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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 1, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Revelation 21:1-6a and Psalm 8
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I’ve enjoyed some of the things that have been posted this past week on Facebook about New Year’s resolutions.

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I’d like to do a quick poll: How many of you make New Year’s resolutions? I don’t tend to. Why set myself up for failure?

I’ve done some reading about New Year’s resolutions and what makes them effective. One author[1] includes this advice:

  • Begin with the end in mind. In other words, know why you’re making the resolution. This is important advice for any planning. Know your why. In fact, this is such an important point, I want to share a video clip about it.

This author also suggests:

  • Make SMART resolutions: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Trackable.
  • Have a plan that is incremental. In other words, know what you need to do today to fulfill your resolution.
  • Celebrate you accomplishments along the way.
  • Limit your number of resolutions. This is needed to keep you focused. If you have too many resolutions, you can end up not knowing where to begin or which resolution should get your attention.
  • Share your resolutions with someone(s) to help build support in your efforts.
  • Let yourself adjust your resolutions to respond to changes in circumstances. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Life happens.”

It seems to me that this advice is as applicable to congregational strategic planning as it is to New Year’s resolutions. And I’d start with the same first piece of advice for congregational planning: know your why. Our congregation’s why, informally stated, is to share God’s love with everyone, no exceptions; to grow in our relationships with God; and to serve you neighbors near and far.

Stanley Hauerwas, American theologian, ethicist, and intellectual, put it more boldly: “We would like a church that again asserts that God, not nations, rules the world, that the boundaries of God’s kingdom transcend those of Caesar, and that the main political task of the church is the formation of people who see clearly the cost of discipleship and are willing to pay the price.”[2]

As we enter the new year, there are plenty of us in this congregation who are feeling anxious. The causes of the anxiety are varied. Some of us are facing medical concerns, or have family who are, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are facing job uncertainty or other economic challenges, and that leads to anxiety. Some of us are anxious because of what we have heard from politicians and their supporters over the past year that makes us worried about the future of freedom and equality in our country.

While I have a little medical issue that I’m dealing with as we enter the new year,[3] that’s not what is causing my anxiety. My anxiety comes from our national political situation. Based on the rhetoric I’ve heard coming from President-elect Trump during the campaign and since, and based on his Cabinet and advisor nominations, I am worried about what direction President Trump will lead our country. While I am not sure he is sure about what his political vision is, I fear what it could be or what it could become. Mr. Trump’s presidency could very easily be leading toward authoritarian rule.

The greatness to which he says he wants to lead America seems to be based on a scapegoating of minorities – racial, religious, immigrant, gender, and sexual orientation and identity. And the path to get there seems to be anti-science and anti-fact. The conclusion I’ve reached is that we cannot protect our nation from this vision with dialogue and fact-checking.[4] It will take action.

And I know that when I’m feeling anxious, it is hard for me to act.

So, I have two things I want to say about our anxieties, as much for me as for anyone else. First, I think what Bishop Steven Charleston said recently bare repeating: “[I] offer … the reassurance of a holy irony: what seems weak is strong, what seems lost will be found, what seems empty will overflow, what is broken will be mended. The peacemakers and the poor will overcome the warmongers and the greedy. Logic is on our side. Not the logic of power, but the logic of an endless grace. Do not fear, but believe. Faith turns anxiety upside down.”[5]

Second, if we let our faith turn our anxieties upside down, we will be empowered to act. Whether that action helps us fulfill our New Year’s resolutions or it helps us stand up for the vulnerable, our faith empowers action. This is important to me because “[m]oderate neutral theology will not help us during these times. Our faith and our ‘God’ either sides with the oppressed or with the oppressor. For Christians committed to justice, this is a time to tap into the radical and progressive strands of our tradition and vigorously oppose any justification or cooperation with [anything that even sniffs of] fascism.”[6]

I hope that we, as a church, will take action this year. Perhaps it will start with making a public witness by adopting a commitment like the one that St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral adopted in Seattle recently.[7] This isn’t the time or place to read their statement in its entirety, but I think we need to take similar bold and clear action. We need to proclaim clearly our rejection of White Nationalism, our determination to protect our neighbors from hate speech and attacks, our support of religious liberty, our commitment to end misogyny and sexual violence, and our determination to protect the environment as we work for climate justice.

