7.17.20 – Sermon at St. PJ’s New Haven

Sunday Sermon Series

In the words of John Lewis “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Amen.

On a cold December day in 2013, just weeks after the Parliament of Ukraine had rushed through a bill to make protesting and demonstrations illegal due to the uptick of such events, dozens of women – young and old – stood silently on the front lines of a protest, side by side in the city square of Kiev. They were holding up mirrors to reflect back the faces of young police officers in riot gear, who were lined up just 6 feat away in opposition. So there they were, lined up, us versus them, good versus evil, haves versus have nots, wheat versus weeds, kingdom versus furnace of fire. Many of these young men had been conscripted into service. And yet here they stood on the front lines of a narrative, playing a role much larger than themselves. One woman had a sticker taped to her mirror that read “is it me?” Another woman’s sticker read “who am I protecting?” At the end of the demonstration, many of the women kissed their mirrors and even offered the police a kiss if they would let down their shields. Some of the police officers obliged. Photos of the incident went viral throughout Ukraine, and within 2 months, and many more complicated tales of both wheat, weeds, and blood in the streets by all sides the mind could ever wish to categorize, the political regime had been ousted and what is now called The Revolution of Dignity proved successful – for a time.

One of the women, named Kateryna, who helped lead the mirror action was later interviewed and asked about the incident. With tears welling up in her eyes she simply said “you cannot live like I do and not do something about it.”

Fast forward and jump the globe to May 25 of this year in Minneapolis. Alex Kueng is suiting up for his 3rd shift as Minneapolis Police. As a Black man born of a Black Father and White Mother, Alex joined the force in an effort to protect people close to him from police aggression. His younger sister had previously been arrested and treated poorly by sheriffs deputies, before charges were eventually dropped as the case went public. He argued with friends about whether public demonstrations could actually make things better, saying to his mother “don’t you think that this needs to be done from the inside?” His mother was recently quoted as saying “that’s part of the reason why he wanted to become a police officer – and a black police officer on top of it – is to bridge the gap in the community, change the narrative between the officers and the black community.”

Today, Mr. Kueng faces charges of aiding and abetting Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd. At 26 years old, he was the youngest officer at the scene – a fresh cadet. Today his family is torn, with both younger sisters publicly calling for his arrest, and one planning to change her last name. Alex’s best friend Darrow Jones, who met Alex when he was 6 and very vocally disagreed with him joining the police force was quoted as saying “It’s really hard. Because I do have a lot of sadness and disappointment and I won’t say that I don’t. But though I feel sad about what’s occurred, Alex still has my unwavering support. Because we grew up together, and I love him. Mr. Jones has gone to many of the protests but cannot bring himself to join in.

Fast forward to last Sunday right here on the New Haven Green. This summer I began working as the social outreach coordinator at Trinity. We’ve been giving out hygiene products, laundry vouchers, and other miscellaneous material support to a growing number of people experiencing homelessness and other forms of social neglect. One man pulls me aside and asked me if there’s any way he can get another bar of soap. He’s pretty adamant about needing it. I tell him to walk with me down the block. We start walking, I ask him his name and tell him mine, and I eventually give him the additional bar of soap. He thanks me profusely and says “Man, I was gonna have to shoplift all of this, and now I don’t have to. Thank you.” Whether or not he was being serious, or this was just part of a hustle, I thought to myself “I want to live in a world where no one has to hustle for a bar of soap.

Now I want to roll the clock back to 2012. I’m 22 years old, it’s 3am, and I’ve been pulled over in North Platte Nebraska, just about half way on my journey between Denver and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Just five minutes earlier I stopped at a rest area with a subway to get a foot long chicken teriyaki sub on Italian herbs and cheese, toasted. A smelly wrecking ball of mediocrity. I was going 32 in a 25 through downtown. The smell of that sandwich did wonders to cover up any trace scent of the 8 pounds of marijuana that was vacuum sealed and stored away in my trunk that night. After a brief conversation and warning, the cop let’s me go wishing me a safe drive. One would think that moment would have scared some sense into me. I guess it took a little while longer. I’m a stubborn, slow learner. When the recession of 08-09 hit, I found myself exiting my first year of college at a private school with $35,000 in debt at the age of 19. And, well, the same weed whose possession has historically locked up hundreds of thousands of people – particularly people of color in this country, I used to pay off student loan debt. It also made me the life of the party – or so I thought.

