Sunday, December 14, 2014

"Coming Home" -- Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows' sermon on Advent 3, 2015

The Rev. Jennifer-Baskerville Burrows is the
Director of Networking for the Diocese of Chicago
I'm giving you a break from my writing to post an incredible sermon preached by my friend and colleague, the Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows. 

There has been some amazing preaching going on in the Episcopal Church these past several weeks ... and this sermon is right at the top. When Jennifer told me she didn't have a way to post it, I jumped at the chance to share it with others. Thanks for this gift, Jennifer.

And ... Jennifer will be preaching at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, March 1, 2015. 

Sermon preached at St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago
14 December 2014
Advent 3B
The Rev. Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows

As we continue to process the events of the day--the continued protests over the killing of black men at the hand of police and generally lament the poverty, disease, mudslides, and other disasters these days, this Advent, seem darker than usual. And I don’t think it’s my mood. Advent is supposed to be dark—this period when we intentionally look forward to the second coming of Christ with all of the upheaval that comes with it. But this is a bit much.

We are given scriptural texts specifically chosen for this third Sunday of Advent and though there are nice words in here—rejoice! freedom! Oil of gladness! I find no comfort. Let’s take a look at this passage from Isaiah.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me to preach good news. At first blush, Isaiah sounds remarkably comforting to us—and we so want to be comforted--all of us. Isaiah’s message told by the unnamed prophet is “to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion…”

After years spent in exile, after a period of being called back home, after confronting the monumental task of rebuilding a broken and dispersed community of people called Israel, all of the promises that come before in the 60 previous chapters of Isaiah—promises written over many, many years by different prophets—these promises are still being made. The people still mourn and grieve because there had been no glorious kingdom of God established after the exile as they anticipated. They still needed comfort. And we live now, in a world into which Jesus has already come once—this Jesus who preached on these texts in his first sermon in the Temple and declared that all of these promises were being fulfilled as the listeners heard him. We hear these words in the light of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island, the second anniversary of the massacre of the innocents in Newtown, CT and I’m clear, are you not, that not only do we still want to be comforted--we are still in exile. We have not yet found our way back. The superhighway that Isaiah spoke about in last Sunday’s passage is like the Eisenhower at the evening rush—going nowhere fast. We want to cry freedom, we want an end to the mass incarceration of young black and latino men, we want the year of jubilee—the year of the Lord’s favor—and we want comfort for those very many who are in mourning.

Being comforted and being comfortable are different things. Advent time—this time we are in—is not about being comfortable. Advent is about waiting for Christ’s return, it is about waiting for the consummation of all things when all people, all of creation will be reconciled to each other and to God. Advent is about finding our way back—home. It is about loving a God who made a home, here among humanity, in the person of Jesus. So when I’m asked, what “can we do” in the wake of Ferguson and the rest; what can we do, when the protesting is over—all I can say is that it is complicated. Sure there is advocacy work to be done and policies to change and reforms to effect. Ultimately, though, the answers to that question—which I believe is aimed at getting at the structural and systemic forces that make institutional and hence, individual racism and privilege so difficult to dismantle—the answers to the question will vary with each of us. But let me tell you what I’m doing. It’s a small little thing called “going home”.

So let me say, by way of confession, that over the past few years I’ve been slowing coming out as a kid from the projects. I cannot express enough what a big deal that has been for me. It is an admission that has me examining my own internalized racial oppression, identity, feelings of abandonment—and my own acts of abandoning my community in the name of survival—and I hope ultimately giving me the courage to use what little privilege I have as a multiple degreed, Ivy educated black professional to actually do something to make a difference.

At the age of ten my family to a housing project in Staten Island—not too far where Eric Garner met his fate. We had left Brooklyn and relocated to a place where my own innocence of people of many races and backgrounds living together more or less peacefully was shattered. This was the place where I had to learn to navigate the White adults spitting on me and calling me the N-word as I walked home from school each day and the Black school kids wanting to fight me because I spoke funny and used words they didn’t understand. I hated this place. I took solace in the library and the classroom and dreamed of getting out. Each night gun shuts would ring out on the basketball court below my window as I did my homework. I strategized and dreamt about a different life—frankly, a Park Avenue classic six apartment was the dream. I saved my allowance and later after-school job money so that I’m pretty sure I was the only teenager walking around the projects in a Brooks Brothers navy blue, brass-buttoned blazer. Success meant getting out and never looking back. But as it turns out, going back just may be my salvation.

For me, confronting the pain, violence, and for many, hopelessness of that place is critical in order for me to take all of this talk of racial reconciliation and social justice from an academic exercise that I can study and read about till there’s no tomorrow, to an experience of true compassion, empathy, and solidarity. This is about me amending the hashtag, BlackLivesMatter to #AllBlackLivesMatter. All Black lives—especially, especially, the ones seen as expendable and disposable because of where they live, how they speak, what they wear. I don’t have time to do it, I’m hearing and remembering stories I don’t want to hear or remember. But this little bit of “putting myself back together” and finding wholeness, will be I pray, a key to me effecting that wholeness that I desire for the whole community. This is about intentionally entering the brokenness to find that actually, those who made it out are not the only survivors.

