This service was transmitted from the St. Francis Altar via Zoom. As soon as that is available for downloading it will be posted.
Meanwhile you may read Fr. Brent’s Sermon here.
Year A, Pentecost
May 31, 2020
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
My friends in Christ. I had a sermon by our Bishop on tap this morning. It is a fine sermon, actually a conversation with a theologian here in Maine, the Rev. Dr. Diedre Goode, but a lot has happened in the few days since it was written. We observe this Feast of the Pentecost, a great and glorious day of the church, in a dark hour in the history of this nation. We need to address head on what is going on, if briefly.
If you missed the news, riots happened in dozens of cities over the past few nights. Curfews are in effect in at least 16 states. The National Guard has been called up, it is fully mobilized in Minnesota, the epicenter of this uprising. And it is an uprising. We need to call it that, because the people who are doing it are calling it that. Just like in LA after Rodney King was beaten on camera by members of the Los Angeles Police Department. Most of us know it as the LA riots, but those there still call it the LA uprising. That might sound inflammatory, but it is not, it is uncomfortable… all of this is uncomfortable. I know talking “politics” at church makes some uncomfortable, but remember, most of what Jesus said is about politics and economics, how we relate to each other (politics) and how we relate to material things (economics) across His society. We are an incarnational church, the world matters, how we relate to the world, matters. And if it matters, then we as a church need to address it. That is that. And this is uncomfortable: considering race; considering racial implications about how we organized ourselves and organize our country, very uncomfortable. And for some of us, especially our neighbors of color, the situation in our nation is orders of magnitude more than uncomfortable: it is a matter of life and death. We need to deal with our discomfort.
I have no doubt that we are a sympathetic group, a congregation of Christians dedicated to loving our neighbors as Jesus Christ taught us to. The work of this congregation, the spirit of this place demonstrates this. And we are also overwhelming white. We are also overwhelmingly people of material and cultural privilege. That is not a judgment, it is a fact. And this fact can make it harder for us to understand what is going on, harder for us to make meaning of the words and actions of people with experiences of the world so foreign to us.
The COVID 19 pandemic is exposing fault-lines in our society in ways that we can no longer ignore. Race, disparities of wealth, unequal access to healthcare, unemployment, poverty, bigotry, misogyny, the breakdown of community, crumbling infrastructure, doubt in traditional sources of authority such as empirical science, the government and the Church, lack of individual and collective responsibility taking. Put the pandemic on top of all of that and we are in what seems to amount to a fission reactor: collisions happened in a neighborhood in Georgia, a home in Louisville, a wooded corner of Central Park, then on a street in Minneapolis and a chain reaction began.
I have less wisdom than questions today. Questions, like “What is going to happen?” “What does this all mean?” “What does a group of people like us, who live where we do, that has such amazing resources and such overwhelming good will, do in this moment?” That is my big question and I don’t have an answer, but I do have a starting point. We must repent. That means, we must change the direction of our lives, all of us. People of privilege , like, like most of us here, benefit from the system that is causing this violence to spread. We need to change that; change the system, yes, but closer to home, change how we benefit, or take advantage of the benefits, our unearned privilege gives us.
How? That is not for me to proscribe, it is for us to discern. And what a moment! This crisis is showing our fracture points in our society, but it is also showing our strength. We, this massive freight-train of a nation turned on a dime to react to this Virus. We moved further and faster to make changes than we could have imagined, and likely saved unknown thousands of lives by doing so. It isn’t over, not by a long shot, but we can come together. Right now is proving that. That is, if we don’t tear ourselves apart.
So I don’t know what we can do, but I know something that we must stop doing, we must repent of, and that is judging. Judging the actions of others whom we cannot understand, whose experience of life is in some important ways categorically different than ours. This is our starting point: to clear our minds of judgement; to try to see the world as it actually is, not how we think, or are being led to think it is. None of us here have seen looting and shooting these past days, smelled tear gas, been rammed by police cars. It is all filtered through media, an whether we agree with the bias of our chosen media outlet or not, it is all filtered through someone’s editorial eye.
So our task for today is to clear our minds of presuppositions and bias, as it is presuppositions and bias that got us here to begin with.
The violence in the streets is the glaring issue, and opinions about riots threaten to overshadow the violence perpetrated by law enforcement officers that began the unrest to begin with. Now this is dicey stuff, preaching on civil unrest in a time of civil unrest, so I will defer to one with greater moral authority than me. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a paper at the American Psychology Association’s annual convention in Washington, D.C, on Sept. 1, 1967. It is entitled “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement.” It is a long quote, but I know it helped me answer some nagging questions posed by myself and others.
“Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena. They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking. But most of all, alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights. There are thus elements of emotional catharsis in the violent act. This may explain why most cities in which riots have occurred have not had a repetition, even though the causative conditions remain. It is also noteworthy that the amount of physical harm done to white people other than police is infinitesimal and in Detroit whites and Negroes looted in unity.
“A profound judgment of today’s riots was expressed by Victor Hugo a century ago. He said, ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’
“The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness; they create discrimination; they structured slums; and they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.”
We have to suspend judgement, to acknowledge that our knowledge of the world is conditioned by our experience of the world. O! to see the world through the eyes of another!
And then I want to pass on a quote from our Presiding Bishop, The Most Reverend Michael Curry. He writes,
“This crisis reflects deep sores and deep wounds that have been here all along. In the midst of COVID-19 and the pressure cooker of a society in turmoil, a man was brutally killed. The basic human right to life was taken away. His basic human dignity was stripped by someone charged to protect our common humanity. And perhaps the deeper pain of this is the fact that it’s not an isolated incident. The pain of this is that it’s a deep part of our life. It’s not just our history. It is American society today.
“We are not, however, slaves to our fate … unless we choose to do nothing.”
We had a lot to think about with this plague, now the brokenness of our nation is making itself known in ways that we may not ignore. We can, we certainly have ignored it for a long time, but now we have no excuse, truly.
Please pray. This is a moment of existential humility, try to clear your heart and mind and gut of what you think you know. Please explore the depths of your heart. You know what is right, that is a gift from God, knowing right from wrong. What do you have to give? What are you called to give up? How can you, can we, people of good will and power and means make a difference in this world?
“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” AMEN