A NOTE ABOUT THE SERVICE: We have an annual tradition during Advent here at All Souls Bethlehem Church of a Charlie Brown service. We watch the scene from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special in which Charlie Brown yells out during the rehearsal of a Christmas pageant, “Can anyone tell me the real meaning of Christmas?” That’s when Linus steps up and quotes the Gospel of Luke, “And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.…” This year the service coincided with the outrage over the non-indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. So our normally lighthearted service was balanced out by these tragic developments. In the service then, which began with a poem by one of our parishioners, Jacqueline Bediako, we sought to hold this tension as we journeyed deeper into the Advent season. I argue that when we follow the birth narratives on into the mature life and teaching of Jesus, we are confronted with a story of the killing of an innocent man (told not once but four times), a relevant touchstone for the times in which we live.
“Unarmed Men,” by Jacqueline Bediako
The black holocaust,
it isn’t over.
by the government.
with golden bullets.
And the unarmed men
no longer work
or build the houses
or stroke the stem of
These unarmed men
take a whip to
the back or a
noose around their
But soldiers are
loose with their bullets,
in the earth for
came from the
south to the
hoping for a new
Maybe sweet promises,
of a beautiful
rooms which showed
and death between
Hoards of blacks
locked in the underworld,
lived in harder skin,
how can one win
in a vanilla-colored
wore invisible crowns,
as they stood
with their hands
In this dungeon of
pain and darkness
words are said
I can’t breathe.
I’m stopped from
The author of this poem, Jacqueline Bediako, was nearly arrested on Black Friday while protesting the killing of Michael Brown. Her account of the experience can be found here: http://blackpoliticsontheweb.com/2014/12/01/black-friday-activism/
“Deep Calls to Deep”
Rev. Tom Martinez
All Souls Bethlehem Church
December 7, 2014
I’m not sure if you all have heard the story of Sal Pane (who also goes by “Pain”), who was on the news a bunch during the Ebola scare here in the US, presenting himself as an expert on decontamination and getting work for his company, “Bio-Recovery.” His “expertise” was called into question when he showed up at the home of one of doctors who contracted Ebola, Craig Spencer. Remember he was the MD who upon his return went bowling, etc., throwing Brooklyn into a bit of a panic. And what did the City do do quell the panic? They did what most any fan of “Breaking Bad” would do, they “called Sal.” Only in this case Sal was Sal Pane, who turns out to be a con man.
Prior he was found out while he was busy publicly touting his credentials, Pane reportedly said in reference to his qualifications, “This isn’t my first rodeo.” I begin with that story because I’ve always gotten a kick out of that phrase and I wasn’t sure how else to introduce it! No seriously
I mention this story because it reminds us that things are not always exactly as they appear. As I listened to this story on NPR they played a few clips of the guy prior to his unmasking and he sounded so convincing. If you were listening it would be hard not to accept him as an expert. He had everyone fooled. Like Bob Dylan said, “You can fool some of the people some of the time.”
Recently a Staten Island Grand Jury met about the death of Eric Garner and a very formal, careful process of “justice” was carried out, after which the public was told that there was no indication of anything unjust or illegal having happened, that the police officers involved were simply doing their job. (When I hear that kind of bs couched in legalese it reminds me of Thomas Merton’s remark that the end of the world will come about through an entirely legal process.)
So, just as in the case of Michael Brown, the formal finding of our legal process exonerated the police officer. Only, this is not our first rodeo. In fact we were just at the rodeo last week when another
black man was killed by another white officer and another Grand Jury voted not to indict. So the system as it stands is sending out a public message not to worry, not to concern ourselves over these deaths, that it turns out everything happened by the book and we should all just get back to our normal lives.
Only this time people have had enough. Thousands of people across the country are chanting and shouting, “I can’t breathe.” And it’s more than just these two cases, of course, more even than the troubled history of law enforcement nationwide and the issue of police brutality. People have had enough of the racism against racial minorities, a problem that reaches back to the genocidal birth of this country in the mass slaughter of Native Americans, on through slavery, the invasion of Mexico and the world-wide dominance of the American Empire that, when it’s not killing people of color at home, is killing Muslims abroad.
