Sermon by Katie Mulligan
Today’s lectionary passage is the Good Samaritan story, and I was going to preach a sermon today that referenced our sanctuary wars here in this church. I was going to talk about our ongoing challenge to love one another in this church. I figure I might as well speak the plain truth that some of us don’t like each other very much. I figure if I say it enough times, it’ll be like sucking the poison out of a wound. Eventually you will get tired of hearing me say it, get mightily offended, tell me to shove off, and get about the business of being a church, just to get me to shut up about it.
Yeah, that’s what I figured I’d preach about. Jesus said a certain man was going down from Jericho into Jerusalem and fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him, beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. I’ve been in this congregation as a one-tenth time youth pastor (this church technically pays me to work 4 hours per week), for a year and some change now. I’ve seen a lot of people walking around here wounded, in pain, devastated, stuck in their grief for that building across the street. I don’t have a history here—my grandmoms and her grandmoms aren’t buried in that cemetary. I was not married in that sanctuary. I didn’t show up to worship 7 years ago and find the sanctuary doors bolted and a red tag of condemnation on my beloved sanctuary. It’s pretty easy for me to say that God is not in a building, because I have moved around a lot, and I have never noticed God to favor one building over another. I am not of this place, so it is easy for me to say, “Let that building be whatever it is going to be, and let’s get on with the business of being church.” Oh, I was going to preach this today—Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Choose life, so that you may live.
But late last night the verdict came in for Trayvon Martin’s killer: not guilty. Not guilty for murder. Not guilty for manslaughter. Just, not guilty. There is no question that George Zimmerman killed that young man—that 17 year old black boy, visiting his father in the suburbs. But not guilty, because George Zimmerman said he was afraid for his life.
Trayvon Martin’s crime? And clearly he was on trial these last few weeks too. His crime? He was black, walking in the suburbs. He wore a hoodie. He went to the corner store and got skittles and ice tea. He was talking to a good friend on the phone. He didn’t like being followed by a strange white man in a car. He didn’t like when the man came out of his car and approached him on foot. Trayvon’s crime? Being black in a mostly white neighborhood and being disrespectful toward a stalker. The last guy who stalked me like that, I punched him hard.
Not guilty. No conviction, no penalty, no time, no fine, for the man who gunned down a black teen who was armed with skittles and an iced tea. Who was Trayvon’s neighbor? George Zimmerman. And the neighbors who didn’t want to get involved. And the jurors. And all of us who watched this happen.
All across my social media I have seen this:
Wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A certain child went to the store for skittles…” And they’ve left it hanging, that conflation of our Good Samaritan story and Trayvon’s story. But let me finish it—let me spell it out explicitly, because Trayvon’s story isn’t unusual, it isn’t new, it isn’t a surprise, but it is assuredly an outrage. There will be a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking and white folks saying, “But we can’t know what happened in the jury room. We don’t have all the facts of this case.” But we do know a black boy is dead at the hands of George Zimmerman, and we know that this story is repeated over and over again, with slightly different circumstances all over the country. It is repeated here in New Jersey. In Trenton. In Ewing.
A certain child went to the store for skittles and some ice tea. On the way home he was set upon by a man who stalked him, initiated a confrontation, and then shot him dead. The man who shot him said, “It was his fault he was so threatening, this child.” The neighbors shook their heads and asked what caliber weapon he’d used. The police ran a toxicology report—on the black boy who was dead but not the shooter. A lot of white folks wore hoodies to church that week, while driving carefully through black neighborhoods to get to church, clutching their purses.
The split on my social media is excruciatingly clear. Almost all of my black friends are in deep mourning today. Many many of my white friends are urging caution in how we interpret this event. Just like with Emmett Till, there are white people celebrating this verdict. Meanwhile black and brown boys and men are at greater and greater risk of incarceration, death, unemployment, and homelessness. Who is Trayvon’s neighbor? Who is the neighbor to the rest of the black folks who live around here? Who is OUR neighbor, Ewing Presbyterian Church?