And then, after adopting such a statement, I hope we will fulfill it with our hand and feet and voices.

Parker Palmer wrote a column about New Year’s resolutions last year,[8] but when he sat down to write his draft, he mistyped “resolutions.” His left hand didn’t type the first “s.” Instead, it typed a “v”.

If we take seriously the vision John of Patmos saw, then instead of New Year’s resolutions, maybe we should make New Year’s revolutions. With the plight of millions of refugees, the continued grief of mass killings, “the persistence of racism and the violence it fosters, the growing number of people living in or on the edge of poverty, the failures of our justice system, the downward spiral of a democracy en route to becoming an oligarchy, [and] the ongoing degradation of Earth itself,”[9] it will take a revolutionary approach to help build the new heaven and new earth that John of Patmos saw was God’s plan for creation. When faced with the principalities and powers of the Roman Empire, John proclaimed that a different way was possible – just as there is a different way for us, regardless of who the current Caesars turn out to be.

Palmer’s five revolutions cover much of the same ground as St. Mark’s statement. He calls for a revolution against our fear of “otherness,” and against those who manipulate this fear for their self-serving ends; a revolution against the state of denial in which most white American’s live about white privilege and white supremacy in our lives; a revolution against the nonstop attacks on our K-12 teachers and public education; a revolution against gun-related policies driven by the delusional mentality of policy-makers and power brokers; and a revolution against the fantasy that a few of us can live secure private lives while ignoring our complicity in conditions that put many other in mortal risk.

Three years ago, I decided to make some New Year’s resolutions. I had what I thought was a clever approach. I asked myself, what can I do in my life for sake of my environment and for the nourishment of my body, mind, and spirit. One resolution for each of these four parts of my life. For the environment, I resolved to start my laundry in the morning so I could use the line to dry my clothes. For my body, I resolved (with some specificity) shifts to my eating habits. For my mind, I resolved to keep up with reading The Christian Century as the magazine arrived.

I did not do so well with these three resolutions.

But I am still living with the resolution I made three years ago for my spirit: Be the “be this guy” guy. This is the “be this guy” guy.

And here he is in context.

Notice what he’s doing with his arms and what everyone else around him is doing with their arms.

He is believed to be August Landmesser. Born in 1910, he was a worker at shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, when a naval training vessel, the Horst Wessel was launched and this picture was taken. It was June 13, 1936. Though he had joined the Nazi party, he got into trouble with them because of his relationship with Irma Eckler, a Jewish Woman. Landmesser was later imprisoned, eventually drafted, and was killed in action. Eckler was sent to a concentration camp where she was presumably killed.[10]

I’ve decided to make only one resolution for this new year, and it’s really a renewal of that three-year old resolution: Be the “be this guy” guy. I know it’s not a SMART resolution. It’s not Specific, Measureable, or Trackable. It might not even be Attainable or Realistic. But it’s sure seems gospel-grounded and necessary for helping to create the new heaven and earth that John of Patmos saw. So it’s the right resolution – at least for me.

I hope you find a resolution that right for you, too. And as we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to think about your resolution for the coming year.

[1] Steve Poos-Benson, “Twelve Steps for New Years Resolutions,” Cowboy Jesus, http://stevescowboyjesus.blogspot.com/2016/12/twelve-steps-for-new-years-resolutions.html (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[2] Quoted by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass/posts/10154446201803500 (posted 28 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[3] On Wednesday, I did something to my back and it’s been hurting since.

[4] Daniel José Camacho, “Fascism can’t be stopped by fact-checking,” The Christian Century, https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/fascismfactchecking (posted 26 December 2016, accessed 30 December 2016).

