Year C, Proper 10 July 10, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“And who is my neighbor?”
Tragedy upon tragedy this week. Two African-American civilians gunned down by police as they went about their daily business and then open combat on the streets of Dallas, five police and a shooter dead, seven other police and two civilians wounded and a nation teetering on the top of a wall. A lot of ways this could go. Will we finally actually begin to have an honest conversation about the bloody, destabilizing stain of racism on our nation? Will we atone for our past so that we can deal with our present and move on to a future together? Or will we partition ourselves ever more tribally, barbs and bullets flying, with the peace of this nation, and as the power of the day in a disquieting election cycle, the peace of the world in the balance? These are the questions of our day. And we must begin again today.
We need to be out there, in the world. Learning, discussing, connecting with others on these issues, on race, on oppression, on guns in our society and increasingly in our politics, on violence in general, on the consent of the governed, on where each of us, and where our communities are in relation to this all. Hard questions and hard conversations. Challenging ones; challenging in the questions we have to ask ourselves and challenging in that we all have a lot to learn, particularly since most of us here live in pretty much white monocultures. Hard conversations because not only do we need to find a mirror to look into, we need to look into it and account for what we see.
Because that is the hardest thing usually, to just simply know ourselves. It has been a great challenge in my life. Who am I? Where am I in relation to everyone else? These are difficult and too rarely asked questions because they are hard to discern and then harder to know what to do with the conclusions, in particular when they are not flattering. This is always hard, always has been hard, but now in our media drenched culture it is increasingly hard to tell fact from opinion from polemic from apology. It is hard to find a reference point outside of ourselves to learn about who and what we are and how we connect with the rest of it all. Who can we trust to lead us? Who can we trust to tell us the truth? Who has the truth? These are very old problems.
Amos was a prophet in the 8th century before the Common Era, a prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. His was a world of plenty. Abraham Heschel describes his world as one of “pride, plenty, and splendor in the land, elegance in the cities and might in the palaces.” It was a wonderful place to be. Well, it was wonderful for some. While the rich planted pleasant vineyards and adorned themselves with precious oils and their palaces with costly ivory, “there was no justice in the land, the poor were afflicted, exploited, even sold into slavery, and the judges were corrupt.” That sounds kind of familiar. Some things change and some things never do (or at least haven’t yet).
So Amos came along and was aroused by God to lift all of this up for people to see. And what he saw was terrible. And what he said was unrelenting. Want a start of a mirror to look into, do yourself a favor, read Amos this week, and ask, Where am I in that story? Where are white folks? Where are black folks? Where are the rich? Where are the poor? And where ought we all be?
That is what God is talking to Amos about, and through him talking to us about, standing next to that wall with a plumb line in hand. What is a plumb line? A very simple instrument, a string with a weight on it, that tells us which way is down, straight down. Masons use them to tell if a wall is straight or if it is bowed and is in danger of caving in. The natural law of gravity shows us what is straight, and the law of God is showing Amos where Israel, how the faith of Israel, her people’s and her leader’s moral compasses should be, straight, unbending, in line with the will of God. And it wasn’t.
And neither is ours. The walls of the citadel are out of plumb and are in danger of caving in. Racism is a wedge in our country and violence, high-octane gun driven violence by police and civilians is a sledgehammer pounding that wedge ever deeper, tearing into the grain of our society.
This is not some sophisticated dilemma of religious ethics. Like twenty-seven hundred years ago, Amos was not revealing some complex problem of moral theology to be pondered. He was no ordained professional prophet, he was a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees, a regular person who simply saw that things were amiss. What he spoke of was, what we are speaking of is simply the issue of right and wrong. That some have everything they could ever possibly want while some don’t have what they need to survive, not enough food, shelter, safety… that is wrong; in the eyes of God wrong. That someone with white skin is safer in any given encounter with police than someone with black skin is wrong; in the eyes of God wrong. Nothing complex about this. Nothing controversial. Barely debatable, simply wrong, like not right and we must change it. We are out of plumb with the will of God and the walls of our society are bowed and in danger of caving in.
We don’t need to be prophets of old to know this. We don’t need to be prophets of the present moment to know this, to notice this. What we do need to do is open our eyes and our minds and most critically our hearts and we will know and notice this. You don’t need to be an expert to know right from wrong, you need to be about five. About this tall. That is when we as humans begin to be able to tell right from wrong, to make a choice to hit your sister when you know you shouldn’t. Intuitively we have God’s plumb line calibrated in our hearts. Jesus Christ alights on our hearts and loves us, and wants us to be our very best and do our very best. But somehow, somewhere along the line the shadow of sin and death descended upon humanity like a shroud and made things all kinds of murky for us. We know right from wrong, all of us expect a tiny percentage of true sociopaths, we know right from wrong but ARRGH!!!! it can seem sometimes so insurmountably hard to act on what we know to be right. Things get all blurry. Fear, self-interest, the weight of culture and it’s “conventional wisdom,” notions of practicality and prudence and incrementalism, “Don’t rock the boat!” “It’s a can of worms.” “Some day, just not yet.”