So this is not our first rodeo.
Every year around this time we celebrate our annual Charlie Brown Christmas Sunday, which tends to be a light, somewhat entertaining service. We watch a clip from the Christmas special and chuckle about how I sort of look like Charlie Brown and we’re all about as nutty as the Peanuts. So it might seem a bit incongruous to be tackling such serious issues on this particular Sunday.
But of course the reason we have our Charlie Brown Sunday is because there’s a serious message behind the special. The kids are trying to prepare for a Christmas Pageant, a re-enactment of the birth of Jesus, only everybody’s doing his or her own thing and chaos is reigning. This is Schultz’ way of making the point that the world’s a pretty crazy place and the task of discovering or connecting with the sacred isn’t as easy as it’s cracked up to be.
The resolution of the crisis comes about when Charlie Brown screams out, “Can anyone tell me the real meaning of Christmas?” At which point Linus walks out to center center stage and recites the Gospel passage about Jesus’ birth. So, as warm and fuzzy as our ritual is, it does hold a deeper meaning that’s pretty relevant every time we return to it.
The discovery of the sacred, one could argue, is a first step, the start of life’s spiritual journey. In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, though, we’re reminded that part of the spiritual life involves a process of maturation, a moving beyond childish things. Not that there’s anything wrong with the celebration of the birth of the sacred or child-like wonder and awe in relation to the majesty of the cosmos. Jesus himself says that unless we become like children we cannot enter the kingdom of God.
But the storms of life require that we move beyond the discovery of the sacred to a more mature understanding of how it has long been persecuted by the powers that be. We could point to Moses’ struggle with Pharaoh or the Daniel in the lion’s den. Or we could simply read on into the life and fate of Jesus, the rabbi who was executed by the Empire.
When we take these things seriously we suddenly have a rejoinder for folks who say, “oh, what’s the relevance of religion to the modern world?” Well let’s think about this for a second. What do we have in the Gospels (leaving aside the aforementioned stories from the Hebrew Bible)? We have a story of an innocent man being executed. Not just that, but the story is told four times. If that’s not relevant to the world we find ourselves in today, I don’t know what is!
It seems to me that people who think religion is irrelevant are the same people who scratch their heads in the wake of yet another police shooting and wonder what it is about human nature that makes these things happen. I get that some people simply can’t believe the miraculous stories in the Bible (if it’s any consolation that sentiment is also found among ministers and theologians—welcome to liberal theology in the 21st century).
You all know I’ve been deeply influenced by the Historian of Religion Renee Girard, who has helped me form what I like to think of as an anthropological frame of reference with which to understand the Gospel. In this view, the key to Jesus’ revolutionary ethic is a challenge to withdraw our projections of evil onto others. “Take the speck out of your own eye before you try to remove the log form the eye of your brother.” The implication here is that most of us go around denying our own complicity in oppression and violence, choosing instead to see and then locate our personal evil onto others. If we take Jesus’ message seriously the challenge is to confront our own collusion in Empire, in the armies that are invading and killing Arabs throughout the world, in the drone strikes, in the acts of torture that will soon be coming into the full light of day.
The powers that be seek to justify their violence, to wage legal arguments as to why what was done was perfectly normal and the real point here is how it was “justifiable,” meaning legitimate. So whether we’re talking about the shooting of an unarmed black man or the torture of a taxi driver (Taxi to the Dark Side), those meting out the violence are invested in locating evil somewhere “out there.”
But this isn’t our first rodeo. We see that King Obama has no clothes. We see that kidnapping people and taking them to secret prisons abroad so as to waterboard people where it’s technical “legal” is obscene. We see that the gunning down of unnarmed black men is WRONG. It’s wrong because it’s a function of white America wanting to ignore its past torture and murder rape and enslavement of blacks in this country and instead to continue to make them out as somehow being the enemy.
