Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.
But wanting to justify himself, the proud church-goer asked Jesus, “And just who is my neighbor?”
“An African American father of five was selling CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart,” Jesus began.
Well. You know how that story ends. Alton Sterling was his name.
The next day, a liberal white woman, wanting to believe that police killings of black men are an aberration and that white racism is a thing of the past, asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
“A beloved school cafeteria manager,” Jesus began, “a gentle man who had been pulled over by police as many as 52 times in the previous 14 years, was pulled over yet again. This time police told the man his car had a broken taillight, but the police dispatcher recorded the officer saying he was stopping the car because the driver had a ‘wide nose’ similar to that of a wanted robbery suspect. And oh,” Jesus added, “he was African American.”
Philando Castile was his name and, well, you saw how that turned out.
Then, the very next day, an entire nation of well-meaning, God-fearing, conflict-avoiding, privileged white people breathed broken-hearted sighs of relief—because at least they knew who their neighbors were: Those brave Dallas police officers who had been working to serve and protect participants in a Black Lives Matter protest: Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson.
They were grief-stricken, but at least the all-important lines between right and wrong, us and them, and, yes, black and white were clear again, and back in their usual places. And as the awkward silences and uncomfortable conversations of previous days gave way to outpourings of sorrow and blame, they didn’t even hear Jesus say:
“There was angry young black man, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan . . .”
His name was Micah Johnson and he, too, ended up dead, summarily executed by a robot-controlled bomb.
Over the next couple of days, thousands of African Americans and their allies gathered in cities and towns across this country for protests and marches and vigils. They lit candles and carried signs and sang songs. They told stories of racism and injustice; they shared their experiences of mistreatment; they expressed grief and rage; they demanded change. And at one of these gatherings, at least, they uttered not a word about the dead police officers in Dallas.
So scarred were they by centuries of white supremacy and institutional and interpersonal racism, so familiar were they with systems and policies that treated their black and brown bodies as less than and other than, so long had they been treated as the other, as something to be feared, that they did not even ask Jesus who their neighbor was.
In a nation newly wounded by racist hatred, with the racial divide perhaps even sharper and deeper than a week before, with people of all races hurting and angry and scared, in a multiracial mess of raw feelings, they continued to chant “Black Lives Matter.” And despite the fact that their protests were peaceful, police continued to arrest them. Despite graphic evidence to the contrary, passers-by continued to yell “All lives matter.”
Beloveds, you know all too well that this is not a series of parables. This is not set of stories designed to reveal to us in a new way who we are and who God is, who our neighbors are, and how to we can gain the fullness of life. There are no demonstrations of mercy and compassion, no good Samaritans in these real-life events. It is up to us to make meaning, and bring transformation and redemption out of these tragedies.
Oh, I’ve seen the videos of black people reaching out to white cops; I’ve read some stirring accounts of people of different races grieving together; I know there are good things happening; and I’ve cried tears of both grief and gratitude. I could share some of those stories with you. After all, it is my job, my calling, to preach the good news of God’s extravagant love and tender mercy, to offer a word of hope in a world of hurt.
But I am also called to be a prophet—to speak truth to power, to lift up the least of these, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—that we might all be healed and transformed, that we might come together as beloved children of God.
I don’t feel that this this morning is a time to focus on the feel-good. Our neighbors—black and brown people, LGBTQ people, law enforcement officials, and, yes, white people, too—are hurting and angry and confused. Our neighbors—our black and brown neighbors, especially—are beaten up and bloodied and lying in a deep dark ditch. We need to understand that those words we sang a few minutes ago—“stony the road we trod . . . a way that with tears has been watered, . . . a path through the blood of the slaughtered” is not only the history of our African American neighbors, but also a present-day reality. We need to understand that even in 2016, even in Amherst, many of our African American neighbors do not feel safe—because they are not safe.
We cannot be, we must not be, the people who cross over to the other side of the road because the inconvenient truths and bloody videos of racism make us uncomfortable. We cannot go about our way and simply wait for things to get back to “normal” when “normal,” the status quo, is totally unacceptable. We cannot be a people who refuses to acknowledge our own racism, to understand our white privilege. Yes, we must use our privilege to bind up the wounded, but we must also utilize our power to change the system that dehumanizes, discriminates against, and wounds and kills our neighbors as a matter of course.
