“Trouble in Lake Wobegone”
Luke 10:25-37 and Romans 14:1-18
Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
July 10, 2016
First Christian Church
Listen to the Sermon.
The sign says, “I could be next.” The photo was taken by yours truly on July 7, 2016 in front of the Governor’s mansion in St. Paul.
It could have been me.
That is what I thought early Thursday morning, as I groggily woke and checked Facebook. There were some news reports of a police shooting near St. Paul. As I became more conscious I started to realize this was big news. It was another member of the police shooting a black man.
It was then I saw a post from Daniel my husband. It was frieghtening post. He was already up reading the news and penned a heartfelt post…about me. He wondered if this morning would be the last we had together. He wondered if the cops pulled me over for a busted taillight, would I be next. He wondered what might happen in the last few minutes of my life if I had been shot. He ends the post saying he dreaded sunrise.
That woke me up. It also left me helpless. There was no way I could tell Daniel, that he was worrying over nothing. As I read more and more about Philando Castile and his work at a local Montessori elementary school, I saw that if someone who seemed to be a good guy could get killed by the police, then there was no way I could tell Daniel that this odds were low that such a thing could happen. Because they could happen. Because I am black and because people see me and millions of other black men as a threat even before we open our mouths.
The thing that is so maddening about this is that for all intents and purposes, Philando was a good man. He had worked for the St. Paul schools as a cafeteria worker. He became a supervisor two years ago. He got to know the kids of the primarily white elementary school where he worked. This wasn’t someone with a questionable record, but someone trying to make a life, a good life. Yes, we are not the nation we were 50 years ago. Yes, we have a black president that was elected twice. But even despite all of this a good man can get killed just after he honestly told a cop that he had a permit to carry a gun. He had a constitutional right to carry a gun and did so according to Minnesota statutes. But when that officer shot four bullets into Philando he made a mockery of those laws, telling us that you have a right to a gun, just as long as your’e white.
As I left for work Thursday morning, hearing the news of what happened in Falcon Heights and another police shooting in Baton Rouge a day earlier, I was fearful of being pulled over and that is a first. I can remember being a kid in the 1970s and having the police come to school and teach us how to be careful around strangers. Now, forty years later, I have to be careful around police.
And we haven’t even talked about what happened Thursday evening in Dallas. As protestors were ending a peaceful protest, one that where the police were there to ensure saftey, an angry man started shooting, killing five police officers- the most officers on duty dying at once since 9/11.
It could have been me. It also has been me.
I’m not going to go into a long story, but there have been times when I was treated differently by the authorities because of the color of my skin. I could talk about my experience with the American border guard at the US-Canadian border in Niagara Falls. And I’ve shared my experience at a credit union in Flint where some folks suspect thirteen year old me was going to cause trouble. I don’t want to be known as the pastor who just talks about race, and I don’t want to make the pulpit a political platform, but you all need to know how African Americans are treated in this society and as a your pastor, I feel I need to let you know and together find out how we as followers of Jesus Christ should respond.
But it’s not just black men suffering, it’s also black women and children. Did the officer realize he was shooting someone at close range with women and children present? How many of us saw that video by Philando’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds as she calmly explains to viewers on Facebook how her boyfriend was gun down. And why did a four-year-old have to witness this horror?
Racial inequality is still a problem 50 years after the civil rights movements. African Americans still face unequal treatment in employment, in education and in the criminal justice system. Minnesota has a reputation as a state with a good standard of living, but life for many black Minnesotans is terrible; in some aspects worse than Mississippi. There is trouble in Lake Wobegon.
Our texts today in Romans and Luke have to deal with how we treat others. In Romans, Paul urges the church in Rome to respect the beliefs of others in the congregation and live lives for that other person and ultimately to God. “Someone who thinks that a day is sacred, thinks that way for the Lord. Those who eat, eat for the Lord, because they thank God. And those who don’t eat, don’t eat for the Lord, and they thank the Lord too. 7 We don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we belong to God.” We don’t live for ourselves, but for God and the other. We don’t dismiss their way of looking of things, but respect where they are coming from.
In Luke we hear the well known story of the Good Samaritan. A man is on the highway and beaten up by robbers left for dead. Two Jewish religious leaders come by and they pass him by, fearful they might become ceremonially unclean. Finally a third person comes by. The audience might think he was another Jew, but no, he is a Samaritan, a people not well liked among Jews. The Samaritan comes near, bandages him, brings him to hotel to heal and then gives a substantial amount to the innkeeper to pay for the room and any expenses the injured man should incur. The important aspect of this tale is not who is the neighbor, but who is the neighbor.
As good neighbors, we are also called to seek out those who are in pain. The Good Samaritan sought out the injured man. He sought out the injured man, not simply because it was the right thing to do, but because it was where God was. We know of God’s love for us because of Christ’s death on the cross. Where there is pain, God is there and as Christians we must be there as well. If anyone has seen the images or the video taken by his incredibly calm girlfriend , we see him groaning in pain in his blood-soaked shirt. As he takes what might have been his last breaths, God is there…and it is where we have to be as well.
But some of us need to be there more than others. Because the only way these police shootings and other examples of racism will stop is when white Christians, white Americans step up. This is not simply my problem or Lisa’s problem or my mother’s problem, but it is all of our problems. I’m not trying to guilt-trip the white members of this congregation, but this is a problem that affects us all and no one can afford to sit on the sidelines. I don’t know what that means for you, but I implore you to figure out what you can do. We cannot have a nation where a good chunk of the public is fearful of those who are suppose to keep the peace. In the vein of the Good Samaritan, white Americans people can’t just go over to the other side of the road, you have to stop and help your sister or brother who is facing threats and more.
This means that there is more to this than being nice to black people. Being a people of grace means that we must enter into the pain of others, understanding and seeking to remedy the ways African Americans and others have been held back because of who they are.
This week, there was trouble in Lake Woebegone. We learned that it is not as idyllic as we thought it was. The mask has been ripped away revealing the ugliness beneath. But even as we have now seen the darker side of Lake Wobegon, there is also a light of hope. If you were able to watch the video following the shooting of Philando Castile, you see Diamond Reynolds talking and then at some point a small voice says something. The voice said, “It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you.” Those were the words of Ms, Reynolds 4 year old daughter, a child barely out of being a toddler and having to grow up way too fast. But those words are important because it tells us that racial reconciliation is a difficult thing to do and that God is with us in this hard work. This is not something we do by ourselves, but we do it with God and through God, the one who came to earth as a human to repair the breech between humanity and God.
Things can change to bring wholeness and healing in our fragmented world. May we as the church find ways to bring healing and wholeness. May work for the day when no one will ever say, “It could have been me.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.