Sermon August 24, 2014
St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Roman 12: 1-8
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
God of love, open our hearts to each other. Give us the courage to resist oppression. Help us protect the world from evil. Give us the wisdom to see ourselves as we truly are. Give us the vision to see you and hear your voice.
Give us the courage to answer your call. Grant us the endurance to use our gifts for the purpose of your realm. Work your transforming love within us
that we may know your will and serve you with joy. Amen.
- On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an African American man was seen on a cell phone video being choked to death by New York City police with what appeared to have been excessive force, ostensibly for selling single cigarettes.
- On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, a 17-year-old African American boy in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot in the back while holding his hands in the air indicating that he was unarmed. Both killings were perpetrated by white police officers.
- In November 2012, Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old African American resident of Jacksonville, Florida, was killed by Michael David Dunn, a 45-year-old white man, for playing his music too loudly while sitting in a car. Dunn was convicted of attempted murder. He was not convicted of murder due to a hung jury. The “Stand Your Ground” defense was used in the Dunn case.
- In July 2012, Chavis Carter, a 21-year-old African American who was handcuffed in the back of a police car in Jonesboro, Arkansas, is alleged to have shot himself in the head with a concealed weapon (while handcuffed). Questions remain as to the validity of police reports in Carter’s alleged suicide.
- Oscar Grant was a 22-year-old African American man on a subway platform in Oakland, California. He was apprehended by police and shot dead while in custody on January 1, 2009. The white police officer was exonerated after saying he thought he had pulled his Taser.
- Just two days after Michael Brown died in a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., another unarmed young African-American man was shot and killed by police here in Los Angeles. According to a statement released by the Los Angeles Police Department, 25-year-old Ezell Ford was stopped by two uniformed officers on Aug. 11. The officers attempted to speak with Mr. Ford, but police say he continued walking and made suspicious movements, including trying to conceal his hands. When the officers tried to stop him, police say, Mr. Ford “turned, grabbed one of the officers, and a struggle ensued,” during which both fell to the ground. Police say Mr. Ford tried to grab the gun from an officer’s holster, prompting the other officer to fire his weapon and the policeman on the ground to fire his backup weapon. The officers handcuffed Mr. Ford and paramedics took him to a hospital, where he later died. According to Ezell’s mother he had a history of mental illness.
The litany goes on and on. These high profile cases leave very little confidence in a rule of law or its capacity to examine the facts fairly and prosecute particularly white police officers for murder. So residents of Ferguson, Missouri, engage in what began as a peaceful resistance movement to demonstrate their deep anger, fear, and frustration over what they perceived to be one more police-killing of a young unarmed African American male.
Our Experience Expanded
The killing of these and other African American males seems to be trapped in legal standards that justify such violence by giving persons the right to defend themselves with excessive force, even when it seems unwarranted. On July 13, 2013, a Florida jury exonerated George Zimmerman, a mixed-race man, of all charges related to the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. The George Zimmerman trial and verdict brought to the forefront the “Stand Your Ground” law which, in principle, gives a person the right to use deadly force in self-defense if he or she feels that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. It is not enough for us as Christians to be appalled or sad while viewing what has happened the past two weeks in Ferguson, Missouri. And it cannot be thought of as a place beyond our own reality. I quote from J. Herbert Nelson’s blog on our Presbyterian Washington Office website:
We must be clear that the issues of this shooting are deeper than anything one trial can resolve. Yes, it is about the shattered hopes of a family that has lost a loved one, a loss which will reverberate for generations. But it is also deeply and truly about the social sin of prejudice, bigotry, and institutionalized racism, which is imbedded in our social structures, our justice system, and the laws by which we claim to offer freedom to each other. 
