My sister Rosalie is six years older than I am. (Don’t tell her I told you that.) Growing up, that age difference meant there were many things she got to do before I did. She drove first, she got to stay out late with friends first, she started dating first, and she was a teenager first. In her teen years, my sister dealt with all the timeless drama that all American girls face: arguing with our parents over boys, arguing with other girls over boys; fighting to wear make-up or to get a later curfew or to wear acid washed jeans and tease your hair out really big with lots of Aqua Net hairspray. (Okay, maybe that was just because it was the 80’s). When my sister was a teenager, I was only approaching 10 years old. I didn’t have to get involved in all of her teen drama; it didn’t affect me so was just able to ignore it.
When I plan out worship services, there are a few different ways that I decide on which scripture to use. For many years, I’ve used what’s known as the Revised Common Lectionary – a source used by many churches of many different denominations that assigns scripture readings based on the season of the church year. The lectionary provides a psalm, a reading from the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), an epistle or letter, and a reading from one of the Gospels. Since we don’t use that many readings in our worship services, I have always been free to pick and choose which scripture I want to use. To be honest, there are some parts of the Bible that are really hard to preach about. Actually, there are some parts of the Bible that I don’t really even like that much or that I even disagree with. But since I have the freedom to choose, I also have the freedom to just ignore the parts that made me uncomfortable.
Someone once gave the advice that preachers should “preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Well, I’ve been trying to pick up the newspaper for a few weeks now to preach about what’s going on. But, to be honest, it makes me really uncomfortable. There are scary things going on in the world. I think that some people come to church to either escape the scary things in the world or to ask how to deal with them. I’ve never felt very qualified to offer answers to those types of questions. When we look to the news and we see violence, oppression, war, struggle, death – I don’t have many answers. Fortunately, I get to decide what I preach so, if it makes me uncomfortable, maybe I can just ignore it.
I’ve been trying to ignore what happened in Ferguson, Missouri for two weeks now. You probably know the story: an unarmed black teenager was shot to death by police; protests against the death of Michael Brown have resulted in more violence as mostly peaceful protesters were faced with police in riot gear, with tear gas, and weapons that made them look more like they were at war than serving and protesting the citizens of the town.
It’s easy for me to ignore the story because I don’t know any of the people involved. It’s easy for me to ignore the story because I don’t live in Ferguson. It’s easy for me to ignore the story because I’m white.
When I was born, I won one of the most fortunate lotteries in America. I was born a straight white man who comfortably expresses himself as male. These traits allow me to spend much of my time blissfully unaware of the struggles that I don’t face. I never have to worry about being turned down for an apartment or a house because of the color of my skin. I don’t have to worry that my children will be followed around stores by clerks presuming they will steal something. My children have less of a chance of going to jail for committing smaller crimes than if they had a different skin color. I don’t have to worry about my son being shot by police and then demonized in the press. If I so choose, I can ignore all of these privileges and so many more that I have in my life.
The unfortunate part of choosing a life serving God is that God calls us to go to the uncomfortable places. God calls us to ask the tough questions. Our scripture, Old and New Testament alike, contain story after story of prophets and priests and everyday people called to speak up about a system of oppression and injustice, called to turn to their fellow citizens and say “this isn’t what we’re supposed to be doing.” Jesus lived his life fighting a corrupt government and an oppressive Empire, one that used the death penalty as a deterrent to protests and dissent.
There are some pieces in today’s scripture that make me a little uncomfortable – talk about atoning and sacrifice. But in John’s letter today we also hear him proclaim “Love will never invoke fear. Perfect love expels fear, particularly the fear of punishment. The one who fears punishment has not been completed through love.”
Many of our fellow citizens – many of our fellow children of God – live in fear. I don’t want to demonize the police. I believe that they are children of God as well. In fact, they’re just like us. Instead of demonizing the police, maybe what I need to do is understand that I’ve grown up in the same culture as they have. And I need to realize that that culture has played a part in me seeing people – fellow citizens, fellow children of God – that I sometimes see people who look different from me and I assign categories and make assumptions about them. I have to admit that I want to believe the shooting of an unarmed man must somehow have been justified because if it wasn’t – well, that makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t like being uncomfortable.
When I was a child, I was able to ignore my sister’s teenage drama. In a few years, I’m will probably have less of a chance of ignoring my children’s teenage drama.
There will always be difficult scripture for me to struggle with. That’s one of the beautiful things about the Bible, it shows us the struggles of our ancestors of faith and it gives us the opportunity to understand how our lives today can be changed and how we can grow by facing our struggles and by asking the difficult questions.
Racism continues to exist in our country. As a predominantly white community far away from Ferguson, MO, we can go on with our lives as if it doesn’t affect us. But as children of God, as followers of Jesus, I believe that we are called to confront injustice of all kinds. I’m not entirely sure how we’ll do that, I’m not sure how we’ll face the scary situations in the world but I think the first step – the first thing we’ll have to do together – is to stop ignoring them.
Please pray with me: O God of justice, give us courage. Give us the strength to ask the tough questions and to search for the difficult answers. Open our eyes to our power, the power we have to change your world for good. Remind us, over and over again, that the Holy Spirit abides with us in all we do. Help us to live out your love for us as we live out our love for our brothers and sisters. In Jesus’ name, Amen.