving gifts, or more enjoy getting them. It’s an important lesson around generosity – not just for material things – but for all the talents we may share – whether they be drum solos, or helping those in need. Coming from a place of gratitude, gift-giving can be a holy thing, and when it’s from a place of our talents, may very well be the hope for the world we so desperately need.
But with the modern challenge around secular consumerism and it’s impact on this Holy day, I wonder something else too: When is giving gifts more for ourselves, than it is for the recipient? When do we give out of expectation, rather than desire? And what would the Christ-child really ask of us, if he could have spoken?
In our contemporary reading this evening, by the Rev. Lynn Unger, I think we have the answer in the words of the camels. “What would such a child care
for perfumes and gold?”… “We saw what he would need: the gift of perseverance, of continuing on the hard way, making do with what there is, living on what you have inside. The gift of holding up under a burden, of lifting another with grace, of kneeling. To accept the weight of what you must bear.” For me, these are the lessons of Christmas. These are the gifts I think Jesus’ parents would have hoped for him, and what they ultimately taught him.
For me, the heart of the Christmas story, is not about the gifts, or even about generosity – two things we often think of this time of year. It’s about the lessons of hardship that can be overcome. It’s about enduring what is necessary so that what might be, can become. It’s the story of a man that was gifted with power – not the worldly kind – who was in fact born into weakness and frailty, poverty and a migrant life, living in a nation that was held by foreign powers – and through a life of vulnerability — despite inherent power – showed us all another way: how to lift another with grace and how to kneel when it’s time. We adore this child, not for his cuteness lying in a manger, but for his awareness of when to hold back, despite the power he may have.
The story of Christmas is likewise about the recipients of that grace. If holding back our power at times is a a sacred act, helping to lift those who are vulnerable, is likewise sacred. We often hear misleading stories of people who deserve their poverty; we hear misleading stories that suggest it is not to us to be our brother’s keeper. The story of Christmas corrects these as well. Sometimes, we’re in a place where we have gifts to give. Sometimes we’re in a cold manger needing help. God is found in both these places.
The Holy is found in both these places. This is the closing lesson from our camels in our contemporary reading. “Our footsteps could have rocked him with the rhythm of the road, shown him comfort in a harsh land, the dignity of continually moving forward. But the wise men were not wise enough to ask. They simply left their trinkets and admired the rustic view. Before you knew it, we were turned toward home, carrying men only half-willing to be amazed.” Sometimes we come upon the holiday as these wise men, laden with trinkets and appreciative of the quaintness of it all. Sometimes, we come upon Christmas as the silent camels, staring in awe at the wonder of creation – no words to share or say – just the willingness to be amazed. That’s the inkling of the holy, that which the everyday mystics call us to witness. This too is the gift of Christmas; this too is the gift of life. To notice the baby reaching “for the bright tassels of our gear” and to not let it be lost before the humdrum of the world. To pause long enough to appreciate the precious moments of life.
All of this, held in care, is the message of Christmas. May it bear a print upon who we are, knowing that it is to us then, that we commit the life and teachings of Jesus into our lives. We are told he was born, and he lived, and he died for these teachings. To feed the hungry. To care for the sick. To clothe the naked. To lift up the poor. To remember those imprisoned – however they may be bonded. This is to keep Christ in Christmas. Tonight is the start of his story. Tonight, we renew our pledge to hold these ideals deep in our hearts. And to return, once more, to a world lit by such a glorious star, in the darkest of nights.
This sermon was first preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 1/4/14. It looks at the possibilities of a new year and the differences between desire, greed and yearning.
Here’s a short story that I share with you with permission from its source. I’m very grateful for their sense of humor and willingness to share it with all of us. It’s a story about themselves and a long-time former member of our Fellowship I’m changing their names since this will be posted online. “Rita and Bob went to Town Hall to take care of some business pertaining to the Fellowship building. Rita parked her red Toyota Celica in the crowded lot. When they went back to the car, her keys didn’t work. Bob, being an expert at just about everything, worked diligently to break into the car – the way a thief would! After Bob broke into the car, Rita put her hands on the steering wheel and exclaimed to Bob, who was sitting in the passenger seat “This is not my car, Bob!” They bolted out of the car, closed the doors and looked for her car. It was on the other side of a white van that was parked between her car and the stranger’s car that they had just broken into!”
I imagine we all have moments like these in our lives – maybe not so humorous – where we struggle and struggle to make something work in our lives, or to get through a difficult task, and all the energy is for nought. It might feel like we’re swimming upstream at a time in our lives when we’re called to do the hard thing, or we might just wind up working on breaking into the wrong car.