[5] Stephen Charleston’s post from 29 December 2016, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1221986484552888 (accessed 30 December 2016).

[6] Camacho, op. cit.

[7] “Renewing Our Covenant: A Statement of Commitment and Action, St. Mark’s Cathedral Parish,” Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, http://www.saintmarks.org/serve/volunteer/governance/renewing-our-covenant/ (adopted 20 December 2016; accessed 30 December 2016).

[8] Parker J. Palmer, “My Five New Year’s Revolutions,” On Being, http://www.onbeing.org/blog/parker-palmer-my-five-new-years-revolutions/8290 (posted 30 December 2015; accessed 30 December 2016).

[9] Ibid.

[10] “August Landmesser,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Landmesser (accessed 30 December 2016).

I’ve decided to wear a safety pin.

By now, you’ve probably heard about a simple act that many are taking to show others that they are safe: wearing a safety pin. I’m not sure if it started in Australia or was inspired by the #illridewithyou movement in Australia. In any event, it took root in Great Britain after the Brexit vote. People wore empty safety pins after the vote by the UK to leave the European Union to let people who might be targeted with harassment after the vote (especially immigrants) know that the person wearing the pin was safe, was an ally, would stand with the vulnerable person to support them.

After the election of Donald Trump (I’m assuming the Electoral College will actually elect him on December 19), many people – especially women, minorities, immigrants, and members of the lgbt community – felt vulnerable. Not surprising, since the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted as significant spike in acts of “hateful harassment and intimidation” since the election. People who walk through life with privilege (men, whites, etc.) are recognizing that they can leverage this privilege to help create safe space for vulnerable people. The safety pin is a sign of this. I should quickly add that people with less privilege than me are also wearing safety pins.

I was initially jazzed by the idea of wearing the pin. And then I started to read articles and blogs offering some push-back (for instance, this piece written by a white male). As my friend and colleague Sandhya Jha said in a Facebook post, “I have a mild concern that people are drawn to these safety pins as a form of absolution: ‘I’m ok. I’m not THAT kind of white person. I am not to blame.’ I also have a mild concern that it is less about learning the skills to put one’s body on the line for another (and there are skills to practice) than about getting credit for being a good white person for publicly announcing one’s ally status. As my LGBTQ+ activist friends helpfully remind me, I don’t get a cookie for being an ally. That’s just being a decent human being, and that doesn’t warrant brownie points.”

And Sandhya is absolutely right about there being skills to practice. As another blog post point out, those of us who wear the pin need to know what the pin means, know how much risk we’re willing to take, learn how to de-escalate volatile situations, know what you’ll do if de-escalation doesn’t work or if the situation gets violent, and practice. I recommend you read this blog post if, like me, you’re plan to wear a safety pin.

I’ll wear my pin for me as well as for people who I might meet along the way. I’ll wear my pin to remind me of the commitment I make to be a person who will help if needed (and wanted). And, as Sandhya concluded in her post:  “[The safety pin] can become a symbol of accountability, that white people see it and acknowledge to each other, ‘we have a lot of work to do to unify our people around a different vision. We have a lot of work to do to protect other people from our people. We have a lot of work to do to create a different way of being white. Let’s make sure to hold each other to that.'”

We lived in the same town, but we lived in two worlds.

A high school classmate* recently posted on his Facebook page an experience he had as a young teen in our home town. A Lexington police officer cornered my friend with his (the cop’s) cruiser in the high school parking lot and told my friend, “Nigger boys like you go missing all the time. You should never go near my daughter.”

I had no idea that a police officer in my town would ever use that kind of language.  I had not idea that a police officer would be so contemptuous toward one of my classmates. When I reacted to my friend’s post with horror and surprise, my friend shook it off—of course cops in Lexington, Massachusetts, in the 1970s would say something like this.

Let’s be clear: This cop threaten the life of the kid, a 14-year-old, and my friend is practically casual about it.

