Improvisation with Blue Cloth

December 14, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister



While I speak today, some of you will unroll a large coiled object. It begins looking an awful lot like a dead body. Lying on a street. One that was left there to die. It will open, if we can get it open. It may not remind you of a dead body. It may instead remind you of those corrals, the ones used to keep protesters off the street. The corrals had not been out till yesterday. They are back. Those of us who marched saw them and understood the oppressive power of the way they were coiled. And the way they coiled us. Your bulletin cover also shows a counter-image of sculpted, coiled hay, sending us to manger season and thoughts. Not all that is coiled is dead. But all that is closed instead of open is dead.


I won’t be able to see what is going on behind me. You may not be able to see what is going on behind you either. Even though you can see the uncoiling. You may not be able to see your own uncoiling. Wasn’t it great to look at the pictures of 25,000 people on the street. Openly marching. Wasn’t it awful to see the pens go up? Maybe some other coil has you bound today. Think of it, as the fabric opens.


I couldn’t get a bus on Fifth Avenue yesterday because the corrals were up. I got mad at the bus driver. He waited for me to get to the opening on 13 th street. Then he said, understanding, “Yes, they treat us like cattle.” He got me out of my cage, just by understanding that I felt coiled. That I was inside a place I couldn’t get out of. Mercifully the corrals kept us on the street, not on the sidewalk. Thank you, Mayor de Blasio.


At the end of the day, I left the protesters going downtown. By then they were angry. They were fewer. They called the police animal names, just like they felt the police had named Eric Garner and William Brown. Tit for tat. Pig for monster. Cattle for cattle? There is a subtext in our current moment. Who is a pig? Who is a monster? Who are the cattle? Strange how the Christmas story turns the animals into heroes, almost humanizes them. The names we hurl at each other dehumanizes animals and humans, both.


The first step in being able to hurt someone else is to dehumanize them. Think of Newtown Connecticut on today’s second anniversary. The killer forgot those children were human. He turned them into an illusion and a delusion. To kill somebody, first you have to dehumanize them or turn them into a class B citizen or worse, an animal. The way we desacralize the environment and turn it in to a thing comes to mind.


We in the faith communities need to remember our stories: nobody is a nobody. Humans aren’t animals, and animals aren’t that “low” anyway. Away in a manger, no crib for a bed. O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. While shepherds watched their flocks by night. The cattle are lowing, the baby’s awake.


I heard a man call a cop a pig. You pig, he said. You killed Eric Garner. He was dehumanizing himself, Eric Garner and the policeman, if the manger is any measure for our lives.


I want to place some new images before you today. Comfortable hay. Coiled for a purpose, one not to pounce. Coiled fabric, which can be opened. Who wants to come up and help the uncoiling? No dehumanizing. No name calling. Nobody is a nobody. Watch out how we do “good cop/bad cop,” “good immigrant/bad immigrant”, Eric Garner/William Brown. We have even begun to separate the Ferguson and New York and Cleveland stories into those dehumanizing categories: he deserved it, he didn’t. He is the deserving poor, she is the undeserving poor. Beware the coils of oppressive ideas.


Will you whisper some of the text with me, while we fuss with and uncoil the fabric? While we open it up? I’ll call it out. No need for yelling. Only a need to take the news in, and say it out loud. We will start in Advent three and prematurely tell the Christmas story. We need a little Christmas right this very minute.

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me////// bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. “

We’ll do the Christmas story too but permit me a half dozen observations first. People who call the cops pigs are outside the manger. They don’t understand how much the police are people, not animals. How much the police live outside of Manhattan and really don’t like those of us who do live here. They drive to work from Staten Island or Suffolk County. They are not pigs. Another observation: Let us pray for Mayor de Blasio and all the new generation of progressive mayors. What must it be like to make the decision to corral us or not? To be the boss of cops and the leader of people? A third: we are not cattle. We don’t need to be penned. It is very important that we get to walk our streets. A fourth: Nelson Mandela made friends with his guards. That changed everything. There is liberty for the captives if there is liberty for all the captives, not just some of them. Nobody is a nobody. A fifth: a garland is a necklace. A necklace of liberty. Not a yoke, but a necklace. We wear it, not ashes. A sixth: pay attention to our slogans. “Black Lives Matter.” All lives matter. “Hands Up.” This one is my favorite because it shows vulnerability. But watch out for who it demonizes. The cops need to put their hands up too and to feel safe doing so. Whose Streets? Our Streets? Yes, all of our streets, not just somebody’s streets. “We can’t breathe”. Right, we can’t breathe till everybody can breathe.

There is a great quote circulating from the editor of the New Yorker: “All those police in Washington Square Park were there for the annual white riot of the Santa-Coms.” How can we build this movement without making enemies out of the cops or the drunken Santas? How can we make the chosen coil of community open widely enough to make it Jesus like? How can we refuse to call each other by animal names? Plus, why insult animals? Or nature? We humans are above neither, but instead a long side.

You know the story of Jesus’ birth. On top of everything else, it is an animal embracing story. Everybody had to get registered, the same way we hope everybody can vote. There was a journey. A pregnancy. No room in the inn. A manger, which is a fancy name for a barn or a crib, full of scattered warm hay. No child was in a royal bassinette. The events of that night constituted a tipping point for humanity. A child was born, to change the world. Light pierced the darkness. Jesus put his hands up and said don’t shoot. Many of us are worried that this is not yet the tipping point and some of us dare to hope that this is another tipping point, a time when Jesus can come deeply enough into our hearts to enter the whole world through our open hearts.

Please be careful now. Pace yourself and pace your hopes. I know we all have the attention span of a spin cycle. Let me give an example. I know we were all worried when Andy Frantz had his foot operation a month ago and that we cared then. The point is he is still limping and will for several more months. Learning how to care long, after the injuries, is the issue. Many of you have given a long time to the movement for racial justice. A long time. Right now please open your intake valve and don’t give without receiving any more. Drink from the Isaiah promise and let it warn you of the great manger story. Joy your freedom to drink in the good news of status quo disrupted, of history recharged, of the end of name calling. Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Sing it like it’s true. Receive enough that you can give in this season. Guard your gifts. Make sure some come to you. Only a soul with the grace to receive can still give in the final hour, whenever or however it comes.

Is the cloth open enough? Or as open as it can get for now? Imagine the cloth as a garland instead of ashes. Imagine it as economic justice. Imagine it as the open inclusion we all desperately desire. Drink from some of the Christmas Story, put it in your heart and carry it there with you . Listen to what happened to Ann Kansfield when she called a sign maker in Alabama. She wanted to order a dozen “Black Lives Matter,” posters for UCC churches in the Metro region. She told the woman on the phone what she wanted and when she needed them. The woman answered, “I won’t be able to charge you for that.” They’ll be there by Friday. Meryl Streep showed up to watch “I Remember Mama,” a play with a dozen senior women actors in it. She didn’t charge for that either.

3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth

5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

You shall receive a garland instead of ashes, an uncoiling instead of a recoiling. You will understand that no one is a pig nor are we cattle. You will understand that nobody is a nobody. You will refuse to dehumanize. You will learn to live in a manger, uncoiled.

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