I’m trying to learn to tell the difference; whether when I’m facing a hardship, is it a necessary or unavoidable difficulty, or have I just gone to the wrong spot. Sometimes we can’t tell the difference until we’re sitting in someone else’s driver seat. But it’s a question we’ve begun asking ourselves in my own household when we face something challenging in our wider lives, and it’s a question that I haven’t always been prone to ask.
Maybe it was my working class upbringing, or maybe it was my German Lutheran Dad’s work ethic, but I’ve always known the message that life isn’t always easy and you have to put your back into it sometimes – sometimes for a long time. Many things we yearn for can fall into this category. Getting through high school, or college take years of hard work, and now these days, a lot of debt to show for the higher education degree most jobs require.
Getting through a life-changing illness – either in body or in mind – can be a place of yearning where endurance and hope are the saving virtues. Our lives are in the hands of other people, even if we’re the center of the story. We have to rely on the wind, from this morning’s wisdom story, to take us across the dry places in our lives.
My own road from working in Information Technology to Community Development to the Ministry was like this. I left a lucrative career, at the age of 28 – making about the same amount of money my dad was making after a lifetime of his work – because it wasn’t personally fulfilling. I yearned for something else; I felt a sense of call. Five years of graduate education and what would amount to a mortgage – in most parts of our country – worth in education loans was a surreal choice to make – especially considering my roots. But, I know that choice to swim upstream was the right choice for me – I didn’t break into the wrong car.
How do we know when it’s the right choice or not? There’s a graphic novel series that I’ve read where the anti-hero of the story (in this case Lucifer himself) talks about the difference between desire and greed. To paraphrase: desire is to need what we can never have. Greed is to need what is readily available. To add a third type of wanting to that scene, I might say yearning is to need what is right, but not yet at hand. We yearn to find or fulfill our purpose; we yearn for justice; we yearn for a caring, loving, kind world. So when we’re struggling hard for something, maybe we can ask what type of “want” we’re trying to fulfill this time as a starting point.
In my own life, when I run across something that’s deeply tied to my sense of purpose, or part of the bigger vision of my life, I’m willing to put a lot of energy into swimming upstream. These days though, I walk away from other stuff that saps my time and energy. I watch for patterns. Once a project has enough unexpected hurdles, unless its essential to home or health, I drop it. We can only manage so much before the frivolous winds up veering us down the wrong path; sapping our ability to accomplish the things that fulfill our purpose.
Occasionally, that which saps our ability to be effective in life are not complications or hurdles in life; sometimes they’re misinformation. I’ve gotten into almost daily habit of watching Fox News. It happened by accident really. There’s a local diner that I like to goto where I read while I eat for about an hour to hour and a half every day. For a long time I thought they changed their news station depending on the time of day. Fox, CNN or the local 12. But after a few months I realized that the pattern was almost entirely just Fox. Apparently, the owner requires the waitstaff to put Fox on, and they can only change it when clients ask to put something else on – or if there’s a major sports game on.
In the beginning, I let it get to me. I couldn’t believe a store owner would play politics like that with a station that factually gets the news wrong 80% of the time (and there are numerous non-partisan reviews that verify Fox is wrong, misleads or outright lies 80% of the time.) To be fair, the same reports find NBC to mislead about 60% of the time. So in the beginning, I would ask to have the station changed to the local news. Over time though, I just let it go and watched. I’ll read the NY Times, and Washington Post for the same reason. And periodically hop over to the BBC or other European news to see what we’re not being told.
What I see reading or listening to all these sources, is that the people that only read or tune into the station that matches their worldview, never hear what the other side has to say in a way that expresses that view with integrity. I feel like this is the major source of our nation’s swimming upstream over the past decade or two. We don’t hear the other side’s points, and if we do, they’re shared in mocking tones. It also oversimplifies complex situations because nuances of view are tossed for the sound byte. We see this in NYC’s current struggle between the Mayor and some Police Union leadership.
It also tends to contribute to false balance – where one reasonable opinion is pitted against a ridiculous opinion as if they are equal in value. We most notably see this with reporting on Global Warming, where world scientific expert opinions are considered with equal “value” with politicians who have no scientific training and are relying on personal opinion and anecdote to challenge 98% of the scientific community’s consensus.
Pope Francis is expected to charge our world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to commit themselves to the Global Warming crisis after a trip to the hurricane-ravaged Philippines soon. And in September, he’s slated to speak to the UN General Assembly as plead for more serious action. If all of this happens as expected, it fills me with a deep sense of hope over this crisis that has felt like swimming upstream for so many of us.