In the end, Jesus helped the lawyer to see that it’s more important to be a neighbor than to concern ourselves with who our neighbors are and are not. Jesus defined neighborly love as something that we do. A neighbor is one who shows mercy and compassion. A neighbor is one who does justice. A neighbor, Dr. King said, not only pulls the wounded one out of the ditch but works to change the system so that travelers are no longer beaten and left for dead, so that drivers are not stopped for no reason and then killed for being black.
A loving neighbor, Jesus said, is one who reaches out to their enemy, the one who is not like them, the ones who are in need.
“Go and do likewise,” Jesus said.
Well, it’s a nice parable, Jesus. But what does it mean for us in these raw days of racial violence and grief? How do we show mercy to an entire race? How do we heal wounds that have been hundreds of years in the making? How do we do justice when our white supremacy is enforced by militaristic police forces and the entire country is awash in guns? How do we even speak across the chasms of difference and different lived experiences that divide us?
We cannot know for sure. But certainly it will involve much listening. It will involve much confession. Certainly it will require us to open our hearts with intention—and leave them open, no matter how deep the pain. It will require us to follow the lead of our siblings of color—which is why members of the Anti-Racism Ministry Team were on the Common Friday evening. It will make us uncomfortable.
Like many of you, I spent much of last week in an unbearable mess of grief and guilt. I was sickened by the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, but at least the narrative was clear: Surely, even most white people could see what was going on. Surely more people would come to understand and support the Black Lives Matter movement. Surely these precious lives would not be lost in vain.
And then, like you, I awoke Friday morning to the news of five police officers shot dead in Dallas. I was shattered. I expressed my grief on Facebook. I said the obvious, which is that violence is never the answer. But then I noticed a very disturbing thing: Friends who had been silent all through the reactions to the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile killings, suddenly spoke up.
What? I thought. Where have you been all week?
And so I posted something else on Facebook. It went like this:
If you haven’t been grieving the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, if you didn’t also keen over the massacre of 49 children of God and the one who took their lives, if your heart didn’t stop and break a little more every time you heard the news of another black man gunned down by police, of the nine black Christians killed by racist hate while they studied the Bible, I don’t want to hear your mourning for those precious police officers in Dallas.
I shouldn’t need to say this, but: Alton Sterling’s life mattered just as much as theirs. Philando Castile was every bit as much a beloved child of God. God wept over every LGBTQ person taken at the Pulse Nightclub. And God weeps every time a life is taken. Indeed, Jesus said we murder whenever our hearts are filled with hate.
So please don’t use the killings of the police in Dallas to further divide. Please don’t use their deaths to escalate the hate. They dedicated their lives to keeping all people safe.
Let us mourn every life taken in hatred and fear. Let us repent of every vengeful thought and of our own racism. Let us put down all our privilege and, as Jesus did, dedicate ourselves to walking with and living for the marginalized and oppressed. Let us say no to violence in every way we can. Let us gaze upon one another with love, recognizing one another as siblings, children of the Holy One. Let us not only pray for peace but *work* for it. Let us work for an end to racism and all violence. Let us LOVE one another.
And then I spent much of the rest of the day taking flack for those comments—from white people who had come late to the conversation, from white people who had engaged only after white cops had been gunned down in cold blood by a black man.
And then I went to a gathering on the Common where Dallas was ignored altogether. (Don’t get me wrong: A lot of good and important things happened there, but Dallas was ignored.)
So I went home more heartbroken and dispirited than before, more aware than ever before that we are, all of us, lying broken and breaking in the ditch. I went home yearning more than ever to be a neighbor and to have a neighbor.
Beloveds, we have got to come together. In the words of the white liberal economist and political activist Robert Reich: “We can hold these two thoughts in our heads at the same time—that people of color are subjected to higher rates of unconstitutional policing, including loss of life; and that most police officers are doing their best to act fairly and honorably. We can mourn police victims and victims of police at the same time.”
In the words of the African American commentator Van Jones: “Everybody’s got to reach deep down and find some empathy. If you cried for the brother who bled out next to his fiancee, but you didn’t cry this morning for those police officers, it’s time to do a heart check. If you cried for those police officers, but you have a hard time taking seriously all these videos that are coming out about African Americans dying, it’s time to do a heart check. We are either going to come together or come apart.”
If we truly seek to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we will also love ourselves and our neighbor as ourselves. We will come together. In the words of Jesus, we, like the despised Samaritan, will need to show mercy to those who may hate and oppress us. We will need to be gentle with one another, and kind to all.
So, let us go and do likewise. And may God have mercy on us all.