Facing America’s Original Sin, Together (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

Do you remember where you were on August 9, 2014?

There are dates that are seared into our very beings. Dates we will never forget. Dates that mark before and after in our lives. Some are moments of profound beauty and happiness: 12/18/1991 (the birth of my first child) and 7/1/2011 (my wedding in Iowa with my beloved). Some are communal and terrifying: 9/11/2001 and the vision of fire.

August 9, 2014 is one of those dates.

I remember where I was and what I was doing when the news broke. The emotions that raged are still a knotted mess. Horror, yes; fear, inexplicable but palpable; and (?) shame. Perhaps it is relevant to point out that ours was and is a multi-racial family. Throughout that summer we’d been parenting two children in foster care. The children were Black with a sea of white caregivers; social workers, counselors, teachers, and even foster parents… all white. Racism was raging in our world and the children were struggling for breath in the midst of it. To say that it was a turbulent summer is understatement. Already by August 9th we’d been advised that the children would be moved, our queer family pushed too hard against the racist system. The children were still unaware but I knew that this was the last Saturday morning that I would be braiding hair, already I was up in my emotions. We were sitting in front of the TV when the news broke into the cartoon reverie to tell the story of yet another police shooting, this time a lifeless body left bleeding on the pavement and a crowd was gathering. My fingers slowed and I caught the silhouette of the younger child as she watched the screen in horror.

The injustice of the world was laid bare. Michael Brown was an unarmed teen, just graduated from high school and headed to college, killed by a police officer who found his very presence as a large Black man to be frightening. And when the people cried out in pain, troops descended to quell the outrage.

On August 9, in the year of our Lord 2014, I sat up and listened. With thousands of others, I moved out onto the streets and learned to pray with my feet. This date is marked in my life with before and after.

The gospel this morning opens with a question. What would it take to get you (or I) to listen? Jesus came in all of his radicalness and was met with disbelief. John was deeply pious (deeply religious in every aspect of his life) and still the people were uninterested. ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ What does it take to shake us from the status quo? To create those life changing moments that we mark with before and after?

As I read this very familiar gospel text in the aftermath of August 9, 2014, two things become clear.

(1) We aren’t listening. Things are not getting better, especially not for Black folk. Not in Ferguson, not in St. Louis county, not in this metro area. And in this nation, as a whole, in this current political climate? I daresay things have gotten even worse. Or, at least, more bold. The stakes are perilously high.
(2) We have omitted a crucial piece of the gospel reading. The lectionary conveniently omits 5 troubling verses, Matthew 11:20-24. These are the woe to you passages, with a description of the eternal torment awaiting all those who tarry. And whilst I would be tempted to agree with the Lectionary editors that these verses are a bit too graphic for the Sunday morning crowd, at least in nice white America, the daily news is far more graphic for Black folk here and now. Such that even our willingness (or lack of) to read the gospel in its entirety is reflective of our white privilege.

As I have stood on the streets bearing witness to the other America, it is painfully clear that the stakes are shockingly high. Quite frankly, the woe and doom of Matthew’s verse is pretty tame compared with what I see boiling just beneath the surface in America. If we can’t find the will to dance with Jesusand address the most original sins of our nation, we will live to see our undoing. Bottom line: like it or not, the woes are real.

On August 19, 2015, more than a year after Michael Brown’s murder, my friends sent out an alert. The police had killed another unarmed youth near the corner of Page and Walton and (already at noon) were responding to neighborhood crowds with riot gear and threatening tear gas. I was in school at the time, teaching special education at Southeast Middle, and by the time I got to the scene the police were gone and the neighbors standing around pretty shell shocked. First to have the nephew of a resident murdered in a drug raid gone bad, then to have the police terrorize those who gathered to grieve. We stood in solidarity as the activity buses rolled through and the last round of children were just arriving home. That’s when we saw it, in the distance but unmistakable. An advancing army. The SLMPD decked out in riot gear, fully armed, flanked by tanks, marching in formation down Page Avenue. The line, several soldiers deep, spanned from front porch to front porch, covering front yards, side walks, and the wide city street. Marching in time, beating the batons. Towards who? For what? Yes, there were people filling the sidewalks and yards and (yes) streets; people talking, crying, shouting, grieving. No violence, no destruction. None. I was standing there on the corner at Page and Walton. Disbelieving, but witnessing nonetheless. There were still toddlers and elders on the lawn, school children in uniforms riding their bikes, and adults watching incredulously as the army arrived at the corner. I’m standing in front of the market, breaking no law and knowing that I have every right to be standing right where I was, and also realizing that it wasn’t going to matter.