However, if you heard it reported on Fox, the story was told very differently. In the most mind-numbing twisting of news I may have ever heard, the TV station reported that the Pope was going to call Catholics to action over Global Warming, but they described it as something that reinforced “some critics” concerns over “religious fervor” which has been the foundation for those that believe in climate change. Climate change – that which has 98% of world scientists in agreement – is now magically a sentiment of those with religious zeal. When in fact, it’s been strong religious groups who believe global warming is God’s will, and man had no influence on our planet, that have stalled some of our actions to remedy this crisis saying that we can’t flout God’s will, so let’s let it burn as the bible has foretold.
If desire is to need what we can’t have, and greed is to need what is readily available, and yearning is to need what is right, but not yet, then global warming brings out all three in us. Our desire for the myth of limitless resources without repercussion and our greed for that which we yet have so much of, are making our yearning for a world that is whole and balanced all the more difficult to realize.
As we begin a new year, and prepare to swim up whatever streams come our way from time to time, we should remember something about endurance. Sometimes the world is a difficult place, and sometimes our personal situation is very stark. But not everything is hopeless. Not everything is simple. And we often need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, or tune into more than one voice. Our nation is wracked with many serious, or life threatening problems right now. But we also have many stories of success, change and transformation. Our national debt is declining drastically. For those who benefit from stocks, they’re soaring to record highs. Unemployment is down. We have movement away from some Cold War policies toward our nearest neighbor, while reaching out with environmental agreements with foreign powers. Ebola never spread here – not from ISIS, not through Mexico. And with Pope Francis expected to join his voice in world leadership toward serious climate action, things may look very different. When we yearn in difficult times, sometimes we need to remember not to listen too fully to the voices of strife and confusion; or at least not allow them to be the only voices we hear. When we only listen to them, our hearts and minds may not be ready to do the work of building upon the many successes the past year has gifted to this new year.
This sermon was preached on Sunday, 12/14/14 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at the wisdom of Julian of Norwich to help ground us in times of suffering and loss. It addresses our current moral crises with the death of black men on our streets, and the use of torture in our government.
On Tuesday, we had another Nor’Easter blow through our area. I was drenched from head to toe after running around to pick up bagels for my monthly clergy gathering – which this time met here at our Fellowship. Opening the umbrella, while carrying a Box of Coffee, my right hand limited by a finger splint due to a mild case of tendinitis – was just not worth the effort. So I gave up on the umbrella and went the route of Aquaman that morning. When my colleagues arrived a short time later, they would helpfully point out, “you’re wet,” as if I may have missed that fun fact.
As you can imagine from the work we have to do on our parking lot, the grounds here were no better than I was. Our southern entrance had a lake that started at the street and went half the way back. Our northern entrance was dry, but there was a large pool just past the front lot. Walking up to the office entrance, you could see two inches of water pooling up on the grass. By noon, there was water leaking down a chimney and through the wall into our office; the wall that divides the main office from my office. The pre-school housed here was closing early and parents were picking up their kids several hours early. We’d later learn of flooding in the basement of our cottage.
Thanks to the tireless work of Susie, Frank and Scott, (and possibly more folks,) we’d have trucks here the next day pumping out our lakes and our basements and surely disappointing the migrating ducks and geese that saw a new vacation home forming. Downed trees are or have been removed. At last update, I believe work on improving the condition of our lot for the winter will begin on Monday. We should see less lakes and less flooding very soon.
With every major project, things will get messy, or there will be surprises uncovered as the work to make it better gets underway. When you know something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat. But we try not to get frustrated by the next problem as if it were a surprise or out of the blue. When something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat, but the new problems don’t mean it can’t be fixed. Sometimes it just takes will.
As I was in our office hearing about all the extra storm-related challenges we’re facing, the next thing after the next thing, I had a moment where I felt like it was a mundane parable for our country which is struggling with much more serious woes. The news has been very rough lately. How rough it’s been for some of our people isn’t new, just how conscious mainstream America has been about the tragedies, is new. Last week’s sermon was a difficult one to preach and a difficult one to hear. A few people came up to me after the service to say that it was exhausting or unenjoyable – but thanked me for preaching what needed to be preached. I’m grateful for a community that is willing to reflect on such an impossible situation – because if we can’t work on healing racism in this country, we have no foundation as a religious community. When you know something’s not working, fixing it isn’t always neat. Sometimes it just takes listening.