This is also an exercise in Advent hope. It is about paying attention and believing in spite of the “evidence” that in the darkest of days, a light shines forth. From broken and abandoned dreams, hope is birthed. It is about trusting that transformation comes from unexpected places—whether it is the backwater of Nazareth or the housing projects of Staten Island, or the streets of Englewood. In her book The Liturgical Year, Joan Chittister says of Advent, “… this is the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious. It trains us to see what is behind the apparent. Advent makes us look for God in all those places we have, until now, ignored.”

I don’t know what “going home” looks like for you. Maybe it is a hard, difficult look at the places that have made you who you are and being curious about it. Maybe it is looking at the place where you live and move and have your being right now, and asking yourself, is this life you’re living and creating, helping to effect the change you desire for the world. Returning home—moving toward wholeness-- is what God most desires for us and the pathway as Isaiah and other prophets make clear, will not always be simple, clear or easy. But each time we go to those places—whether it is a street address or the part of your heart that has been hollowed out by complacency, sorrow, fear, and anguish—each time we go to those places we have to look oh so carefully lest we miss what God is doing in front of our very eyes.

About a week ago I finally made it over to the Holocaust Museum in Skokie—I pass it all the time but never made it in. I’d been urged by friends from church and the community to check out the exhibit on race. It is a well done exhibit that takes the anthropological approach to reinforce the idea of race as a social construct but that also explains the evolution of physical features that account for the diversity in the human family. It also has what seems to be hours of video of personal testimony from folks speaking of discrimination, bias, and genocidal violence because of racism in this country. The exhibit is a good one but, frankly, didn’t tell me anything I didn’t really already know. It reminded me that what is happening to Black men today is part of a long string of racial atrocities. I left feeling a bit exhausted and a bit resigned that it was ever thus, and ever shall be. After I exited the exhibit I made my way to the gift shop. I thought I might check out the permanent exhibit about the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust but I didn’t want to take in more depressing narratives—I was full up. As I entered the gift shop a man pointed to a table where another, older, White man was siting and he asked me, “would you like to meet a Holocaust survivor?” So I gave the only answer I could give. “Of course. Of course, I do.”

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

#FergusonTheology: “What about personal responsibility?”

Since Michael Brown was killed, there are many questions I have heard repeatedly from fellow white people. These are questions asked honestly that deserve thoughtful consideration. Christ Church Cathedral is a place where we wrestle with the tough questions – and look to our scripture, theological tradition and best thinking for answers. Over the next couple weeks, I’m going to explore some of these questions with the hashtag #FergusonTheology.

In the world of “Yes, but…” the question of personal responsibility has been one of the most common raised by my fellow white people over the past four months.

Yes, I understand and support the actions taken to address larger issues of race and class, but…

What about Michael Brown shoplifting/walking down the middle of the street/reaching for the police officer’s gun?

What about Rasheen Aldridge, a Ferguson Commissioner, shoving a police officer to try to get into City Hal?

What about the people who threw jars of urine and burned down buildings?

Without getting into the specific details and debatable accuracies and inaccuracies of each situation, the core issue in each is: “What about personal responsibility?”

It’s an excellent question. At the core, it is a question about sin.

Sin is whenever we put anything other than God and God’s dreams for us (love God and love our neighbor as ourselves) at the center of our lives. Sin occurs whenever our actions come out of anything other than that radical ethic of love and instead create distortions or breaks in relationship.

As followers of Jesus, we believe God forgives sin but that it is not cheap grace. There is a process of reconciliation of relationship – one that involves self-examination, confession, repentance, and amendment of life before absolution is finally offered and received.

As someone who hears confessions, much of my priestly job in that sacramental rite is holy listening. It is walking with people through that self-examination and helping them discern what is sin, what is not, and what the role of personal responsibility is. When sin is identified, personal responsibility is key. We were created in God’s image with freedom of choice, and our choices matter greatly. We cannot receive absolution and restore right relationship unless responsibility is acknowledged, damage is repaired and a commitment to a changed life is made.

But sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Context is critical.

Is it living into God’s dreams for us to punch someone in the face? No. That is not love of neighbor. That is sin. But is there a difference between walking up to someone who has done nothing to you and punching them in the face and the teenage son punching in the face his alcoholic father who has once again come home drunk and angry after beating him time and again to the point where he has to say, “no more!” Yes.

Sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sin is messy and embeds itself in the webs of relationships that are our lives. It doesn’t mean that personal responsibility goes out the window. But it does mean recognizing at least two things:

*First, as Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) We never talk about sin only with a finger pointed toward another. We talk about sin as sinners and that means we only talk about it not in judgmental tones but in humility, gathered together at the foot of the cross looking at the one who bears all our sins.

*Second, we first talk about sin with a mirror held up to ourselves, as Jesus bids us “take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5).

In other words, if we are going to have the conversation about personal responsibility – and we should – we don’t start with Michael Brown and Rasheen Aldridge and the rioters. We begin with ourselves.

Our theological tradition identifies two primary types of sin – things we have done (sins of commission) and things we have left undone (sins of omission). A more contemporary confession adds, rightly, “the evil done on our behalf.”

If I am to look at the acts of Michael Brown, Rasheen Aldridge and the Ferguson rioters after the grand jury announcement, before I get to the question of their personal responsibility for whatever they might have done, FIRST, I have to ask these questions of myself:

What evil have I done?
What evil have I allowed to happen by my inaction?
What evil has been done on my behalf and from which I have benefitted?