I want to tell you a story about why I came to work for this church one-tenth time. I work for Covenant another one-tenth time—8 hours a week total I’m supposed to spend with your children and their neighbors. Last week I spent 55 hours with your children, by the way. This week I will travel with them for an entire week, beginning at 10am tomorrow morning. 7 straight days. 24 of those hours will be on a bus to and from Indiana. The other 144 hours will be spent at the Presbyterian Youth Triennium—and there will be no air conditioning. 168 hours total this week. And of course, I love these kids, and I am happy enough to go. But let me be clear that between last week and this week I will have spent 223 hours with your youth, which comes out to about 28 weeks worth of my two tenths time between Ewing & Covenant. In two weeks I will have spent half a year’s worth of my paid time with these kids. And you might ask why the heck I do that.
Last January I met with your joint hiring committee. There were representatives from each church in the following categories: 2 pastors, 2 personnel committee members, 2 Christian ed committee members, 2 at large members, 2 parents, 2 volunteer shepherds, and 2 students. Dr. Brower was my liaison. I googled him before I sent my resume, and I could see the kind of guy he was—a retired professor, with a passion for youth, a willingness to serve, a formal way of moving in this world, and a twinkle in his eye. I sent him a formal letter: “Dear Dr. Brower”. He sent me back a formal response, “Dear Rev. Mulligan.” We went back and forth that way a few times, and I suspected the formality was a mask for kindness. I arrived here at Ewing for my interview, and shook Walt’s hand, and there it was: that twinkle in his eye. I’m never wrong about the twinkle in a person’s eye.
I figured you all had googled me by the time I got to that interview. So I figured you knew you were meeting with a queer, divorced, single-mother pastor who blogged extensively about intimate violence and racial justice. Elizabeth told me later that she wanted to get that out on the table so I could know these congregations were affirming, but Jan Willem held back, insisting that my sexuality should have nothing to do with my employability. I love them both for that. I love you all for that.
But beyond that, this congregation did something that I don’t think you have even thought about. The two students present on that committee were Roberto and Molly. One white student, one brown student. Their main concern—and it was clear that it was their joint concern—was that I would play games with them. They wanted to know if my stuffy suit meant I wouldn’t get dirty with them. They wanted to know if I would love them even if they wore baseball caps to church. They wanted to know if I would love them even if they refused to participate in church the way adults wanted them to. They wanted to know if they could trust me with their friends—and they were willing to sit there and ask it in a room full of adults. And you all took their concerns seriously—the concerns of a brown boy and a white girl. You let them represent you as a church. And I thought: “These are two churches I could work for and be proud.”
You all don’t see a lot of the youth around here—especially in the summer. You don’t know that more and more our youth group includes brown and black youth. But I tell you it’s true. Many of our youth do not belong here formally, but they are coming to associate their faith with the two churches that are nurturing them. I came here because I believed (and I still do) that these are congregations that value black and brown youth as much as they value white youth. I came here because I believed (and I still do) that these congregations have a clear commitment to racial justice.
I had a conversation with two black teens recently. They asked me if they could come back to youth group, since it was their first overnight with us. I told them I hoped they would come back again and again. I said I’m in this for the long game, that I hope to see them graduate. “Graduate from what?” they asked. From high school, I said. “Are you one of those churches that gives out awards?” What kind of award do you want, I asked. “Umm, a certificate and a dollar?” And the youth laughed, because he wasn’t sure that was a reasonable request. And my heart broke. Because those children have a few years to go before they graduate, and by God, I meant it when I said I’d give them a certificate and $20. I’ll throw a damn party. We shook on it, very solemnly. And I said, “You have to invite me to your graduation, though.”
But you know what is true? Trayvon Martin was gunned down at 17 years old. He never made it to his graduation because he went to the store for skittles and George Zimmerman felt he looked suspicious. What do I have to do to make sure those boys I shook hands with live to see their graduation? What do we have to do as a church. How will we be neighbors to them? These beautiful children are at risk because of how we are as white people—I didn’t sleep well last night, and I hope nobody else did either. Are you afraid of black men? Are you afraid of black women? Does your fear justify their death? Ask the Pharisee. Ask the Sadduccee. Ask the Samaritan. And then ask Jesus who is your neighbor. Can you imagine the look on Jesus’ face when that lawyer asked his weasely question, “Just who is my neighbor, anyway? Do I have to love even the ones I don’t love? Must I love those who are OTHER than me?” He thought it was a trick question, but the joke’s on him. Jesus sees our hearts
Are you in this for the long haul? Will this church honor my promise to these boys? Will you love our neighbor children, even if their parents don’t tithe? Will you love our neighbor children, even if they never set foot in here on Sunday morning? Will you love our neighbor children, even if deep inside you are still clutching your purse, crossing the street to avoid brown bodies, and locking your doors when you drive through the projects? Will you love our neighbor children’s parents, even if you’ll drive 10 miles out of the way to avoid driving through the projects? Will you love these children and their families enough to be uncomfortable in your skin? Will you show up for an evening prayer service for our youth? Will you ask yourself hard questions about race and sit honestly with the answers?
