“Far from Israel’s moral core, we are a nation where ‘you shall not murder’ has become a suggestion, and ‘you shall not steal’ is enforced with a gun and a prison cell if you are wearing a hoodie, and ignored with a wink and a nod if you are wearing a suit…”
Sermon preached at All Saints Church on Sunday, October 8, 2017, by Mike Kinman.
Ana Marquez Greene
We have been here before. We are here now. What can stop us from being here again?
There are moments after which we should continue to be appalled but no longer surprised. For our nation, one such moment was on December 14, 2012 when 20 first graders were gunned down in their classrooms at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Or, more precisely, that moment came sometime after that when it became clear that as a nation we could not even agree that the slaughter of children – children like Charlotte, Dylan, Ana and Josephine – was a sufficient moral evil for us to act. The moment we decided that the murder of children is an acceptable part of American life.
There have been other moments. The unindicted murder of Tamir Rice, a black child innocently playing in a park, made it clear that as a nation we are just fine with police violence and the extrajudicial killing of people of color. I’m not sure when we as a nation decided it was acceptable to abandon people struggling with mental illness and poverty, but surely it was around the time we embraced President Reagan’s racist caricature of black welfare queens and his dumping of tens of thousands of mentally ill persons onto the streets of our cities. Maybe it was Katrina when we decided we were just fine with climate change as long as the effects were primarily felt by people of color living in poverty, but either way, what is happening right now to our compatriots in Puerto Rico while certainly appalling shouldn’t be surprising.
Maya Angelou said “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” And unfortunately, we have shown as a nation who we are. And so, despite all the hand wringing and cries of how many thoughts and how much prayer are with the victims of the gun massacre du jour, where we continually find ourselves is certainly apalling but absolutely should not be surprising.
We have been here before. We are certainly here now. What can stop us from being here again?
The answer, of course, is that’s not the whole story, As surely as Bryan Stephenson is right that each of us is more than the worst thing we have done, so too as a nation, we know that we are more than this. We know that we are, or at least can be, better than this. And yet we have lost our way. And I suppose looking at history you could argue we never found it to begin with. We are more than this. We are better than this. And yet, those better angels of our nature, whose touch President Lincoln longed to swell in us the chorus of Union, seem almost daily drowned out by the clink of the coin and the crack of the gun.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber reminds us, “Every progressive movement, every progressive idea that has taken root in this country and around the world had a deep moral underpinning. Whether it was the abolition movement, … the civil rights movement, … Theodore Roosevelt 100 years ago saying that we needed universal healthcare as a moral issue, whether it was the New Deal … women’s suffrage, always there was a revival of our moral center and our moral core.”
We have a moral crisis in our country. When our reaction to mass shooting is a debate about whether guns is even an appropriate topic for discussion, it is clear whatever moral core we might have had as a nation has disappeared. We are paralyzed by division. And where there is a vacuum of morality and direction, evil and opportunism will flourish, and the NRA and gun industry are certainly multibillion dollar examples of both.
Dr. Barber is right. We need a moral revival in this nation, and it is up to us. We need, in his words, “to be the moral defibrillators of our time to shock the heart of this nation.” We need a moral revival in this nation and it is up to us because we have been here before, and we can do it again. And we need look no further than this morning’s reading from the book of Exodus as our guide.
Exodus is about the making of a nation. Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik points out that at the beginning of Exodus, Pharaoh calls Israel an am, a people. They share a past, a common story, common ancestors, but they are 12 disparate tribes – and their disunity is part of how Pharaoh keeps them in bondage. And yet, by the end of Exodus, Torah calls them edah – a nation, bound together by a set of ideals and aspirations, a nation that not only shares a past but a future.
When the people of Israel first enter the wilderness, they have been freed but they still have a “slave mentality.” They are complaining about lack of food and water and longing to return to the predictability of enslaved oppression. They have no vision of the future, only the misery of the present and idealization of the past. Pharaoh’s armies have drowned but still the people of Israel have no God but Pharaoh.
The people need a new organizing principle. Something that will remind them who they are, whose they are and how they are meant to be with one another. And so, God calls Moses up to Mount Sinai and gives this people not yet a nation the 10 commandments, a moral center based on God’s presence with and faithfulness to them; a shared history of oppression and shared liberation from that oppression; a shared ethic of neighborliness and a shared hope for the future.
But it was not enough for the people just to be given the words and reminded of the story. They had to make it theirs. And so Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that “It is at this point… that Moses commands the people to construct the Tabernacle – and this is the stroke of genius. It is as if God had said to Moses: if you want to create a group with a sense of collective identity, get them to build something together. It is not what happens to us, but what we do, that gives us identity and responsibility. What transformed the Israelites is not what God did for them but what they did for God.”