Where I was outraged by the deaths of so many black men going unaddressed, this week’s Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture completely exhausted me. Watching the media spin doctor calling a spade a spade, so that we can either continue to feel good about ourselves as a nation, or so that some of our leaders are not tried in the Hague, is dispiriting. But I think it’s connected. How we treat black bodies in our nation is somehow related to how we treat brown bodies in our time of perpetual war. Our morality on our streets, is connected to our morality in our not-so-secret interrogation chambers. Now we know, for a fact, that there’s a real problem with how our government honors our founding principles, and honors international human rights laws. We can choose to spin ourselves in circles to deny what the Senate Report found, or we can choose to begin the work of fixing what we know isn’t working in our leadership.
But this week, I have no answers. I have no easy action steps for us to take to address political change in our democracy. We can remember last week’s underlying call to learn to listen to the anger, we may or may not understand, from our places of relative privilege – if we have that privilege. We can also seek grounding rather than actions. We have to do both, but often we do neither. For that grounding, I’d like to turn to three thoughts from the writings of Julian of Norwich that come out of her book, “Revelations of Divine Love” that are particularly helpful right now. Julian was an English anchoress alive in the 14th and 15th century and largely regarded as one of the most important Christian mystics.
Speaking of God, Julian writes, “He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased'; but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.” It’s hard to find joy in times of adversity. Julian is speaking to the very human tendency to focus on the tempests, travails and disease we all face from year to year. And sometimes those tempests are horrendous storms that we would wish on no one. The media is awash with death, and violence, war and torture. And in our personal lives we are faced with loss of loved ones, personal illness, exhaustion from caring for a beloved family member, or wrestling with depression. All of it is real, and serious, and full of grief. And still… the mystic teaches us that we were never promised not to be tempested or travailed – that is the hard truth of life; we were promised we wouldn’t be overcome.
For Julian, this is not so much – or not solely – about faith in God, but a sense of union with God. For her, and many mystics, belief washes away and is replaced with a sense of deep connection with the holy; the sense that there is no separation between humanity and the sacred. I imagine it’s a similar sense that may arise in deep practices of mindfulness meditation. A deep sense of belonging, and finding nourishment from that well. I have experienced it in my own meditation practice, and can attest that it is grounding in times of extreme crisis. Even if we don’t live in that state most of the time, the moments of it inform all the rest. We remember that promise Julian speaks of – we shall not be overcome.
From that promise we hear what is Julian’s most notable teaching, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Our choir sang an anthem earlier that adapts this message by putting it into conversation with the part of all of us that wrestles with deep pain and misery. Some of t lyrics of this song by the Rev. Meg Barnhouse read, “I said, “Julian, do you not know, do you not know about loneliness, and Julian, do you not know, do you not know about disease?” I said Julian, do you not know, do you not know about cruelty?” I said Julian, it’s too much. It brought me to my knees.” Basically, it’s all well and good to say things will be well, but I’m facing death, and loneliness in a world full of places of extreme cruelty — how can you say all will be well – you don’t know what loss really is. To which the song’s version of Julian replies, “No one does not know, does not know about loneliness and no one does not know, does not know about disease.” She said, “No one does not know, does not know about cruelty.” She said, “I know, it’s too much. It brought me to my knees where I heard:
‘All will be well, and all will be well, all manner of things will be well.’
Julian believed that God controlled and orchestrated all things. Personally, I think Julian was way off-base there, but it does point to a certain truth. Sometimes, it’s in the times of strife where we find ourselves. Sometimes, it’s the mundane parking lot needing to really, really flood before we’ll take the action that we’re now taking to repair it. Sometimes it takes facing the loss of a job, for us to wake up to our addiction to alcohol. Sometimes it’s about injury; I recall the months of physical therapy it took me to heal following being hit by a car as a pedestrian. I would never want to go through that again, but it taught me to be more patient with the people around me. I gained an empathy for people dealing with mobility issues that I didn’t have before. Facing the risk of death, helped me to be more present to the life around me. It also showed me how some people react to injury. I have never been bumped into so much in my life on a NYC subway as when I was walking with a leg brace and a crutch. I swear, people would go out of their way to knock into the knee with the brace on. I found myself having to sit with the crutch physically protecting my knee, and people would still find a way to walk into my leg.
Sometimes, a nation can persist in allowing a certain number of it’s citizens to be killed every year to ignore what lies below the surface, but at a certain point – the tragic is so glaring that authority and privilege can’t keep our conscious quiet any more. I would never wish the tragic on anyone, but occasionally being brought to our knees helps us to hear what needs to be heard. What we become in light of that voice matters.
How do we find our way back to joy? Julian, the mystic, tells us, “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.” Like most great mystics, gender is fluid. When she speaks of our “Savior” she means Jesus as our Mother. Some of us will hear this as speaking to our relationship to God. Others will find its truth in mindfulness or reverence in being. I find both interpretations helpful.
