Unexpected Light For The Foolish and The Wise

December 07, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

What a difference a week makes. Last week we sang, “We Shall Not Be moved,” and meant it, hoping that we wouldn’t have to do that, soon, again. We were in sorrow and anger, knee deep in grief, about the non-indictment in Ferguson. And then, just while we were warming up to care about some place we’d never heard of, near St. Louis, we had to care about a repeat and related incident on Staten Island. All the time all week we were getting on and off subways, buying and putting away groceries, listening to the radio, a grand jury much closer by, almost too close for comfort, was deliberating. We knew they were deliberating, sort of, and sort of knew they would issue a something, sometime soon.


They issued a decision, just as a planeload of religious leaders from New York was landing from Ferguson. Serene Jones, President of Union Seminary was on that plane. My son, Isaac Luria, was on that plane. Another 30 of New York City’s Finest…meant religiously…were on that plane. They were pointedly asked by the youthful and tired leadership in Ferguson, who had been on the streets for 117 days, they were pointedly asked, “Why did you give up on the Civil Rights Movement?” I had wanted to go on that plane. Long story. Didn’t go. So relieved but only relieved in that way that Staten Island seems far away too.

The Eric Garner non-indictment broke as their plane landed. Now everything is new – and the question that the Ferguson people asked the New York people, why did we give up on the Civil Rights Movement, is rumbling, rumbling, rumbling, like the A train, all night long and early in the morning too. Deeply rumbling within that question is whether we did give up on it. And why does it take sacrificial death so often to get those of us who want to pay attention to pay attention? And what kind of attention shall we pay? Big flashes of attention or small steady attention? And what if the answer, my tired people, my beloved bruised and tired people, is that we have to do both? Flash the pan and staff the flash. And how are we going to do that and keep up with our emails?

It’s all new this week. We lost our defense mechanisms. We became UN numb – which is one of the scariest place in the world to live. Numb is a place. You can live there quite comfortably, except for all the antacid pills. You can live there a long time, except for the occasional breakthrough story that tells you what is happening, even though you knew it was happening. I really appreciated Bill Altham’s comment last week. He fussed with me about my concern that Officer Richard Brown had not been indicted. Why, asked Bill, scapegoat just one policeman? What will that do? We know there are hundreds of them who don’t know how to behave. If you scapegoat one or two, then they get punished and the system goes back to itself. Good comment.

This week, we have been forced to realize what we know: the police are not policed. Some of them, not all of them, use excessive force. We also live in a society of perdurant racism. Those of us who are white are treated differently, regularly, than those who are black or brown.

My historian friends and partner tell me that “this already is the largest national conversation on race,” since the 1968 Kerner Commission. I had thought about doing a reading from it. “We are rapidly moving towards two societies,” it announced. And it was right. It was a best seller as soon as it came out because people had been forced by action in their streets to wonder what was going on. It was a kind of sop, a band-aid to put on the wound of the civil rights movement. How many of you know what the Kerner Commission was? Interesting.

My historian friends go on to say, “This is the return of 19th century NY.” Then the people owned the streets and the swells had to go inside. They even had to build thick walls to make sure they didn’t get shot over their Roast beef. They also built armories to house the domestic armies they used to keep racial and economic peace. There is nothing new about Eric Garner. Instead, there is a rumble, like the way we ride the subways, something always happening underneath the ground. We know it is there. But we try to forget. And once again, this week, we are mercifully and mercilessly, forced to see what is going on. The subway is always running. We are just not always on it.

Not only is history repeating itself in the difficult terms of armories and the Kerner commission and the old civil rights movement. History is also repeating itself in uprisings. Important uprisings. Risings of the human spirit. People just walking out their front doors. Crowds marching up East 18 th Street. Yes, East 18th street. And Berkeley, and Chicago, and Miami, and Philly and D.C. and more. This is the first time we have marched without being penned up in NYC since 9 – 11. That is not small. Nor is it small than we elected a mayor who is running a different police department than his predecessor. Not small at all. We have to flash the pan and staff the flash. I know: It is terribly hard to trust the systems at precisely the point we need to make sure the subways run with great vigor. Don’t give up on voting yet please!

So back to what the Ferguson people asked the New York people: “Why did you give up on the civil rights movement?” Because we got beat. Because we got tired. Because we thought a little was enough and it wasn’t. Because power had a stronger infrastructure than we did and it just waited us out.

