Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
Sunday, November 30, 2014
Text: Isaiah 64:1-9
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” Isaiah 64:1
This is the voice of a frustrated prophet, who wants God to tear back the heavenly veil and look at the earthly mess, and let God’s justice shake the mountains. Look at the mess we are in, God, and reshape us like a potter shapes the clay. These prophetic words come somewhere amidst the saga of destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE-the greatest disaster of the Old Testament – most likely as people are trying to rebuild. It took a few generations recover, and ethnic and ideological tensions exacerbated the problem. Jews whose families had survived and stayed in Jerusalem disagreed with Jews who were coming back from exile in Babylonian (like carpetbaggers from the North), and neither group liked the influx of Persian immigrants. So they argued each other into gridlock and couldn’t rebuild the walls of the city together.
This text was in my mind while watching news from Ferguson, and a young protestor was asked what his agenda was, and he said it was for racial justice and they were going to “shake the heavens.” I don’t know if he knew the lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent, Year B, but the words were unmistakably there. I pondered the parallels of how the Civil War is our nation’s great cataclysm, and how we struggle still with its legacy. The 90-second deadly encounter between Michael Brown and Officer Daren Wilson has exposed the nation’s conflicted soul once again. If this were a movie instead of real life, we might say that Brown is an ambiguous character who personifies young black men who could go either way, on the one hand enrolled in college and hopeful about the future, and yet he could be sucked into the violence of urban street culture that is amplified for evening news and police shows. There is a ready-made narrative for that side of Michael Brown. The same could be said of Daren Wilson, who presents as Joe Average, not particularly racist, and yet he is surrounded by a militarized police force that looked more ready to go to Fallujah than Ferguson. These two men are as unclear to us the 90 seconds they shared. Like the OJ trial and Rodney King, we may see them through the narratives about race that are already in our mind’s eye.
It is not the first time one person, like Michael Brown, shapes our national drama. The same happened on the way to the Civil War, and that man’s name was Dred Scott. He was born a slave in Virginia. His owners migrated to St. Louis where he was sold to John Emerson. Fortunately even a slave can fall in love, and in 1838, he was given permission to marry another slave named Harriet. In 1843 his master died and his wife Irene Elliot, became Dred’s owner. Dred wished to be free and offered to purchase his families freedom. Irene Elliot refused; she lived off the income of renting our Dred and Harriet. Friends advised Dred to take her to court, because he had lived and married in free states with the Elliots. According the Missouri Compromise of 1820, once a man is free, he is always free and cannot be resold into slavery.
For the next 11 years the Scott’s future hung in the balance of conflicting court proceedings. At one point, in 1850, a jury of 12 white men heard the evidence and decided that Dred Scott and his family should be free. Slaves were valuable property, and Mrs. Emerson did not want to lose the Scotts, so she appealed her case to the Missouri State Supreme Court, which in 1852 reversed the ruling. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where in 1857 Chief Justice Tanney delivered the majority decision that Dred Scott should remain a slave. Tanney used this decision to take things a step further, claiming Scott was not a citizen, but rather he was property, and no state could make a law governing someone else’s property. This ruling opened the door slavery expanding into the new Western Territories that were not yet states, and perhaps even challenged Northern State bans against slavery in their own states.
Dred Scott’s desire to be free and left at peace with his family was suddenly a national cause and the subject of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which was just across the river from St. Louis in the neighboring state of Illinois. Dred Scott never heard about these debates. In a great irony, Irene Elliot married a northern abolitionist and freed Dred and his family after 11 years of legal battles. Dred died a few months later and was buried, his final resting place in Calvary Cemetery north of St. Louis. If you visit the grave, you should take two other historical trips. First, you can take a trip down the road on Florissant Avenue. and it is only 6.5 miles to Ferguson, Missouri, a trip of 13 minutes according to Google maps, give or take 160 years.
Second, it is not too far from the birthplace of Samuel Clemmons, who was a cub reporter in St. Louis for a time, and was working on his steamboat license the year of the Dred Scott decision. 30 years later, after he changed his name to Mark Twain, he wrote “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” about a scamp running away from home and traveling on a raft down the Mississippi with a fugitive slave named Jim. This fictional friendship of runaways is an early literary attempt to find a way towards racial reconciliation. Can a one-on-one friendship endure off the raft in a society so broken and tainted by race and slavery? Huck can lie to protect Jim from bounty slave hunters, even though lying is a sin. But later all his ingrained attitudes kick in, as he thinks about Jim’s “owner” Miss Watson, who taught him in school. After feeling convicted of sin in church on Sunday, Huck contemplates writing her a letter to tell her where Jim, her “property,” is hiding to come completely clean.
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him…
I took it (the paper) up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming…. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.”
“Go the whole hog.” As an Iowa farm boy, that expression means something to me. It means you are all in, determined to see something to the end. Ferguson is one more reminder we are not there yet. Though we have made much progress in race relations, since the Voting Rights Act in 1964, we are not yet “whole hog.”
News coverage today on Florissant Avenue in Ferguson suffers from the same time constraints on time we have this morning. Since we lack time for detailed analysis on racial issues in America, I will just share one issue in Ferguson not covered in the news. Here is one reason interaction with the police force is so problematic there. Many Missouri small towns are infamous for their speed traps and high traffic fines. In Ferguson, over 20% of the municipal budget comes from traffic court, in fines, late charges and court fees. So you were doing 35 in a 25 zone while running late for work one day. You can’t afford that $50 ticket this month. Late fees push the cost up to $100, which you still can’t pay. Then you get a warrant for arrest and you go to court. The judge sentences you and so you end up in jail for 3 days, and you are released still owing now $250 and you lost income from missed days at work and maybe even your job. The Ferguson police department is near the top in the state of Missouri for revenue produced per resident, at an average of $312 annually per resident. No white majority communities are near the top of that list.
In the list of demands from community forums in Ferguson comes this: “DEMAND #4 — END OVERPOLICING AND THE CRIMINALIZATION OF POVERTY.” Specifically the community wants amnesty for unpaid fines and fees of nonviolent offenses-statewide, and a state law to cap municipal fees at 10 percent of any community budget. When we use the term “institutionalized racism”, this is what it means. It is a system that has dire and disproportionate consequences for black and Latino people, compared to white people, and it is real and pervasive, an obvious to those who live under its conditions. And this reality is obscured by the steady diet of a news media that present inner city violence as entertainment. Lets report extensive images of fires burning down the neighborhood, which is of course counter-productive, but not quite as stupid as students rioting and burning cars at the Keene, NH Pumpkin Festival. But do you think we could get 2 minutes and 30 seconds to hear about the hundreds of people showing up for community forums to try bringing positive change out of this tragic and deadly moment?
The real action on racism is happening in conversations taking place in school gyms and church halls and people talking together. Street protests are fine, they have their place, but we should not discount these conversations about where do we go from here. They are sacred conversations. They embody what Michael Brown’s parents said, “Don’t make noise, make a difference.” Sacred Conversations is an anti-racism project happening throughout the United Church of Christ, and my hope is the Ferguson conflict will motivate us to join in the necessary work.
Are we able to take a journey and float on Huck and Jim’s raft? Advent is here, and we are called to a conversation with our Still Speaking God and with one another. Here the end of Isaiah again as we close:
8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. Isaiah 64:8-9