Since the time I last preached, we had a momentous few days. The police officer, Derek Chauvin, was tried in the murder of George Floyd and was found guilty. It was only a few minutes that passed in order for the country to breathe a collective sigh of relief, and then there was another police officer who killed yet another black teen, a 15 year old girl, in Columbus. The data is not in on this one, and it may have been justified, not every police shooting of a black or brown person is murder, but the timing could not have been worse.
I never watched the cell phone video of the murder of George Floyd. I think in my previous job as a Washington DC medical examiner, I have seen too many dead black men. I know what lifeless dead bodies look like. The more I read of the account, the more it was clear what callous disregard the officer had for Floyd’s life. If you followed the news, then I’m not telling you anything new.
African Americans are not more violent people than non-African Americans. Some African-American communities, unsurprisingly, are poor and along with poverty there is a higher incidence of violent crime. Violent crime, of course, tends to involve guns, and we are a violent country with a bad, abusive love affair with guns. The combination of racism, our history of slavery, which moved into Jim Crow laws, which has moved now to systemic racism coupled with violence and guns, sadly leads to police killings of blacks, which is leaving a mark, a wound, a huge gash on this country. And frankly, as a country, we can’t compare our race relations or policing to other countries, because they don’t have our particular history of race relations or our history with guns. However, we DO know, even without comparison, what we are facing is awful.
These current events are the backdrop on which we hear these scriptures today, unless you have zoned out the last little bit. (And we are still in a pandemic, so you are allowed to zone out too.) I found thick irony when I re-read the Episcopal National Church’s Covenant to Root Out Racism for the Gathering meeting on April 21st,… the opening biblical quote is exactly from the passage we just heard in 1 John. “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” 1 John 4:20
This first letter of John is centered around the same community that produced the Johannine Gospel. This language is the root from which we land on the concept that God is love. First John has much to say about love. The Greeks were very specific about what they meant when they talked about love. This love in 1 John is αγάπη love. This is the self-emptying love. Even the term translated as “beloved,” at the beginning of the passage in the address, could be translated maybe better as “those for whom God poured out all” or “those of you who have been αγάπη‘ed”. One could read the heart of this passage as: because God gave everything for the world, that God loved the world so much, then we should give all for each other, truly giving without reserve. This is a long way away from a callous disregard for a person’s life.
This αγάπη thing is actually at the heart as to what Christianity is about. This is the core teaching of Jesus. The Johannine Gospel we heard today is from the Farewell Discourse in the High Priestly prayer. Jesus is praying this somewhat final prayer, and then leaves the disciples with this discourse. The discourse has lots of “I am” statements. We can strongly suspect that this is no accident that it echoes the name of God in Hebrew, “I am” or “I am becoming.”
We don’t deal with vines too much. Some of us are gardeners and have some experience with vines; but in the PNW we can ALL relate to blackberry vines. I know they are invasive – but they do make good fruit! – and how they grow makes the point. They are connected, above and below, they grow as almost a mound of blackberry bushes. If we are to be not just passive people in the world, then if we truly care and pour out life for the other, then we are connected. We grow together, flourish together. We become like Jesus and become life giving. More importantly it becomes clear, that we are integral to our neighbor flourishing as they are integral to us flourishing. We are connected, just like a bunch of big blackberry bushes. We grow, others grow; they grow, we grow.
So, there really can’t be an “us” and a “them”, there really has to be an “all of us.” This is the same “beloved Community” that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of. In a church such as an Episcopal church with an African American presiding bishop and a woman presiding bishop prior to that, we aren’t likely to have overtly attitudes that one person is less than another. Of course, we aren’t. I don’t think for a moment that anyone listening right now is racist, in the sense of personally persecuting people of black and brown skin. But not being racist is not the same as being antiracist. To be antiracist is to work to assure that the whole of the vines flourishes. To be part of the vine is to be able to see when policing is done disadvantaging a certain people, when mortgage loans disadvantage people, when college admissions disadvantage people, when voting laws make it harder for citizens of color to vote. The question remains if we are to be a beloved community instilled in αγάπη, then how do we elevate everyone? I am white in America, and over time I have come to understand that I have benefited by the structures of the society, because of my whiteness. The question remains for me and for everyone who is so privileged by baked-in biases: how do we elevate everybody? How do we work for the betterment of all, collectively: MLK’s the “beloved community” meant everyone. Everybody is loved, and everybody has to be a change agent, everybody. And no one should benefit from biases baked into our social structures, simply on the basis of the color of our skin. To make sure that does not happen is to engage in αγάπη.
Evidently there is a Jewish proverb that says that “You can only change 4’ around you.” I’m willing to say that is true in principle. How do we change 4’ around each of us so that it makes a difference. Maybe more to the point is that lasting change is incremental. In order for there to be change, however, we have to listen and we have to trust that what someone else experiences is real. And to respond to those experiences with αγάπη.
As a person of faith, you can’t actually go day in, day out, and not be concerned about the beloved community, the blackberry vine—you just can’t, and call yourself a person of faith. We need to respect others, meet people where they want to be met, and listen to them. We, all of us, need to change the structures of systemic racism: not only the people of color, or the young-‘uns, or the protestors. (Oh, because, surprise, some states are making it harder to protest too.) If we are vine, when someone else is injured, we must bleed; we are connected, connected in our faith walk, connected in αγάπη,. as we strive to be the beloved community. If we are going to grow, we grow together, messy mound of vines that we are, connected in life-giving, flourishing love given for us, poured out for us in Christ.
1 John 4:7-21