Where Are You?

by Michael Usey

The world is a lot right now.  Another week being trampled by the new and improved Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Corvid-19 (where the infection rate continues to increase here in NC), a looming economic recession with sky-high unemployment, systemic and personal racism leading to the murders of black citizens, and our would-be American dictator’s obscene words and acts.  I almost entitled this sermon Hope during the Plague in Racist Leaderless America, but that sounded too hopeful. 

2020 reminds me of 1968.  Two of the five biggest battles of the Vietnam War were in early 1968: The Tet Offensive, which lasted the month of February and was the probably the turning point of the war, with 40,000 dead, 2,000 Americans; and the battle of Khe Sanh, which lasted 77 days, 10,000 killed, 500 Marines. I was 10, but with a much older brother and sister, both in college, and a father fresh out of the Navy, we were focused on these events.  Forty young men were coming home in body bags every day.  MLK was assassinated, followed quickly by Robert F. Kennedy.  The My Lai massacre, riots that shook D.C, Chicago, Baltimore, and other US cities, campus and civil rights protests, Nixon’s rise and LBJ’s retreat.  It was a similar chaotic time, with one major difference: we had presidential leadership that was not trying to sabotage our government. And 1968 led to 1969, with the landmark Stonewall riots and LGBTQ freedom beginning to break out, as well as people dancing mostly naked at Woodstock.  So maybe there we will have that going for us.

On Wed nights this summer we’ll be looking at Nashville historian Jon Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.  [6:30 on zoom; text or email me if you need a copy of the book.] His book argues that we have been here before, in contentious periods and how leadership and citizens came together to defeat the forces of anger, intolerance and extremism.  I believe it could be a source of hope for us that might wash out some of our fear.

History can be an excellent infuser of hope. But of course a primary source of hope conquering fear is our relationship with God. In ancient stories there is powerful wisdom. This summer we’re going to look at questions that God asked people in the Hebrew Bible; our summer sermon series is entitled, What God Wants to Know.  This first question comes from the creation stories of the Hebrew Bible. And they are stories, not histories, and since they are stories, this aspect puts the emphasis on reading ourselves into the narrative.  We find connections to our lives and our own stories, 3000 years after these were first written down.

You know the story: Eve & Adam broke the one and only command God gave them, and as a result, they hid from God in the bushes. God was walking the dogs in the cool of the twilight, when God asked Adam, Where are you?  Interesting question: is there surprise in God’s voice?  But, first, it’s also instructive to think about what God did NOT ask.

For example, God did not ask, Why have you done this?  As fascinating as this question might be, we know that human behavior is a deep mystery and why? questions are not usually liberating.  Because, even when we do understand our own actions or other persons’ (and some of the deep motives and causes behind them), that knowledge doesn’t keep us from defeating behavior.  Because often the truest answer to the question, Why have you done this? is Because I am a bonehead.  Surely we can see this clearly this week as, video after video showed daily acts of police brutality occurring during the very protests against police brutality.

Neither did God ask, What can I do?  God didn’t move in to fix everything. Eve & Adam were hiding from God (as if one could hide from deity); they had broken the friendship.  I don’t think God was entirely surprised by this state of affairs.  We are, after all, created with free will–terrible free will on display all this week.

And God did not say, How dare you?  God did not separate from Eve & Adam, though that might have been what some would have anticipated.  This is what people who talk incessantly about God’s holiness don’t understand.  God is not some easily shocked pearl-clutching prissy Victorian.  God was back in the same place at the same time looking to continue the relationship with people.  So God did not say, What fresh hell is this? Because God was not shocked.

So what God did ask was, Where are you?  I believe this question clearly indicates a couple of things.  First, God is our friend, not our enemy.  God still wanted a relationship with us. God loves us, as incredible as that might seem.  Later in Genesis, Abraham is called “a friend of God.”  This is a radically different concept of righteousness that many religious people might understand. We might equate righteousness with good works, while God seems to simply want our trust.

A second implication to the question is that God knows our worst.  God knows the evil we’ve done and the good we’ve left undone.  Remarkably, God still loves us, and is not shocked.  As a pastor for 39 years since my ordination in August `81, I’m often hearing from good people who want to tell me about something moral injury they have inflicted on themselves, or some offense or misdeed they have done to another.  Some of these confessions are so petty that I want to say, “Why are you still carrying this around?”  Others are extremely serious, even criminal, and I try hard to have my shocked face up and running.  But God knows all of us, and all that is within us, even the parts we ourselves don’t fully know, the evil that everyone has done, and the good we’ve should have done, but did not.

Lastly, it seems to me that this question tips us off to God’s forgiving nature.  Whatever the two first humans have done, God fully expects the relationship to continue.  God does not storm off in anger; rather God is in the same place at the same time, making reconciliation possible. 

