Keep Awake!

A sermon preached at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St. Paul

by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson

November 30, 2014

Advent 1

They say history is doomed to repeat itself.

It was dark and late in the evening when the first protests began.

There was an arrest.

The crowd became agitated.

Objects were thrown.

It started all at once and snowballed out of control.

Molotov cocktails were hurled and fires started, glass shattered, shots were fired, businesses were vandalized and innocent standers-by were injured while chaos took over.  By the time the smoke cleared the riots had covered two nights, seven officers were injured including one with gunshot wounds, and nearly a dozen individuals involved in the rioting had been arrested – all of them African American.

The dates were August 30th and 31st, 1968, and began only a few short blocks from this very spot in what is now called Selby-Dale.  Not even fifty years ago, many of you remember quite well those days.  The riots followed on the heels of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee earlier that spring.  The situation in the country was volatile – like brushwood waiting for a spark.  For over a decade black Americans, activists, and people of faith had been protesting against the racist systems of segregation, oppression, and injustice that had defined reality for black America since the end of slavery more than a century prior.  In our own city, the predominantly African American Rondo neighborhood had been gutted, quite unceremoniously, to make way for the building of I-94 only 7 years prior.  And, around the country anger simmered in the largely poor neighborhoods of black America, and what had begun as a largely pacifist protest movement began to boil over in violence and rioting – not just here, but in other cities too.

In many respects much has changed since then.  We have seen the implementation of policies and laws aimed at undoing the lingering effects of our racist past.  As a nation, we watched as people of color, despite all odds, have risen to successes and positions of leadership on par with their white counterparts.  We have elected our first black president.

As Stephen Colbert declared on his comedy news show, following that election – “Racism is dead!”

And, in this context, ALL the civil unrest, ALL the weeks of protests, the rioting and looting in Ferguson over the shooting of yet another unarmed black teenager, and following the announcement by a grand jury that they would not indict the officer involved in the shooting, seems to many white Americans to be both inexplicable and even unnecessary.  Some are wondering why we’re still talking about racism in 2014, as though the very act of discussing it is somehow keeping it alive.  The operating assumption for many white Americans is that black or white or brown (or any other color, for that matter), we all have the same opportunities in front of us – that if we work hard enough and make good choices and take some personal responsibility for our lives, that we can make ourselves into the people we want to be.  But, the experience of those protesting in Ferguson and around our country, and the research by many sociologist and demographers tells us that This. Simply. Isn’t. True.

While our African American brothers and sisters tell us of their struggles, the US census data from 2011 confirms these stories telling us that the net worth of the average black household in the United States is $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, and that gap has worsened in the last decade, meaning that the United States now has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did during apartheid.

Note: Statistics from recent New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof

The statistics are stark and troubling – whether it be life expectancy (black males born today will live five less years than their white counterpart), education (black students are still three times more likely to be expelled or suspended than white students, or mass incarceration – being black in America is still a massive disadvantage.  And, while the truth of this reality is right in front of our noses, many of us from communities of privilege cannot hear the story being told, or if we’ve heard it, we haven’t believed that our privilege or our nations past and present sins of racism are somehow in part to blame for this inequality.

The reality for African Americans is in stark contrast to the assumptions white Americans make about the progress we’ve made on issues of race and inequality in this country.  And, so the anger continues to simmer.

One might wonder too, what are we to do as Christians? Is there a hopeful and faithful response?

In the gospel appointed for this first Sunday in Advent, the message is quite clear – “Keep Awake!” – pay attention, watch, listen.  God is coming and will come and even now, there are signs that he is in the midst of you.  And, we know this – God comes to us in humility and great vulnerability and always among, and in solidarity with, the victims of injustice, and to the oppressed.  God, in Christ, comes, as we learned last Sunday, in the form of the least of these.  So we must watch and listen for his voice.    That might mean changing the channel or changing our context – seeking out voices from black America, reading things like The Root or Colorlines.  As one of my colleagues reminded me this week,  “Always listen” and ask ourselves “How can we amplify the voices that are speaking (not just talk about what we think…). This movement doesn’t belong to us, but we can help lift it up.”  Note: The above quote comes from a blog by Emily Scott, pastor at St. Lydia’s Table, a dinner church in Brooklyn, NY.

So too, we can get involved in justice work within communities where inequality and racism still define and shape life.  Volunteer.  Vote your conscience.  Get educated about these issues and their complexities.  Keep Awake!  More than anything, we can pray with fervor, as though our prayers matter and make a difference. Pray that our lives may be transformed by the stories and lives of those you meet, those who are serving in the black community, and those who have lived through the lingering presence of racism in this country.

Before his death Dr. King spoke to the growing unrest, to the outbreaks of violence in certain corners of the country, and even some rioting preceding his assassination.

He said “it is not enough for me to stand before you … and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say … that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened …It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

For those of us who wait in this season for the Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, God with us, we must be willing to wait with eyes that look for him among the poor, and with ears that listen for him among those who have been ignored for too long.  For he is coming – even now the water is beginning to boil and he is in our midst.


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