A discipline of grounding ourselves in these ways is tied to permission giving. Sometimes, when things are really tough, we don’t allow ourselves to feel anything but the pain or the misery. For some of us, it’s too much to manage to find room for joy. For others of us, we’ve been socialized not to allow ourselves to find joy in times of hardship; as if finding something to appreciate in a time of loss is somehow wrong. Life is too complex, and too messy, not to leave room for the whole range of human experience in any moment. These grounding disciplines can carve out room for what our hearts need.
The metaphor she points to is both our unending opportunity to be born and reborn again in the holy. That when we come to the point where we’re on our knees, because whatever life has thrown our way is just too much to bear, we come to realize that we’ve never left our source. …Out of whom we shall never come. As the words of one of our hymns tell us, born and reborn again… In this moment, again and again. Despite the hardships of this world, which are many, and sometimes unbearable, we return to our choir anthem’s message reminding us of tenderness, of friends, of the Spirit… “it’s only love that never ends.” It’s only love that never ends. If we return to this, if we are grounded in this, we can find joy in times of hardship. In fact, the moments of joy will help to heal, or manage, all the rest. And in some cases, finding the joy, may be the only way to bear what is unbearable.
What the story of the Three Wise Men can teach us about #BlackLivesMatter and Herod.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 12/7/14. It explores the tragic death of black men and boys by white police officers.
It’s December. The Rockefeller Christmas Tree was lit before a river of protestors marching from Times Square. Anger in the season of joy. The police would barricade them some way along their route so that their peaceful protest would not disrupt broadcast television. And true to form, NBC would nary blink an eye to cover it. Late night news would mourn the delays on drivers. A “die-in” at Grand Central – where protesters, en masse, lie motionless on the floor – delayed train commuting for hours. By the next day, papers would publish sketches of the figure of the Blind Justice on the ground gasping “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner, a black father and a husband, had died at the hands of a police officer who would employ an illegal chokehold on him, and the grand jury ruled no cause for indictment. I can’t breathe.
We know from the video footage that Eric Garner was unarmed. We know he was not attacking anyone. We know he was accused of the petty misdemeanor of selling loose cigarettes on the street. He kept his hands to himself and barely struggled with the police who were slowly killing him. He said, “I can’t breathe” and the police continued to kill him. We know this from the video footage. And still, no cause for indictment. We know this from the video footage. Yet seeing is not enough to believe anymore – to at least go to trial.
Tamir Rice, a 12 year old black boy, was playing on a field with a toy gun. A 911 call was made which mentioned that the gun was probably fake. Police were dispatched and no word of the probably fake gun was passed onto the responding officers. Within 2 seconds of getting out of the car though, Tamir Rice was gunned down. The police would falsify a whole range of things in their press conference, from lying about asking the boy numerous times to drop the weapon, to claiming that the orange tab was off the end of the gun so they thought it was real. The orange tip was removed, but the toy gun was in Tamir’s pants – so it’s really a moot point – there was no tip to see one way or the other – so they lied about having knowledge they didn’t actually have. We know the responding officers didn’t warn little Tamir because we have video footage that shows they gunned him down within 2 seconds. We have footage. Yet, we’ve likely all heard or read of many white apologists blaming the parents for letting their kid carry a toy gun. ‘It’s the parents’ failure of parenting.’ Ohio is an open carry state, but a child with a toy gun in Ohio is the problem, not the police officer who we’ll later learn had a supervisor who said this particular officer was not fit for duty and was fired, only to be hired by another precinct. But we’ll jump to blame the black child, not the adult trained in the use of firearms.
This thinking is truly remarkable. Back on April 12th, 2014, the media labeled Eric Parker a “protestor” when he aimed a loaded assault rifle at a Federal agent of the Bureau of Land Management when they seized cattle belonging to the rancher Cliven Bundy for their illegal grazing on federal land. This white man with an assault rifle pointed at Federal Agents acting in the course of their duty is merely “protesting” but a black boy with a toy gun playing by himself with no one around him requires deadly force.
So when I hear people say in the case of Ferguson that we should give the system the benefit of the doubt, I say, “I can’t breathe.” Where was the benefit of the doubt for the dead victims? And why, why must we perpetually, and with knee-jerk precision, give the benefit of the doubt to the people with the power in the situation?
I know officers have a seemingly impossible job. I know they put their lives on the line. I know I could never do that job. Yet still, how does critiquing one officer’s actions immediately translate into attacking all officers – conveniently – every single time this comes up. And it appears to be coming up every single month, in every single year, of our lives, for generations.