I remember the unintelligible drone of the loud speaker, reminiscent of terrible nights in Ferguson, and then I saw the flash of fire as it began. In all there were at least four chemical weapons poured out in the neighborhood, none identifiable. Some that burned with increasing intensity when water was used to wash them off. It was a nightmare unleashed that was unimaginable. It lasted for almost an hour with tanks and troops circling round and round a four block area, filling the air and soil and residents with chemicals and trauma. Children ran for the lives, elders too. I stood for a moment, in hesitation and incredulity, as the tank rolled down the side street, right beside me. As it passed me it stopped, and then backed up to where I was standing and an arm extended to aim it’s weapon spray directly at me. I was the target. It’s a moment I will never forget. I dove for cover into a nearby car where my friends were hiding. The police then threw a gas canister directly under the car in which we were huddled for safety. The night was filled with harrowing stories, truly hell opened that night and I saw the living face of evil.

In truth it is this night, more than any other, that changed my life. No longer could I deny the omnipresent evil to which I’d slowly been waking. Every shred of pollyanna was ripped from my heart that night and I was left believing that we are indeed in a battle for the soul of this nation. In 23 years of parish pastoring, I never felt the need to include these omitted verses from Matthew’s gospel. But now I do. We are at a precipice. And woe to us if we don’t repent, and quickly.

Jim Wallis (of Sojourners fame) published a book last year entitled “America’s Original Sin”. The subtitle reveals his thesis: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Importantly Wallis also published a (free and online) study guide and the first three sessions parallel the movement of this morning’s gospel.  

(1) The first is acknowledgement, the wake up call. An honest and heart rending repudiation of the evil that is as close to us as… well, our next breath. Jesus is playing the flute, will we dance?

(2) The second step is education or, as I’ve come to understand, unlearning. This is facing the woe, looking full into the face of the evil, unlearning white supremacy piece by piece. This is learning that Officer Friendly is a white myth, that modern day policing owes its rhythm to slave catching, that the systems that serve us as white folk function to oppress those who are not.

(3) Willis’ third chapter imagining Beloved Community speaks to the third movement of today’s gospel. In the gospel passage, Jesus moves from frustration that nobody’s listening, to a rant about the dire consequences, and then offers an otherwise inexplicable shift to “my burden is easy, my yoke is light”.

If we’ve done due diligence and considered the missing section’s dire prediction about our current situation, this burden is easy stuff doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Wallis would say (in a word): community. We need each other. Robert Fulghum, in his famous piece entitled “All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” had this as #13 on his list: When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.  Watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together. Yes. But Wallis adds an important caveat for those determined to address the evil of white supremacy: notice with whom you’re holding hands. Because our choice of playground buddies will make all the difference in the change that we do, or don’t, make in this world. As Wallis talks about building the beloved community he remembers that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week and that beloved community MUST be multiracial community. 

Curiously the omitted verses of woe from Matthew’s gospel invoke the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Whilst Christendom has tried to make Sodom synonymous with homosexuality, nothing could be further from the truth. Biblically speaking, Sodom and Gomorrah are synonymous with the sin of being inhospitable, of refusing to offer community to the other. Jesus’ teaching is that if we listen, if we offer community, the burden will be easy. But if we don’t? Well, doom. Community is the key; community not with kin folk, community across the lines.

As we follow the spirit to seek the beloved community we will find ourselves in places we can’t now imagine. Looking to how my life has unfolded in these past few years, well, I couldn’t have foreseen it. I’ve been in St. Louis for 21 years, the first 16 years of which were spent in Webster Groves serving as church on Lockwood Avenue. Though I cared deeply about racism and passionately advocated for racial justice, I had little awareness of what it is to be white in America. I had not yet critically examined my own whiteness.

Today I live on the city’s north side, teach at Southeast Middle School in Spanish Lake and daily I consider the ways in which I white. The fabric of my life changed as my community changed after Ferguson and again after Page and Walton. Fostering these life changes has been a close circle of friends, circle that is family, that is for me beloved community. This circle is Black and queer and loves me unconditionally and holds me absolutely accountable, this circle is family that stood with me in the face of police attack and now sits with me at holiday tables. Challenged, empowered, accountable… the fabric of my life began to change.

When you hold hands and cross the road, you will find yourself in places you never imagined existed. And it’s pretty darn amazing.

Here’s the thing: the spirit is calling us to do a new thing and we tarry. The consequences are steep (and growing). But if we dare to embrace the dance, we will discover that the burden is actually easy, the yoke is unbelievably light.

May it be so.

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