March 19, 2023 ~ Fourth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Beckie Sweet
In 2019, Elijah McClain was a 23-year-old, 5’6” 140 lb Black man. He was a massage therapist who loved animals and taught himself to play the guitar and the violin. Elijah used to play his violin for stray cats because he believed that music helped to calm them. On a hot afternoon in August of 2019, in Aurora, Colorado, Elijah stopped at a convenience store to purchase an iced tea. As he walked home with his iced tea, he was listening to music with ear buds, and was dancing to the music.
As he walked and danced, someone called 911 because Elijah looked “sketchy,” as he was waving his arms around. He was regarded as a dangerous black body, not as someone’s child. When the police arrived, coming up behind him, they tried to grab him by the arm to get his attention. Elijah tried to disrupt what was happening by making a case for his humanity, saying, “I am an introvert. Please respect my boundaries. I don’t do drugs,” he said. “I don’t even kill flies.” He was instead seen as someone trying to avoid the police, and although Elijah had not committed a crime, they immediately went hands on and tackled Elijah. He was put in a carotid hold, which cuts off blood flow to the brain to render someone unconscious.
When medical responders arrived, after about 15 minutes, Elijah had regained consciousness and was struggling. Paramedics injected him with a “therapeutic” dose of ketamine, a powerful sedative, enough for a man of 190 pounds. Elijah, who also had chronic asthma, complained that he could not breathe right, he apologized for vomiting, and then went into cardiac arrest. He died two-days later in the hospital.
Trayvon Martin was also murdered because of his race by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas recalls that Trayvon’s parents hoped that the six women who sat on the jury during his killer’s trial would see that 17 year-old Trayvon was not a threat. His parents hoped that the jury would see that he was someone’s son. He was a boy who loved sports and wanted to be an aviation mechanic or a pilot. But the jury did not see Trayvon that way. Instead, the teenager was held accountable for his own murder, and his killer was set free.
Rev. Dr. Douglas reminds us that if we are to be a people of SOUL in a nation with a warring soul, we must be Stone-catchers, we must be Outcast Oriented, and we must be Unburdened. To be unburdened means that we must Unburden ourselves from whatever prevents us from seeing the humanity of others, whatever prevents us from seeing ourselves in one another.
In his book, The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich wrote about the children of God needing to free themselves from anxiety. To be SOUL-ful People, we must unburden ourselves from the presumption or privilege of believing that we are more special or worthy than other people and that others are less special or less worthy. We must unburden ourselves of notions that distort the sacred dignity of others.
Douglas reminisced that her sister had a saying: “We are all just dressed up dirt!”
Similar to our mantra on Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are all sacred creations of God. We are all made of dust and to dust we shall return. As dust, we need to unburden ourselves from whatever it is that prevents us from engaging in what Howard Thurman called “sympathetic understanding.” That’s putting ourselves in the place of another (walking a mile in another’s shoes), or sharing in the humanity of another.
As in this morning’s scripture reading from Matthew 7, it all comes down to the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated!” You are probably aware that every major religion known to humanity shares some version of the Golden Rule.
And Jesus gives us another version of the rule: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. To do this faithfully and well, we must Unburden ourselves of negative characteristics that have shaped our real or perceived identities and the identities of others.
To Unburden ourselves means to live by the Golden Rule. Given the state of our world today with gun violence in Ithaca, the biased treatment of persons of color, wars waged against neighbors, we realize that it is much easier to SAY the Golden Rule than to apply it to our lives. It is hard to free ourselves from prejudice, to see ourselves in others. BUT, there are ways to imagine impossible possibilities.
So, I have a couple of question for you, to which I ask you to respond by raising your hands.
- Who here wants enough food to eat every day?
- Who wants a decent house to live in? (At Chautauqua a dog barked in response to this questions, begging the point that even dogs are deserving of decent shelter.)
- Who wants decent health care?
- Who would like to feel safe getting where you want to go?
Applying the Golden Rule here, we realize that we must not withhold from others what we do not want to have withheld from ourselves. ALL are worthy of enough food, a decent place to live, sufficient health care, the ability to move about with being harassed or in fear as one goes to the grocery store, to school, bird-watching, or jogging. Our task, as people of SOUL is to go about creating that world. We need to live unburdened from the idea that anyone is more, or less, worthy of life, food, or health. Everyone deserves to wake up and go to sleep safely.
Elijah and Trayvon were caught up in the presumptions and prejudices of a racist, white supremacist culture. Their killers did not see Elijah and Trayvon as someone’s sons. They were not seen as human beings. Their killers did not see their own children in them and they did not see Elijah and Trayvon in themselves.
Dr. Douglas reminds us that in order to live as SOUL-ful people in a nation with a warring soul, we must be accountable to God’s just future, unburdened of the sins that end lives and kill dream.
Oh, “God has work for us to do.” I pray that this family of faith will support one another and hold one another accountable as we live into God’s just future!