It’s not rationale. It’s victim-blaming. And we don’t seem to put up with it for any other profession. I have power as a clergy person. I have authority; I have influence; I have a larger voice than most of us simply because of the stature of my office. For a long time, our nation allowed clergy to get away with horrendous offenses in the name of covering up what we did not want to see. Thankfully, light has been shown on corners that should never have been allowed to be hidden. That’s the just and right response to abuse of power. I don’t expect any special considerations because of the nature of my job. In fact, I expect to be held to a higher standard because of the power I wield. It is our ethical and moral responsibility to shine the same light on any professional who holds such power. The calling to task of clergy abuse of individual clergy doesn’t call to task all clergy, just the guilty party. So why must we pretend we’re insulting all officers when we challenge the actions of an individual? We’re not insulting officers by questioning flagrant abuse; we’re treating them like citizens, because they still are. We don’t live in a police state, so we shouldn’t act like it when it comes down to black victims. And frankly, I think not holding police officers to at least the same standard we hold other citizens, is an insult to the office of the police.
We do this with police because something else is going on. Individuals officers are responsible for their actions; they must live with it for the rest of their lives; and justice should be served. But it’s not only about them. It’s about a system that devalues black lives to protect white privilege. If you thought white privilege was only about perks and benefits, the death of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice correct us. If you thought being anti-racist begins and ends with not using the N-word, Eric and Tamir correct us. If you thought being anti-racist begins and ends with ensuring equal job opportunities and equal pay regardless of race, Eric and Tamir correct us. Lynchings are alive and well and sanctioned by the justice system, and we become complicit the moment we lose our outrage.
Anger in the season of joy. We should be outraged right now. I remember asking this when I had to preach in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin to my community in Brooklyn, and I will ask it again here in Huntington about the 12 year old Tamir Rice, and the 18 year old Michael Brown: Can you imagine any scenario where one of our 12 year olds, or one of our congregation’s 18 year olds, was killed by anyone and we didn’t lose our minds in sorrow and rage… Take a moment to imagine that horrid reality. Do you actually believe this congregation wouldn’t move heaven and earth to find justice? I can’t. I just can’t. We should apply that reality to the families and communities of Tamir and Michael, and now Eric. Benefit of the doubt language takes on a whole new meaning in that light.
I want to reflect on another story of unjust deaths of children. We talk about it at this time of year, every year, but rarely do the commercials, sermons or politicians of this world focus on this part of the story. It’s the story of the Wise Men. They come to Jerusalem and visit King Herod asking ‘“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened…”. (Matthew 2:1-12) King Herod tries to trick the Wise Men into finding Jesus and informing the King of his location for Herod believes Jesus will be a threat to his reign and intends to kill him. The story of the Wise Men often ends with, “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
But the story goes on with a message you will rarely hear at our children’s pageants. “16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Rachel’s wails echo in our ears when we go the path of cool analyzation in the face of a generation of black children being killed before our eyes without recourse or justice. It’s the safe and privileged position, to argue each individual case over our awkward Thanksgiving dinners, or on Facebook walls, or at the water cooler; all the while forgetting that this is happening every month, of every year, for generations. If we remain solely in our heads, perpetually fixated on the myth that there are always two sides to any situation, we remain deaf to Rachel’s wails. I say it’s a myth – two sides. It’s a myth, because we talk blithely about two sides while never allowing the victims’ sides to actually be heard in a court of law. There has been no trial to avenge the death of Eric Garner; his side wasn’t heard. There was no trial to avenge the death of Michael Brown; his side wasn’t heard. There was no trial, so there was only one side.
We pretend the closed-door practice of Grand Jury’s, who only ever hear from an elected Prosecutor, is a fair trial. When the Ferguson Grand Jury verdict was released, the British version of the BBC had to explain to its readers that our Grand Jury’s are secret and that only one person gets to speak with them. Europe doesn’t have this as part of their legal procedures and readers were confused. It’s considered anathema to a democracy. The judicial system should be transparent, and in this way, our system is not. Some would also call into question the political nature of asking an elected Prosector, one who likely benefits from Police Union votes, to ever indict a police officer for such a crime. It’s a complicated conflict of interest that under normal circumstances I would discredit, but baring witness to the near 0 rate of county prosecutors every actually indicting a police officer for the violent death of an unarmed black man, I’m not sure it’s something we should continue to wholly discredit.