Those questions convict me … and they should.

Sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sin begs the question “why?” … not as excuse but seeking understanding so that reconciliation and healing may occur for all of us.

The truth is, just as the boy who has been pushed to the limit by his alcoholic father is much more likely to punch his dad in the face than my son is to punch me in mine, people are much more likely to do things like shoplift, or shove or even burn down a building if they have been oppressed and pushed to the limit themselves. This does not absolve them of personal responsibility but it is cause to examine how we all share in that responsibility.

Let’s take the most egregious of the sins I have been asked about … the rioting and burning of buildings. I have heard many people hold up the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his commitment to nonviolence as an example in shaming those who did such things. And yet King, while resolute in his stand against violence, recognized that sin doesn’t happen in a vacuum and in fact there is deep shared responsibility.

King said, “I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”

Sin is at times “the language of the unheard.” It is the same way that teenage boy punching his father was the only way he felt he could say “no more!” in a way that would be heard. And those of us who have been and are still the unhearing need to recognize that as a call to look for logs in our own eyes, not as a substitute for helping our neighbor taking the speck out of theirs, but as the first step Jesus demands before we search for those specks.

So should we talk about personal responsibility? Absolutely. And I need to start with me.

I need to look at the choices I have made – the things I have done and left undone – to widen or at least not close the education, economic and opportunity gap between white and black in St. Louis and our nation. The things I have done and left undone and the evil that has been done on my behalf to increase a culture of hopelessness, solidify the school-to-prison pipeline, and encourage an environment that screams Black Lives DON’T Matter … or at least they don’t matter as much as mine.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I send my kids to private schools and have opted out of the public school system when I know the thing that changes schools more than anything else is committed parents and families.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how much money and time I spend south of Delmar and how most of the businesses I patronize are white-owned.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how my church has several million dollars in endowment and we don’t invest one dollar of it in helping community development in local minority neighborhoods.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I have spent most of my life being silent about racial profiling and have failed to hear and act on the cries coming from black mothers and fathers as their children have been treated as criminals without cause and over and over again died in the streets.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I and my family have generated personal wealth over the last 100 years primarily through property appreciating in value … a wealth escalator that people of color were almost entirely left off of.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to talk about how I have benefitted from systems that discriminate on the basis of race (among other things) but have never been discriminated against myself and have done little if anything to call attention to this fact.

If I’m going to talk about personal responsibility, I need to realize this list is just getting started.

This is not bleeding heart self-flagellation. This is the sacrament of reconciliation. This is honest self-examination and confession of my sin as a necessary first step toward even beginning to help another do the same.

And I can’t stop there. I have to commit to repentance – how am I going to do the best I can to repair the damage done by my sin?

And I can’t stop there. I have to commit to amendment of life – how am I going to, with God’s help, “go forth and sin no more.”?

This is not a neat and tidy process. I don’t think we need to wait until we have completed it perfectly before we lovingly hold each other to account for sin … before we try to point out the speck in the other’s eye. But we do need to engage in it deeply enough that we are aware of where our own contributory role in this sin is and are actively engaged in our own process of repentance and amendment of life before we begin to point our finger at another.

Is personal responsibility important? Absolutely. It is at the heart of reconciliation from sin. But repentance and reconciliation is never something we order someone else into – which is why I personally regret that repentance and reconciliation was expressed and experienced quite differently at the clergy demonstration I was a part of at the Ferguson Police Department in October. It is ground we ascend ourselves first and then invite the other to join us. It is why the last words I as a priest say in the sacramental rite of reconciliation are: “Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.”

Is the question of personal responsibility for Michael Brown, Rasheen Aldridge and those who rioted in Ferguson important. Yes. It absolutely is. But if I am to follow Jesus, I can only invite them to see the speck in their eye if I first do what I can to take the log out of my eye. And that means first instead of judging them, I need to listen to them … not in supporting their actions but recognizing them as the language of the unheard.

Recognizing that it was the unheard that Jesus time and again stopped to listen to.

Recognizing that the most important personal responsibility is my own.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Shut it Down? Why I was a part of the Black Friday action at the Galleria

Last Friday, I participated in the “Black Friday” nonviolent direct action at the Galleria. It was incredibly powerful. Several hundred people – black and white, young and old, marching and chanting through one of the region’s most popular malls. Two different times, we participated in a “die-in,” a dramatic method of demonstration to draw attention to the 4 ½ hours Michael Brown’s body lay in the street and also to the fact that black people are four times more likely to die in custody or while being arrested than white people (Source: Mother Jones).

My participation in this demonstration has been controversial. I do not seek controversy but if it can further understanding, I certainly don’t shy away from it. So I want to address some of the extremely valid questions I have received over the past few days so that – agree or disagree – you might better understand why I did what I did, and why I believe it is consistent not only with our Christian beliefs but the mission and values of Christ Church Cathedral.

What was the demonstration about?
The purpose of a demonstration is to get people’s attention. On that level, the purpose of this demonstration was the same as so many of the others have been – to get people to hear the voices of young black and brown women and men that we have been ignoring for too long. To jolt people like me, white people of privilege, out of our complacency by the sheer force of determination and passion.