“We who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” The redemption of our bodies, Paul writes. There rests a hope that gets me out of bed in the morning, whether I see it or not. Because the truth is, one of those 70 welcome home backpacks for people returning from prison probably should’ve been for me. I tell my own story so that we may all be careful with who our imagination crafts as criminal. People who look like me commit crimes all the time – we’re just not who police are looking for. And when we live in a world where higher ed institutions such as Yale have endowment investments in private prison corporations because they are guaranteed profit earners, we may have missed the mark of restorative justice.

These four stories, from Kiev to North Platte, simply scratch the surface of the profound complexity we face as humans who try to live with ourselves, and one another. Four stories that ground me in humility, and remind me of my need for God – my need for prayer. In a world where many long for a return to normalcy, it is being revealed just how violent and unequal white conceptions of normalcy are. Upon first glance, today’s gospel parable can easily leave the reader sliding into the trap of binary thinking, and sometimes I fear that we as Christians, that I as a human, fall into the zeal of pursuing the good seed so deeply that I avoid acknowledging the weeds that crop up with it. It’s easy for me to obsess about virtue. It’s really, really hard to admit that for more of my adult life than not, I’ve been a part of the problem, rather than a part of liberation for all people, and getting honest doesn’t actually get easier with age.

So I guess what today’s parable teaches me is don’t pull the weeds before they’ve taught their lesson. It’s the weeds that are life’s best teacher. The idolatry of the good seed needs some of what Rev Kelly Brown Douglas, Rev. Stephanie Spellers, and Rev. Winnie Vargese recently called “transformative letting go” in their 4th of July letter “Speaking of Freedom.” I often work so hard to prove my goodness, that I prevent myself from doing the more vulnerable work of accepting God’s love for me, and trusting the process of transformation that follows. I’m reminded 1 John 3:2 “My dear people, we are already the children of God, and all we know is that when the future is revealed we shall be just like God.”

Shame, and fear are the feelings that tell me that true, gut wrenching repentance will be the death of me. That getting honest is synonymous of twisting the knife. But shame and fear are not of God. Through self-emptying, Christ promises us new life, and Christ models how to be fully human.

As we witness and participate in similar acts of resistance in our own country, I’ve been thinking of the courage and silent witness of those women in Kiev, and the power of mirrors. Mirrors that in that moment, reconditioned the thread of a common humanity. Mirrors that reoriented, and rehumanized two seeds of the same soil. Mirrors that might serve to rehumanize the two seeds within ourselves. What mirrors do you hold up to your life? What spiritual practices keep you in the game with the God who loves – the God who redeems? The God who makes us whole? How might we be more accountable to the mirror of Christ?

This will unfortunately be my last sermon here at PJ’s. This past week my fiancé Erendira and I announced we will be moving to San Diego next month to be with her family and plant roots of our own. With that said, I wanted to thank everyone in this congregation for walking with me, sometimes carrying me toward Christ in the midst of a vast transition of your own as a worshipping community. I stumbled into this church while in the process of stepping out of my ordination, frustrated with the church, and knowing I had deeper soul work I needed to focus on. This community became a vessel for my spirit to both find refuge, proclaim the Gospel, and commit to self examination. I want to give a special thanks to Will and Andrew, who each week fill this space with a spirit beyond words. I have never heard music so moving. My most important thanks goes to you, Harlon. For so many reasons I wouldn’t be where I am today had you not taken me on as an intern here last fall. You always knew how to humble me when I need humbling, and challenge me when I needed challenge. But most importantly you made this feel like a space that I could call home at a pretty vulnerable time in my seminary journey.

So to end today, I wanted to bring one more voice into the room on the topic of transformative letting go.

May we continue to support where we can, and keep listening to the voices we’re not used to hearing. May we honor the mirrors in our life, and Christ’s life-giving promise of transformation.

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