When by chance that priest and that Levite walked down that road and saw the man set upon by robbers, beaten, stripped, half dead; do you think they knew what the right thing to do was? Of course, that is the point of the story, everyone knows what the right thing to do in this story is, to take pity, show mercy and help this poor man.
As the second Gulf War was ramping up I was an intern at a church in Portland. One night a group of 50 or 60 of us gathered at one of the waterfront parks for a vigil. A big circle, candles at sunset, bearing witness. Just as the candles were being lit a man burst into the circle. He was a mess. Disheveled, stumbling drunk, and he sat himself right in the middle of the circle and started loudly slurring “What are you all doing?” It was a scene that made all of us well meaning liberals in that circle just curdle, me too. It could not have been more uncomfortable. “He’s ruining this lovely thing, but it’s not his fault, I know that, but I have no idea what to do. Just make it go away. Make him go away. I feel terrible.” Those were my inside thoughts. It was awful. And I was the intern, the organizer, the representative of the church, I was responsible and I had no idea what to do.
That is totally what was going through the minds of that priest and that Levite, right? They knew better, they knew what they should do, but what, “I’m in a hurry. Someone else will help. I’m no good with assault victims, it’s not my area. I have no idea what to do. Just make it go away. Make him go away. I feel terrible. I’m crossing the street.” I don’t know about you, but I have had every one of those thoughts. At least twice when it comes to issues of race. I have no idea what to do. I feel terrible. I can’t deal. I cross the street.
So there I was in that lovely circle of candles, gaping, “I have no idea what to do,” and Jesus Christ tweaked my heart. I was Unitarian at the time so I didn’t call it Jesus, but it was. It certainly wasn’t me, I had no idea what to do and very few resources to help me, but Jesus Christ tweaked my heart, or smacked me in the back of the head, or gave me a big, reassuring hug and sent me to the middle of that circle with him. And I crouched down with him, told him what we were doing, and helped him get a candle lit. And he kept that candle lit in the center of that circle, and he became the center of that circle and our prayers went forth. Didn’t work, we’re still at war, but each of us were better for that moment. I certainly am.
I take no responsibility for meeting that man in the middle. That was God, I have no doubt about that, and that is not usually how I understand God to work, like actually active in an intentional way in the world. Intentional compassion was new to me, then. What I did do was take responsibility for that moment, for that gathering, for that vigil. It was my role to be responsible. By the authority of the church and the consent of those in attendance, I was responsible for how it went and somehow being responsible helps us to be better then we would if left to our own devices. Being responsible brings courage out of us. Taking responsibility is one of the ways that Jesus Christ moves us, helps us to see that plumb line etched in our hearts and gives us the strength to be compassionate when everything else in our world is pointing to judgment, is saying that there is nothing we can do about it, is telling us to cross the street. In that moment I took responsibility because Jesus Christ helped me take that responsibility and helped me to do what turned out to be the right thing to do.
We are all responsible for the world around us. You are responsible for the world around you, for what happens and does not happen in the little sphere of influence you inhabit. It might just be yourself, that’s your realm. Or your household, that is what you can take responsibility for. Or your group of friends. Or this community. Or the city. By virtue of your baptismal covenant, the indelible relationship whereby you are marked as Jesus Christ’s own for ever, by virtue of that, you have responsibilities in this world and this is very, very, very good news. Because taking responsibility for the world in the name of Jesus Christ makes it so absolutely not about you. It is not about you. It is about the plumb line that Jesus Christ put on each of our hearts that tells us right from wrong, and strengthens us in our resolve, and holds us when we are scared, and binds us when doing what is right is uncomfortable, and divisive and costly and painful as it far too often is. Saints are reviled until they are canonized. We meet Jesus Christ immediately when we take responsibility for ourselves and the world around us, and with His strength take pity, stay on that side of the street and do what needs to be done.
We can no long act like bystanders, because we are not, no white folks are bystanders because we, like it or not, believe it or not, we benefit from the racist cultures and structures that hold our black brothers and sisters down. We need to take responsibility for that. Right now we need to take responsibility for the racism that is tearing at the seams of this nation, and that starts right here, with a piercing moral inventory of our own hearts. Where do we struggle? What do we fear? How are we ignorant? Why do we want to run to the other side of the street? Who do we count as the neighbor we are commanded to love? This is a first step to taking responsibility, and is a wide invitation for Jesus Christ to give us the strength and courage to do the work we have been given to do.
Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” AMEN