Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Voice Was Heard In Trenton

A room at Trenton High, in much need of repair.
Full article & video here.
"Let us be still, O Lord,
let us dwell in the gentle silence 
of your approach. 
You who lift up the weak, 
who repairs the broken, 
who heals the sick; 
we await You. 
We struggle to remember 
that Your Kingdom is at hand. 
 Guide us Merciful Judge, 
in being instruments of your peace. 
May grace more abound within us!" 
~Gideon Addington

Scripture Readings: 
Psalm 148 & Matthew 2:1-23

A quick note: parts of this sermon are taken from a sermon I preached in 2009, which referenced Rosa Linda Fregoso's work meXicana Encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the BorderlandsIn the process of re-writing and adapting for today's sermon, the reference was lost. But the concept of borderlands and movement was inspired directly from that work. Here is a link to that sermon: "Ni de aquí, ni de allá" Thanks to Kimberly Allard who prompted me to look closer at what had changed.

There is a LOT to unpack in these few verses of scripture. But let me say this up front: I won’t get to
it all. Today’s scripture reading is about movement and borders, violence and refuge, listening to voices of lament and discerning action.

I want to begin by setting the stage with our particular situation. The last time I preached this passage, I was preaching in a suburban, middle class church. These days I’m here with you in an urban, working class church. Our particular location and context matters—I’m here today preaching on the slaughter of the innocents—the murder of all of the children of a community under the age of 2. And I’d like to remind you that in our own community of Trenton this year we have seen 35 murders, mostly of young, black men (about 10 times the national average, in a city of 85,000 people, spanning 8 square miles). We are faced with a crisis of death and dying all around us.

In December alone, 4 men have been killed: Stephon Francis age 42, Shamere Melvin age 17, Brandon Marlow age 24, Robert Wright, age 32. Robert Wright was shot and killed just on Friday night.

There is a voice crying out in Trenton, a wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for our children. Do we have ears to hear this cry? Will we lend our voice to that cry and claim this community and its children as our own? Who will we be, church? Who are we?

We are at a crossroads, a church in transition in a community in transition. We have choices before us. We have children among us who are watching what we do. We have white children and brown children and black children watching to see who we will be. Those children are wondering how we will love them in the midst of a community deeply divided over race, class, and poverty. How will we be moved to act?

Let us dive into this scripture then.

From Luke’s gospel, we know that after Mary conceived a child, she traveled to see her cousin, Elizabeth. Then after returning home, she and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem for the census, where Jesus was born. Next, Matthew tells us, wise people from the East came following a star in the sky, leaving behind their home and comforts to see if their astrological predictions had come true. They stopped in Jerusalem, a center of power, in the same way that one might stop in the state capitol if one was looking for the governor. But the only King of the Jews to be found there was King Herod. Fearing for his own power and authority, King Herod set the priests and scribes of the kingdom to the task of figuring out where the baby Jesus would be born. And then he sent the wise ones on their way, wandering toward Bethlehem with instructions to return to Herod with additional information. The star in the sky went ahead of them, perhaps a bit like the pillars of cloud and fire went ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness, guiding them along their way.

Mary and Joseph had enjoyed a quiet period of time after their son’s birth—a few weeks perhaps a few months. They had some shepherd visitors, but overall it must have been a time of rest, a time to learn their roles as parents, nurturing an infant, figuring out if the child was hungry or tired. I imagine they meant to leave Bethlehem eventually, perhaps return to Nazareth where grandparents and aunts and uncles, cousins were eager to see the child. The wise ones' visit to the baby Jesus marked the end of Mary and Joseph’s peaceful time with their baby. They came bearing gifts and glad tidings but also they brought down upon the holy family the wrath of King Herod.

Having been warned in a dream, the wise men wandered home by another way. And then an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And so Joseph got up in the middle of the night, gathered their few belongings and went to Egypt. Matthew does not tell us how many times Mary and Joseph prayed during that journey. Praying for a safe journey, praying that Herod’s men would not find them, praying that when they got to Egypt that there would be someone to take them in. Shelter, refuge, food, someplace safe to sleep.