We lived in the same town, but we lived in two worlds. I think we still do.

*Just in case it’s not clear to you, my classmate is African-American.

My friend Lewis Day posted the following on his Facebook page on 26 May 2016. I think it is worthy of reposting. (I have corrected a few typos.)

Someone in a conversation I was following [on Facebook] posited that whites in the US are subject to “reversed racism.” It caused me to think about how to address the claimant.

There is no such thing as revers(ed) racism; there is only racism. Anyone can be racist, certainly, but the effects differ depending on the social and political structures in play.
In America and the west, the dominant cultures in part define the Other via observable racial (for want of a better term) characteristics. It’s true across the West, white racism is a social phenomenon, with the state colluding to greater and lesser degrees. Americans do it, Britons do it, Scandinavians do it, the Swiss, Australians, and Spanish do it. Governments enforce a racist hegemony in alliance with other social institutions, often at the same time as they push measures which combat overt racist acts. The cognitive dissonance is staggering, nowhere more so than in the US.

Racism in America flourishes even as we become a more diverse (in all ways) population, and even as many segments of the population combat it. The struggle is a long one, and chirrupy statements such as ‪#‎alllivesmatter‬ foster continued division by attempting to deny the particularity of American institutionalized racism. The election of Barack Obama did not signal the dawn of a post-racial America, and the reaction of congressional Republicans and their voters provide exquisite proof of this.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 14, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:1-16
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I’m sure you’ve all been there, in a gathering of some sort – a meeting, a class, a club – and the leader asks you to go around the room and introduce yourselves.  Sometimes the leader will ask for some specific information:  “Tell us your name, your favorite color, and your shoe size.”  “Tell us why you joined the club and what you hope to accomplish here.”

Sometimes the invitation to introduce yourself is very open ended.  “Let’s go around the room and tell us something about yourself.”  What would you say?  What would you say to introduce yourself to a group who didn’t know you or knew you only a little bit?

We were invited to do the second sort of introduction, the open ended introduction, in my Introduction to Pastoral Counseling class way back when I was in seminary.  We went around and introduced ourselves.  Then the professor reflected on what we said.  She noted that about two-thirds of the students included in their introductions something about themselves in terms of their relationships (I’m a mother of two) and about one-third introduced themselves in terms of what they did (I was a history major in undergraduate and I’m currently doing my field work at First United Methodist Church).

My professor’s point was that our sense of identity is an important factor of who we are and how we are in the world.  Then she noted that men and women typically have a different sense of identity (at least in the United States – and I’m not sure if they holds up across racial and ethnic groups).  The two-thirds of the students who introduced themselves relationally were the women in the classroom; the one-third who introduced themselves in terms of “what they do” were men.  I don’t remember if we talked about that difference coming from biology, psychology, or enculturation, (or a combination of the three), but I do remember how stark the difference was.

And since then, I’ve reflected on how true it is that our sense of identity impacts, maybe even dictates, who we are and how we are in the world.

We are now four days into the forty days of Lent (Sunday’s don’t count, so Wednesday to Saturday is four days).  The forty days of Lent are traditionally connected to Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert when he wrestled with temptation.  There’s mention of this in Mark’s gospel and the story is much more detailed in Matthew and Luke.  Jesus is tempted with turning stones into bread to easy his hunger, with political power, and with testing God’s trustworthiness.

I think that to understand these temptations, one needs to think about what happens right before.  Right before Jesus sojourns in the wilderness, he goes to the Jordan River and is baptized by John.  As he comes out of the water, he hears God say that he is God’s child, God’s beloved.

