Sermon by Katie Mulligan
Preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton, NJ
Scripture: Mark 6:1-13
brothers and sisters, lovers, wives, best friends, children, aunties and uncles and neighbors.Teachers and pastors who are struggling to make sense of the violent death of students they taught and young men they prayed for. Tied to their deaths are the perpetrators, those who have taken six lives well before their time. What becomes of those who do such a thing? For all of us who are left, what do we do next? This is the question that has been occupying my mind for over a year as many of us have walked together in prayer on the streets of Trenton and in our houses of worship and in our own prayer lives.
The oldest of these men was 43, Edward Nock, stabbed to death by a man who had been staying with him in his home. The youngest? Jah’vae Miney, 16 years old, shot to death on the corner of Prospect and Bellevue—right there on the corner by the Serenity Garden, God help us all.
Jah’vae was friends with some of our students—Trenton is, after all, a very small town. 84,000 people in 7.5 square miles. 11,000 people or so per square mile of land in this city. We are packed in here pretty tight. In every violent death that has occurred in this city over the last year, we see over and over how closely people are related to one another here in this city. Somebody always knows somebody who knew the person who died. And just as assuredly, although not as loudly proclaimed,
somebody always knows somebody who knows the person who killed them. Jah’vae was well known to other youth in this town. He was known by mentors and pastors and teachers and church leaders. It’s hard to be anonymous around here—people KNOW each other in Trenton.
I keep looking at the people who are getting killed here in Trenton and it makes no sense—it only makes for grief. People are getting killed in all different parts of the city, at different times of day, in different ways, for different reasons. But what they have in commone is they are mostly black (a few Hispanic folks, one white dude last year), they are mostly young (20s, 30s, 40s, with a few teens and a few olders folks), they are mostly men (2 women out of 34 last year), and they were in Trenton. Most of them were shot. A few have been stabbed. One man died in a fire. A few were beaten. What are we to make of this? How are we to keep going forward in the face of relentless, deadly violence in our city?
This question keeps nagging at me-what next, what next, what next? I hear it a lot at our prayer vigils, community meals, unity walks—what’s next? Prayer is a nice thing, but what will you DO? Prayer isn’t enough—what resources will you bring? What counselor will you find who can heal this grief? What jobs program will you start that will get people off the streets at night? What addiction services will you provide that will turn people away from the places where they are getting hurt? What gang intervention will you initiate that will settle down these streets? What will you DO? What’s next?
I am tempted, and I know I am not alone in this, to just shut down. To walk away. To say, “There’s nothing that can be done.” When I am ministering with families in need, the church often asks, “What is the thing this family needs so that they will not need anything anymore.” In other words, as humans, we are solution oriented, and we do not like intractable problems. In the face of systemic injustice and violence, we often throw up our hands and retreat. What job training program can we get that family so they won’t need food assistance anymore? What health insurance can we connect that man to so he won’t need help with his medical bills anymore? What financial program can we teach to our families so they won’t live paycheck to paycheck anymore? Or in other words, how can we help people to not NEED anyone else—independence, after all, being the thing we prize most in this country.
What is the thing we can do to fix this problem in this town? What is the thing we can do to stop the murders. And, by the way, even though nobody has figured out what that one thing is, WHY AREN’T YOU/WE DOING IT ALREADY?
What is the next thing? There is a fierce urgency to this question. Do you feel it? 6 people murdered in the last month. Fierce urgency.
What is the thing we could have done to stop Jah’vae from dying?
I’ve sat with that question for 10 days since he was killed.
I don’t have that answer.
Do you feel it—are you feeling it with me? The urgency of this question? Who are we, people of God, that we would let this happen in our streets? Who are we, O Church, that children and men and women are dying all around us and we just go about our days? What is the next thing we will try? What is the next prayer we will pray? What is the thing we can do?
I am pulled and pushed in two directions by colleagues and friends. On the one hand are the people who remind me that we will always have violence, we will always have the poor, we will always have next things that must be done. And so my urgency is misplaced or misguided. I am reminded by dear friends about Sabbath and rest. In fact, I remind others of the need to rest and take Sabbath. When people come to me and say, “I’m so TIRED,” I say to them, “Then SLEEP.” Emilie Townes once wrote: you must give yourself permission to be tired and weary, besides, you must also find ways of renewal so that you can be a creative and healthy participant in dismantling oppressions. Burned out, bitter people do not help bring in justice very often and they are of little help in any search for [T]ruth." (Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil)
Oh yes, I am pushed and pulled and convicted by those who tell me that one answer to what is next is NOTHING. That the Lord has us all in his hands. That when we are gone from this job, this place, this life, others will take our place and do this work. We are not so special or unique that we cannot be replaced.
On the other hand, I am pressed by colleagues and friends that every hand is needed at this time. That the only hands God has are OUR hands. That we may not solve the problems that plague us with violence and death, but that every small piece of work we manage to do gets us closer. I am reminded by the tears of the families left behind that THIS life mattered, that something MIGHT have been done, that something MUST be done if we are to prevent more killing in our city. I am reminded by the faces of my students when they talk about death, that we must do better by them. This way of life, that people get shot and stabbed and sometimes killed, is simply a way of life for many children in our city. Their lives are structured around the violence that stalks our streets and our hearts. It determines where they can play, whether they can go out. It determines what resources are available to them. It stunts their growth, physically and emotionally. It frightens our children until they can’t feel anything anymore. We must do better. What is the next thing?