Behind them in Bethlehem a terrifying story was unfolding. King Herod was jealous and fearful at the news of Christ’s birth. He sent soldiers to Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus, and when he realized that the child had been hidden and the parents warned, he reacted viciously and ordered the murder of all children under the age of two.

How relieved they must have been to arrive safely in Egypt! News of the massacre must have followed them as they traveled, and the journey must have been uncomfortable and frightening with a baby. I imagine as new parents that Mary and Joseph were eager to settle in somewhere and raise their child in security. But their journey was not over yet, for some time after they arrived in Egypt, King Herod died and an angel appeared again in a dream to Joseph and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” So he took them back to Israel where he heard that Herod’s son was the new ruler, and that Archaleus was as bad as his father. And so the angel of the Lord appeared again to Joseph, and they moved on to Nazareth, where they were finally able to settle and raise their child. I don’t know about Joseph, but by the time that angel showed up for the fourth time, I’d have been shaking my fist at God! Your wife to be is going to have a baby that isn’t yours, but do me a favor and marry her anyway. By the way, King Herod is going to try to kill your baby move to Egypt. Oh, just kidding, Herod’s dead you can come back home now. Whoops! My bad! Try Nazareth, where you can live in relative obscurity. We gloss over the drama of this, but following God and keeping babies safe was hard work then and its hard work now.

One of the things all this movement does is begin to create a framework for the Christ child as one who transgresses borders. The simple act of his birth necessitated the crossing of borders, both geographical and cultural. The wise ones came from hundreds of miles away; cultured and educated men in their own right, they came to pay homage to a baby born under humble circumstances. Mary transgressed cultural boundaries to bear this child, and Joseph did as well to stand by her. Together they wandered the countryside, first pregnant, then with an infant, then with a young child. Constant movement and border crossing, and such habits have an effect on a child’s identity. Our children in Trenton could tell you about that--moving her and moving there, looking for a place to call home for more than a year. My own children could tell you about that. It marks a person, this wandering.

Things get complicated along borderlands, and the movement and transgression of boundaries found at borderlands contains a threat to established powers and governments of all kinds. Borders, by their nature are difficult to manage and control. Jesus, because his nature is rooted in movement and crossing borders, is difficult to manage and control. He is a threat to the status quo. Hallelujah! He is neither from here nor from there; and therefore may be claimed by those who stand outside the borders we proscribe.

Do you see how this church is a borderland church? We sit here at the corner of Parkway and Parkside in the transition zone between Trenton and Ewing. A school on the Trenton side of our church, under resourced, old, neglected. And a school on the other side of our church, new, well-resourced, shiny. We sit in the middle, and our children sit in the middle. Who will we be? 

Our children sit in the middle, and they are pushing us to step into the future. One of our students mentioned he lives in the projects. Another of our students asked "What is the projects?" He replied, "It's a place where there's a lot of crime."

Our children, whether they attend school in Trenton or in Ewing, will tell you that they do not feel safe in school. Some of that is the challenge of jr. high--who likes jr. high anyway? And some of that is that there ARE threats to their well-being.

I watched my son leave the house the other day, wearing his goth, metal-studded belt. It occurred to me that if he went to Trenton High instead of Lawrence High, he wouldn't have gotten in the door. Less than 10 miles from my home, students at Trenton High must enter through a metal detector. Who cares about a studded belt, compared to student safety, you ask? But my point is--what does it do to the spirit of a child to enter school everyday through a metal detector?

A voice is heard in Trenton, my friends. Children here are dying, physically and spiritually. All around us there are people—in our state capitol—who go without food, proper clothing, decent shelter, adequate education. The Trenton High School, in our state capitol, is in shambles. Water leaking, broken windows—we have students there—children there. How did this come to be? 

We are a Trenton church. These are our children. This is our community.

The economic disparity between mostly black Trenton and the mostly white suburbs surrounding Trenton is persistent, year after year. The children of Trenton are crying out and dying out, and we as a church are faced with who will we be in the midst of that.