Well this is all familiar ground as this isn’t our first rodeo. But we’ve got some new folks here today and I’m feeling a little worked up.
A few years back I preached a sermon about the film, The Whale Rider. You may recall it’s a film about another class of oppressed people, that being little girls. A young girl is born into a family hoping for a boy to lead their people. But she turns out to be the leader they were looking for, something evidenced by her capacity to call out in the ancient language of whales, which heed her call. We talked about this story as a myth for our time, a story of a people who are clinging to their foundational stories against all odds, daring to believe in the sacred despite a changing world and ever-increasing challenges.
Like the con man I began with our system is trying to pretend it’s all above board, these non-indictments of the police who are killing black men. But the groundswell of public outrage is screaming out a verdict of “Guilty!” The masses, moved I would argue by a sensibility grounded in the Western religious tradition whose foundation story is of a killing of an innocent man, the people across the country are closing streets and marching and shouting, “I can’t breathe,” and “black lives matter!”
My theme today is spiritual maturity in the face of injustice and as such I have to point out that for Christians the easy way out has been to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. But the wisdom of the Gospel is more profound than that. We see Peter, the future leader of the Church, saying he didn’t know the executed man, denying him not once but three times! This means that we can’t blame the Jews. It’s not a Jewish problem, it’s a human problem. Similarly we can’t simply blame the police. We have to accept that it’s not those evil people “out there,” but rather a system which to a greater or lesser degree we all carry within us. It’s easy to see the speck in our brother or sister’s eye and thereby to avoid the log in our own. We can look down on others because of social class or gender or education or sexual orientation. The challenge is not to look down on anyone but rather to see the whole human family and all the Earth’s creatures on equal ground. To transform society we have to begin with the transformation of our own hearts and souls.
I want to close today by returning to the image of whales and their ancient songs. That’s been on my mind thanks to a film I saw recently called Red Knot. It’s a love story that takes place on a voyage through the Arctic. Throughout the film the power of the ocean becomes a symbol for life and it’s vast, overwhelming power. The human drama plays out within the ship, much like the boat Jesus’ disciples are on when he comes walking to them on the water. Remember the story of Peter who leaps out of the boat. Ultimately spiritual maturity requires that we leave the safety of all of our institutionalized, cultural vessels, to plunge into the storm of the sea.
One of the characters in the film is an expert on whale songs and there’s a scene when the ship is alongside some of these magical creatures. I got to thinking about whales, how the ocean which so often is viewed as wild and overpowering, something we need to be protected from. But for the whales this is their home.
That got me to thinking about all of you and our relation to the ancient stories. Stories of bondage under the Egyptian Empire, of Joseph in the dungeon, of Moses saying to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” This Advent season we tell the story of Jesus’ birth, the same story the Peanuts are struggling to enact despite all their nutty peculiarities—not unlike us, I would note. But as we’ve reflected on today the story involves not just the birth in the manger, but the genocidal madness of King Herod and the ultimate fate of Jesus at the hands of the Roman Empire. And yet we continue to remember him. We continue the struggle for justice, the challenge to accept our collusion with the powers that be.
These are heavy, challenging themes. But this isn’t our first rodeo. And there are people, as our call to worship reminds us, whose seriousness and devotion amounts to a form of communication in which “deep calls to deep.” We don’t claim to be perfect. In fact the first step on the journey, once we’ve discovered the sacred, is to see that we’re not perfect, that we cast a shadow and are in collusion with the powerst that be, only then can we truly begin the long, arduous task of integration. But we do that work together, entering the fray, speaking the truth as best we can.
May we all find the courage to step out of the cultural boat. It’s true the sea can become wild and treacherous. But there are ancient beings that inhabit its depths, beings who call out to us in song from the heart of the Mystery. May we have ears to hear and eyes to see.
May it be. Amen.