SONG OF PEACE
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on December 7, 2014 (Second Sunday of Advent)
(This sermon was somewhat “last-minute” as a response to two grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men – Michael Brown in Ferguson MO and Eric Garner in New York, NY.)
The background – news events of the week. I felt compelled to say something about these events, even though a lot of us are probably already tired of hearing about it, and it isn’t what we want to deal with in this holiday season. But sometimes the word of God comes to us not only through the text of the Bible, but in the events of our lives.
In the cross-fire of opinions from all kinds of folks, is there a word that God might be speaking to us?
- Why does this concern the church? Why does it concern us? It is our concern because it is God’s concern. The Christian faith, and the Bible which provides one of its foundations, are about more than getting folks into heaven when they die. God cares about the lives of people here on earth. And God especially cares about those who are easy for us to forget – the poor, the people with no voice and little resources, the ones who could be exploited.
Some examples? The God that we worship at one time sided with a bunch of slaves in Egypt – the most powerful nation on earth at that time. Unheard of. Nobody cared about slaves.
In ancient society they were widows and orphans – people with little way to support themselves and no advocates.
In a society in which men were landowners and women had little power, the commandments of the Bible insisted that women with no husband who inherit family land could keep that land. Women had rights!
The Bible insists on a fair justice system. No one could be convicted of a crime without at least two witnesses whose testimony agreed. And one of the Ten Commandments forbids “bearing false witness” – telling an untruth that could get an innocent person convicted of a crime.
The Bible insists on a fair economic system. The use of inaccurate balances in weighing out goods in the marketplace – systematically cheating people – was declared a sin.
The prophet Amos spoke the word of God to the people, saying:
Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way… (Amos 2:6-7)
To paraphrase in the language of today, “Black lives matter to God. All lives matter to God. They should matter to us as well.”
- So many people see what has happened as “their issue” (blacks). But we need to realize that this is OUR issue – our concern. Because we – our church – are both a white and black church. We have black members and former members. We have black family members. And if we look beyond these four walls to our extended church family (we are all one in Christ), we see members of our Illinois Conference staff who are black and Latino, and our President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ Rev. Geoffrey Black, and fellow members of our United Church of Christ – thousands of whom are people of color. They are US!
And right now many of them are saying, “I’m mad and I’m scared and I feel like I don’t matter.” Before we start dismissing their pain, we need to first of all hear them and try to understand them.
I would like to read a statement from several of our United Church of Christ officers:
A STATEMENT FROM THE UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST REGARDING THE GRAND JURY DECISION IN NEW YORK
It is an inexplicable travesty that the same words used to express our dismay and anger over last week’s Ferguson verdict are now applicable verbatim in the New York.
“We affirm the anger and grief of all people of good conscience who are committed to justice and peace. We stand in solidarity with all African Americans who continue to live in fear of the ignorant, innate institutional racism that threatens daily the lives of young black men women and children. These are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers, our precious children–our family in Christ.
We pray for non-violent demonstration and official response to the outrage that is now being experienced and conveyed. Violence is not the path to justice, it is the root of all injustice.
Silence in the face of injustice is not an option. We therefore cry out with a loud voice for justice in our land plagued with racism.”
We are in agreement with Mayor de Blasio’s (of New York City) statement: “Anyone who believes in the values of this country should feel called to action right now.” As leaders of the United Church of Christ in New York and throughout the nation we stand in solidarity with those bearing witness through prayer, protest, and vigil. We call for a national examination of our judicial system and other institutions spiritually perverted by racism.
Even under clouds of despair we affirm the relentless hope that is ours as a people of faith. May this hope empower us to speak boldly and loudly to shed light on the systematic racism that daily threatens our Beloved Community.
We cannot move forward faithfully until there is honest reform to systems that institutionalize and legitimize racist practices.
Reverend David Gaewski, New York UCC Conference Minister
Reverend Geoffrey Black, UCC General Minister and President
Reverend Linda Jaramillo, UCC Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries
Reverend J. Bennett Guess, UCC Executive Minister for Local Church Ministries
Reverend James Moos, UCC Executive Minister for Wider Church Ministries
These following observations are not so much God’s word as things that I have learned and thought about. You can argue with me about these if you want, but I don’t think I will be easily dissuaded.
- We must realize that most of us here – who are white and part of the majority race in our nation – experience life very differently from people of color in our country. This is hard for most people to appreciate. But it is a reality. When most of us walk into a store to do some shopping, store owners and managers see dollar signs. But when a black person walks into a store, many store owners see a potential shoplifter. I worked for a short time in retail – I know this is true. A black person driving in a white neighborhood is more likely to be pulled over just for being suspicious. Would you tolerate that? We usually blend in; they stick out. The world seems very different when people look at you like a danger – a threat. We usually have no idea how much life is easier for the majority than for a minority persons in our country.
Most of us grew up learning that police were there to “protect and serve.” Many people of color do not view police that way – they instead see them as there to harass them and even beat or kill them.
- The systems of our society don’t usually treat people of different races the same. We like to think of our legal system as the best and fairest in the world. It may be – in theory. But it isn’t in practice.
Government statistics show that in 2009 almost 40% of our U.S. prison population was black (non-hispanic). African-Americans and Blacks made up less than 15% of our nation’s population in 2009. How can that be?
Racial bias is still a reality in America today. We would like to believe it is mostly gone – with the civil rights movement and the election of a black man as President. But it persists – sometimes blatantly. But more often it is found even among well-meaning folks. I do not want to be racially biased — but I still am. I sometimes feel uncomfortable in settings where I am a racial minority. And the result of racial bias – even only a little – at each step in the legal system is stifling more many minorities.
This Sunday we light a candle of peace, and we hear and sing songs of peace. We long for peace. But the biblical concept of shalom – peace – is much richer than the absence of violent conflict. It is more than just people getting along and being nice to one another. God’s shalom is a state in which all people experience “completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfection, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord.”
True shalom is not possible when people live in fear, and with injustice.
In this season of Advent, as we hope and pray for peace, we must also work for it.
Yesterday I met with some of our church leaders and we talked about some ideas of how we might respond. One idea was to put a sign – or signs – outside the church that express our concern for all people. We are working on some ideas.
Another idea was to schedule a meeting with our Indian Head Park police to express our concerns, and to also listen to theirs – about how we can be helpful to them.
I am going to encourage our local elected officials to look for ways to reduce racial bias in our laws and justice system. I urge you to do the same.
I think it would also be good to invite a nearby African American congregation to be our guests for dinner and a chance to talk – to hear about their experiences and concerns and share ours.
What can we all do?
Robert J. von Trebra