I think the temptation is Jesus wrestling with what it means to be God’s child, God’s beloved.  He’s wrestling with his identity.  The temptations he faces are all about his relationship with God and who he is in that relationship.  So, it seems appropriate to being Lent by thinking about identity.

mount-of-beatitudes-and-sea-of-galilee-tbs75369303-bibleplacesWe’re going to spend Lent looking at the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon on the Mount takes up three chapters in Matthew’s gospel and is the core of Jesus’ teaching, at least as Matthew presents it.  Let’s start by putting ourselves there.  “Imagine yourself in Galilee, on a windswept hillside near a little fishing town called Capernaum.  Flocks of birds circle and land.  Wildflowers bloom among the grasses between rock outcroppings.  The Sea of Galilee glistens blue below us, reflecting the clear midday sky above.

“A small group of disciples circles around a … man who appears to be about thirty.  He is sitting, as rabbis in this time and culture normally do.  Huge crowds extend beyond the inner circle of disciples, in a sense eavesdropping on what he is teaching them.  This is the day they’ve been waiting for.  This is the day Jesus is going to pass on to them the heart of his message.”[1]

Jesus begins.  He begins with the lesson we heard today.  But what a strange beginning.  Jesus begins by offering a benediction.  Jesus begins by offering a blessing.  In a sense, he’s beginning with his conclusion.  And his conclusion is so contrary to conventional wisdom.  Conventional wisdom really hasn’t changed all that much.

Conventional wisdom said then and still says:
“Do everything you can to be rich and powerful.
Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss.
Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness.
Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.
Strike back when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.”[2]

That’s not where Jesus is going and not where he’s inviting us.
The poor and those who are in solidarity with them – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who mourn, who feel grief and loss – they are the ones who are blessed.
The nonviolent and gentle – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who hunger and thirst for the common good and aren’t satisfied with the status quo – they are the ones who are blessed.
The merciful and compassionate – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those characterized by openness, sincerity, and integrity – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who work for peace and reconciliation – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who keep seeking justice even when they’re misunderstood and misjudged – they are the ones who are blessed.
Those who stand for justice as the prophets did, who refuse to back down or quiet down when they are slandered, mocked, misrepresented, threatened, and harmed – they are the ones who are blessed.

In just two or three minutes, Jesus has flipped things over.  Jesus has identified a new kind of hero.  “Not warriors, corporate executives, or politicians, but brave and determined activists for preemptive peace, willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice.”[3]

Jesus begins with the benediction.  “If we want to be his disciples, we won’t be able to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society.  We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.”[4]

And there it is:  If we want to be Jesus’ disciples, we must choose a new identity with a new set of values.

Jesus goes on to say that this new identity “will give us a very important role in the world.  As creative nonconformists, we will be difference makers, aliveness activists, catalysts for change.  Like salt that brings out the best flavors in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society.  Also like salt, we will have a preservative function – opposing corruption and decay.  Like light that penetrates and eradicates darkness, we will radiate health, goodness, and well-being to warm and enlighten those around us.  Simply by being who we are – living boldly and freely in this new identity as salt and light – we will make a difference, as long as we don’t lose our ‘saltiness’ or try to hide our light.”[5]

For years, part of my identity has been “justice seeker.”  I’ve seen myself as someone who works for peace and justice.  Be it working against wars or be it working against domestic violence, I’ve seen myself as someone who works for peace.  Be it working for sentencing reform and immigration policy reform or be it working with individual juvenile delinquents, I’ve seen myself as someone who works for justice.  Part of that identity has included seeing myself as someone working to end racism.

Well, I spent my days off last week at an anti-racism training and my eyes were opened.  I may be working toward being a non-racist, but I’m a long way from being an anti-racist.  The difference between the two deserves a sermon of its own, so this is an over simplification.  Non-racism works to overcome individual racial prejudice; anti-racism works of transform systems that have racism baked into them from their formation.

This cartoon may explain more simply than I can what I mean by having the racism baked into the system.[6]

a-concise-history-of-black-white-relations-in-the-united-states

Racism has three powers.  It has the power over people of color – which we see, for instance, in the legal system and the banking system.  It has the power for white people – which is typically invisible to the people who benefit from it.

