August 28th will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream speech.” Toward the end of this speech, Dr. King laid out his dream for America in terms of what racial equality could/should look like. As I reread the speech, I realize not only did Dr. King set a vision for racial equality in America, he also described what the reign of God will be like. As I take time to reflect on this speech fifty years later, I have to ask, how have we, as a country, progressed in terms of civil rights and racism?
On the surface, it appears we have made great progress. For the last five years, an African-American has been serving as our President. Many members from “minority” communities hold leadership positions in large cities and throughout government. In business, we see people like Oprah Winfrey and Stedman Graham leading business empires. But when we look beneath the surface of American life, beyond President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Stedman Graham and many others, reality looks very different.
African-Americans and other minority populations in this country continue to be disproportionately represented among those who are unemployed, among the working poor, receiving welfare and/or serving time in jail. Laws such as the “stand your ground” law that helped exonerate George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin have tripled the number of justifiable homicide findings since their inception several years ago. However, current statistics indicate white defendants benefit more frequently than others when this law is applied. This week the Yahoo/ABC news reel reported a recent case in Florida in which an African-American woman, who held a concealed gun license, discharged a warning shot in her home against her abusive husband, with whom she had a restraining order. She was found guilty of endangerment, despite the fact she aimed the gun at a wall with no one being injured. She is in her third year of a twenty year sentence.
Unfortunately, mainline media, Facebook and other social media and statistics, indicate stories like these are not the exception but the rule within the African-American communities. As I have reflected on the Zimmerman trial this week, I find it sad that the trial seemed to be more about Mr. Zimmerman’s right to stand his ground, to defend himself, and to pursue an innocent teenager who for “no apparent reason” he felt suspicious of. It doesn’t appear as if Trayvon Martin’s rights were ever taken into consideration. His right to stand his ground. His right to walk in his father’s gated community without being harassed or followed. His right to confront an individual following him for no reason other than he was wearing a hoodie while holding a box of skittles and a can of ice tea.
Sadly, although finding of Mr. Zimmerman not guilty upheld the letter of the law, it is clear to many that justice was not served. And what this not guilty verdict says to most in the African-American community is what a sixteen year old black youth said point blank to me twenty-five years ago, “my life isn’t worth anything.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King dreamed of a day when his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The not guilty verdict from the Zimmerman trial and others like it indicate we, as a nation, have not progressed far enough these past fifty years. The Reverend Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows articulated this reality best when she shared on Facebook, “The Zimmerman verdict won’t keep me up at night. I get it: “not guilty” doesn’t equal “innocent”. What keeps me up at night is being the mother of a son who is lauded by strangers as “cute” at 2.5 years but in just over a decade may be perceived as a threat by the same just because he is male and black. In the time it takes me to post this status another young black man is shot in this country.”
She then adds, “ I can’t change the Zimmerman verdict but we can all do something to change the world we live in.” I am not sure these final words meet the definition of being prophetic. However, they are, no doubt, a call to action. This past week I have heard from many of you how disappointed and even angry you are with the Zimmerman verdict. Rightly, many of you recognize the verdict as racial injustice. But it is not enough to sit back and be frustrated or angry. WE need to use that sense of indignation to move us toward action. Too many times I have witnessed this country move into a frenetic sense of injustice over an issue only to fill the World Wide Web with rhetoric but never any real, substantial action. But as Mother Jennifer proclaims, “we can all do something to change the world we live in.”
I find it odd I should be preaching a sermon on action in light of this morning’s Gospel. So often the focus of the Martha and Mary story is on Jesus reprimanding Martha for not taking the time to sit at his feet and listen as Mary does. However, I wonder what he would have said had Martha not taken the time to prepare the meal, to provide the customary hospitality as was expected in his day. Would the sisters have been rebuked in the same way the Pharisee was who failed to offer to wash Jesus’ feet while he was in the Pharisee’s home for dinner?
Prayer, my spiritual director often reminds me, should lead to action. Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet should inspire her towards action on behalf of the Kingdom. Last week we heard the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this familiar parable we heard how the Pharisee and the Levite justify not helping a man who has been beaten and left for dead on the side of a road because they wish to remain ritually pure. The reason for this parable is to teach us as to who our neighbor is. And the answer is everyone and anyone who is the victim of violence and injustice. At Baptism we vow to seek and serve justice, and just before the parable of the Good Samaritan was read last week we were reminded that part of the great commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
If we feel we are entitled to walk within our neighborhoods without being questioned or followed, then everyone is. If we feel we should be able to stand our ground to protect ourselves from violence, then everyone else should be as well. If we feel we should be able to shop where we wish without being watched, then everyone else should be as well. But sadly, this is not true for all, even here in Central New York. And if this reality bothers us, then maybe we can join with others to identify how racism manifests itself here in Central New York, and work towards change.
Maybe we cannot effect change in Florida or beyond Syracuse, but with true passion and zeal, we can work for change right here so that maybe, by the time young Timothy Burrows is old enough for college, he can attend one of the many colleges in our area and walk freely and without being feared throughout our neighborhoods because he happens to be black. Maybe in a decades time, black parents will not have to be vigilant in reminding their teen age sons not to walk with their hands in their pockets or else be suspected of carrying a gun. And maybe, just maybe, Dr. King’s dream for his children will become a reality in Syracuse where no person is judged by the color of his or her skin, but by the quality or their Character.
Let us pray;
Gracious Father, we pray for this country of ours. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt,purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior. Amen.