This isn't just our own decision--all over the U.S., in thousands of ways, communities are struggling to navigate racial identity, how to dismantle white privilege and systems of oppression, how to love one another better. We can learn from those struggles if we want to.

Two weeks ago Ani DiFranco (a popular folk musician, well-known in white, progressive, liberal circles), announced an "empowerment retreat." For four days people would gather with her and other musicians to create music and stories, etc. Sounds great--except that the retreat was to be held on a plantation.

My twitter timeline exploded with rage yesterday as this announcement made the rounds. As of this morning, Ani DiFranco had not replied to the critiques and challenges sent her way. Her decision to hold the retreat at a plantation, and her further decision to refuse to answer critics, confirmed many people's suspicions/expectations that white people cannot be trusted to care about the well-being of black folks. (Update: As of Sunday evening, the retreat has been cancelled, and an explanation of sorts has been posted. It's a fine example of what's called a fauxpology.)

If we are not careful, this is our trajectory. We are a mostly white church in a mostly black neighborhood. We are full of well-intentioned, progressive, liberal folks, but we shy away from talking about race. We might very well maintain a posture of ignorant, careless, action that will render us useless to this community.

But here's another possibility.

Two weeks ago Beyoncé dropped a new album in the middle of the night. She had been working on this album in secret for two years--fans were even complaining that although she had set new tour dates, there was no new music to go with the tour! And then suddenly at 2am, she dropped a complete album with 17 videos onto iTunes.

My twitter exploded with many people, but black women in particular, shouting with delight and pure joy. Beyoncé had worked for two years to bring joy to black women--do you know how rare it is for this group of women to be surprised and delighted? I don't even care what the lyrics say or what's on the videos, if I like the music, or it ain't my style. Her album exuded a love for her community, and she brought joy to a group of people who are all too often thrown under the bus. God bless Beyoncé!

What if we did that? What if we replaced our color-blindness, defensiveness, progressive, liberal savior complex, with a posture of delight and joy? What if we focused our next several years to bringing joy and delight to our community? 

What if instead of scowling at the squirrely children in our midst, we smiled at them in delight? What if instead of hushing those children, we asked them their names? What if we told them our story and listened to theirs? What would that do? Maybe nothing! Maybe everything!

What can we possibly do, anyway? How many of us are here this morning? 40? On a good day there might be 100 of us--what can we possibly do? We're not the savior of Trenton--we're just a messy church full of messy people.

We can be present, that's what we can do. We can sink into this community and claim it as ours. It says so on our letterhead, on every newsletter, bulletin, and grant request. It says it on our van. Trenton. We are a Trenton church. These are our children. Those four men who died this month, and the 35 who died this year, they are ours.

We can pour ourselves into our children--all of our children. We can resource them and love their families. We can be present. We can teach each and every one of our children that they are loved, that they are precious, that they matter to us and to God. 

The sidewalks of this town might be crumbling around us--and we might not be able to fix that. But you know how in the cracks of the sidewalk, sometimes a flower grows? We can be that. We can be a flower growing in unlikely spaces. We can dig our heels into this community and dedicate ourselves to being present in the lives of our children--Trenton's children--for as long as they will allow. I want to know these children in 10 years--don't you?

What difference will it make? You'd be surprised how small things change everything. Heck, let's just start with food. Let's feed our children--we can do that!

At the end of the gospel of John, Jesus makes a final appearance to the disciples. He fed them breakfast--it starts with food, you see? He fed them first and then:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 

There's no wiggle room here. If we love Jesus we are to feed his sheep. We, who have been fed, are to go feed others. And what we will teach them is that once they have been fed, they are to go feed others. Feed my lambs, Jesus said. He didn't say to just feed the nice ones, or the ones that follow the rules. He didn't say to feed the white ones or the lambs who stay close to the fold. Jesus said to feed his lambs; to tend his sheep; to feed his sheep. All of them. There is no other way forward possible but to love our children.

Will we hear it? Will we hear the voices crying out in Trenton? Will we join our voice to the cry? Will we we lament our loss and grieve the death of four men this month in Trenton? Will we gather our children--all our children--about us and feed them good food? 

We can do this--we can. The only question remains, will we?


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