In order for the people to become a nation. In order for them to regain their moral center, they had to build something together that was not for themselves but for God. They had to build the tabernacle. And God’s instructions for building the Tabernacle was that everyone would contribute two things – money and labor. The tabernacle was the physical manifestation of everything they were about. It did not erase but honored their past. It bound them to each other in the present. And most of all it was an embodiment of promise for the future. And they had to pay for it and build it together.
And so here we are. We have reached a point in American society where we find ourselves in the wilderness. We struggle to come to grips with our past history of oppression in any meaningful way, and we long for the fleshpots of Egypt as we chant “Make America Great Again.” We have no common moral core, such that we cannot even agree that mass slaughter is something that must be prevented and health care is a basic human right. We have no promise for a shared future together, only increased awareness of our deepening and paralyzing divisions.
Far from Israel’s moral core, we are a nation where “you shall not murder” has become a suggestion and “you shall not steal” is enforced with a gun and a prison cell if you are wearing a hoodie and ignored with a wink and a nod if you are wearing a suit. Where “you shall not give false witness against your neighbor” has turned into a presidentially endorsed expectation that lying is merely another word for media strategy, that science is theory, truth is for idealists and hope is for suckers.
In a nation that was founded on promise even as its founders were stealing the promise of others to build it, Dr. Barber is right, we need a moral revival. We need to establish a moral center and build a new Tabernacle together. The very soul of our nation and our planet are at stake. We need once again to claim the voice and power God gives us and the vision handed down by God through the ancestors of a compassionate, beloved community of hope. Of a community, as Fr. Greg Boyle says, where all are standing on the margins until there are no margins left at all.
We need a moral revival in this nation and it is up to us because we have been here before, and we can do it again. And the good news is we don’t have to go far and we don’t even have to do anything new. We just have to remember who we have always been and dive even more deeply into what this community has always been about and incarnate it in new ways for new opportunities and new generations.
We must claim a hope for the future that is based in the promise of God in Jesus Christ. A hope grounded in Christ’s promise of eternal love for us and eternal presence with us. A hope grounded in the truth of the beauty and belovedness and indispensability of every human being that we already affirm every time we say “God dwells in you.” That is our moral core. That is the heart of the moral revival this nation needs.
Because you don’t shoot a sister when you believe God dwells in them.
You don’t deny a brother health care when you believe God dwells in them.
You don’t let a gender nonconforming sibling get beat up and left for dead when you believe God dwells in them.
We must claim a hope for the future that is both new and old. A hope grounded in God’s vision of beloved community gathered from every tribe, language, people and nation and given for the life of the world that we already affirm every time we say “whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith you are welcome to come to Christ’s table to receive the gifts of bread and wine made holy.” That is our moral core. That is the heart of the moral revival this nation needs.
Because you can’t run a school to prison pipeline and a people to table pipeline at the same time.
You can’t bless the gift of people’s love and legislate against that same love at the same time.
You can’t at the same time have a table open to all and gentrified neighborhoods that that are closed to all but the few.
That is our moral core. That is the heart of the moral revival this nation needs.
And just as it was for the people of Israel, words will not be enough for us, either. If we are to be not just a group of disparate beloved people but a nation. If we are to move from am to edah, we literally must build it together. It is not enough for each of us and all of us just to say “these things sound good to us.” We must, as the ancestors did before us, give to it from our money and let it be birthed from our labor.
Today we begin our annual giving campaign. And this year our theme is our stories. It is a theme that recognizes as our ancestors in the desert did that our stories are sacred, they have shaped us, blessed us, sometimes scarred us, and yet through it all made us who we are today.
It is a theme that recognizes that we come from many different places and have many different stories and God’s dream for us is to make of those stories a wonderful nation, where nothing is lost of their unique beauty and they are organized like voices in a choir to create beautiful harmonies together.
It is a theme that recognizes that our stories are just getting started, and that as we take our disparate stories and write them together with God at the center we can become the dream God has not just for this community but for the world.
And we know from the ancestors that this is only possible if we not only accept the words but build the tabernacle. And so we must give. We must give with such generosity, such fearlessness, such reckless abandon that the NRA, those that would deny health care to women and people in poverty, those who have lined their pockets through the mass criminalization and incarceration of black and brown America, legislators and cheerleaders of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, we must give with such generosity, fearlessness and reckless abandon that they hear the choirs of Jesus getting louder and louder and they know that with deep, abiding love, we comin’, we comin’, we comin’ for y’all.
Give generously, fearlessly and joyfully of our money and our labor to incarnate that moral center in this community so we can take it into the world.
Yes, we have been here before. We certainly are here now. So what will stop us from being here again?
We will stop us. God will stop us.
For it is time for a moral revival. It is time for a revolution of love.
It is time together to build a new tabernacle in the desert. And we are just the people to do it. Amen.