Michael Brown and Eric Garner

December 23, 2014

The Rev. Charles A. de Kay
St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Evanston
Advent 2, December 7, 2014

In the name of the holy one who invites us into holiness.  Amen!

Good morning!

Welcome one and all! A special welcome and thank you to our community leaders, promoting health and vibrancy in children and in the political realm. You honor us with your presence this morning, and we are deeply grateful for the important work you do to make our world a better place. We hope that you can join us at our St. Nicholas Brunch immediately following the service.

Now, normally, at Lessons and Carols we forgo the sermon, so this morning, we’re calling this a homily, which I think means I’m supposed to be brief.  I’ll do my best. With all that is going on in our nation, however, I’d be abdicating my moral duty if I were to remain silent.

Early in my Christian education, I was taught that as people of faith and as human beings living in an imperfect world, we are obligated to stand up and speak out in the face of injustice. However small or large the perceived wrong, and despite our shaking legs and cracking voices or a powerful and vocal opposition trying to silence us, it is our duty to confront injustice. As an Episcopalian, I was taught to question and think critically about the world, my faith, and my personal views and perceptions.

For instance, I was taught race is make-believe:  that it’s a human construct first dreamed up as a means of social control, and a salve to conscience. Setting an example for all of us about what’s important, my parents went to DC to march with Dr. Martin Luther King in August of 1963. I was just five when Dr. King was assassinated, but his inspiration lived large in our home. Dr. King wrote, "He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

And yet, when it came to issues of race, there existed in the larger community a sort of unwritten rule, an unspoken promise never to talk about race. From my earliest days, I’ve prided myself on how I’ve escaped much of that separation and denial.  

You see, from an early age, dear friends, black and white alike, drew back the curtain to reveal a second America – the one experienced every waking moment of every day by folks of color. As a preteen, I was present when my oldest friend was given, yet again, the parental lecture: “don’t do anything stupid! if the police stop you, be extra polite, call them Sir, do whatever they tell you, don’t think about back talk, never, ever argue. And, Charlie, when you’re with Leon, that goes for you, too!” With them I’ve been followed around in stores to make sure nothing was stolen. I’ve been in one of those countless cars pulled over simply because a black man was driving. I’ve been brushed by the rage of racist hatred walking along in my hometown. As an adult I’ve worked with HS students in classrooms painted with a mural not of the American Dream, but of “the American Nightmare.” And, like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve done my own studying, about the reality of black experience in America. And, of course, it’s not just true of black Americans, but people of all shades of color.  So, I’ve learned just enough to be dangerous enough to think I know a little.

And still, I get distracted and then I effectively forget what I’ve learned. I fall asleep to the life experience of our black and brown brothers and sisters.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe because it’s not my everyday life experience, maybe because it’s hard to think about, maybe because it makes me feel impotent. The mostly white world I live in today shields me from the difficult truths of our two Americas. To my very dear friends who entrusted me with this hard truth and to my God, I’m SO sorry!  I deeply regret my ease and willingness to be distracted, to fall asleep, and become blind, once more. I want never to forget again.

And, still, the issues at hand in the news today are complicated. Folks think different things. Wherever we believe the primary fault lies in the deaths of these men, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the silence about race is, I fear, deadly.  In yesterday’s New York Times, there was a front-page story about how these deaths at the hands of the police and the criminal justice system’s refusal to indict the officers responsible – has shattered a silence that itself nurtured a yawning gulf between the experience – the lived realities - of these two Americas.  Friends and family members are finding that they have no common ground whatsoever on the issues, and in some cases, no energy to find any.  I found the reader’s responses to this article particularly honest and often insightful.  I was especially impressed by one reader who posted:

People find it difficult to use imagination and empathy to understand the lives of other people in the way that we urge when we say something like "you can't know another person until you've walked in his shoes."  Instead, we talk about projecting ourselves into other peoples' lives abstractly and in a disconnected way.

I'm a gay man. It was only after my generation lived 30 years as open and proud people that other folks could learn to "imagine" their way into the lives of their gay friends, family members and coworkers in a way that allowed some straight folks to feel some empathy about who we are and to think differently about how we lived in the world.

This history of our country has made it impossible for white and black people, except in the most extraordinary circumstances, to work and live together in ways that allow constructive "imagination" about another person's life to develop into genuine understanding. For many white folks, the passage of laws that made overt discrimination illegal was sufficient to clear away the obstructions left in place by our long history. They hear pained descriptions about the lives many black people lead as "grievances" or "excuses" and are unable to "imagine" anything at all about the real lives they lead.

The reaction here in New York has been different than the one in Ferguson. But there is not much greater "imagination" going on in New York than in Ferguson and things won't change at all until there is.

My friends, people of faith are people of tremendous imagination.  We have to be.  We worship a God none of us can see.  Our Advent readings this morning tell us joyful stories of the wonders of our faith as we move toward the Kingdom of God.  We began this morning with Isaiah’s description of God’s imaginative vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.  Here the predator plays, eats, and sleeps side by side with the prey.  There is complete trust and peace between the most violent aggressors and the most vulnerable.  We might re-imagine God’s vision, re-writing Isaiah 11:6-9 today this way:

The racist will romp with the black child,
    the hardened criminal sleeps peacefully beside the faithful police officer.
The rabid progressive and tea partier will share a milk shake with two straws,
    and a little child will tend them.
The stock broker will graze side-by-side with the homeless man
    their children grow up together,
and the Fortune 400 CEO will eat with them all at the soup kitchen.
The nursing black child will crawl in front of the White Supremacist’s open door,
    the undocumented toddler stick his hand in the mail slot of a violent Xenophobe.
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
    on my holy mountain.
The whole earth will be brimming with the Spirit of God,
   knowing all of God’s creatures as children beloved beyond measure.

We have a ways to go before God’s vision can be realized. The darkness of racism and its mates – “isms” of many kids – shroud our land. Some of this is too big for us. Only God can manage some of this.  And it will happen according to God’s time, not ours. And yet the church - and our sister communities of faith – nonetheless have a central role to play in this journey.  Dr. King wrote, "He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

We are called to carry the light of hope and love.  Each of us can take a step today to bring it to reality. For, to quote Dr. King once more:  "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.  Our lives of faith brim with holy imagination of a life lived in God for whom all things are possible."

As we awaken in this holy season of preparation, may we bring the light:  speaking truth to power in love when necessary, but mostly by respectfully, lovingly, listening to each other, especially when we disagree, and by sharing a vision of glorious hope, an imaginative holy re-interpretation of how to be community, and life-giving abundance - to a world desperate to hear it.