+++Prayer: Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. May our ears, eyes, hearts and minds be open to receiving the message you would have us receive here today. Amen.
This week has been ripe with news stories that have presented many different avenues for preaching: Tony Stewart hitting and killing Kevin Ward, Jr. on the racetrack; Robin Williams’ suicide and how God’s grace is never far away from us, even in the midst of depression and illness; and the events in Ferguson, Missouri where a white cop named Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black teenager by the name of Michael Brown. It’s this 3rd issue that I feel God calling me to preach on this week…this case where the police claim that Michael was a suspect in a robbery, but the officer didn’t know that. This case where looting and protests are popping up. I’m not here to argue the merits of the case, but simply to see what God might be saying to us in the midst of it.
I read the following in a blog post shared on Facebook this week (http://kelloggbloggin.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-day-cop-drew-gun-on-me.html), and thought it spoke to the case well. The woman writes: Back in the spring of 1994, in Eugene, OR, Jeff swung by the house and we made sure we had our tickets and we headed off toward the WOW Hall to enjoy the first of a three night run of shows given by Zero, one of our favorite jam bands.
As we were strolling through the alleys, we nonchalantly noted that there sure were a lot of police in the area. What we didn't know was that an armed man had just stolen a vehicle from Valley River Center, a mall about ten minutes away, come into our neighborhood, forced his way into a woman's house, and, for reasons I don't remember, fled on foot. The woman called 911 and described the caller as having a pony tail and wearing a black Levi jacket and jeans.
Jeff's hair was pulled back in a ponytail. He was wearing a black Levi jacket and jeans. As we continued down the alleys between Madison and Lincoln Streets, we came to a vacant lot at the corner of W. Broadway and Lincoln and a SWAT team confronted us. They weren't wearing camo, but were dressed in the all black SWAT team gear and the team's leader, head shaved and amped up had his pistol drawn and was pointing it directly at me and Jeff.
"STOP! HANDS IN THE AIR! RIGHT NOW! HOLD YOUR POSITION!!" Immediately, the officers separated us, handcuffed Jeff, and began to question us. It took about twenty minutes, but, thanks to a security officer at the mall who had seen the real perp and came to the scene and identified that Jeff was not the guy, the SWAT team let us go. I've thought quite a bit about this incident over the last four or five days. From the moment I saw that cop's gun drawn on me, I had confidence that this situation would all work out. I never once thought we'd be hauled in. It never crossed my mind that I might be treated unjustly. I never once thought that that officer would shoot me. I did nothing to earn that confidence. I was born into it. [PAUSE]
“I was born into it.” Isn’t that the truth. Our privilege is our birthright.
In the Scripture passage for today, we see God’s promise of a nation being born through Abraham’s line once again realized. We see Isaac and Rebekah’s twin boys, Esau and Jacob, come into the world and grow up. Jacob is sly and conniving while Esau is presented as an impulsive fool. Jacob was the domestic type who could cook and was his mother’s favorite. Esau was a “manly man” who spent his days hunting and was his father’s favorite. Jacob would go on to found the nation of Israel, and Esau would be the founder of Edom. These two countries would be at war with one another…just like the brothers were at war with each other.
Jacob stole the birthright from Esau. A birthright was the special privilege assigned to the first-born male of any father. This meant that he inherited two portions—double the portions of the other males. Women received nothing, unless there were no males. Perhaps even more importantly than the financial and material gains of the birthright was that the eldest male, by virtue of the birthright alone, meant that he would take leadership among the brothers and become the leader of the family.
Isaac, the father, would have favored the eldest son because it was through him that the family line would be carried on. Except, therein lies the problem—Jacob was the one destined to carry on the lineage, not Esau.
Rebekah favored Jacob. Perhaps it was an alliance of convenience—women and 2nd born sons both had little power or authority in the world at that time. Whatever the reason, Rebekah helped Jacob use the birthright as a bargaining chip with his brother to get him to relinquish the birthright in exchange for a bowl of soup. But then they had to get Isaac to confirm it and bless the transfer—without that blessing, the birthright was useless. That blessing could only be given once, on the deathbed of the father.
And that’s the conflict in the story we have in the biblical story and in the story coming out of Ferguson. One person or group has a privilege that the other person or group desires and will do anything to get it or otherwise equalize the playing field. A birthright isn’t something you earn, it is something you are born with.
In this congregation, most of us are white. This is something we were born with. It is something we can’t change. Being white in this community means that we can worship without fear of being shot while we are here. I was talking to my friend, Rev. Twanda, this week, and she is the associate pastor at John Wesley UMC, just 2 or 3 miles from here. She told me that they hired security guards to monitor the premises while they were having services.
Being white means that store clerks don’t follow us around the store assuming that we will steal something. Being white means that if you have more than one child, people don’t assume you are trying to cheat the welfare system. Being white means that you can walk with a group of other people, and no one thinks you are casing the neighborhood for a robbery. Being white means that you won’t be arrested walking into your own home in an affluent neighborhood. Being white means that people assume you have some level of intelligence. When a white youth uses “big words”—words found on the SAT, no one claims that they are “well-spoken.” When a white teenager leaves the house, his mother doesn’t fear that he will be shot dead by police. Being white means that you are not going to be pulled over while driving a car because you “look suspicious.” Being white means that you carry a burden of privilege with you wherever you go. We must teach our children about white privilege and social justice, because if we don’t, we don’t run the risk of them being shot—no. Instead we run the risk of them becoming the shooters. [PAUSE]
Many of you know that I am one half of a mixed-race marriage. My husband, Lemuel, self-identifies as Mexican and Yacqui Indian. In January 2013, my family flew to California to meet his family. One day, we went to a nice restaurant to share a meal and continue acquainting ourselves with one another. There were seven of us at the table—Myself and my parents, Lem, his two brothers, and their mom. His mother ordered soup to start the meal, and the waiter refused to give her a spoon to eat with, claiming they were all used. His mother who speaks both English and Spanish at a Master’s Degree level, motioned for the Hispanic busboy to come over. She spoke to him in Spanish, and was told that the waiter refused because there weren’t enough spoons, so the waiter chose which patrons received them. She didn’t get a spoon because she was Mexican.
As Lem’s wife, I too carry the burden. I know that one day our children will be bi-racial. I know that I have a burden to teach others what it means to be born with a privilege. I can’t help that I’m white any more than Esau could help that he was born a few moments before his brother Jacob. None of us can change the birthright we were born with—and all of us were born with something. What we can change is what we do with our birthright, with our privilege. Do we stand up and fight the injustice in the world around us? Do we fight the shooting of 3-year-old who was hit by a stray bullet? Do we fight the shooting of an unarmed black teenager? Do we fight the prejudice that is not only around us, but within us? Do we fight or do we stand idly by and watch it happen, claiming, “That’s not my fight”? Brothers and sisters, it IS our fight. It IS our duty to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. The Bible is a series of stories about God and Jesus fighting for the underdog—the women, the 2nd sons, the least, the lost, and the marginalized of the world. And I for one don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of God.
Dr. Seuss said it best at the end of his book The Lorax: And all that the Lorax left here in this mess was a small pile of rocks, with the one word…”UNLESS.” Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess. That was long, long ago. But each day since that day I’ve sat here and worried and worried away. Through the years, while my building have fallen apart, I’ve worried about it with all of my heart. “But now,” says the Once-ler, “Now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”