by the Rev. Robert C. Laird
It feels like we’ve been bombarded this week by stories of the walls that we put up between each other.
Horrifying scenes have unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed African American boy preparing to start college to days later.
Racial tensions have flared in the predominantly black community with overwhelmingly white police force and government,
and the police response, which has featured military tactics and equipment, has fanned the flames, rather than extinguishing them.
Peaceful, unarmed protesters found themselves looking down the barrel of assault rifles, in a display that looked more like a war zone
than an American suburb.
In what some commentators have noted is the first time since the Civil Rights era, the thing that people have been protesting, the response and responsibility of the police, has been on display in the reaction to the protest: we see the thing being protested
responding to the protests, and it looks truly awful.
Indeed, one of the most pointed criticisms focused at the Ferguson police has been that they have so separated themselves
from the people they are charged with protecting, by riding around in tanks, and hiding behind battle armor, instead of listening to the People; the Police have appeared to be trying to shift the blame instead of accepting responsibility, and the community, and the country,
have both been outraged.
The statistic I saw most recently was that a black man is killed by the police every 28 hours in the USA.
Every 28 hours.
And having some indirect experience with the juvenile justice system in New York City, I can say with out a doubt that the dominant culture in the US sees young black boys, some as young as 12, not as boys, but as adults, and criminals, even before they do anything.
A group of young white teens on the subway gets a very different reaction than a group of black teens does; Americans see black people,
especially black boys and men, as threats, and we treat them accordingly.
This is a heavy and charged topic for a sermon, to be sure and one that makes the preacher as uncomfortable as the congregation,
I can assure you.
But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is addressed to his fellow clergy, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
And the injustice of the last week only echoes the injustice of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, killed in Florida with only some Skittles in his pockets;
of Eric Garner, killed by police in Staten Island for selling loose cigarettes;
of Jordan Davis, killed in a parking lot for having his radio too loud.
These boys and men are in a sad fraternity of unarmed men who were killed unjustly, because someone was afraid of them, or because of police aggression that would never have happened to a white person.
The sad truth of the matter is that the world in which we live now is so similar in so many ways to the world that Jesus lived in,
and the world he was trying to change, which we see in today’s Gospel.
It’s a bummer that we didn’t read all of Chapter 15 today; Jesus has just told off the Scribes and Pharisees that came to see him for being so calcified in their strict observance that they have missed the whole point of faith; it’s what leads to the first chunk of the Gospel
that we heard this morning: eating without washing your hands doesn’t defile you; being an awful person defiles you; no matter how pure the things you eat are, if you’re rotten on the inside, you’ll never be clean.
Jesus is laying down a huge marker, saying that the ways that people, especially the religious leaders, like the ones that had confronted him, the way they had observed the letter of the law managed to miss out entirely on the spirit of the law; it’s really not about washing your hands, but about how you treat other people.
It’s really about love:
do you love the people around you,
by showing them respect,
by living the commandments,
by treating them as you’d want them to treat you,
or do you lie, or cheat, or steal,
or commit any of the other heinous acts he mentions?
Do you love your neighbor as yourself, or do you take advantage of them, and treat them as less than human?
And in a moment of amazing turnabout,
Jesus gets the opportunity to show what this looks like.
A Canaanite woman, whose daughter is possessed by a demon,
shouts for Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”
And following the custom of the day, Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge her; after all, she’s not Jewish; and she shouldn’t even be talking to him, let alone asking for him to heal her daughter.
But the Canaanite woman persists, calling Jesus “Son of David,” acknowledging that he is Jewish, and not of her people and yet still asking Jesus for help.
And then, in what may be the most shocking thing that Jesus ever says in the Gospels,
he brushes her off, and calls her a dog,
which would have resonated the exact same way then that it does now.
But even in the face of that insult, she abides, and asks again:
“even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
this Canaanite woman believes, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that Jesus will help her, because God’s love is big enough even for a Canaanite, even for a women who shouldn’t be so audacious as to speak to a man like Jesus, even though he’s even called her a dog; she still believes that God’s love is big enough for even her and her daughter.
And Jesus sees that faith, and he backs down in the face of it; the faith of this woman is so great that even Jesus Christ himself can’t ignore it.
The Kingdom of God, which this Canaanite woman sees so clearly, and which Paul names in his letter to the Romans, and which Isaiah says will bring all people together, this Kingdom of God is based in love,
love which never ends,
love which is big enough for everyone,
the Jews and the Canaanites,
and everyone who thinks they are separated from
or better than someone else,
Jew and Greek,
slave and free,
Union and Confederate,
Red and Blue,
Montagues and Capulets,
Hatfields and McCoys,
black and white:
God’s love is big enough for all of them.
And it was the Canaanite woman who knew it,
and believed it,
and said it,
(at least not at first).
The Kingdom of God is big enough for everyone, and God wants us to make that kingdom a reality here, make that kingdom known now, not later, proclaiming God’s love for everyone, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, not matter if you have great faith
or great emptiness waiting to be filled; God is there, and God is ready.
And then see another young boy die in the street, and the Kingdom seems further away than ever.
Another black person dies an unjust death, and we have to grieve instead of celebrate, and God grieves with us, instead of celebrating with us.
And it’s really uncomfortable to see the images, and to be confronted with the reality, and to have to admit that, like Dr. King said in 1963, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
And as the prophet Micah told us: he has told us what is good,
“and what the Lord requires of [us]
is to do justice, to embrace faithful love,
and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8, CEB)
There are so many parts of this week’s saga that are heartbreaking and awful: the way African American people are treated, especially black men and boys; the overly aggressive response by police to peaceful protests; the overwhelming number of black boys that never grow to see adulthood, because the dominant culture brands them as criminal threats, and kills them.
This is not the Kingdom of God.
God deserves better,
and so do our black fathers, and brothers, and sons,
and so do all of us.
And until the members of the dominant culture,
until white folks like us, gathered here today,
march and protest alongside our African American sisters and brothers,
until we all demand better,
because God demands better,
nothing is going to change.
And the amazing thing is that it’s so easy for us to make our voices heard: a handwritten letter to your elected leaders
goes a long way to swaying them; imagine if we all wrote, and made our voices heard.
God’s reign would be that much closer, God’s love felt that much deeper.
It’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re powerless; but that couldn’t be farther from the truth: we have the love of God on our side,
and Christ’s triumph over death and the grave to sustain us; we have everything we need, and have only to begin to make God’s reign known on earth.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Perhaps its time to make our voices heard, so that Kingdom of God comes near.