We can ask “Who is my neighbor?” And perhaps the answer is “A certain child went to the corner store for some skittles…” But that is too narrow. Trayvon was our neighbor, and we failed him—we white people failed him with our systemic racism, our historic oppression, our present-day indifference, and our self-absorption with our own problems. We think Ewing is not Trenton, but talk to the youth who go to the high school. Our children are trying navigate race every day in school, and we keep saying we don’t see race. Ewing is less and less white, and here we are still a very white church. Who is our neighbor? We could answer that in so many ways. But if we don’t claim black and brown people as our neighbors and love them as we love ourselves, we are sinning—we are turning away from God, who assuredly loves our neighbors and who sits with the oppressed.
When I worked at Bellevue, I was assigned to the prison floor. Most of those guys were black and brown. There were all kinds of stories about how people got to prison or jail. I heard it all in 10 weeks: “See, what happened was I was in a convenience store. And this guy, he had a t-shirt on just like mine. And chaplain, you know what happened? He stole from the store, and I got arrested. White people can’t tell us apart, and that t-shirt didn’t help.” Story after story. But the story I heard the most was: “I was minding my own business on the corner, but the cops, they wait around for people to loiter. And then I got arrested for loitering, trespassing, urinating in public, spitting.” Most of them had resisting arrest charges added. The white people I met typically had a single charge, maybe two. Drug possession and a weapons charge. Domestic violence. Arson. Assault. The people of color I worked with were hit with the single felony charges and then a half dozen lesser charges that amounted to being black on the street. They didn’t have attorneys. They didn’t have money. Their families didn’t have transportation to come see them or the time off to visit.
One guy told me he was training to be a mechanic while in prison. He was pretty excited about learning a skill so he could get a job when he gets out. But then he got the certificate for his training, and across the top of the certificate, in big, bold, arched letters, were the words, “Department of Corrections.” How is he going to get a job with that? Who is his neighbor? Who is going to hire him?
How do we get from loving little children who are black and brown and white, and then suddenly, when they go through puberty and grow a stretch, black men are dangerous? Can we search our souls about that, please?
The rage about last night’s not guilty verdict isn’t ONLY about Trayvon Martin’s death. It is ALSO about the fact that this stuff happens all the time, and that systemically we have stacked the deck as white people to benefit off the misery and pain of people of color. We could argue this all day—but it doesn’t take much research to uncover the facts around the incarceration and death rates of people of color. And you don’t have to look much beyond that to see how we are benefitting from privatizing prisons and public education. We are failing as neighbors. People of color look to that trial, and they see verification of everything they hoped was not true about white people—it’s not just about that trial or Trayvon’s death. It’s about centuries of suffering that his death represents and relates to. And it is ALSO about the death of a young black man.
Trayvon Martin called George Zimmerman a cracker. I was reading Gloria Anzaldúa’s essays the other day and discovered that in the southwest, chican@ people call white people “bolillo”, which translates as “the hard crust of white bread.” Let me read to you this story from Leslie Marmon Silko’s book Ceremony about the creation of white people in this world—it’s a legend, a myth, a creation story like we have our creation stories:
[Go here to read the story. Scroll down a bit to "Long Time Ago"]
Can we sit with that? Can we sit with the fact that people of color distrust and dislike us white folks at the core level of their being? Can we ponder what it will require of US to become trustworthy? The children in our youth groups will tell me that they don’t see color. They will tell me that Trayvon’s death isn’t about race—both the white students and the students of color will tell me this. They do not want to believe that such evil exists in this world—it is easier to believe that justice is blind and works perfectly. It is easier to believe that the criminal justice system is balanced, fair, and just. It is easier to believe that people who go to jail are there because they did a bad thing and need to be removed from society. It’s easier to believe that than to believe that racism colors everything and that the system is unfair. Because if it is true that a person of color can be arrested for driving while black, then why bother getting up in the morning? Why bother trying? Our children still have hope that things can be different, so I am asking, who is their neighbor? Who is our neighbor?
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him.”