June 21, 2020
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“A Place to Start”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 5.43-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I was in my first call when I met Dessie. She was a deacon and a pillar of the town. She raised her son as a widow and ran a coffee shop, Dessie’s Diner, where she served the best pie in town.
When I met Dessie, she was homebound and in her late eighties. A hard life of work and Parkinson’s kept her down and ravaged her body. She spoke haltingly and gasped for breath to form her meaning. On my first visit with Dessie we spoke of her life and the diner and the church and her decades of knowledge and experience. When I left her on the first visit, I made it to the door when she hollered out, “be a good boy.” I paused and thought and smiled and said, “I will.”
I visited Dessie often. She had a lot to say and I listened. She was one of the people who were there to make a young, inexperienced pastor into a good minster.
One visit though will always stay with me. She was crying when I came. Very upset. In her halting voice and Parkinson shaking body she made clear that she was upset about a granddaughter. Given her tears I guessed that it was some sort of sickness; something was really, really wrong.
And then she told me: her granddaughter was dating a black man. She paused and caught her breath and she said, “black folk need to stay in their place.” Except she didn’t say black man or black folk.
I will never forget the confusion and shock that this deacon of the church, pillar of the town, and single mom who knew great challenge that this sweet woman could spew such racism. The world was turned upside down. I had heard racist comments, but this was somehow different. This was a level of hatred I had never really heard. It was so much more.
I didn’t know what to say; didn’t know where to start. This was not what I imagined Dessie could be. It was just too much to take in.
Looking back, I can see I made two terrible mistakes. The first was that I did not consider Dessie as someone I could engage. She was too old; I should just wait her out.
I decided to wait for her and her generation to pass. She was part of a time that was fading, so I believed, so I began to wait for Dessie to pass. She died within the year. But the mistake was that her generation, her hatred was passing with her. I didn’t need to address her racism; her time was passing; her life was fading. Things were getting better. I just needed to wait. That was a mistake
The second mistake was worse. Because I wrote Dessie off as other, passing, I didn’t see Dessie in me. And this failure happened again and again, happens now. I am blind to how deep and pervasive this is.
I think of Confederate-flag-waving, gun-toting racist replete with tiki torch and I know that is not me. But what I didn’t understand in the moment with Dessie, is the challenge is not bad apples or bad actors, not the extremist, it’s the pastor who waits, the Christian who says, that’s just the South, or the church that says, this is not us.
Dessie was other; she was not me. This is two generations removed.
I listened to her hatred and racism and thought this is not my life. It took time and hard work to realize, oh Dessie is in here. I am not her, but she is with us. She is still here, baked into me. Not easy to see; even harder to be honest about it.
Everything is broken
Broken bottles, broken plates,
Broken switches, broken gates,
Broken dishes, broken parts,
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken,
Everything is broken
Seem like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground
Bob Dylan wrote this 30 years ago. Folks are marching and protesting for George Floyd because everything in the system of law enforcement and system of justice, the system, is broken. Law and Order, tough on crime, three strikes and the war on drugs and zero tolerance and throw away the key. Everything is broken.
How did this become so broken?
Lots of opinions. After 9/11 we militarized police; a decade before that we made addiction a crime worthy of decades of incarceration; and a decade before that we added in immunity to a system created from the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
When the system is broken it won’t get better. It is not bad apples or bad actors, it is not the extremist, it’s the pastor who stays quiet, the Christian who says, “he resisted,” or the church that says, “we don’t get political.”
Today we are in a moment of great possibility because we are being honest about brokenness. In this moment can we go from awareness to action, sustained action? It is one thing to protest and march, but finding the leverage to change, the will to persist for redemption where the broken is healed, this is quite another. One person who marched and rode with Dr. King made this clear. She said, a march is one thing, a movement is another. We need a movement to bring change.
But where do we start? If we find the resolve and hope of profound change, we face a daunting question: where do we start?
I believe we start with our reading today. We start with the words of Jesus, love your enemy.
Two things about this teaching. First, this is not a call to find something nice about someone who is evil. This is not finding good in the one who is opposed to you. The second is that this is a crazy thing to say. Compassion for your enemy? Sure. We are all human; we are all broken, so compassion is not unthinkable. But love? Love your enemy is crazy; and, it is crazy enough to work.
When you love your enemy, you have to dig down deep into your heart and find what and why you hate. You must dig down through layers of definitions and excuses; you have to take a look at what you would rather ignore. Loving your enemy is being honest about the divisions and hate and greed and fear that makes someone worthy to be your enemy.
I didn’t really understand this, until I saw it at work in health care. In hospitals they don’t call it “the enemy”; they call it “the mistake.” People in health care are learning more and more to love their mistakes.
When mistakes happen in health care people die, they get hurt, have terrible pain. This is not what is loved. This is tragic. But what folks in hospitals have found is that in the tragic moment is a place to learn, a place to change, a place to see our brokenness. In the tragic moment, if you don’t cover it with shame or blame, if you look at it and tear it down, you will find an assumption, a prejudice, a fear, a systemic mistake; you find what is really broken.
Let me give you an example. From time to time surgeons operate on the wrong appendage, the wrong person, the wrong knee. This is a hard moment. Yet, it is a mistake that is not easily hid or denied. If you were supposed to operate on the right knee and you replaced the left knee, then there is no denying a mistake was made.
Hospitals studied this, trying to find what was broken here; how was this possible? And what they found was systemic silence. No one was empowered to criticize or question the surgeon. The surgeon was all powerful and could not be challenged. So, no one could say, “hey, that’s the wrong knee.”
The solution to this was brilliant. It’s called the Universal Protocol. Before a surgery now everyone huddles; everyone agrees this is the patient, this is the surgery, and this is the right knee. And then everyone takes a pen and signs their name on the knee.
When they dug down into the mistake, they found systematic brokenness in silence. No one could speak the truth. When you can’t speak the truth, everything is broken.
To find their way out they had to love the mistake, to be honest, tear it down, tear it down to the foundation and find the solution there. Loving the mistake is not forgetting the tragedy. Loving the mistake is when you are willing to dig down and find what is really happening, systemic failure.
When the system is broken, it won’t get better. No bad apples or bad actors, no extremists, it’s the pastor who knows better, the Christian who says, go slow, or the church that says nothing.
Love the enemy. This is crazy talk. You don’t love mistakes; you hate mistakes. And we do we hate mistakes. Yet, when they happen, if we are honest and courageous, they are the place we can find freedom.
Loving our mistakes and digging down to find the greed, the racism, the abuse of power, the blindness is the place to start. Loving your enemies and loving your mistakes are really one in the same. They are the place to start if you want to find true, lasting freedom.
People might argue about what mistake we need to love first. Can we fix our justice system if there are no living wages? If we eliminate choke holds and immunity, have we dug down deep enough?
I know two things: we have to love our mistakes to find freedom and we can’t wait. When a system is broken, the system does not heal itself. So, waiting for things to change won’t work. This is not a time to wait for freedom or for Jesus. Jesus didn’t say, wait for me and I’ll fix it. He said, love your enemies; he didn’t say wait for them to change.
I made two terrible mistakes with Dessie. I waited for her passing believing her hatred would go with her. Twenty years later I can testify, Dessie is gone, but her hatred is alive and well. The other mistake was to not see myself, our life, our world in her. She is not us; but she is in all of us. That is what you see when you love your enemy.
After the marches we need a movement and we need to be a church that breaks free from the brokenness of systemic silence. There is much to say and much hear. But waiting in silence must not be our path. Amen.
- 1 Corinthians 3:10 - 23
- Matthew 5:43 - 48