Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church
Reverend John Zachary Flack
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles the brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence.” I’ve been thinking about this passage from Isaiah a lot this past week. Like Israel of old, the people of our nation need that presence of God to sort things out here. As you all know, a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the man that shot and killed Michael Brown, and the city of Ferguson erupted into protest, both violent and non-violent, and it has drawn our attention to realities that we cannot ignore.
And although race places a large role in our mess, there’s also the story of Michael Bell, an unarmed 21-year-old white man, who died in 2004 when a police officer shot him in the head, in front of five witnesses and another police officer. His father was a decorated Air Force pilot. An African-American man said, “If they can shoot a white boy like a dog, imagine what we’ve been going through.” It only took the police department 48 hours to clear themselves of wrongdoing, and the officer who killed Michael Bell is still carries a badge and teaches concealed-carry classes in Illinois. Michael Bell’s father, with the help of Frank Serpico, that cop who investigated police corruption, finally got a bill passed in Wisconsin that mandates all investigations of police shootings must be handed over to a third party. And beyond that, just try reading about rape in the armed forces, or the story of Bill Cosby, whom I looked on almost as a grandfather.
All of this is to say that Ferguson is a symptom of a festering wound. It’s the spark that has lit the brushfire of power and race in America. And I know that in the past week I have learned some things about about the race and power and police in America, and I’m saddened. When I see that black teenagers are killed 21 times more often than white teens, I don’t know what to say. When I see that the military has given $4.3 billion of equipment to local police departments, including armored vehicles and grenade launchers, I wonder what the police could possibly do with those things except intimidate. When I read calls for revolution and entire changes in the system, I can say they make me uncomfortable. But then again, the system suits me very well. And finally, when I learn that police departments are not obliged submit records of how many people they kill per year to any authority, I just wonder why we continue to accept that. When deadly force is used with impunity, democracy cannot flourish. Only oppression does well under impunity. And so, I also echo the plea from Isaiah: “O that you would tear the heavens open and come down.” Because we are so messed up down here.
Our nation was founded on the notion that people of a certain color were worth 3/5 of another person, and did not have commensurate rights. Our economy, for many decades, depended on that reality. It has took us a civil war to make slavery illegal, and it took a hundred years after that to grant full franchise to the descendants of slaves. Slavery and Jim Crow were protected by violence, through the lash, the gun, and the noose. And it’s worth it to remember that when we see violence in the streets of Ferguson by protesting mobs, we have long turned a blind eye to everyday violence in the streets by the ones who were supposed to protect and serve. In the post-World War II era, segregation was a matter of explicit public policy, from zoning black neighborhoods as commercial to federal subsidies for housing developments that excluded blacks, and directly led to what Ferguson, MO is today.
I read Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving address again this week. As he asked Americans to thank God for blessings, he also asked that they do it “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience…” Try getting a public official to talk about national peverseness and disobedience these days, especially to include himself in it, as Abraham Lincoln did. He, too, was waiting for the Almighty to come down, and he, too, finally understood that this nation was founded on both the respect for individual human beings and the violent oppression of one color of humanity by another. He was a man whose eyes were opened, to see what plagued the country and people that he loved. When Jesus tells his followers to read the signs of the times, perhaps he is also speaking to us, telling us to keep awake, to read the signs, to look for his coming.
Until we see, with clear eyes and clear hearts, that violence with impunity is always the servant of oppression, we will continue to fester in this cesspool of power and race. We will continue to see unarmed citizens shot to death. We will see protests that look they should be occurring in Libya or Syria or the Ukraine instead of the United States. Until we confess that deliberate public policy prevented whole sectors of our nation from enjoying the fruits of prosperity and the benefits of democracy, public policy that has only been ended in the past decade or two, we will continue to see the fruits of that policy rather than the fruits of a real democracy.
Where can we confess those things? We are the church. We are the people who gather every week around the table of God, not the flag. Instead of a culture celebrating violence, and based on violence, we are a people formed by grace and strengthened by the presence of the Lord Jesus. Here at this table, God knows that each of us are
sinners, that each of us have a share in our national perverseness and disobedience—some more than others. And yet God forgives and God strengthens anyway. As you come to this table, as you stand and receive Jesus, I invite you to pray this, from Isaiah: “You, O Lord are my Father; I am the clay, you are the potter.” Ask God to mold you into a vessel of forgiveness and justice. Because here, among the gathered faithful, God does come down.
Our first task, our primary task, as a church is to be what God has made us to be: a holy community and a safe place for all peoples, where everyone is respected and embraced in all their frailty and all their strength. And we are to witness to the image of God in every sinner, whether they are Darren Wilson or Michael Brown, and to insist and demand of our nation that our policies and our police treat every person as if they, too, bore the image of God. Jesus today says to us, “Keep awake!” And that, too, is our job. To keep awake to see Jesus, to see God in one another and in every single person who walks this earth. We will fail many times. It may take the rest of our lives to make this country more fair, more just, a place where people can walk without fear of harassment or punishment. But it can be done, because it is done here among us, where God reigns. And we live under the rule of God, who forgives, who strengthens, who consoles, who delivers. Amen.