Once again we enter the season of Advent, the season when we intentionally sit back to wait and watch for the coming of the Reign of God. It is the time of year when our words change quickly from “Crown Him with Many Crowns” to “O come, o come Emmanuel.” The cry of Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence,” sets the tone for the next four weeks.
As I read these opening words in prayer this week, all I could respond with was, “soon Lord Jesus, soon.” It seems there is no better time than the present for the Reign of God to come ushering forward. Lord knows we need it more than ever as stores and cars burned this week in Ferguson, Missouri after a grand jury decided not to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson for fatally shooting Michael Brown. The destruction in Ferguson and the ongoing protests throughout the country leave many of us scratching our heads and wondering what’s really going on, and asking why there is so much anger over this one decision.
It is not surprising that we find ourselves asking so many questions, especially in light of the community we are. Even though we are a predominately a white congregation, as far as I can tell we have always been accepting open to anyone who walks through our doors.
Last spring I had the honor of presiding at Frank Warren’s memorial service. Frank was part of an extensive African American family that hs been part of Camillus since 1912. As I prepared for the service, I had the opportunity to speak with Frank’s brother and other members of the Warren family. All of them spoke to me of their experiences growing up as part of St. Luke’s. . . of the friends they made here and of the countless festal services they performed at with other members of the community. Members of this community also approached me with stories about Frank and his siblings, all shared similar stories, of how their children played together at each other’s homes, and served together as acolytes here at St. Luke’s. As I listened to stories about Frank and his family it appears as if St. Luke’s was a snap shot of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream in which a person was not judged by the color of his skin, but by his character.
As I listened to these stories, I was amazed how different your experience of the late sixties and early seventies was from my own growing up in Irving, Texas.
Irving, Texas in the late sixties was a very different place than it is today. Just prior to the building of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, the physical vestiges of segregation had just been removed from the area. And yet, the nonphysical vestiges were still in place. Neighborhoods remained segregated. Of the few children of color who did attend our public schools, most did not succeed. I was never taught bigotry, but by the age of ten, I was aware of the color lines that stood between Caucasians and everyone else. I remember attending church camp and becoming friends with Googe, a child of Color from the inner city of Dallas. I knew while the friendship was okay in the safety and the progressive world of church camp, it would not be okay at home.
While things have changed in the forty years since I left Dallas, a colleague from West Texas told me that he is often reminded by his leaders that things may be changing, but West Texas is still West Texas and there are still boundaries not to be crossed.
I have often wondered what it feels like to live on the wrong side of those boundaries.
Barbara Harris, the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Anglican Communion, often speaks of what it was like to grow up as a black child just outside of Philadelphia. She speaks of being a young child and singing the Sanctus each weak and wondering if the “arch” angels, or as she heard it as a young child, the “dark” angels were black like her. She once asked why the Bishop wore gloves when he confirmed black children so as noy to dirty his hands when she always had clean hair.
I wonder what it is like to grow up believing the police, those who are trained to protect and serve the community, are the enemy and not an ally. I have often wondered how whole communities had come to believe this until four years ago.
We are blessed to have the police department we have in Camillus. Nine out of the ten times I have had to interact with the Camillus Police Department, I have had nothing but high praise for the service I have received from them. But there is that one time, that anomaly in service four years ago when I was made to feel uncomfortable and unsafe in the presence of one of our officers.
This happened on the night of Kayleigh’s graduation party. After receiving the proper permissions to conduct an outside event with a DJ, our neighbor, as expected, complained. Instead of dispatching a mature, well-seasoned officer to the scene, a young, inexperienced officer was sent. It was clear, this officer was not familiar with the community policing tactics used by the Camillus P.D. His tactics were more about the use of intimidation and the abuse of power. He was not interested in hearing our story or discussing the town ordinances. His only agenda was to forcefully makes obey his agenda. I have never felt so unsafe in the presence of a police officer as I did that night.
After an investigation by Chief Winn, it was explained that the officer was new to the department. That he had been hired from the Syracuse PD and had not yet fully acculturated to the practices of our PD.
I can’t imagine what my attitude towards the police would be if my only experience of the police were that of aggression, control and an inexcusable lack of respect.
Out of all the commentary written in relation to the issues surrounding Michael Brown, I believe one pastor summed it up best. The issue, he wrote, is not about race, it’s not about police brutality, these are but symptoms of a greater issue, the deeper issue is the general lack of respect we hold for each other.
Michael Brown would be alive today, if he had been respectful of the store owner’s property, of the police officer who asked him to move from the middle of the road to the sidewalk. Michael Brown would be alive today if our police did not have to work in a world and a society in which there is a preponderance of concealed weaponry and now must assume everyone they stop is carrying a lethal weapon and thus life threatening. Michael Brown would be alive today if Officer had approached him with respect.
However, in order to respect others, we need to be able to love and respect ourselves. And so I wonder how we are to teach respect and self-esteem to the child who receives none at home. Who, through the gang warfare he or she has witnessed in his or her neighborhood has learned life is fleeting and worthless. Who, through the media, and through the subtle messages of those in authority, have come to believe that their lives are worth less than a pack of cigarillos.
If we truly want the heavens to tear open and the Reign of God to come forth, then we need to do our part to prepare the way of the Lord by loving our neighbor as ourselves, by respecting the dignity of every human being. This is more easily said than done. So often our first reaction is to treat others as they are treating us. But this is not the example Christ taught. No matter how abysmally he was treated by others, he always responded with respect and ultimately with forgiveness.
Why? For where there is forgiveness, there is the hope for respect. Where there is respect, there is hope for trust. Where there is trust there is the absence of fear. And where there is the absence of fear, there you will find the signs for the Reign of God.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.