SERMON: “Persist, Anyway” by The Rev. Kaji Douša, Oct. 16, 2016
Call to action: Injustice doesn’t even know it’s doing wrong. Persist, anyway, because God does.
Introduction – BLM banners. Who supports them, their motivations, who doesn’t and the consequences folks face for taking a stance.
I had a moment in Greenpoint recently. The community lives up to its promise: it’s green. There are beautiful parks. And, having not been there in a few years, it feels almost…unrecognizable. Like Williamsburg or Long Island City or any number of the rapidly gentrifying parts of the city that used to be enclaves of affordability for ethnic groups excluded from streets like this. Just a few blocks from the East River, with its sweeping views of our cherished Manhattan skyline, sits a church, much like ours, that is proud of its history. Picture the banner, carefully purchased with limited dollars, hung with love on their imposing black front gate as an unexpected symbol of extravagant hospitality. Then, imagine the time it would take as a neighbor found a jar of paint with the right viscosity to adhere to that slippery canvas, a paintbrush of similar thickness to the font of the sign, and added his own addendum to the words “Black Lives Matter”.
Black Lives Matter felt like too much for him. So he added “so support cops”.
Besides the fact that there are Black police officers, of course, whose lives matter, too, this dualism is false. Affirming that one group matters doesn’t exclude another. It just means that we want to stop being killed or worrying that a phone call for help might be responded to with deadly force.
I suppose that there are places where buying the banner feels as right as apple pie. There are communities where proclaiming that Black Lives Matter is as natural as drawing breath. In many places, it is an intuitive statement where people get the subtext: the sanctity of life includes all people, and in order to protect that sanctity, we need to turn to the communities where our structures and institutions have discounted the inherent value of those lives.
But for this Dutch Reformed Church, a denomination with connections to all sorts of movements in history that did not value Black lives (with notable exceptions, of course), to a changing group of people who are, for the most part, not Black, hanging this banner was a subversive act.
I would imagine that would be the case, for the most part, in this congregation. You’ve had African American ministers for the past 10 years, one after the other, which means that Black leadership isn’t just a tokenized experiment, it’s welcome and valued. This is huge.
If I were to say to you: “you matter”, no one would object. Why? Because you mattering doesn’t exclude someone else. And usually it’s said when there seems to be a deficit of mattering, like the one who hears it hasn’t heard it enough. It is the same way with Black Lives Matter.
Now, if we wanted to hang a Black Lives Matter banner in the congregation, perhaps next to the Coexist banner that’s in the back of the church, do you think there would be much fallout? I don’t know, but my guess is that there would not.
Now. What if we decided to hang that banner outside?
All of a sudden we lose our context. We can hang the banner inside because we know that we love good police, we’re not advocating violence against anyone. We’re proclaiming the Black Lives Matter as an inclusive affirmation, not to exclude anyone.
Our neighbors don’t know that. Some would, of course. But others only encounter the phrase from the loudest voices in their circles of influence. So they see “Black Lives Matter” and they hear “we hate the police” or “we hate you, white people” or any number of negative (also very much untrue) connotations.
The corner of 85th and Park is so visible we couldn’t hang such a banner without it being an enormous statement.
I appreciate the church’s bravery. Because, frankly, as one of very few Black folks in ministry around these parts, I’d be terrified to hang a banner because I’d fear reprisal from the very people I want to build partnering relationships with: people in uniform.
They say “justice is blind.”
But how could that be, when justice is so frequently out of reach?
“Blind” justice, as it’s called, has a tendency to see 400 years of oppression and support it as “tradition”. How could justice be blind when it seems to apply so much more to protecting the supremacy of some at the mass incarceration of the other?
Justice is blind when it applies across the board to all. Justice is blind when everyone in uniform – not just “the good ones” – serve people of color just as faithfully as they do the dominant group.
To believe that justice is blind is to turn a blind eye to injustice.
And that’s precisely where Jesus begins in his parable about the Persistent Widow. The judge was “unjust”, Jesus says, though he probably wouldn’t have seen himself that way. But this widow had a matter she just couldn’t shake.
She kept at the judge. I bet she started politely, but nothing happened. Then, maybe she tried talking to his superiors, but nothing happened. She probably played by all of the rules, maybe she even staged a quiet protest in his courtroom. Nothing. But he noticed her. He had no respect for her case, but her persistence mattered and he couldn’t help but to pay attention to this annoying widow.
In matters of justice, persistence matters, amen?
We may be the annoying nags. We may hurt someone’s feelings who would much rather feel comfortable in their places of exclusive justice than to hear our cries. We may have some heated conversations at the Thanksgiving Table next month. But we have to persist because justice will never bend towards equality until we push it there.
Because it’s easy to interpret the parable to see ourselves as the widow. We have our petitions we need to carry fervently, and that seems to be the main point of the parable. Except that, like any parable, there are levels. And I firmly believe that Jesus was also showing us just how persistent…God is.
Maybe God’s the widow. Maybe God has been knocking, asking us to listen, to push ourselves to discomfort. Maybe God’s been counting on us to snap out of certain habits and make room for someone else.
Maybe God’s been trying to teach us that we matter, we each matter so much to God that there’s actually room for someone else to matter, too. Someone else who looks different, smells different, behaves differently, believes differently. Maybe God wants us to feel so richly blessed that we would never feel the need to shield access to the blessings we have against the ones who need them, too. Maybe God’s been saying LISTEN UP!!! change the status quo!!! and cannot wait until we do.
But persistence…it’s exhausting. The nagging widow doesn’t get any points for her persistence. Imagine her mind at the end of the day. Who congratulates her on a day’s worth of harassing? Has she been thrown in jail? Beaten for what she believes? Probably.
But she prevailed, y’all. And she’s a lucky one. Because in the path of justice, many, many will carry the load and few will see the rewards. At least not yet.
But we edge things along and we keep hope, knowing that God is with us.
“Do not weary of doing good” the apostle says. Because in due season we will reap, if we keep at it (Galatians 6:9). When Jacob struggled at Peniel with the angel, he said I will not let this struggle be in vain! You will give me my blessing! He persisted, and he got his blessing. When Elijah was on his way to heaven, Elisha persisted and wouldn’t let him go until he gave him a double portion of his blessing. When Naomi tried to send Ruth away, Ruth persisted, resisted, staying on despite the risk. When there was everything else to do, Martha persisted in staying with Jesus because she knew she needed a moment with her God. And when everyone else was afraid, the women persisted in following Jesus, even to the cross, even to the tomb, because they wanted just another moment with their Jesus. Lo and behold, they encountered their risen Lord!
And we are God’s persistent. We work to pull off a piece of what the generation before us couldn’t and that the next one will pick up. Our job is to lift up the mantle and prepare the others to take it on next.
All the while: God will be knocking. Affirming that we all matter, infinitely so, even into the arms of The Alpha and The Omega, the Beginning and the End, world without end. Amen