Where are you?  Adam answered that question, so he gets points for courage. Unfortunately, he went on to offer a poor self-defense, denying he had any part in this, and pretending to be innocent–just as many of us behave in regards to the way too many of us benefit from our country’s race crimes.  Adam blamed Eve and God, saying, This woman (referring to her impersonally, not as my wife or Eve, but as this woman) whom you gave me gave me the fruit.  In other words, This is not my fault. As a matter of fact, it’s your fault God. You gave me the wrong partner.

Where are you?  We’re still answering that very first question with all sorts of defenses: I didn’t know.  It wasn’t me.  I’m a product of my environment. I married the wrong person. I’m not responsible for what our government does. I was born into this family. All this brokenness has to be God’s fault since we are made in the divine image–like Adam we can resort to blaming God for our self-made problems.  

I think this question from God is two-pronged: How we hide from God, and how we hide from our own common humanity. Next sunday College Park begins a zoom anti-racist class, which we trust will continue to further the discussion on what we as privileged Christians can do and be and say, as we move forward confronting America’s original sin both within and in society.

Personally, the murder of Breonna Taylor has depressed me. On March 13, the 26-year-old aspiring nurse was killed in her apartment, shot at least eight times by Louisville police, who executed a search warrant at Taylor’s home, looking for a man who did not live in Ms Taylor’s apartment complex and had already been detained when officers came to her apartment after midnight with a no-knock warrant. Ms Taylor’s boyfriend was also in the apartment and shot at officers when they attempted to enter without announcing themselves. The police fired more than 20 rounds.  Ms Taylor’s death is the kind that could have drawn national headlines in the Black Lives Matter era, like the deaths of Sandra Bland and Atatiana Jefferson, but has gotten little attention amid the spread of the Rona. The pandemic headlines were partly to blame in drowning out news of Ms Taylor’s death, but so, too, is gender bias.  None of the officers have been charged. I am no lawyer but I think the judge who issued the warrant should be prosecuted: who issues a no-knock warrant in an apartment complex in which high-powered bullets can penetrate paper-thin walls?

Many of us have wondered what is different about this moment in our long history of racial injustice. The death of George Floyd is another terrible example of a death of an unarmed African-American brought about by those responsible for protecting all of us from violence. It is tragically not unique—we have heard and seen too many other terrible examples. So why has this death led to nationwide, and even worldwide, protests? 

George Floyd’s death happened in slow-motion with witnesses and videotaping. He begged for his life, and public witnesses begged for his life. Meanwhile, the officer with the knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck acted with impunity and no concern for Mr. Floyd, or the fact that his actions were being witnessed and recorded. He believed he could do as he pleased, and showed no concern for the consequences. He acted as if Mr. Floyd’s life mattered little, if at all. While the officer continued his abuse of Mr. Floyd despite Mr. Floyd being handcuffed and on the ground, three other police officers stood by and offered no help to Mr. Floyd. They saw the knee on the neck; they heard the pleas for help from Mr. Floyd and the witnesses, and they did nothing to stop the violence. Their silence and inaction communicated a callous disregard for Mr. Floyd’s mistreatment, suffering, and ultimately his life. They were more loyal to their fellow officer and his cruelty than to the basic humanity of Mr. Floyd. Thank God for cell phone videos, and that the four involved have all been charged.

The American people, and people of the world, have seen this pattern at the highest levels for the last three and a half years during this presidency. Repeatedly, our president has acted with impunity as his words, actions, and policies have abused so many and so much: migrant children and their families, regular citizens, public servants, norms and values of decency and honor, respect for honesty, and the rule of law. This is, tragically, just a partial list. While 45 has used his position of power and influence to abuse individuals, families, communities, states, organizations, and systems designed to protect good government, elected officials of his own party have almost universally done nothing to protect the targets of his abuse. Their silence and inaction have communicated a callous disregard for the mistreatment and suffering caused by his leadership. They have been more loyal to 45 and his cruelty than to the basic humanity of anyone who finds themselves the recipient of his abuse. 

We know quite a bit about bullies. We know that they are ultimately only successful if bystanders offer their support, and this support can be in the form of silence. Without the active or silent consent of the bystanders, the bully-victim cycle falls apart and the bully is marginalized and disempowered. 

An increasing number and a rich diversity of Americans are sick of it. We are sick of the impunity of those in power who abuse others and of those who stand by silently and watch the suffering, destruction, and deaths that follow.  More and more of us recognize that our president’s abuses and the knee in the neck of Mr. Floyd are not just individual moral failures—they are the failures of the system. A failure of us. And if this is true, then when we change, we can change the system, with God’s help and hope.  Where are you? God asks.  Here, now in this moment, turning both to God and our fellow humanity. And if we keep the faith, and keep working, we may thankfully have more to celebrate and less to protest against. I pray we are in a moment of clarity that will lead us to the hard work of recovery. 

If there is such a thing as a right answer to the first question God asked, it is to admit that we do hide from God and from what God asks us to do. Yet even still God is pursuing all of us into those hiding places.  God wants us to come out and walk in the good earth in God’s presence, not just in the cool of the day, but all day, every day.