St. Paul’s Congregational Church, UCC
April 25, 2021, Easter 4B
1 John 3:16-24; John 10: 11 – 18
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? I’ve found myself reflecting on this question so often lately, looking for answers that don’t come easily - this past year has been so very tumultuous hasn’t it – we’re dealing with multiple pandemics it seems to me – not only COVID but also deeper, more persistent and difficult and deadly plagues – of ignorance, of racism, of violence both in word and deed, of fear and rage, of our own privilege - I’ve been struggling with the statement: we don’t know what we don’t know – for so long - and there have been too many opportunities to explore this simple yet so profound and so difficult question. It’s exhausting, isn’t it.
It was a year ago on May 25 when George Floyd was killed, murdered, in Minneapolis and pent up frustration and anger erupted in demonstrations all over this country, indeed around the world. As we watched, and marched, and protested, and some of us took a knee in front of St. Paul’s Church one Sunday last spring, we found ourselves absolutely exhausted.
The Rev. Shari Prestemon is the conference minister of the Minnesota Conference, United Church of Christ – her name may be familiar to some of you – she was formerly the Director of Back Bay Mission, a UCC ministry in Biloxi, Mississippi. On April 16 of this year, she wrote an article “On the ground, at ground zero” published by the UCC on their weekly email updates:
She begins with a single word: Tired.
That’s how most people here respond when you ask them how they’re doing. It has been a very long year in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Like all others around the world, we’ve been gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, lives and local economies devastated. But there’s something else going on here too. We are now “ground zero” for the entire nation’s reckoning with racism.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, was accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill in a neighborhood store and ended up under the unrelenting knee of a police officer. After nine minutes and 29 seconds — and nearly 30 utterances of “I can’t breathe” – George Floyd was dead.
One long year later, the closing arguments in the trial of former officer Derek Chauvin are about to proceed. People gather daily at George Floyd Square, the site where Floyd was killed, which has now become a living, dynamic memorial. Protesters march through the streets near the court house in downtown Minneapolis. Preachers hold prayer vigils outside the chain-linked fences that now surround it. We wait. We hope for justice. And we worry what will happen if that verdict disappoints.
Then on April 11, it happened again. A 20-year-old Black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by a police officer in Brooklyn Center, a Minneapolis suburb less than 10 miles from where George Floyd was killed. He was stopped for expired car tags and because an air freshener hung from his rear view mirror. A whole new wave of rage now engulfs us.
A fifth consecutive night of protests has just passed. Hundreds gather daily at the Brooklyn Center Police Department, now ringed with tall fencing and protected by National Guard members in full military gear. A strange, sickly sweet scent overwhelms the air from the air fresheners people have tied to the fences as a sign of their protest.
A short distance away, at the site where Daunte Wright was killed that Sunday afternoon, still others congregate. There are daily vigils here, pleading prayers, tears shed. A clenched fist someone fashioned from steel stands at the corner, a symbol of solidarity and resistance. Flowers are placed, candles lighted. It is here that Daunte’s mother lamented: “My heart is literally broken in a thousand pieces.” This is sacred space now, much like George Floyd Square.
But it’s hard to simply grieve when our neighborhoods are suddenly militarized zones. Tanks line the streets of Brooklyn Center and Minneapolis. Soldiers stand around, at the ready. In Brooklyn Center, they surround the police department, posted on the roof and guarding the building, dispersing protesters with pepper spray and rubber bullets. In Minneapolis, they wait for what may come when a verdict is delivered.
It feels oppressive, as if we’re under siege. Rev. Jane McBride, pastor at the First Congregational Church and moderator of the Minnesota Conference, wrote after a night protesting at the Brooklyn Center Police Department: “It was truly distressing … to see the police and National Guard dressed for combat, facing down my grieving community. Those on the other side of the fence are not the enemy. This is not what protecting and serving looks like.”
The whole of the Twin Cities feels like a powder keg that could easily blow up. Righteous rage is boiling over. Exhaustion runs deep, especially within communities of color weighed down by racialized trauma already centuries old. Hope is hard.
But a stubborn faith is also on display here. Clergy from the Minnesota Conference, UCC, and from many other diverse faith traditions show up daily to stand in proximity to the pain, to embody love amid all the devastating violence and hate. Prayer vigils are as frequent as protests. We’re praying with our voices and with our feet for “justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
There’s so much at stake here, not just for those of us in Minnesota, but for our entire nation. This is about all of us, our collective sin of white supremacy and whether we have the will to finally open our eyes to it and say “no more”. We may be tired, but we can’t yet rest.”
Then, this week, the Rev. Cameron Trimble, Executive Director and CEO of the Center for Progressive Renewal in Atlanta, former advisor to the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Team of Local Church Ministries for the UCC, and former Associate Conference Minister of Church Development in the Southeast Conference of the UCC, wrote in her daily email after the Floyd verdict was handed down:
“How long, O Lord?
This past week we have all been reflecting on the impact of the guilty verdict in the death of George Floyd. Like so many, I was relieved that in this one instance, we got it right.
But…relieved…is a strange feeling for the scale of the injustice this moment represented. None of us should be relieved. We should be able to count on fairness in our judicial system and integrity from our public servants. That should not even be a question. The feeling of relief is a red flag that our system is profoundly broken and compromised in ways that are costing lives at every turn.
She quotes Erica Williams Simom on twitter just after the verdict was read, “I really want to have good feelings right now. I *want* to believe this means something. But more than that, I want to never be here again. More than anything I want Black people to live long, blessed, happy lives. That's all.”
Cameron continues, “I join her in that wish. I wish that every human and every creature can live a life free of tyranny and oppression. Sadly, on the same day, the verdict was delivered in Minneapolis, Ma'Khia Bryant was killed by a police officer in Columbus Ohio.
She asks again, How long, O Lord?
And she continues, “The spiritual traditions of the world agree that the starting place for social change begins inside of each one of us through the cultivation of compassion. The Kabbalah says of compassion: “Let your neighbor’s honor be as precious to you as your own, for you and your neighbor are one in the same. That is why we are commanded: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ You should desire what is right for your neighbor; never degrade them or wish for their disgrace. You should feel as bad for such suffering as if it were your own.”
It's tempting to think that dismantling these violent and oppressive systems will solve the brokenness in us that created them to begin with. Yes, we should work to change the systems. But if our efforts are to last, we have to change our consciousness. We have to change ourselves.”
She’s right, isn’t she. We have to change ourselves.
The question the writer of the 1 John passage asks this morning has stayed with me so powerfully: how does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? And then comes this: little children, let us love, not in word or speech but in truth and action. This plea directed to people like you and me, individuals called to share – to lay down one’s life for another person.
We have to change ourselves. We have to change in our communities of faith like our own. We are called to a stubborn faith! How will we, both as individuals and as a community of faith meet that challenge these days and in the days, months, and years to come?
We keep asking the question, “How long, O Lord?”
Cameron Trimble says, “We pray not long. We pray that Thy will be done through us, Thy kin-dom come among us, on earth as in heaven within us. We are in this together.
None of this is simple, is it. It’s so counter-cultural these days as it has been in days gone by. But, friends, now is the time.
Remember the words of Christian mystic, Teresa of Avila, as she commissions us to a life of compassion: “Christ has no body now, but yours. No hands, no feet on earth, but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion into the world. Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which Christ blesses the world."
It’s up to us and with God’s help we can do this! Now is the time! So may it be. Amen!