Because the purpose of demonstrations is to get attention, they are intentionally disruptive, though not violent. Demonstrations might block traffic or clog lanes in a shopping mall. The purpose of the disruption is not to inflict pain but to draw attention to something important or something tragic. To make us stop and notice.

Think of a time in your life where you witnessed something deeply offensive or hurtful. Someone shoving an elderly person on the street or kicking a puppy … or maybe even when your way to the Cathedral has been completely blocked on Sunday morning by a marathon! Our lives have been offended and disrupted so our instant human reaction is to disrupt … to stop people whatever they are doing and say, “Wait! Hey! Did anyone see guy? He just kicked that puppy!” “Everybody call the mayor and tell them not to let the Rock n’ Roll Marathon back in St. Louis” (almost my exact words in an email when I was irate one Sunday not too long ago!) That’s our impulse because in the moment we believe that directing people’s attention to what just happened is more important than letting them go about their business -- and often we are right! That’s the purpose of demonstrations. When we have been injured, offended or disrupted so much that we want people to experience it themselves not as punishment but so they will do something about it.

Of this demonstration, my friend, Pastor Shaun Jones of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, captured a big piece of it when he said it was about “affecting the lives of those who think that Mike Brown’s death doesn’t affect them.”

At their best, demonstrations come out of the best of the Judeo-Christian prophetic tradition. They express the pain of a people in a way that holds a mirror up to ourselves and confronts us with our complicity in that pain. They show us that our own complacency and complicity with sin has real consequences for all of us. They also tear down the illusions we create for ourselves that everything is well and help us to see where all is not well … and confront us with our responsibility to use our power to create a better world for all.

Why a mall on Black Friday?
Because it guaranteed us a broad and diverse audience for our message. Also because it provided an opportunity on a day when, more than any other, our attention is focused on things, to direct our attention to people. Jesus doesn’t call us to seek and serve him in things … that would be idolatry. Jesus does call us to seek and serve him in people … particularly those that have been the most abused and neglected.

Aren’t you just hurting the little people … the shop workers and others?
It cannot be argued that there were some hourly wage workers who took home less money on Friday … and that they are among the people who can afford least to lose income. That is not to be celebrated ,and I wish that was not part of the story of what happened the same way I wish that police officers were not pulling incredibly long back-to-back (and more) shifts for the past four months. But it is part of the story. So a few thoughts:

*In the demonstration I participated in, I witnessed a vast majority of the workers supporting the demonstration. Two Macy’s workers (pictured left) even walked off the job and began leading chants. Many, many others gave us thumbs up signs and high-fives.

*There was never a need to shut down stores or, indeed, the entire mall. Yes, shutting down the Galleria was seen as a successful disruption. But there really was no need. The demonstration was 100% nonviolent. We never entered a store or prevented anyone from entering a store. The shutting down of stores and the mall was a fear reaction.

This is a key point. There have been acts of profound violence against property on a couple nights immediately following Michael Brown’s killing and again after the grand jury decision. Those acts are abhorrent, have no place in a nonviolent movement and in fact set the cause of love and justice back considerably. But there is no evidence that any acts of property damage or violence have been committed by the nonviolent young people who have consistently led these demonstrations with integrity and discipline. In fact, on the night Vonderitt Myers was killed in Shaw, they (together with the St. Louis Police and the clergy) actively prevented a situation from becoming tragically violent (for details read my account of that night here  ).

Time and again over the past four months, we as St. Louis have been unable or unwilling to distinguish between the nonviolent demonstrators and the people who on a very limited number of occasions, had their rage boil over into property damage and violence. This inability has actually escalated tensions, not reduced them. There was no risk of property damage or violence. As I participated in the demonstration I invited others to join us, reinforced that there was nothing to fear ... and in fact most of the shoppers I interacted with seemed to understand this. The Galleria could have stayed open.

*The argument “aren’t you just hurting the little people” is the same one that was used during actions like the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “Aren’t you just hurting the bus drivers and the low-income people who need to get to work?” The simple answer is while there is pain and it is regrettable that it is born by the hourly-wage workers, the answer today is the same as it is then, which is there is a greater good at stake. I pray I never take pain caused to others lightly, and I believe we should always ask ourselves what shared sacrifice looks like (And I am open to that conversation). But again, I will point to my personal experience that the number of workers who actively showed their support to what we were doing far outnumbered those who did not react or who indicated disapproval.

Is this appropriate for the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral? Doesn’t this damage your and the Cathedral’s credibility?

I do believe this is appropriate for the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral. As I said on Facebook, You might be surprised to know that going to demonstrations and marching is outside my comfort zone. I really don't relish it. I'm much more comfortable behind the scenes or writing and preaching.

I push this comfort zone in myself because I recognize people need to see white church leaders – including the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral -- out there with the young people who are leading this movement. They are risking so much for the same theological principle we all hold so dear -- that all God's children are beloved and should be treated with honor, dignity and high regard -- the least I can do is stand with them.

I particularly believe it is appropriate for me to be out there as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral because we believe God is calling us to be “A Cathedral for the City.” Our vision statement Chapter is crafting reads:

Christ Church Cathedral is a place where people, all people, can gather to seek God and to be present to each other while being a catalyst for change and growth within the wider community.

