I have been paying attention…listening…to the voices of black folks more attentively these days. I have to confess…I haven’t listened that well before. Because, honestly, it’s hard to listen to. It’s a lament. A list of grievances. A litany of pain and anger. And after a while, it gets old.
Now isn’t that something. It gets old for me to listen to….but I wonder then, how old does when you’re living it?
Over the past weeks I heard a black police chief share stories of having his own officers pull him over for a minor offense and aiming their weapons at him before realizing who he was. And a black executive share their story of having security guards follow him in his building’s parking lot…and ask for ID. A young black actor shared their story of being accused of stealing tips off a table at a restaurant. And black military officers shared their stories of wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on their chest as their peers, and then being questioned by another military member, “Are you a pilot?”. A church music minister shared his story of how on an idyllic afternoon of Little League baseball followed by pizza and Italian ice, he was pulled over for driving through a yellow light….and how he struggled to maintain eye contact with his young sons as one of the officers made him get out of the car and lean over the trunk, and then patted him down and how he could see tears welling in the eyes of his seven- and three-year-old sons as they peered through the rear window…and how he cringed as folks at a nearby bus stop watched one of the officers look through his car….for going through a yellow light which is not even illegal.
Every single black person remembers “the talk” …their parents explaining to them that they couldn’t always go to the same places or do the same things as their white friends…because it wasn’t safe. Because they would be seen as a threat. They are taught how to handle traffic stops — because they know from experience — and, by the way, a study of over 20 million traffic stops confirms — that blacks are twice as likely to be pulled over for minor offenses (even though they drive less) and 4 times as likely to be searched (even though white drivers actually more often have drugs or contraband in their cars). In our own community, families I know have sat in court and watched a young white man, with a long record of offenses, in court because of a failed drug test, have the judge compassionately ask them what they could do to help him comply in the future…to help him make better decisions…and let him off paying court costs, telling him to straighten up. While just a few cases later, their black family member, another young man, but with only one other minor offense on his record, came before the judge also for failing a drug test…and when the prosecutor asked that he also be made to pay court costs…the judge said, “No…you’re doing jail time.” And he sentenced him to two weeks in jail. The week before Christmas. Yep…that happened here. A substitute judge from a neighboring county…but it happened here.
Friends, I’ve been listening…and it’s hard. Because it’s endless. And because I want to defend all the good officers and all the good judges and all the good security guards and all the good waitresses and all the good people who mean well. But even though it’s hard… we have to listen, friends. We have to pay attention. Because what we’re hearing is God’s word. We need to listen, because the voice of our black and brown neighbors is God’s holy word…Scripture being spoken… written… in our midst right now. Because basically, we’re listening to Job. We’re listening to the lament of God’s children. Job says — ‘O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock for ever! “ And there they are. Scripture…it’s in the book. And it’s in there as a witness to us…to listen to all those who lament. To listen to those who cry out against injustice and suffering. To read their signs. To hear their stories. And here’s the thing…we know Job’s friends got tired of listening too. They wanted Job to acknowledge he was responsible in some way for everything he was facing. They wanted Job to quit complaining and buck up. But…they were wrong. God says so in the book. Job’s lament is important and it’s true. There’s a reason it’s in Scripture. Because we need to listen.
Friends, we all need to listen. We need to listen right now to the voices of black and brown people…not white people telling us about black and brown people….not white people telling us that they’re violent and angry and dangerous or lawless…that they are a threat. And not the one black voice that says something that we like to hear. No…we need to listen to the thousands and millions of voices of black people telling us about their experiences….about their lives.
In our overly white corner of the world, many of you may not have black friends or family members to talk to…but if you do…ask them to tell you their stories. Just ask them to share their experiences. And really listen. Don’t question it. Don’t pooh-pooh it. Don’t justify it. Just listen. And if you don’t know someone…start reading. Start listening in other ways. Watch “Just Mercy”. Watch “13th” …a powerful documentary. Find the stories that are out there and Listen. Because these are all our family members. They are members of Christ’s body. And Paul tells us that when one part of the body is hurting…we are all hurting. And we all need to take care of it…do all we can to heal it…to find relief for their pain. For our pain…the pain of Christ’s body..
Today in our reading from Job…Job struggles to find hope as he considers his dead children…as he almost longs for the relief of death in the midst of his own agonizing grief and pain.
He says, ‘For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.”
So, what is Job’s hope? What is our hope? As we consider the deaths of those we love? And as we consider the deaths of those others loved…deaths at the hands of evil and racism and injustice? What is our hope for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others? You know, this week is the 5th anniversary of the shooting of nine folks who welcomed a young whiite boy, raised in an ELCA church, into their Bible study. How did we not communicate as a church to that young man that Black lives matter just as much as his? Oh yes…what is our hope…for the Emmanuel nine? For our loved ones? For ourselves?
Our hope is that God is greater than death. Our hope is that God is on the side of those who suffer. Our hope is that we might all see…the living God…clearly standing with and for those who are in pain.
Job says, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!’
Our hope is that indeed…at the last…God will stand with us. In the midst of our fear, our grief, our pain…God will stand on the side of those who suffer. In the midst of our struggle, our striving, our push for change…God will stand with those who are hurting. In the midst of our lament, our impatience, our anger…God will stand with those who cry out. At the last…God will stand…on the earth. And that is our hope. That is the reality we live in, breathe in, move forward in. The God who lives…when we are dead…and who holds us fast when we are fainting. Yes, our redeemer, the redeemer of evil and injustice and suffering and pain….lives. That is our hope. Amen. Amen.