May 31, 2020

“How Long, O God?”

Genesis 1:26-27, Matthew 7:12, James 2:8-9.

 

I had planned on preaching about Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit today, as I know Pentecost has been an important Sunday here at this church - brightly colored crepe paper and images of doves all over the sanctuary, wearing red, etc.  I had planned on preaching about the specific gifts Paul listed in his letter to the Corinthian church, and whether or not they still exist today, and if so in what form. I had planned on preaching about where we can find the Spirit today.

 

Then I saw the video of yet another African American man dying, due to a policeman choking him to death. I heard him pleading for his life, saying he “couldn’t breathe” and “please stop.” I saw the policeman’s lack of concern as he had his knee on George Floyd’s neck, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, about the time it takes to preach ½ of this sermon, while bystanders pleaded for him to stop. For the last 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that 8 minutes and 46 seconds, George was unresponsive. Yet the officer, who was finally charged with 3rd-degree murder on Friday, kept his knee upon George Floyd’s neck, even as bystanders told him he was unresponsive, even as other officers wondered if it was time to turn him over and let him up.  By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late. George Floyd was dead. I then saw the protests in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis, Phoenix, and all over this country, most of them peaceful, some of them filled with rage and knew the Spirit of God was among those who were crying out for justice peacefully. I knew that same Holy Spirit was calling me to preach upon something other than Pentecost today. The elements of Pentecost are all still here - the hymns, special music, the liturgy, and some decoration. However, today’s focus is on matters of hatred and issues of race, for God’s Spirit put an ache in my heart to preach upon it today.

 

How long, O God, will we neglect to see someone of a different color of skin as the other? How long will we not recognize that human beings are sacred, made in your image? How long will we keep holding onto systems that oppress people of color? How long will we keep on neglecting the golden rule in our society, to treat others in the same way we want to be treated? How long will we continue to remain passive to voices of racism, voices that show partiality, that believe one race of people is better than another? How long will we neglect your word on how we are to treat each other? How long O God?

 

So, I say the name, George Floyd, just 3 weeks after saying the name Ahmaud Arbery. I say his name to remember he was not just a victim. He was a person. He was a child of God who should still be alive today. Christianity Today published an article just 3 days after George Floyd was murdered, to let us know that Mr. Floyd was a believer. “The rest of the country knows George Floyd from several minutes of cell phone footage captured during his final hours. But in Houston’s Third Ward, they know Floyd for how he lived for decades—a mentor to a generation of young men and a person of peace, ushering ministries into the area.

Before moving to Minneapolis for a job opportunity through a Christian work program, the 46-year-old spent almost his entire life in the historically black Third Ward, where he was called ‘Big Floyd’ and regarded as… a de-facto community leader and elder statesmen, his ministry partners say.

 

Floyd spoke of breaking the cycle of violence, he saw among young people and used his influence to bring outside Christian ministries to the area to do discipleship and outreach, particularly in the Cuney Homes housing project, locally known as the Bricks. George Floyd was a person of peace sent from the Lord that helped the gospel go forward in a place that I never lived in, said Patrick Ngwolo, pastor of Resurrection Houston, which held services at Cuney.

 

George Floyd moved to Minnesota around 2018, his family told the Houston Chronicle. He was there for a discipleship program including a job placement, according to pastor Ngwolo. “A ‘Bricks boy’’ doesn’t just leave the Third Ward and go to Minnesota!” he said. He lost his job as a bouncer for a nightclub due to the pandemic. Floyd had plans to return to Houston this summer. He was suspected of giving a counterfeit $20 bill to a convenience store cashier, which led to his arrest and his death.

 

I do not know if Mr. Floyd knew he had a counterfeit bill, or if in fact, he was the one who passed it on to the cashier. I do know that I too have been suspected of passing on a fake bill, when a number of counterfeit bills infiltrated Fort Bragg, where we lived, prior to coming to Ashland. I apologized to the person who saw the bill as counterfeit and paid for my goods through a debit card. I was not detained or arrested, most likely because I am a white man. I know this - a $20 counterfeit bill is not worth killing a person over. Ever.

 

I am angry and am acknowledging that anger. I am angry at yet another black man being killed at the hands of authorities. I find myself angry that we cannot seem to pull the roots of racism out of this beloved country. And although I do not condone the violence in the street protests, I think I understand it as well as a white man who has lived out of white privilege his whole life. George Floyd’s long-time friend, Christopher Harris said, “The way he died was senseless. He begged for his life. He pleaded for his life. When you try so hard to put faith in this system, a system that you know isn't designed for you, when you constantly seek justice by lawful means and you can't get it, you begin to take the law into your own hands.” For so long this system has oppressed people of color. American novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively aware is to be in a rage almost all the time.When justice does not come repeatedly, protest and rage are not far behind. Despite the years of protests over repeated killings of young African Americans, no one is listening. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Protest is the voice of the unheard. When will we begin to listen?

