It is an honor to be here. And I want to commend you and I particularly want to commend your rector, my old friend Lowell Grisham, for his courage and yours. Lowell invited me here knowing that I was not going to preach a nice, easy sermon. He invited me here specifically to talk about what has been happening in our city of St. Louis around our nation’s original sin of racism. To Lowell and to you all, I say thank you because even now 218 days since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, the congregations that are willing to have this conversation are a distinct minority. So I thank you for your courage. Just being here and being willing to talk about this is how movements for change happen.
This past Thursday morning just after midnight, I was standing in a parking lot across from the Ferguson Police Department. Around me was a group of about 50 people who were the remainders of a crowd that had been there all night celebrating the resignation of Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson and also making it clear that this was not the end … that much more change was needed.
Across the street, in front of the police department was a line of 40 or 50 police officers all in riot gear with batons in their hands. And as tense as that sounds, it looked like it was going to end up being a quiet night. An hour before the police had pushed the demonstrators back across the street with their shields and had stood face to face with them. Now, the police had dropped back, things were calming down, many people had left and it looked like the night was going to end without further incident.
Then the shooting started.
The shots didn’t come from the gathered demonstrators but up a street behind us. It happened fast, but I remember it in slow motion.
The unmistakable sound of gunfire from behind me.
A police officer falling to the ground.
Fear sweeping through demonstrators and police alike.
Demonstrators scattering in front of me, diving for cover and running from the scene.
Police officers scattering, some diving behind walls, others taking shooting positions, guns drawn. An officer sweeping his gun right across where I and the people I am with are standing, before we too run for cover.
A year ago at this time, I never would have thought this is where I would have been at 12:15 on a Thursday morning – on a street in North St. Louis County with a crowd of mostly young people expressing pain and anger facing down a line of police in riot gear.
A year ago, Ferguson was just one of 90 small municipalities that ringed St. Louis City, most of which came into being through defensive incorporation as white people fled the city for the suburbs. Now Ferguson is one of those words like Watts or Selma – not so much a place but an icon of the deep and systemic racism that infects our world, that many of us like to pretend went away after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act but that is alive and thriving not just in north St. Louis but all over our nation.
The shooting death of Michael Brown on August 9 last year was nothing new. Young unarmed black men are gunned down by police with shocking regularity in this nation. In fact, just four days earlier, John Crawford was fatally shot in a Wal-Mart in Ohio while talking on his cell phone and holding a BB gun he was shopping for. A white man named Ronald Ritchie had called 911 and told them that Crawford was pointing the gun at people, but a month later admitted this wasn’t the case. The police shot Crawford to death right there in the Wal-Mart.
And that’s why when I first learned of Michael Brown’s death, my reaction was, I’m ashamed to say, sadness but not shock. This happened again. It wasn’t until the next morning when my friend, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, called me and asked me to be at a prayer vigil that afternoon at the Ferguson Police Department. It wasn’t until at that prayer vigil young people began sitting down in the street and screaming for justice. It wasn’t until I learned that Mike Brown’s body had laid in that street for 4 ½ hours. It wasn’t until the police showed up with riot gear and automatic weapons at a candlelight prayer vigil where a community was mourning that I realized this was going to be different.
And it is to my shame that I say it is only at that point that I really started listening.
I had always considered myself a pretty progressive white guy. I had done dismantling racism trainings. Christ Church Cathedral had been involved in many conversations about race and class. If there was a learning curve to issues of race and class and privilege, I figured I was up near the top.
What I learned after August 9 is that I am down here. What I learned after August 9 is how much I don’t know because I haven’t lived it. And since August 9, I have moved up that curve only a little bit … and it has changed my life. And I thank God.
Michael Brown’s killing and the amazing young people who have become the leaders of a movement since then that is now second only to the Montgomery Bus Boycott as the longest continuous protest in the history of the civil rights movement have shone a spotlight on a way of life that I didn’t know existed because I live in White St. Louis, in White America.
It is a life of black mothers and fathers having to have “the conversation” with their sons about what to do if you see a police officer so you don’t end up dead … a conversation I never have to have with my white teenage sons because it never occurred to me nor would it need to that my sons would ever be in any danger from the police.
It’s a life of only having bad educational opportunities and then being blamed for not going to college or being able to get a job.
It’s a life of being seen by the police and the courts less as constituents to be protected and more as potential offenders and sources of revenue.
It’s a life where black men are not given the economic and job opportunities that I have been and my sons will be, and when they turn to the one good economic opportunity of selling drugs, they get imprisoned at a higher rate and for longer sentences than white people committing the same crimes.
It’s a life where children see their fathers killed and imprisoned and then they get made fun of for not having a daddy.