That means I don’t have the luxury of just considering the people who show up on Sunday morning for worship. We need to be a Cathedral for all St. Louis. And that means I need to be available to everyone. And Jesus clearly calls us to seek and serve him in those who are most oppressed and cast aside. I need to be out there as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral (and I invite you to join me) because it doesn’t take you showing up at worship for me to consider you part of our flock. Our flock is the city and the region. We are our sisters and brothers’ keeper.

Does this damage my and our credibility with some? With some, it is possible and even probable. But I hope not irreparably. Following Jesus is always about risk and with risk there is usually cost. I hope any credibility lost or relationships damaged can be healed by our willingness to be in loving relationship with anyone and by what I hope will be people’s respect for our integrity. But yes, there may be damage.

There will always be those who will be deeply offended by us taking a stand about anything. We have offended greatly in the past by standing up for our sisters and brothers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered and by advocating for our sisters and brothers who struggle with poverty and homelessness. Our way is the way of the cross. My main hope is not that we avoid controversy but that I and all of us maintain a posture of humility and avoid the trap of self-righteousness.

What does this have to do with the mission of Christ Church Cathedral?

Our mission statement is:

We seek a deeper relationship with God and each other in Jesus Christ through: Celebrating the sacraments faithfully; Proclaiming the Gospel boldly; Embracing diversity joyfully; Serving all passionately as a Cathedral.

Under “Proclaiming the Gospel boldly,” a strategy that is included in the current draft strategic plan is this:

We will be courageous in our proclamation and advocacy for those in our Cathedral and in our community who experience discrimination in any form. Speaking out for those who experience e discrimination carries risk and requires courage. The Cathedral community both stands behind its members who have the courage to speak out, and recognizes its corporate responsibility to do so as a community of believers.

Our mission, vision, values and strategies are the result of nearly two years of prayerful deliberation. That process is about over as we are now seeking input on this final draft. But I feel confident enough in the work your Chapter has done and how truly it stands in line with both our theological tradition as Episcopal Christians and the specific history of proclamation and advocacy of Christ Church Cathedral to say that actions like the Black Friday demonstration at the Galleria have everything to do with the mission to which Christ calls us.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, December 1, 2014

The sacrament of uncomfortability

“Of all the choices we have to make, there is none harder than having to give up something good for the sake of something better. Giving up a present good for the promise of a greater requires faith and a willingness to risk.” – Alan Jones, former Dean, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

We are a sacramental church. We believe God makes the divine self known to us in tangible ways – outward and spiritual signs of God’s inward and spiritual grace. We believe sacraments are revelatory and sustaining. We believe God through them aims fundamentally to change who we are.

The two great sacraments of the church are Baptism and Eucharist. Both are about death and new life.
In Baptism, we die to an old life of sin so we can be born to a new life in Christ. In Eucharist, we lay our lives on the table as an offering with each other and with Jesus so God may make us into something greater than our individual selves … the Body of Christ given for the life of the world.

Bread broken. Wine poured out. Be what you see, receive who you are.

For many of us, the lives we lay down in baptism and lay on the table in Eucharist aren’t bad. On the whole, they are quite comfortable and even enjoyable. Particularly those of us who enjoy lives of great privilege love our lives the way they are. And yet we cannot escape the fact that God calls us out of that comfort. God calls us to give up something good for the sake of something better. And it absolutely requires faith and a willingness to risk.

Living the baptized, Eucharistic life of following Jesus absolutely requires us to see uncomfortability not as something to be avoided and feared but embraced. To see uncomfortability as an invitation to meet Christ in raw places. To see uncomfortability itself as sacramental ... as a sign of God's living, breathing, challenging and transforming grace in our lives. The giving up of something good for the sure and certain hope of something better.

Right now, in St. Louis, in America, White people like me are growing more and more uncomfortable.

And as hard as it is to hear, it is a good thing. And as hard as it is to bear, it must not stop.

For nearly four months, we as white people have been listening to people of color crying out on the streets. They've been crying for far longer, but it's only for the past few months that many of us have begun to hear.

These voices make many of us uncomfortable because they are loud and raw. They are angry and pained. They challenge our own complicity in a system that causes great pain and injustice. As white people, these voices feel like they are directed at us personally … and some of them are.

These voices make us uncomfortable because the reality they are crying out is so different from ours that often we have trouble believing it could be real. And so we are tempted to dismiss or rationalize it away.

We are uncomfortable because the voices are getting louder, and they are reaching us wherever we go. Even when we try to turn away, they are there – they are in the shopping mall, blocking the streets we’re trying to drive, even holding their hands up in our face as we try to watch the Rams on a fall afternoon.

Because of our privilege, many of we who are white have for most of our lives been able to avoid extreme discomfort, to view things like racism as "issues" that we either choose to engage or not. But now, these voices are telling us it's not optional anymore. That we have to deal with it or they will "shut it down."

And we are uncomfortable ... and confused ... and afraid ... and annoyed ... and even angry.

And we find ourselves just wanting it all to go away. More and more over the past week, people have come to me saying how weary they are of the protests and "how come 'they' can't do something positive" and "why can't 'they' just tell us what they want" ... with the subtext being "so we can get back to being comfortable again." And shouldn't I be doing something productive and reasonable instead of encouraging this nonsense?