It is very important to get the confessional out here. It is very important NOT to say BUT we didn’t give up…or something that sounds an awful lot like “I am not a racist but…” Why not just say, some of us did give up…and some of us worked on the tunnels and the turns and training the personnel to operate the subways? Why not just say, yes. We gave up. We gave in. We couldn’t sustain the momentum. We knew there was no such thing as a natural teacher, one who just stood up to teach. And we knew there was no such thing as a natural cop, one who knew how to resist the culture of the club. We remember being 26 ourselves. But we didn’t teach people how to think.

Today let’s think and know we’re not going to get this confession right the first, second or third time. We are confessionals in training, remember that old word, C.I.T., counselor in training.

One of you got very upset with me a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to do more with the New Sanctuary movement and she felt, rightly I believe, that I hadn’t thanked us for what we had done. So much discomfort in that, right? I think she is right. We have not been thanked or thanked each other enough for what we have done, both in terms of stop and frisk and ICE out of Rikers and stopping solitary, etc. etc. etc. We have done what we could. And it is not enough.

Oddly how this all turns into a liturgy. Have we confessed enough? Have we praised enough? And how shall we end the service ? Do we have to sing again this week and next week, a song that says we shall not be moved, even though it is clear that we have been moved and will be moved again?

Tomorrow the magnificent new coalition that is coming together around the Garner case, #Ican’tbreathe or #Godcan’tbreathe, will deliver a pastoral letter to the City Council at noon, asking for a special prosecutor and more. It will be a serious action, beginning at Trinity Wall Streets, St. Paul’s church at 11 a.m. with a worship service, ending in the City Council Chambers at noon, with a prayer and a die in. (Take the 6 to city Hall or the E to Fulton, address is 209 Broadway.) Note some new things: normally we have to meet in person, uptown, endlessly. We have been on the phone for two or three hours a day since Thursday. We are working well by phone. That matters in our staffing and staying ability. The dirty little secret about Occupy is that we couldn’t finally staff it. We just didn’t have the capacity. Now that much larger organizations are on board, we have staff. The pastoral letter is up on line at, with its demands and more. Terrible things often bring people together. I wish it were not so but it is.

Yes, the sound of the helicopters is alive in the land. Yes, the people are in the streets, where we belong. And some of us need to staff the subways and make sure they keep running. 219 people were arrested on Thursday. 102 on Friday. Linda Sarsour, an amazing leader, tells us that the most important infrastructure we need right now is to stay nonviolent. Why? Because we want there to be thousands of arrests and we want to keep the streets safe our way, not another way. We want to make loud, sustainable noise on the street and virally.

Today I had intended to preach about whether it is wise or foolish to want comfort. It is both. It is wise to need comfort for a weary soul. It is foolish to need comfort for a weary soul that has gone numb. Comfort will not resolve what confession – deep intergenerational confession – can do. Comfort will not result in praise. We have to thank each other over and over again for what we have done and been and then do and be more.

So I’m thinking we not sing, “we shall not be moved” again this week at the end. We will enter the Agape meal, which is a strong statement of community standing against the cultures of domination. We will hum and sing it, during the meal, as we feed each other. Quietly. Slowly. Sustainably. We are in this for the long haul and have been in it for the long haul.

You do know that liturgy is about the process of life and living, right? At the end of each service, we begin service. At the end of each service, we proclaim a debt free truth.

We conclude this service hearing the truth that Isaiah proclaimed, “Cry to Jerusalem that her warfare is over, her debt is paid.” What is comfort? Comfort is the end of the service and the end of life, where we go out debt free, not owing or being owed anything. “Tell Jerusalem her warfare is ended, her debt has been paid.” There is no need to keep paying your rent after you own the apartment, still paying your mortgage after it has been paid off, still paying your student loans after they have been paid off. That is foolish.

Instead, we are so freed by the powerful grace of Almighty God that we can pay forward. We don’t punish. We live in forgiveness, end with our debts paid, not scapegoated, but paid.

The battle is over, the victory is won. We ride the subways, the deep underground. We confess. We are forgiven. We thank each other and we thank God for what we have been able to do and be. And we eat together, singing the ancient songs of freedom. We don’t owe anybody anything and nobody owes us anything. Instead we eat and sing, aware of the sure breakthrough of the realm of God. We won’t make it happen. God will make it happen. We stand with God and we sit with God. Crying to Jerusalem that her warfare is ended, already ended in Ferguson, Staten Island, Burma, Chechnya, the Philippines, Greenwich Village and your apartment. Also ended for Wilson and Brown, Garner and Pantaleo. It is time to go deep into nonviolence. Cry to Jerusalem: her warfare is over. Amen

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