And it has the power to take from us our identity as children of God.  For people of color, this is when racism gets (consciously or unconsciously) internalized.  For white people, this is when racial superiority gets (consciously or unconsciously) internalized.

It is this third power of racism, the power to take from us our identity as children of God, that makes me wonder if I’m really salty enough.  If I’m really going to take on this identity as a disciple of Jesus, if I’m really going to conform my life to the values of the beatitudes, I need to become anti-racist.  I need to recognize the power of racism within me and within the institutions and systems around me (including this one right here).  And then I need to work to transform that power.  You see, if I really accept this new identity that Jesus offers, everything changes for me.

So here’s the invitation.  In this time of quiet, imagine darkness and into that darkness imagine light coming – from a candle, a sunrise, a moonrise, a fire, a flashlight.
Hold these questions open before God:
Which is more fragile and which is more powerful, light or darkness?
How can my life become like light?

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 127.
[2] Ibid, 127-128.
[3] Ibid, 128.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, 129.
[6] “A Concise History of Black-White Relations in the U.S.A.” copied from http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/10/history-of-black-white-relations on 13 February 2016.

A sermon[1] preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a noisy week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my hometown.  Thanksgiving is usually a quiet day, and in the days preceding, if one really wants noise, one needs to go to a grocery store.  But this Thanksgiving was noisy, mostly with the sounds of snowplows and chain saws and Public Service line trucks beeping as they backed up in the great challenge of restoring power to most of the town.

Over a foot of wet snow fell on Wednesday, bringing down tree limbs and power lines.  Most of Mount William was in the dark all of Wednesday night and well into Thursday.  Anna and Bruce Renee had planned to do Thanksgiving dinner at their home, but with no power for the oven, cooking was a bit of a challenge, so they carted the turkey and fixings and their three teenage kids to Anna’s parents’ apartment in the retirement community that they moved into nine years ago.  It was the first time the smells of roasting turkey filled the small apartment, a smell Sylvia Spengler, Anna’s mom, had missed for all of those nine years.

Feeling like she was coming to the rescue filled Sylvia with a giddiness that continued right up until the moment she looked into the little galley kitchen in her apartment and saw what cleanup would entail.  Suddenly she remembered one of the reasons she and Bill had moved into the retirement community.

The Renees were not the only family that had to make emergency Thanksgiving dinner plans.  While few Thanksgiving gatherings went off as they had been planned weeks earlier, just about everyone thinks it was a great Thanksgiving.  There’s something about a manageable crisis to draw people together, and that’s really what most families want on Thanksgiving: to draw their loved ones together.  Well, that and some really yummy food.

It wasn’t a quiet week for Howard Friend, the minister at the Mount William Congregational Church, either.  His disquiet was more internal than external.  He had had some vacation in August and he decided to do something quite out of character for him.  He decided to go to Ferguson, Missouri.  There were so many conflicting stories about the death of Michael Brown – accusations and counter accusations.  And there was so much anger.  And there was so much violence – both the attention getting rioting of a small contingent of the protestors (interesting how the New England news media ignored the peaceful protests) and the militarized police response.  And underneath it all was the putrid stench of racism.  He needed to bear witness to the need for an open and fair examination of the facts of this case.  He needed to challenge the power of racism in our culture.  And he needed to confront his own complicity in the racism that permeates our society.  So he used some of his previously-schedule vacation and went to Ferguson.

His summer experiences came flooding back when the announcement was made that the Grand Jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.  All week long, the news continued and Rev. Friend found himself processing it.  He wondered how he would react if his church building were to be burned to the ground the way the Brown family’s church was this week.  Far from the centers of violence, one can’t help but wonder who is really responsible for this arson.[2]  Earlier in the week, he had read something that challenged his attitude toward Darren Wilson.  He had forgotten the emotional and spiritual cost Darren Wilson was paying, not because of the scrutiny his actions on August 9th were garnering, but because he had shot and killed another human being.  What moral injury was he suffering?  Rev. Friend found a surprising compassion growing inside him.