The Gospel of Mark stays with me in these times. It is the shortest gospel. It is the simplest gospel. And it is fast-paced. No bother mentioning the birth of Jesus, Mark goes straight out to the wilderness with a grown John the Baptist. A full-grown, 30-year-old Jesus makes his way to be baptized by his cousin. Jesus is driven out into the wilderness. John is beheaded. Jesus calls the disciples and then BOOM! He is off teaching and healing and preaching. The Gospel of Mark is relentless in its pursuit of what is next, what is next, what is next. Exorcisms, healing, calming the storm, traveling, and moving about. And when Jesus gets to his hometown again, perhaps to rest a bit in the arms of his family and friends, he is mocked and distrusted and dishonored there. What is next what is next what is next?
Are you tired yet? Lord knows I am. It’s not like we haven’t done anything already. But you know, we go out into our streets, our community rooms, our schools. We stand up and name the problems. We propose solutions. We find short-term energy for projects. We find allies, aligned to our work. We try again and again and again. And people keep dying. Are you tired yet? The Lord knows I am. What is next what is next what is next?
I work a lot with students out in the Oakland Street housing project in the West Ward. We have 15 or 20 students living out there. I find myself overwhelmed by the need out that way. I talk with people who used to live there, and they are shocked by how things are now.
There’s kids running all over that part of town. Little kids, big kids, FAMILIES live there with grandmas and aunties and pop pops and fathers and mothers and uncle Joes all desperate for their kids to catch a break. In that housing complex there’s no playground, no neighborhood pool. There’s a corner store, some picnic tables, but no afterschool program, no summer camp no place for the kids to play safely. And as they get older, it gets harder to stay out of trouble. We know that about teenagers in general. So when you have teenagers in general, and then you have violence stalking them in the streets, you have a big problem. I think to myself all the time, what’s next, what’s next, what’s next? What should we DO, Lord? Last Halloween someone was shot and killed in their courtyard—Halloween night, when kids are out. And now one of their friends was killed a few blocks from their home. My students are getting older and death is circling around their doorstep. I am grieving. I’m scared. I’m angry. And like the relentless pace of Mark’s gospel, I can feel the fierce urgency of WHAT’S NEXT?
Even Jesus was momentarily stunned by the intractability of the problems in his hometown. What worked for healing in other places did not work at home. The people couldn’t hear him, their faith had withered. Like water, the Spirit flows through paths of least resistance—what’s next? Will we be a conduit for the Spirit or will we turn our backs and block the Spirit’s work? We have great power, created by God, loved by God, gathered by God, and sent out by God. What is next, is the question we must keep asking, even when we’re tired.
Jesus was amazed by his people’s unbelief, but he was only momentarily flummoxed. He gathered his people and sent them out in pairs. Go out to the people’s homes, he said. Stay if they’ll have you. Preach the Good News. Bring them healing. Let them feed you. Don’t worry about taking supplies. Make sure you’re dressed for the road, but it doesn’t need to be fancy. Your words, your hands, my Spirit will be enough—trust in that. Go.
And if it’s not enough, well then leave that house and go on to the next one. He didn’t say leave that house and go home in defeat and cry in your pillow and be done. Because there are still people who need us—the questions is what is next? Not what didn’t work, but what is next? Don’t linger where the word, the Spirit, where goodness is blocked. You will be provided for, go on to the next house, but don’t give up, don’t stop. Evil is relentlessly stalking our children, our lovers, our brothers and sisters. We, too, must be relentless. What’s next, what’s next what’s next?
What has the Lord laid upon your heart today? Is it prayer? Is it rest? Is it action? Is there something you are meant to DO with the hands and heart and life gifted to you by God?
And do not fear! For God does not send you alone! God sends us in pairs—there is someone else aligned with your purpose.
Here’s my pledge to you. Temporarily, if you can’t find that other person, if there’s something you are called to do, and you are alone, then CALL ME. As you are called, CALL ME and say “Jesus laid it on my heart to…” and tell me what it is and I will meet you there. And I will go with you to bring this gospel. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
We will go out together into the streets of Trenton, to the homes of our beloveds, and we will cast out evil. We will bring food and blankets, music and love, prayer, hope, and healing. Let us bring playgrounds and summer camps and jobs and counseling. And let us be relentless in our joy and hope in this work and even when we are tired, let us praise God because we have this work to do.
And when you are tired, because dear God, I am TIRED, don’t forget that you are not alone. We are in alignment for Jah’vae and Paris and Ronnie and Edwin and Harvey and Edward. We are aligned with their loved ones. We are aligned with the Spirit of Love and Joy. And we cannot, we shall not fail. We can’t. Evil cannot prevail. Rest. And when you are ready, when the call on your life cannot be ignored, then CALL ME and I will go with you. We will bring good news to our city, to our people, and when we are not heard, we will wipe the dust off our feet, as a testimony against that house, go on to the next house. Because somehow in that next house, we might find what we need to help the last house that through us out and didn’t like the word we brought. We’ll just keep going on to the next house and wiping the dust, and we will keep asking what’s next what’s next what’s next. Until our last breath.
And that’s how we’ll do it.