Paul assures us at the end of our scripture passage from Romans this morning that “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” These words sound so common sense, so practical, so down to earth. They make sense and yet we cannot seem to figure out a way to make them live or work or have being. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is the gift of diversity! Diversity was built into God’s original creation. We are the way we are (black, brown, white, yellow) by design. Contrary to the first creation story we find in Genesis, God did not make just one white dude and then stop. God filled the world with people of different cultures and races, who speak very different languages and eat different kinds of foods. Some live in tents some live in houses. Some ride camels and some walk. It is a part of our DNA to be different and as Paul points out it is also part of who we are to be relational, to be part of a community, to be loved by others. Just imagine what life would be like without those we love in it! The idea of race and the concept of racism are strictly social constructs. A surgeon removed Veronica’s gallbladder two weeks ago. He performs the exact same surgery he performed on Veronica on an Asian man or an Indian woman. As human beings we may exhibit external differences –curly hair, slanted eyes, paler skin– but that is all cosmetic, in every other aspect we are identical. It is our bodies, our inner selves that dictate our humanity. What did our lesson from Paul say? “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
Re-mything Our Traditions
I found these words in the 1998 PC(USA) policy “Facing Racism: In Search of the Beloved Community”,
“. . . indeed the entire Christian community, must recommit to the struggle for racial justice. Churches must provide a moral compass for the nation by getting involved in shaping public policies that will move our nation towards justice, peace, and reconciliation. As we stand on the verge of a new century, racism remains resilient and resurgent. While the social policies and pronouncements of denominations continue to emphasize inclusiveness and justice, these do not translate in the hearts and minds of Christians who participate in the electoral and political process. Christians are passive in the face of attacks on affirmative action and the adoption of regressive social policies at the local, state, and national levels. There is a growing awareness that a new understanding of racism is needed that takes into consideration the centrality of power in the institutionalization and perpetuation of racism. There is also an awareness that the methodologies that brought us to where we are will not take us where we need to go in the next century. If we are to build on past accomplishments, we must do a new analysis of racism within the current context of the nation. This will inform the direction we must take in the next century and provide guidance as to how we might get there.
Sixteen years later gun violence permeates every aspect of our society. Thirty-thousand people are killed in the United States each year by guns. Young African-American men are disproportionally represented among intentional shooting victims.  When the shooter is a police officer, who is expected to be the symbol of safety and security in the city and to be trained to limit the use of force—our mourning and concern are deepened and demand justice. This is a statement released last week by CLUE states:
“Those whom society gives license to wield violence must be held to the highest standards and the closest scrutiny. Violence must be deployed only as the absolutely last measure after all other avenues have been exhausted. When these guidelines are abrogated, swift punishment must be meted out so that the community does not labor long under the impression that there are “differing weights” and “differing measures,” nor be given to think that African American lives are worth less than others.” 
It is difficult for some of us to view police officers as perpetrators of gun violence. Many of our historic views of police are shaped by “Officer Friendly”  and/or the sacrificial efforts of first-responders during the 911 attacks on the World Trade Center. However, let us not forget that police are human beings who face the same fears, uncertainties, struggles, pains, prejudices, and frailties as every other human being. Their jobs are demanding and accompanying pressures from home and other parts of their lives may not always be neatly compartmentalized. They leave for work every new shift with no guarantee that a call they take that day might not find them confronting an angry young man with an assault weapon like the two officers this past week in San Bernardino.
The fact remains that each time a law enforcement officer or anyone else for that matter fires a gun a potential act of gun violence occurs. Press reports indicated that Michael Brown was unarmed and walking away from the officer with his hands raised in the air when he was killed. If these news reports are correct the police officer murdered a 17-year-old boy. And if the news reports about the handing down of used military equipment to local police departments doesn’t make our blood run cold, I’m not sure what would.
St. Paul’s is a body of believers, a community of Christ. We are also a part of a greater community that is riddled with violence; a metro urban complex of people and problems brought about by poverty, broken families, failed education, an out of order mental health system and generations of neglect, hopelessness and despair. J. Herbert Nelson states that “We in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) must become proactive in calling people together to address the violence that is evidenced in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, (and I would add southern California) each time a person is killed in whatever community. The epidemic of deaths due to gun violence in our country – 30,000 per year – is representative of a war zone every day. Community cannot be built with the threats of extreme force and military-grade weapons. Community is established through respectful dialogue, intentional relationship building, and interpersonal engagement. We must demilitarize our local police forces.” 