I feel that pain. I feel that weariness. The learning curve for we white people on this one is so, so steep (I know it is for me) because most of our own previous experiences of pain and weariness ... though certainly profound and real to us ... have not prepared us to encounter the extraordinary pain and weariness people of color have in this country just trying to live every day of their lives.

Jesus was never one to preach comfortability. In fact, the Gospels paint a pretty clear picture of a Jesus who invited us to leave our places of comfort behind and follow him. To give up something good for the sake of something better.

To have faith and a willingness to risk.

To embrace the sacrament of uncomfortability.

That is where Christ is calling us today. To resist the temptation to flee from the uncomfortablity, to lash out at the uncomfortability or even to reach for the quick and easy fix for the uncomfortability.

If uncomfortability is a sacrament, and I believe it is, then we need to lean into it ... to dive into it even. We need to feel it deeply, knowing that it leads us to the very heart of Christ.

If you are annoyed, angry, confused and weary by the demonstrators, I really do feel you. This is a hard time. But Christ calls us to do what is hard and promises to walk with us every step of the way. So I urge you, instead of lashing out or throwing up your hands in despair ... instead of dismissing the protesters as "thugs" or criticizing their methods ... instead lean in.

Listen deeply.

Feel the anger and the pain and ask "Why?" and don't be satisfied with the initial answers you give yourself ... answers which will tend to reinforce your existing beliefs and stereotypes.

Let your own anger, annoyance, confusion and weariness guide you to empathy with the great anger, annoyance, confusion and weariness our sisters and brothers of color experience every day.

Resist the temptation to tell the demonstrators what they should and shouldn't be hurt and angry about (as if that's how anger and pain works) but instead try to understand how hurt and angry you have to be to day after day, night after night, shout in hopes that someone might hear you and actually do something.

As white people, we must let our uncomfortability be a mirror held up to ourselves. A mirror that humbles us all before the cross of Christ. A mirror that invites all of us to confess how we have fallen short of the glory of God, to confess to God how

We have denied your goodness in each other,
in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf. (EOW confessional prayer)

that through self-examination, confession, repentance, and amendment of life we all might be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

We are a sacramental church, and our present uncomfortability is a sacrament.

Through it God is making the divine self known to us in tangible ways.

Through it God aims fundamentally to change who we are.

Through it God is inviting us to embrace that hardest of choices -- to give up the comfortability of the lives we have loved for the sake of something better -- a life of love, dignity and justice for all. A life where all people are treated as beloved images of God.

We are a sacramental church, and our present uncomfortability is a sacrament. Unlikely and difficult as it seems, it is a gift Jesus offers to us in love.

And if we choose not receive it now, Jesus promises it will be offered again.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

When they yell: "F@#$ the police" What would Jesus have me do then?

This morning, I read an excellent piece from a baptist pastor, the Rev. Jeff Hood, called "The Violence of Demanding Peaceful Protest: The Missteps of Clergy in Ferguson." I commend it to you. He says in part:

"The work that I do is to ensure that acts of civil disobedience remain nonviolent, not that they remain nonexistent. We must not forget that civil disobedience is an unpeaceful act. Civil disobedience is not intended to create situations of calm. Civil disobedience escalates situations to a point where people have to pay attention to injustice..."

"I don't think you can have an honest conversation about race in our nation when you are always telling people to calm down. If peaceful protest is about controlling people's emotions, then I believe it to be violently taking away the agency of people who have every right to be angry and engaged in resistance. I am for nonviolence. I believe it is by far the most effective and moral way to confront injustice. I am not for the violence of clergy-controlled protests in a space where people have every right to exercise their anger."

This is an excellent article and it resonates with me. I also realize the learning curve I have been and continue to be on over the past three months to get to this point. The first times I was out with demonstrators, I was so much like the clergy the writer talks about - wanting people to calm down. I talked about it being my belief in neighbor love, but I realize now that, for me, at big part of it was my own uncomfortability with the anger and my own fear at its power. But the anger is the natural result of injustice and it must be expressed. White people like me must not only allow it, we must, as I preached on Sunday, allow it to cut us to the core and shake our foundations. We must feel the anger and let it change us.

My job as clergy on the street is to make sure the civil disobedience is nonviolent, not nonexistent. I am always opposed to any physical violence. I believe it is counter to Christ and sets back any movement for change for justice. I will always oppose violence. But I need to guard the space for the anger to be expressed.

The tricky part for me and where I continue to struggle the most is violent words. Specifically, "F#$% the police."

Jesus tells me to love my neighbor and when I stand with people who yell "F^&* the police" it makes me cringe and breaks my heart. It's not so much my uncomfortability with anger (I'm making my peace with that) but with the fact that I know for many officers those words are experienced as violence directed toward them. They are experienced by the officer's family and friends that way, too. I have seen the words create the same hardness of heart and desire to respond in kind that physical violence does -- even as the words themselves are often a response from the young people to the times they have been told "Get the #$&* out of the street" by police. I cringe and my heart breaks because I want the cycle of verbal violence to end, too.