While several of his colleagues read – devoured – the various documents and reports from and about the grand jury,[3] Rev. Friend couldn’t go there.  He didn’t want to second guess the grand jury’s decision.  He didn’t want to get into the finger pointing and the blame game that seemed to surround him.  Instead, he needed to reflect on and process his memories of his days in Ferguson.

He remembered walking with a group of clergy, singing, “We Shall Overcome.”  As they finished the verse, “We are not afraid,” he realized it was a lie.  He was afraid.

He knew that this group would encounter the police at some point in the evening, but nothing prepared him for the sheer number of police officers.  The clergy had gathered at dinnertime in the parking lot of a grocery store miles from the protest site.  Nonetheless, by the time there were four clergy gathered, there were four squad cars in the parking lot and they were told to leave.

They drove to a high school, parked their cars, and began walking to the county prosecutor’s office to present a letter with their demands, including an expedited grand jury process run by someone other than county prosecutor Bob McCullough.  Although they were far from the site of Michael Brown’s death, the route was guarded by scores of heavily armed officers.  Squad cars drove slowly beside them, and there were SWAT teams and barricades.

They were not being guarded in the sense of being protected.  They were being guarded against, as if this group of clergy were an extreme threat.  A skinny white man from New Hampshire, Rev. Friend had never experienced being policed in his way.  It was unnerving.  Could a couple hundred clergy walking together really pose such a threat?

When they got to the country prosecutor’s office, the prayed together and delivered their list of demands.  It was a single sheet of paper, wilted in the humid heat, but the officer acted as if it might explode and hesitated to even take hold of it.

Earlier, they had gathered in a church that was a sort of home base for the protesters.  One folding table held a jumble of first-aid supplies.  The other held makeshift gear:  bottles of water, spray bottles with solution for washing tear gas out of eyes, paper masks, and swim goggles for eye protection.

The leaders were a group of twenty-somethings thoughtfully engaging in the disciples of nonviolent protest.  They wanted this group of clergy to know what they would encounter on the march.  There were important rules to learn:  no sudden movements; if you carry a water bottle, hold it high so the police officers can see what it is; if you take tear gas equipment (a mask or goggles), don’t let it be seen until it is needed, or you will be targeted.  This group of twenty-somethings were being so protective of these middle-aged newbies.  One of the twenty-somethings asked a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Friend was pretty sure her name was Shannon, if she had a group to walk with; he didn’t want her to go out alone.  They didn’t want any of them going out alone.

And then – it seemed so strange to Rev. Friend at the time – this group of young protesters prepared to face hundreds of heavily armed officers by reciting poetry.  “These leaders are the fiercest hope I have ever seen,” Rev. Friend thought.  He was amazed by it, humbled by it.  And he found himself feeling very protective of these young men and women who embodied it.

The clergy were divided into teams with a trained organizer for each team.  They memorized each other’s names, agreed to be responsible for one another, and wrote an emergency phone number on their skin in purple Sharpie.  The captain of Rev. Friend’s team asked them what level of danger and violence the were willing to face.  “Will you leave when the tear gas starts?” he asked the group.

“Why would we willingly walk into tear gas?” Shannon, the Presbyterian minister asked.

“To get the young people out,” he responded.  “They will keep going, so some of us go back in to pull them out.”

Rev. Friend tried to get his mind wrapped around the response.  He didn’t think he could stay if the tear gas started.  His noble motives aside, this was getting scary and this was the first time he had ever done anything like this.

When they reached the protest area, the street was closed to traffic and the parking lots were filled with media people and hundreds of police officers.  They were allowed to protest as long as they stayed on the sidewalk, kept moving, and did nothing that could be interpreted as aggression.  At one point a kindly police officer gave them a minute before asking them to move along.  “If I make an exception for you,” he said, “I have to make an exception for everybody.”  The clear implication was that he would let them stop if he could.  Rev. Friend was torn between enjoying this favor and realizing that it was this very distinction that he was there to protest.  Did the group seem harmless because of their clergy collars or because some of them were white?