So what do we at St. Paul’s do about this? (1) We stop denying that this is not our problem. Yes, I totally understand that I am preaching to a primarily African American congregation, but not only do you live with the vulnerability of being black in an often volatile world, but every one of us harbors attitudes of racism, prejudice and contempt towards others — Hispanics, Asians, the homeless, the mentally ill. We must work deliberately to let those prejudices go! (2) We must educate and train ourselves to understand that maybe there are other ways to see the world. We do not have to resign ourselves to the belief that we are powerless even though we may often feel totally overwhelmed by the world around us or that we are safe and this does not affect us. We must also forgo the embrace of stereotypes.
(3) And then we set a goal for ourselves of not seeing race or color. Yes, we can certainly recognize the differences in others, but we must no longer give it the power to destroy or dictate bad or violent decisions. One way to do this is to put ourselves in others shoes. What does Baldwin Village look like to Dayja’s friend Marilyn who has lived there all her life? What does Dayja’s life in Santa Monica look like to Marilyn and vice versa? What does putting on a Kevlar vest to start your work day as a police officer feel like? What kind of psychological impact, if any, does it carry with it? What must it feel like to grow up in the US as an African American male? And (4) we give our gifts, we share what we have and what we are with others. Paul reminds us that we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. How much do we have to reciprocate to make up for or just break even on that kind of generosity? If our gift is prophecy, it is in proportion to our faith. That means BIG faith, BIG prophecy and conversely little faith, small prophecy. If our gift isministry, then it is through ministering that we are fulfilled and the love of God reaches others. It is through our ministry that the world becomes a better place, or not. . . Ahhh, teaching! How many teachers do we have in this congregation? And trust me, even if you have retired from the profession, the gift is still with you. And we have a room full of exhorters! In exhortation, in sharing our opinions, our concerns, our doubts, our fears, our hopes our faith and our dreams, we realize God’s plan for our lives. And if your gift is that of the generosity, and you know who you are, know that it is appreciated. Paul also includes the gift of leadership, but he adds a vital characteristic of leadership: diligence. To that I would add conscientiousness and carefulness – not in hedging our bets which I preached about a couple of weeks ago, but in kindness and tenderness. Paul wraps it all up with the gift of compassion exhibited in, of all things, cheerfulness. What a difference a laugh or a smile can make! How, as the body of Christ, the hands and feet of God, can we make our world a better, safer place? Only by sharing our gifts.
I have within the past couple of years discovered the novelist and poet Wendell Berry. I find reading his poems and essays can help me make sense out of the craziness that sometimes bombards my life. I am going to share with you his poem The Peace of Wild Things, as I close my message this morning:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free. 
May it be so for all of us! Amen.
 “In the United States, stand-your-ground law removes a duty to retreat from the elements self-defense. The concept sometimes exists in statutory law and sometimes through common law precedents. “Stand Your Ground” laws effectively extend the Castle Doctrine to any place someone has a right to be. Forty-six states in the United States have adopted the castle doctrine, stating that a person has no duty to retreat when their home is attacked. Twenty-two states go a step further, removing the duty of retreat from other locations. “Stand Your Ground”, “Line in the Sand” or “No Duty to Retreat” laws thus state that a person has no duty or other requirement to abandon a place in which he has a right to be, or to give up ground to an assailant. Under such laws, there is no duty to retreat from anywhere the defender may legally be. Other restrictions may still exist; such as when in public, a person must be carrying firearms in a legal manner, whether concealed or openly.” Definition cited from the Wikipedia article, “Stand-your-ground law,” accessed on Aug. 20, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stand-your-ground_law.
 See Facing Racism: A Vision of the Beloved Community, approved by the 211th General Assembly (1999) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), developed by the Initiative Team on Racism and Racial Violence. Available for download at:http://www.pcusa.org/resource/facing-racism-vision-beloved-community/
 See e.g. Moore DC, Yoneda ZT, Powell M, Howard DL, Jahangir AA, Archer KR, Ehrenfeld JM, Obremskey WT, Sethi MK. Gunshot victims at a major level I trauma center: a study of 343,866 emergency department visits. The Journal of emergency medicine. 2013 Mar 3;44(3). 585-91.
 “Officer Friendly is a model program to acquaint children and young adults with law enforcement officials as a part of a community relations campaign. The program was especially popular in the United States from the 1960s to the 1980s, but it continues in some police departments.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Officer_Friendly
 by Wendell Berry