But that is not most of my struggle. Most of my struggle is I have friends and people I care about deeply who are police officers, families of police officers and friends of police officers.  I struggle because not only do I see them as human beings and beloved images of God but because they have let me get to know them, I have seen what good people they are and I have been privileged to call them friends -- some for a long time -- and I truly love them. And when I stand with someone yelling "F#$& the police" it is like standing with someone yelling "F#$& you" at my friend. And I know that they at least sometimes experience it as me standing there yelling "F#$& you" to them, too.  And they are confused and angry with me. And I don't blame them.

I am grateful for my struggle and hope it doesn't go away. The struggle is rooted in my ability to see the police as individual human beings and children of God, to know and to love them the same way I have been so blessed and transformed by getting to know and love some of the young women and men who are the leaders of the demonstrations as individual human beings and children of God. I pray I never slip into seeing either "side" merely as "police" or "demonstrator" but strive always to see the humanity of each individual because that is Jesus' call.

I want the demonstrators to see the police that I know. And I want the police and their family and friends to see the demonstrators I know. I want them to see each other's humanity and beauty. I want them to see each other as I see them. And I want it to happen right now because it hurts so much that they can't. I want it to happen right now because it hurts so bad. And I hate the pain. I want it to happen right now because I want the pain to stop.

And that's where I need to take a deep breath and trust. Trust that some day this will happen. But it will not be right now. It will not be tomorrow. It will not be for a long time. This is healing from deep trauma and my spiritual guides, the women of Magdalene, have taught me that healing from trauma takes a long, long time and that getting the anger out is an indispensable part of the healing.

I need to remember that I can have the love and friendship I have with police officers and their friends and family because I have the privilege of a different relationship with them. I have never felt the police as my oppressor, yet for these women and men growing up black in urban America that has been their relationship with the police their whole lives.

For these demonstrators, the police are not the only sign of how our society has discarded and criminalized these young women and men, but as a body they are the most visible sign and have become the symbol of that oppression. To them, the police are not individuals worthy of being treated as God's image and they are not yet ready to see them as that. They will be someday, but mostly they are not now. They are not now, because they have not experienced that treatment as beloved from the police ... or anyone else in power. And after the stories I have heard of how people have been treated, I have to say screaming "F#$% you" seems not only honest and healthy but downright reasonable.

Is it fair that individual police officers who may have wonderful hearts and are putting themselves in harms way daily and are just trying to make a living have to bear the brunt of the abuse and anger directed toward those officers who are brutally racist police and, indeed toward a "whole damn system that is guilty as hell?" No. But fair went out the window a long time ago.

The truth is the anger coming off the streets directed at the police must be expressed or we will never get to the place where healing is possible. Yes, I understand the police have their own anger, but the truth is as wonderful as they might be individually, as a group they are the symbol of the oppressive power. It's not fair, but it also means they have a transformational opportunity before them - and that is to hear the terrible words directed at them and let those words touch their hearts not as blows directed at them personally but as pain being expressed and let those wonderful compassionate hearts that I have seen in my friends who are police hear that pain and maybe even love the feelers of it.

And what is my role? What would Jesus have me do when the young people begin to yell, "F#$% the police." As I am still struggling with that, all I can say is here's where I am now.

My role is to stand with the nonviolent young women and men who are leading this movement, even when they are shouting "F#$& the police" knowing that their anger is righteous and if we are ever going to get to a place of reconciliation and healing, it must be expressed. Knowing that Christ bids us to stand with those who are oppressed, with those who are "the least of these" knowing that in the Kingdom of God, the last will be first.

My role is trying to do the slow, work of translation -- even as I am growing in my own understanding -- to try to help police and indeed all white people ask the powerful question of "Why?" when we hear these young people yell "F$#% the police" and not be satisfied with simple answers that just reinforce our prejudices and stereotypes.

My role is receiving the confusion, anger and hurt from the wonderful people I have built friendships with over the years who are now seeing me as "anti-cop" and bearing that as part of my own penance and praying our friendships ultimately are strong enough to bear it, but recognizing they may not be.

My role is recognizing that, as a part of that system that privileges white people like me, I have to share in the guilt, and every time I hear ""F#$^ the police" I have to hear "F#$& you, Mike Kinman" because I am part of that system, too. I literally have to make that translation in my head and in my heart and try to have compassion on the voices saying it ... because I am a part of that system, too. I know that is not the same as having it yelled at me, but I need to do it regardless.

My role, as is ours, is to continue to set my eyes on Jesus and try with the rest of you to walk in his steps. To try not to shy away from pain but feel it fully knowing it can be redemptive. To listen deeply to and stand with those who are oppressed and be their shield. To love without counting the cost knowing that the cost of love is often high. And, because I am not Jesus, to do this incredibly imperfectly and rely on the grace and forgiveness of God and others.

Tonight, I have been invited to stand in my Elmer-Fuddish orange vest in front of the Ferguson police department and do these things. Unless I am called elsewhere, I will be there with my dear sister Rebecca Ragland and others. I do not go there lightly. I go there trembling -- in awe mostly over the movement we are all called to be a part of. I go there to try imperfectly to do this work. I bid your prayers ... and I bid you find your role in this work as well. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Let us pray: A prayer for the members of the grand jury.

This morning, let us pray for the members of the grand jury that reconvenes today.

Let us not pray for any specific outcome. Let us not pray for any specific timetable. Let us pray for the men and women who make up that body.
Holy and loving God, giver of all good gifts, we lift before you this day the members of the grand jury deliberating in the case of Darren Wilson.

