Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 7, 2020
“Through the Fires”
A crucible is for silver, and a furnace for gold,
but God tests the heart.
USA Today reported on Thursday that there have been protests in 584 cities and towns around the country and growing. Hundreds of people even gathered in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the nearest “big city” to where I grew up. Hundreds of people marching in Grand Forks! And in some places, the pressure of those protests is leading to policy changes – the necessary outcome.
Civil rights icon John Lewis said this week that while the video of Mr. Floyd crying out "I can't breathe" brought him to tears, this ongoing movement gives him "hope that we're on our way to greater change."
Why? He compared today with the protests of the 1960s, at which he was literally on the front lines, and said, "This feels and looks so different. It is so much more massive and all inclusive." We remember how Dr. King was disturbed and distressed that more white people, more white Christians, didn’t join what was such an obvious struggle. But Congressman Lewis said this time is different, noting that "people from all over the world [are] taking to the streets to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to do,” he said, “what I call getting in trouble." He is hopeful.
Of course, there were unhelpful troublemakers in some of those cities. Last weekend we were very discouraged by images of violence. Dumpsters on fire, vehicles on fire, buildings on fire… Add the tear gas and rubber bullets and flash bang grenades and reporters of color arrested on live TV and clashes between police in riot gear and citizens in masks, combined with all those fires, and it looked like the apocalypse.
But I wonder, like the wisdom of King Solomon’s proverb, were those fires simply the crucible needed to purify silver? Were those fires the furnace necessary to remove impurities from gold? I'm not defending the use of fire for protest. I am not glorifying it. But, I still wonder, could God use them to test our hearts?
Because that violence, those fires, in particular, forced us to confront our own prejudices and priorities. Internal battles and temptations to say, “it’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed but destroying property has got to stop.”
Those of you who are African American being subjected to not only one more video of a public lynching repeated again and again on a loop but having to hear endure such equivocation – I am sorry. Some of you, black and white, have talked about difficult conversations in your own families and people you thought were friends and allies in which you had to say “No. It’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but it’s the killing of innocent black men by police that has to stop.” Get your priorities right. We have to understand whose interests we ask police to protect. People or wealth and power.
One example of a disconnect between people of color and white people is our experience with law enforcement. Polls like one in the Washington Post show that 82% of African American Christians believe there is a pattern of police violence against them. However, in reverse, 72% of white Christians believe these are just isolated incidents of a few bad apples.
Black men like George Floyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Marvin Booker and far too many more would beg to differ. Black women, often forgotten, and not just Sandra Bland, but Eleanor Bumpers, Alberta Spruill, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Atatiana Jefferson and Charleena Lyles were all killed by officers or in police custody.
Were all of those officer’s racists, some of them, none of them – just a coincidence, or an unwitting part of a system of white supremacy so intertwined into the foundations of our nation we don’t even recognize them? Where do we see the effects of that white supremacy? Breonna Taylor and Amy Cooper. Breonna, an aspiring EMT in the midst of a pandemic, was killed in her sleep in her own bed in her own apartment. But Amy knew she could call the cops to protect her.
Amy Cooper is the white woman who was asked by a black birdwatcher in Central Park to put her dog on a leash – as is required for law and order. Perhaps she didn’t feel that such laws should apply to her, or at the least, she didn’t believe she should be subject to a black man asking her to follow the law. So, she pulled out her white female tears, as she knew she could, to alert the system that she was in danger. A white system that when it hears “black,” rushes in and assumes dangerous and guilty. It works almost every time. This time, however, the officer who responded didn’t buy her story. She lost her dog for a month, but it left Chris, the birdwatcher, devastated by, haunted by, the reality that he could have been dead that day at the hands of police because of a white woman’s tears. She should be prosecuted for a hate crime.
Add to that all the citizen vigilantes, like those who killed Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Abery, protected by prosecutors and DA’s offices. Just claim self-defense. Claim “stand your ground.” He’s got a gun. He’s resisting. Make any claim and we’ve got your back. We can’t stop the killing of innocent African American men, women, and children until we dismantle white supremacy. And that will happen when the fires of protest become changed policies. Banning chokeholds is only one very small step. But, it is hopeful. Keep up the pressure.
We don’t wish for the fires of protest, but we can recognize the necessity of a crucible for silver and a furnace for gold. God tests the hearts. Though, as Dr. King said in 1963, we need to change more than hearts and minds through persuasion. He said, “The law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.”
It shouldn’t have taken cell phone videos for people to believe that racism is killing black, brown, and Indigenous people. But now that people have been awakened, I pray will they stick with it for the long haul. It makes me feel hopeful.
Of course, that very same hope makes white supremacy feel threatened. So, here comes the white supremacist’s greatest friend, holding a Bible as a prop in front of a church for a campaign photo whose only purpose is to send a message – I’ve got your backs. The blatant absurdity of that display was shocking. Even to Pat Robertson.
In response, some of you have read or heard a piece I wrote and posted online this week called “Thank you, Mr. Trump.” For those who haven’t seen it, I thank him because many of us were getting distracted by images of fires and looting, starting to question our commitment to justice. Equivocating. Thinking false peace would be OK in exchange for property.
Thank you, Mr. Trump. You shocked us back into our mission of hope. To build a movement that coalesces people of all races around the vision of our nation that is open, inclusive, just, and compassionate. Have you seen it happening? It’s beautiful. Thank you!
Thank you, Mr. Trump, for reminding us of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed – our calling. A world filled with love. With food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, comfort for the grieving, liberation for the oppressed.
Those fires may have momentarily distracted us, but now we realize they were like the crucible that is needed to remove impurities to make silver and the furnace necessary for gold. God is testing our hearts and preparing us to be ready when we are called upon to make difficult choices and take up our various roles to dismantle white supremacy and build up the beloved community.
Because of coronavirus, some of us who want to join the protests can’t show up in person,
But you can still use your voice on social media,
You can still contribute money to causes that advance racial justice,
You can still have difficult conversations with friends and family,
You can still educate yourself,
You can hold the feet of politicians and policy makers to the fire.
But all of it starts with prayer that we are ready for the test. So let us pray:
God of Justice, whenever we settle for the way things are instead of the way you would have them to be, forgive us.
Whenever we are paralyzed by fear or limited in vision, increase our trust in you.
Whenever we offer charity, but fail to work for justice, show us what your love requires.
Whenever we forget those who have gone before us or act is if we were the first to struggle, call out our arrogance.
Whenever we tire of the struggle and tomorrow feels overwhelming, restore our hope. We are your hopeful people. Amen
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Traveling around the world