In the Wake of Michael Brown

December 23, 2014

The Rev. Charles A. de Kay
St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, Evanston
Advent 1, November 30, 2014

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge, we may be found worthy of his love; through your Son, Christ Jesus with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Please be seated.  Happy New Year, people!

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, which is the first day of the Christian year. And while Christmas music (or muzak) has no doubt already been introduced into our consciousness, First Advent always looks forward to Jesus’ return at the end, to the second coming, the Day of the Lord, Judgment Day.

Not a big subject in the Episcopal Church:  The end of the world. I think I can count on one hand the number of sermons I have heard on the subject in the Episcopal church.

And still, I wonder what we can glean, if we take the Gospel faithfully.

The Gospel message is the same every year, no matter whose text: Keep awake.

Clearly the message is not that we’re literally never meant to sleep, so what does this mean? I think it means that we’re to live a life worthy of God. So, what might we do to live right?

Jesus, our revelation of God, gives us two concrete instructions. You know this.  (1) Love God with all of yourself, in an integrated life of self-giving.  And (2) Love your neighbor as yourself. In Luke, Jesus, when asked the parameters on who’s my neighbor, makes it clear that he means everyone, showing special concern for the outsider – for the person who’s different, on the margins, even the enemy. On these two sets of instructions, he says, hang the essence of all the teachings of scripture.

Wherever we may be on number (1) our relationship with God, the news of the day is all about how much we human beings still have to learn about how to love our neighbor, especially if he is different from us. Now, we could enumerate the many kinds of ways that we are different – and share countless stories about tensions, violence, and oppression experienced by the other in some part of the nation, or the world. 

However, specificity, wonderfully paradoxically, leads to universality of experience. And, the truth is our nation continues to boil over Monday’s decision by the Saint Louis County grand jury not to indict white Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the August killing of black teenager, Michael Brown. Michael Brown’s killing and the failure to deliver an indictment so that Officer Wilson will never face an open, public trial of the facts, are the tip of an iceberg of a history of racial injustice that continues to be written today. Jesus took up John the Baptist’s mantle of preaching repentance of sin. And few sins are as clear as racism. Its works of darkness shroud our land. How do we wake up – make ourselves ready for the Master’s return to use biblical language - from a lifetime within a culture of systemic racism, of a justice system rife with systems of injustice?

Community organizing talks about striving for the world as it should be, while living fearlessly in the world as it is.  Jesus, in the book by Matthew, our church’s namesake, exhorts his listeners again and again and again to strive for the Kingdom of God, in a spiritual conquest over the Kingdoms of earth. And, at its heart, the church teaches that the path of the Christian is dying to an old way of being, and being born and living into a new way of being. 

Close to home, here at St. Matthew’s we claim that we seek to be building community in a complicated world. To what end?  Well, week after week during the season after Pentecost (the second week of June), we have been praying to God:  “Grant that we, burning with your Spirit’s power, may be a people of hope, justice, and love.”

What hope do we, St. Matthew’s, a predominantly white church, have to offer to our African-American neighbors in Evanston?

What kind ofjusticedo we have to offer our African American brothers and sisters?

What kind oflovedo we have to offer our black neighbors?

Do we live into the truth that “Black Lives Matter?"

At Convention a week ago, in his Eucharistic sermon on the woman at the well, Bishop Lee exhorted the Diocese of Chicago – that’s all of us: “We need to follow Jesus and get out of church more. Go to the well, the public square, the statehouse, the street corner, the office water cooler. And to go there conscious of our own evolving, living, breathing relationship with Jesus. That’s what I’m planning to do a lot more of in 2015. And I want to ask for your help. On visitations this coming year, along with Bishop Epting I’m going to ask members of vestries to invite friends they may know who are not members of any church to come for coffee so I can meet with them. I want to hear from them, listen to them, ask them what might make participation in the life of the church worth their while. No strings, no tricks to get them to sign up, no sales pitch. What might we learn from them? What might change us? What do we have to offer them? How precious is a living relationship with Jesus Christ to us anyway? I’m asking you to join me in this project of listening to stories we might not otherwise hear; to offer our own stories in language and images the world around us is dying to hear. We need to get out there.”

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." How much have things changed?

Writing for The Atlantic Monthly, Robert P. Jones examines why White Americans understand and interpret events such as Michael Brown’s death so differently from Black Americans.  He writes: “Clearly white Americans see the broader significance of Michael Brown’s death through radically different lenses than black Americans. There are myriad reasons for this divergence, from political ideologies—which, for example, place different emphases on law and order versus citizens’ rights—to fears based in racist stereotypes of young black men. But the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.

“These incongruous community contexts certainly set the stage for cultural conflict and misunderstanding, but the paucity of integrated social networks—the places where meaning is attached to experience—amplify and direct these experiences toward different ends. Drawing on techniques from social network analysis, Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 ‘American Values Survey’ asked respondents to identify as many as seven people with whom they had discussed important matters in the six months prior to the survey. The results reveal just how segregated white social circles are.

“Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 91 percent white. White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."How much have things changed? Not much.

But we can help to change all that. 

Bishop Lee again:  “We need to get out there. And we need to go like Jesus, aware of our own thirstiness. Open handed. Open hearted. We need to meet others not pretending we already have … all the answers. We need to listen, to acknowledge the questions, the pain, the joys and the sorrows …. We need to receive from them.”

My friends, God loves you beyond measure. Absolutely. 

And God loves every single other person – black, white, or brown or any other hue – just as much: beyond measure.  No exceptions.  In loving God with all we are in return, we are expected to love those whom God loves.  I invite you to take a moment to honestly evaluate the racial makeup of your own immediate social circle: identify seven people with whom you’ve discussed important matters in the past six months.  Be honest.  What’s the racial make-up of this group?

We cannot love our neighbor if we never meet him. If we want to help build the Kingdom of God, rather than languish in the Kingdoms of the world, we need to talk to people who are different from us. It may be uncomfortable. But, living the Gospel is not supposed to be comfortable all the time. 

When we do this, we have to bring true selves, no matter how awkward or stilted it feels.

It might help if we can create a comfortable environment for the person we’re approaching (find a neutral spot like a coffee shop), and arrive armed with a few simple questions, like:

  • I’d love to hear you tell me about yourself.  Where did you grow up and what was that like? 
  • What was one of the most important events, and how did it help shape who you are or the course of your life? 

It’s essential to establish trust and very valuable to learn something about the other person before engaging in deep conversation, where we are feel so vulnerable.

Most important of all:  And once we’ve asked the questions, be silent, listen. 

Remember the promises we make at Baptism: we promise that we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, as we respect the dignity of every human being. 

Let’s hear them out, without feeling a need to respond, a need to tell them what we think, a need to correct their version of events. If we want to build a relationship, ask a meaningful question and then listen carefully.  Pour ourselves into listening.

If we want to make this real, each of us might set a goal for ourselves. One conversation a day, or one conversation a week, or one conversation a month. However many you decide to do, make each conversation count. Maybe make each conversation at least 30 minutes. You can give up 30 minutes this month for your soul.

And, when we do this, we are indeed building community in a complicated world.  And we’re doing it in a way that follows Jesus. For you see, repentance is not ultimately about saying we’re sorry.  Repentance means turning around – or making a different choice. A first step in dismantling systemic racism happens when we get curious and finding out about the other.

St. Matthew’s, you are an amazing community. 

Imagine what a difference we could make in good old Evanston, if each of us took the time to have a truly meaningful conversation with someone racially different from ourselves between now and Christmas.