They are wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, lovers and friends.

Like so many, they did not choose their role in this struggle, it chose them.

Like so many, they did not leave behind the other challenges of their lives when this work was thrust upon them, and in fact this work has probably made those challenges even more acute.

Like so many, in the midst of all this, they still have to raise their children, make their marriages and other relationships work, do their jobs and live their lives.

Like so many, they find themselves suddenly at the center of a global seismic event and are having to wrestle with not just their place in one decision but their place in history.

Like so many, they are probably wrestling with fear and anxiety, afraid not only for themselves and their future but for their families.

Like so many, they see themselves being dehumanized in the media and online and in conversation, treated as an entity or a class rather than as individual human beings, precious in your sight.

And yet unlike anyone else, they have a specific burden of being asked to render a decision based on our current system of standards and laws, whether they believe those standards and laws to be just or not.

Unlike anyone else, they have to wrestle with the fact that they will be part of a decision that will not only have deep consequences locally but nationally and historically.

Unlike anyone else, they sleep and rise knowing that our city and the world is waiting for them to render their opinion.

We pray for each and all of them today.

We pray that you will surround them with light and hope that will keep them from despair.

We pray that you will give each of them that peace that passes understanding that will let them see clearly and judge rightly -- not assuming that our judgment should be theirs.

We pray for their spouses and children, for comfort for them. We pray that their partnerships and marriages might be strengthened in this crucible.

We pray that each of them lean more on you and find in this time an opportunity to depend on you more and more for wisdom and even for their very survival.

We pray that you give each of them the courage to trust that they have been called to this purpose for a reason and to reach for their best selves and continually have the strength to approach this incredible task with the utmost integrity.

We pray that each of them will feel the prayers and support of this community, and that no matter what decision they render that they will know the love you showed when you became flesh in Jesus Christ, the love you showed when you promised "I will be with you, even to the end of the age," will never leave them.

In the name of Jesus, the Word made flesh, who gave himself out of love for the life of the world, we pray.  Amen.

Monday, November 17, 2014

An open letter to my clergy colleagues: What You Can Do.

As we get close to the grand jury decision, I am getting wonderful notes and emails from clergy colleagues all over the country expressing their love and support. I first want to say thank you. Thank you for your love. Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for your prayers.

Some of these notes say: "Let me know if there's anything I can do." I know you mean that. And so I'm going to tell you what you can do. It will take courage. And know that as you do this I will have your back every bit as much as you have had mine.

When the grand jury decision is announced and the national media eye turns to whatever will happen in St. Louis, here is what I need you to do:

Preach about it. I need you not to let your congregation pretend this has nothing to do with you. I need you, in your own words and with your own integrity from your own heart, to preach about race and privilege and the deep brokenness we have not just in Ferguson, not just in St. Louis, but all over our nation. To preach in a way that will make your congregation uncomfortable in the same way we at Christ Church Cathedral are uncomfortable right now. To preach in a way that doesn't jump too quickly to peace and reconciliation but holds a mirror up to your own congregation and your own city. I need you to see what is happening in St. Louis and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ for your own congregation and your own community. And don't just preach it once like it's earning a merit badge but keep preaching it over and over again.

Find your young leaders. A gift of what is happening here is a group of young leaders that has come together on the streets of Ferguson. They are women and men who are strong, courageous and committed to militant, nonviolent love for the sake of justice. Their words and language is often harsh because the lives they are living have been harsh. I need you to find those young people in your community ... and you will have to go out of your churches to do it. And when you find them, I need you not to preach to them but to listen to them and look for ways you can stand with them, ways you can amplify their voices. I need you to confess where the church has abandoned them and to be the church in ways that gets their trust back. I need you to stand in the breach with them and guard them from harm. I need you to let them lead you.

Move some money. I need you to have the conversations that matter in your own family, in your congregation and in your diocese. Where do you spend your money? Where do you invest your money? Do you support, encourage and invest in minority-owned businesses? Does your money go all over the country and the world looking for the highest rate of return or do you invest in community development in neighborhoods of poverty right where you are? This is work we are just at the very, very beginnings of starting in my own family, congregation and diocese. I need you to be in this with us. Talk is cheap. People of color have been left off the financial escalators our society has privileged white people with since the Emancipation Proclamation. I need you to work with us in helping everyone be able to have the capacity to thrive.

Pray. This is definitely "last but not least." Pray for us and know that we are praying for you. Pray not for an easy peace but pray for transformation. Pray for courage. Pray for us not to fear and shrink from conflict but to let conflict drive us to transformation. Pray for God's Holy Spirit to move us in ways that we scarcely believe possible. Pray that all of us -- we here in St. Louis and you wherever you are -- may use this moment in time as a great opportunity to show how deeply we trust in Jesus and the amazing things that Christ can do.

As you do these things, know that I am at your service. I will do all in my power to help you. It is up to you if Ferguson and St. Louis will just be the identified patient for American racism or whether this will spark a national movement for transformation, a movement that will not end until all people are treated as beloved images of God.

My inspiration is the young women and men who are literally putting their lives on the line for this movement of transformation. I know that the little I risk is truly the least I can do to stand with these who are willing to risk so much. What can you do for me? Stand with me and do the same. Thank you.