As the night wore on, Rev. Friend’s fear deepened.  Every night so far, the police had responded with tear gas, or flash grenades, or rubber bullets.  “What will it be tonight?” he wondered.  They passed one person who appeared to be intoxicated and another who appeared to living with a metal illness.  All the marchers he could see were peaceful, but it was clear to him that it would only take one wrong move to set off the officers.

At one point, as the night wore on, a young black man came by and asked, “Are you a group?  Can I walk with you?”  This was the moment, as Rev. Friend recalled, where it all came into focus.  He wanted to tell this young black man, “No.”  He didn’t want this young black man with his red t-shirt pulled up over his head, effectively masking him, to walk with him and his fellow clergy.  Perhaps the shirt thing – he’d seen other protesters doing it – was makeshift protection against the tear gas, but Rev. Friend didn’t want this young man to march next to him because he feared his presence might spark a violence response.

Then the young man turned and Rev. Friend saw on his torso a phone number scrawled in purple Sharpie.  He was one of the young people from the church, one of the young leaders that Rev. Friend had been so eager to protect.  He had gone from hoping that his clergy collar would protect this young man to not wanting him near because he didn’t want the protection of his clergy collar and white skin and graying hair to be disrupted by his presence.  Hope in the church had turned to fear on the street so quickly.

Hope is always frightening.  It opens us to disappointment.  Hope is frightening in another way for those of us who are privileged in the current state of affairs.  “I want a better world,” Rev. Friend thought as he remembered his days in Ferguson, “but I am afraid to give up the security I have in this one.  Hope threatens me, even in its abundant promise.  I guess for me, part of the challenge is not to fear hope itself.”

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] This sermon is based (often quoting directly or changing the quote from first person to third person) almost entirely on a reflection by Shannon Craigo-Snell, titled, “Fear and Hope in Ferguson: Marching into danger,” published in the 1 October 2014 edition of Christian Century (pages 10-11).

[2] Wesley Lowry, “The Brown family’s pastor tries to make sense of the fire that gutted his church,” The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-brown-familys-pastor-tries-to-make-sense-of-fire-that-gutted-his-church/2014/11/28/15520f3e-7711-11e4-a755-e32227229e7b_story.html (posted 28 November 2014; accessed 29 November 2014).

[3] If you’re interested in reading some of the documents, you might want to check out http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/11/25/366507379/ferguson-docs-how-the-grand-jury-reached-a-decision.

I’ve long understood that climate change was a justice issue.  As Bill McKibben reminded us at today’s Moving Planet event in San Francisco, the humans who created the global warming (and therefore climate change) problem are not the first to face the consequences.  The people in the so-called “first world” nations are the major contributors of the extra carbon in our atmosphere, but it is people in the so-called “third-world” nations who are the first to face the consequences of the changing climates.

The people of Bangladesh and Pakistan are already experiencing the consequences of climate change, but they didn’t cause the problem.  Where’s the justice in that?  It isn’t justice when one group pays the price of another group’s actions.

Well, another speaker at the Moving Planet event, Carl Anthony, made another justice connection that is new to me – one internal to the history of the United States.  Consider this sequence of events:

In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that public schools needed to be integrated, and school integration began.[i]

In 1956, the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act was adopted,[ii] highways were built, and people started fleeing the urban downtown for the suburban sprawl.  We know who the people were who fled for the suburbs:  white people.

With suburban sprawl, made possible by the development of highways, came a huge uptick of the burning of fossil fuels and a huge uptick of carbon from millions of years ago being released into the atmosphere.

The racism that caused white people to leave the urban core for the suburban sprawl led to an increase of climate change gases in the atmosphere.

This historical revelation (for me, at least) leads me to ask, is racism one of the things that are keeping us from making the cultural changes that we need to make if we’re going to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels?

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