 

I am angry that some white people in power are already pushing back. A mayor in Petal, Mississippi said to his city council that he saw “nothing unreasonable” in the video of Mr. Floyd’s death. “If you can say you can’t breathe, you’re breathing. Most likely that man died of overdose or heart attack. Video doesn’t show his resistance that got him in that position. Police are being crucified.The city council is calling for his resignation, but he refuses to step down. He and others like him do not see Mr. Floyd as a reflection of God, made in God’s image. They see with eyes of partiality.

 

What then, can we people of faith do? How can we respond? How can we try to heal the cancer of racism, which has been part of the body of this nation since its founding? I read a powerful statement by Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz, who tweeted, "Being from North Dakota, I spent a large part of my life surrounded by people of similar color, so I’m never gonna act like I know what the black community goes through or even has gone through already. I’ll never know the feeling of having to worry about my kids going outside because of their skin color. However, I do know that we are all equal at the foot of the cross and Jesus taught us to value others’ lives like they were our own - regardless of skin tone.

 

Where then, do people of faith begin, as people in our nation continue to devalue someone because of their skin color when we know and are led by God to believe we are all equal at the foot of the cross? How can we help others to see all people as reflections of the God who made them? How can we spread the message that God is not partial, and that humanity is not meant to be partial - to see someone as better than another? What can we do?

 

We can begin by acknowledging the painful truth, starting with ourselves. I spent a good 5 minutes looking at the booking picture and into the eyes of the officer who has been charged with the murder of Mr. Floyd, Derek Chauvin. I looked into those eyes and finally had to admit, deep down I have racist thoughts and attitudes. A few months ago, after going to see a movie late night at Tinsel Town Theaters in Medford (remember those days?), I pulled into a nearby gas station to get some gas, right around 11:15 p.m. There was one attendant, who was busy doing a transaction at the convenience store inside. On the other side of the counter, there was a young African American man, wearing a hooded jacket. I admit wondering if perhaps the attendant was about to be robbed. I considered what I would do just in case things got rough. Nothing happened of course, except that I beat myself up inside for not seeing the personhood of that young man, and seeing him instead as a threat just due to his skin color. This is not the only time I have had those internal discussions. At times, I am no better inside than that officer was in the moment while he choked the life out of Mr. Floyd. I don’t like sharing that story, but it is time, to be honest about my own inherent racism.

 

Author and blogger Jennifer Louden recently wrote an article, entitled, “Yes, I Am a Racist.” I posted the entire article on my Facebook page yesterday, and encourage you to read all of it.  In part, she writes, “This is a post about how I can be part of changing how race is lived out in my world. This is a post about not pretending. Not pretending I lean away from the discomfort I still sometimes feel with people of color. Not pretending I don’t have an unconscious bias running me. Not pretending I’d rather not deal with being racist, how racism kills, maims, thwarts. Yep, give me climate change any day. Rather go toe to toe with a climate change denier than my own racism any day.

“Because I’m a racist. And yes, writing that sentence makes me sick to my stomach, and to admit it frees me to stop throwing up my hands and declaring, It’s too complicated; I can’t do anything about this. I am routinely, consistently, profoundly biased. I’m willing to admit it. Again, and again. How about you?

 

We need to acknowledge our own struggles with racism and be willing to admit them out loud. Romans 3:23 reminds us, all of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Name that sin - RACISM. Admit your own struggles with partiality and ask God for help, for change, and for grace.

 

It’s a painful, raw, and real place to begin. But we cannot return to the past. Nelson Mandela, as he was fighting institutionalized racism in South Africa said, “[A] new society cannot be created by reproducing the repugnant past, however, refined or enticingly repackaged.Christians need to be about change, and it begins with us. Let God begin to change that inner nature, that sin of racism. Paul says in Romans 12:1-2, “I appeal to you, therefore, sisters and brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Do not be conformed to the patterns of this nation and its ancient, racist roots. Renew your minds. Read the passages of scripture for today’s sermon and imbed them in your souls. Read blogs like Jennifer Louden’s, or books like Waking Up White, by Debbie Irving. We have two book clubs in our congregation. I challenge them to read a book like that, painful though it may be and have some deep, honest discussions about the sin of racism so that God can begin that work of transforming our minds.

 

In addition, look at ways to bring about change. Author and speaker Jemar Tisby lists a few possibilities: “Some actions to affect policing at a broad level include:

  • Financially supporting organizations dedicated to eliminating police violence
  • Calling state and local officials to advocate for changes in their law enforcement platform
  • Meeting with local mayors, council members, and law enforcement leaders to hear their thoughts on policing and the community and to make your thoughts known
  • Demanding public transparency in the negotiation of police union contracts.”

 

How long O God? We as Christians need to admit our own sin when it comes to racism, and find concrete ways of making this world, “on earth as it is in heaven.” Because it isn’t right now.  Some heavy lifting to bring about real justice for people of color needs to happen in this nation. Some painful, honest discussion about who we are, some difficult work of reconciliation needs to happen now as well. How long, O God? How long? God be with us on this painful, difficult journey, however long it takes. Amen.

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