The story of the Wise Men is timely and important. Who is Herod today? I don’t believe there’s an evil mastermind organizing the wanton death of black children. But I do see a nation feeling threatened by race reacting in violent ways, without recourse or justice for the victims. Travyon, Tamir, Eric and Michael were all on trial for their own deaths. From carrying skittles, to playing with a toy in an empty field, to saying “I can’t breathe”, to a punch in the face that was falsely reported as breaking the officer’s skull but in fact caused light bruising – we give the death sentence. We can parse out all the ways in which someone should or could have done something different, although in 3 of these 4 cases, I find none of those critiques credible in the face of Rachel’s wail and weeping for her children. Friends, we are in a Modern Western Society. We do not give the death sentence for walking home from a convenience store with a packet of skittles; we do not give the death sentence for playing in a field with a toy, or for selling loose cigarettes. We just don’t.
Herod is in our faceless system that allows this happen. Herod is in our criminal justice process that forces imprisonment for non-violent crimes at a ridiculous rate – one that is higher for people of color than for whites. When you’re imprisoned for a non-violent crime, your chances of ever getting a good job decrease. While you’re imprisoned you also lose your right to vote. It’s like the Jim Crow south all over again. It’s a vicious cycle.
Herod is in the rampant fear whites have of blacks. When Darren Wilson said, “I feel like a 5 year old holding onto Hulk Hogan” we were hearing the fear of Herod come to life. “He looked up at me and had the most aggressive face,” he said to the grand jury. “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Officer Darren Wilson is 6’4” and 210 pounds. He’s about two inches taller than me but otherwise my size; except he had a gun. And he was facing an unarmed 18 year old. Officer Wilson also got to speak to the Grand Jury; something Michael Brown never will get a chance to do.
I know these cases aren’t all the same. I’m not saying we need to convict anyone in the court of public opinion. I am saying that the court of public opinion always seems to rule in favor of the officer at the expense of the dead black boy, teen, or man. I am saying that I find it horrifying in a democracy that in each of these instances there is never a trial – a child is dead and there is no trial. We can send a black man to prison for a non-violent crime at a rate radically out of proportion to white prisoners, but we can’t even hold a trial for the killing of black youth when it’s done by police? When we insist that black youth are treated fairly, while they lie dead on a Ferguson street for 4.5 hours for all the community to see, we keep Herod on the throne.
So yes, not all police are bad. In fact most are awesome. But when you hear another story of another unarmed black man killed by another white police officer over another petty mis-demeanor, hold back from the knee-jerk “it’s not all cops.” When Rachel was weeping in Ramah, over the death of all the infant men of Jerusalem, saying “well, it’s not all kings” says more about you than it does the grieving mother.
Spiritually, we’re called not to blithely dismiss the parents’ pain. We’re called to listen; to act. Democracy is a lively art, and it’s the foundation of our fifth principle. In some of these cases we can lobby for Federal Prosecutors to intervene on civil rights causes. In others we can make our voices heard through joining in protest marches, as some of us already have in NYC this weekend. There will be another opportunity later today at the Amityville, LIRR station at 1:30pm where that march culminates at Holy Trinity Baptist Church at 3pm. But equally important, and I tend to feel it’s even more important, as a predominately privileged community that will likely never have to face the horrors of seeing one of our youth lying dead on Main Street for 4.5 hours, is to listen. Respond with our ears and our hearts first. Be present for a family or a community’s pain – first. Be open to the possibility that if every cop isn’t a bad cop – which no one is saying they are – then maybe there’s room to believe that every black youth isn’t a bad kid deserving of death or imprisonment. If we’re going to stay in our heads, that’s the logic we have to face when we retreat to “all cops aren’t bad”, when no one is talking about all cops. That’s the false logic flipped on its head.
I want to end with the other side of anger in the season of joy. Rage. We’re seeing a lot of photos out of Ferguson showing rioting in response to the presence of Police in military gear and later the presence of National Guard. Remember, protestors were first met with gas masks, tear gas and military grade vehicles. Remember also that the peaceful protestors, and the protest leads are decrying the rioting. In fact the riots are happening at the same time as the legal protests. We’re looking at different people. I wanted to first remind people that the media sometimes sloppily conflates the two groups as the same, thereby indicting the whole community of color for the actions of some.
As a near-pacifist, I can’t condone such rioting. However, as someone who hasn’t just had another one of my people, or community, or family gunned down on the street and left for dead for 4.5 hours – I’m going to choose to remain silent and try to listen. I know that personally, whenever I hear of another gay or lesbian or transgender person killed on the streets – in some ways, I feel like it happened to me too. I imagine many women, when they hear of an attack on another woman, there may be a sense of loss of safety for all women. So too, when there’s a barrage of dead black men and boys on our streets, I think we can all imagine what affect that will have on a community.