And as that spotlight got shone and the statistics and numbers got faces and names like Derrick and Brittany and Alexis and Rasheen and DeRay and Alisha and Amy, I realized I could not unsee what I have seen and I could not unknown what I now knew.
And so I was confronted with what to do about it. What do I, a quote-unquote “respectable” white church leader, dean of the Episcopal cathedral, do? And I went to prayer. And I went to the Bible. And one of the passages I came to was this one:
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’
God looked down at a world that was broken by sin and writhing in pain. And what God offered was the divine self. In the words of the beautiful Christ hymn in Philippians, the Christ did not see equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied the divine self, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
When we look at a world that is broken by sin and writhing in pain, what we have to offer is Jesus. What we have to offer is that we ARE the body of Christ. That when Jesus died and rose again, Jesus sent the gift of the Holy Spirit and that is what binds us together now. That we are Jesus. That we are Jesus’ feet and hands and eyes and years and voice.
When we look at a world that is broken by the sin of racism and classism. Where there is too much blood in our streets and too many mothers crying and too many children who have grown up with targets on their chests, what we have to offer is Jesus.
So what does Jesus look like?
I’ll tell you first what Jesus doesn’t look like. Jesus doesn’t look like business as usual. Jesus doesn’t look like us staying in our churches. God so loved the world that God sent God’s son into the world – and into the places of deepest oppression. Jesus wasn’t born in a palace or a temple but as a refugee child in a backwater of the Roman Empire. Jesus lived with the poorest and the most marginalized and continually reached out to those who were even the poorest and most marginalized in those poor and marginalized communities.
And so as we asked ourselves the question, what does Jesus look like? Where would Jesus be? What would Jesus do? The answers became pretty clear.
Jesus would be on the street. Jesus would be standing with the young people who are crying out in their pain and their rage and crying out for justice. Jesus would standing in the breach, in solidarity with the oppressed and yet loving the oppressor. And as a white man, if I am to follow Jesus and offer Jesus, I need to do it realizing first that I look a lot more like the oppressor than the oppressed. That I look a lot more like Pharaoh than Moses. And so the first eyes that need to be opened are my own. The first ears that need to be opened are my own. The first heart that needs to be converted is my own.
God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son.
Part of my spiritual discipline in the weeks after Mike Brown was killed was in my prayers every morning to imagine my own sons’ faces on Mike Brown’s body laying in that street. God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son. That is a powerful love and a powerful sacrifice. I have to do this for my sons. I have to love Mike Brown as my own.
God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son.
God didn’t just love some of the world but the whole world. That means not only do we have to chant with fervor that black lives matter. It means that God loves Darren Wilson. And God loves St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough. And God loves the police officer out late at night standing in front of the Ferguson Police Department in riot gear. And that I am called to love them, too. It means in the words of Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi and so many others that our goal is not to defeat an enemy but to transform a heart. That our goal is to invite everyone into the building of the beloved community, the coming of the kingdom of God. To dismantle the us and the them thinking that infects and divides us and invite all into a greater and more glorious We.
God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son.
A friend asked me a couple months ago, “Why are you throwing yourself on this fire?” It’s a fabulous question. And the only answer I had for him is I have no choice. My friends are on that fire. And I can’t look at Traci and Starsky and Brittany and Alexis and Rasheen and Derrick and Shaun and call them sister and brother and stay in my safe home in my white neighborhood when the tear gas is being deployed and the shots are being fired. And for my friends who are police officers and police spouses who feel betrayed by me and who just can’t hear that I love them, too. I hope they know I hear them, too. I hear their fear and their pain. I hear the trauma of their lives and how the system traps them, too. And I live in hope that they will not only understand some day why we are doing what we are doing but realize that it is when we all throw ourselves on the fire of systemic racism together that the fire will finally go out.
I stand here before you this morning not so much to give you a glimpse into the Ferguson you have seen on TV but to invite you to find the Ferguson right here in Fayetteville. The place of segregation. The place of inequity. The place of invisibility. It’s there, I promise you. Some of you may already know it. Some of you may live there.
And when you find it, remember this Gospel. What we have to offer on the streets of Ferguson, wherever Ferguson might be, is nothing less than Jesus. And that means we must go dwell there knowing that Jesus is already dwelling there. We must learn the names and hear the stories and share the tears and the pain and the anger. We must see our children’s faces on the bodies of the dead. We must like the living Word of God, not be content to watch from a distance but seek those places of pain and danger and sorrow and in the flesh dwell there.
And it will be hard. And we will do it imperfectly. And we will be scared. And we will doubt ourselves regularly with each step.
But we are the Body of Christ. We are the Son that God sent into the world. And we do what is hard. And we do what is right. And we do what is scary.
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
We are the Body of Christ. We are the Son that God sends into the world, not to condemn but to save.
And with the power of God behind us, if we are faithful to that call, we will not fail.