I’m going to be real cautious about pointing fingers and blithely exercising my superiority in the face of that tragedy. I’m also going to refer back to my childhood history lessons. When white people riot in the face of oppression it’s called “Patriotic.” In fact, we have a whole political party named after it. The Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party was all about Taxation without Representation, and our forefathers ransacked three ships in the harbor and tossed hundreds of chests of tea into the water. It’s like ransacking the Best Buys of the day, and destroying public property. But they were heroes. They also hid their identities by dressing as Native Americans to do so.
I remember Southern States rising up against the North, in name, over the “sovereignty of states.” 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War. That’s only 24,000 less deaths than all other US conflicts combined. And yet, to this day, many Southern Whites will still maintain it was a “just” cause. 640,000 dead. But let’s wag our privileged fingers at the Ferguson community for stealing TV’s and ransacking stores in the face of one of their sons lying dead on the street for 4.5 hours.
I remember Stonewall. For days, several streets in Greenwich village were shut down. Police were barricaded away by Drag Queens and Kings. Windows were shattered with bricks – yes the gay community shattered our own windows. We were tied of the police raping and abusing Drag Queens and Kings. We were tired of the raids that sought to humiliate and keep us down. It only reached page 4 of the papers. But the LGBT civil rights movement was born.
I remember Hanukkah. We focus on the miracle of oil, and seven days and nights of light. But it’s a story about violent revolution in the face of a worldly power that is killing and restricting the lives of Jews in their own land. But we share that story as religious scripture; but another community here, riots in the face of their people lying dead in the street by authority, and we chide them.
Anger and rage don’t always make rational sense. They’re not always helpful. But in the face of seeing one of our children lying dead in the street for 4.5 hours, I’m not sure it’s rationale to expect a neat, clean, tidy, logical response for a very long time.
So we listen. We don’t seek to judge. We don’t seek to quickly hide from the difficulty of a trial. We don’t seek to wash away another’s pain. We don’t condemn a child for their own death. We don’t blame parents for bad parenting by allowing their kid to have a toy gun – again in a state that has an Open Carry law. We don’t accept a system that ignores, time after time, the application of the death penalty for petty misdemeanors. We don’t ignore the fact that European police have a tiny, tiny fraction of the rate of police shootings that we have in our nation (in the single digits in many countries annually) – and we don’t pretend that that difference doesn’t matter.
In our places of privilege we don’t lift up, nurture, defend or protect the Herod of our age – institutional racism – that witnesses the tragic death of black man after black man at the hands of white authority. Some of these cases, the officer may legitimately be found not guilty. Let it go to trial, and we’ll see.
We use our safe positions of privilege to listen. We take the risk that maybe the whole system is unfair and that unfairness means another race of people’s lives are at greater risk. And we allow that possibility to seep in. If we can actually listen, from the place of compassion, we may imagine new ways to live more fairly and more safely. But if we believe the status quo is fair and just; if we believe there are always two sides but we’ll only ever listen to the side of the power and authority, then we’ll continue to see the death of another life, and another life – while we remain safe in our places of privilege.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Hope,
We pause this hour, in witness to the many feelings we hold in light of the Thanksgiving Holiday.
Some are grateful for family and friends close at hand,
for the warmth of home, and a table set full with food.
May we remember these joys in the hard times that come to all of us.
Some are struggling with illness, in body or in spirit,
tired from the weary journey,
season after season;
may we find strength from those around us,
and not lose hope,
so that our hours may still be filled with the preciousness of life.
Some are mourning the loss of a beloved family member, or a friend.
Help us to grieve, for grieve we must.
Help us to honor their life, and to carry on their memory,
so that their presence may live on through our actions and our love,
ever stirring the world for their touch upon it.
We also recognize the pain that has struck our nation this year,
whose Spirit has moved over our land once more,
a sense of injustice for black male youth,
before the power of institutions, and courts,
and the rage of privilege against those with little power.
We pray for the people of Ferguson,
who have lost another child on their streets,
whose police force will need to discern a way forward in a now impossible crisis,
for the national guard who must face rioters,
and for the protestors who must manage their pain and sorrow and civic duty,
while being falsely blamed for the rioting of others,
others who are full of rage in the face of a long history of violence against our black neighbors.
Teach us not to, ever and always, blame the victim first.
Help us to find ways not to repeat this story over and over,
as we have throughout the decades.
May we stay uncomfortable, stay heartbroken, stay in a place of loss,
long enough to commit to helping to affect change and healing.
May we not allow the story of Ferguson to be forgotten by the next sound byte.
May we remember long enough to allow love, and wisdom,
to find a home in our courts and on our streets.
We know that real solutions are not easy;
they require effort,
they require reflection,
and they require change over complacency and disinterest.
Just because the path may be difficult,
is no reason to continue to do nothing.
Black lives matter.