Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
While we were in Mississippi, we learned of a situation in the town where we worship – Cleveland, Mississippi. The local school board had decided to build a magnet school on the white side of the town and close one of the racially integrated schools. Nowhere in the literature produced by the school superintendent or the school board was there any reference to race. But the black citizens know racism when they see it and they are angry. There was a protest march scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, the end of a school day from which all black children were asked to remain at home. The high school students were quick to jump on that opportunity so, in the high school that sits on the black side of town, there was a 92% absentee list. The few black students enrolled in the high school on the white side of town also skipped school that day but their absence didn’t even cause a ripple on that school day. In 1954, the year of my birth, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students denied black children equal educational opportunities. The unanimous decision stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Yet, here we are in 2010, watching a school district’s efforts to recreate separate public schools based on race. What works, do you suppose, against racism?
My sister and her husband are foster parents for young children. In October they received their second placement, a two and half month old baby boy who struggles with the repercussions of his birth mother’s drug addiction. He needs constant attention and human touch to calm his wired little central nervous system. Even after these four months with my sister and her husband, he doesn’t sleep for very long at a stretch. In the foster care system, courts are involved, as well as social workers and guardian ad litems, and lawyers. In this situation, the birth mother has a fairly painful and hopeless history. Her future isn’t looking a lot better. She lost her first children. She is having a difficult time staying clean. She is unemployed. She doesn’t have the personal skills to be a parent to any child, let alone one whose physical therapeutic demands are fairly significant. What works in this situation, do you suppose? A mother who has delivered several children, all with different fathers who are not part of the picture - how should that situation be addressed on a national level? She is fiercely addicted to a most pernicious drug. What works in the treatment of chemical addiction?
Recently, there was a public disagreement about how to handle underage drinking at Dartmouth. Hanover’s police chief wanted to send underage, undercover spies into campus parties. Dartmouth’s president argued forcefully that alcohol consumption at the level of drunkenness is a health issue and shouldn’t be addressed through the legal system. What works when 44% of all college students report binge drinking, approximately 6% of college students have been diagnosed as alcohol dependent and nearly one-third of students would be given an alcohol abuse diagnosis under current psychiatric criteria. One out of every four college students who drink report having forgotten where they were or what they did while drinking during the school year. The incidence of blackout has doubled (54 percent) among frequent binge drinkers since 2000. (These statistics gathered and reported by UMADD, a branch of the organization MADD which studies campus drinking.)
But back to my little foster nephew - what should happen for this little boy? Or for the over half million children in foster care in this country? How long should a biological parent be allowed to keep her parental rights before the court steps in? Children belong to their parents, don’t they? Who gets to decide what’s best for this little boy? What is best for him? Is it better for him to have this year with my incredibly loving, patient, fun, and committed sister and brother-in-law when the year comes to an end and the baby will either be returned to his mother or be placed for adoption?
Yesterday we held a memorial service for church member Frank MacCombie. Frank was born in 1914. It was a wonderful, poignant service remembering his 95 years of life. But I got to thinking about those 95 years last night as I was writing this sermon. According to a 2008 Congressional Research Services report to Congress “American War and Military Operations Casualties”, there have been 634,862 U.S. military deaths since Frank was born, not counting the past two years of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no way to accurately count the number of civilian deaths accompanying that statistic, nor does the number include the deaths of any other soldier from any other country, but even a conservative estimate would put the number at a staggering level. I think it might be safe to say that when it comes to the preservation of human life, war is having something of a mixed rate of success. But we turn to war as a strategy over and over, as if war works.
Today’s story in Luke introduces us to Herod Antipas. This was not the same Herod of Matthew’s tale, the one who ordered the murder of all the Jewish babies under the age of two, but this one was equally violent and jealous. This Herod murdered John the Baptist because John condemned Herod’s marriage to his half brother’s divorced wife and lusted for his new wife’s daughter, Salome. Ancient historians tell us that Herod was afraid of John’s growing popularity and the possible rebellion he represented. So Jesus knew who Herod was. He knew of his morally ambiguous marriage. He knew that Herod had killed John. He knew that Herod represented significant danger. He knew Herod was a fox, a dangerous, cunning predator. The Pharisees were nervous about Herod and they really wanted Jesus not to create such a stir. They wanted Jesus to leave that area. Jerusalem was calm at that moment. The Jews were getting along with Rome. Stirring up Herod would only draw Rome’s unwelcome attention. After all, Herod and Pilate were friends!
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
What works in Jerusalem? Weapons pointed from one side of the wall to the other and hovering overhead, alliances between Palestinians and Iran, conscription of all young Jews into Israel’s armed forces, partitions, refugee camps, hostilities as ancient as the city itself and peace talks that are painfully ineffective. What could possibly work to bring peace to that holy city?
The writer Loren Eisley wrote an essay published in 1969 in The Unexpected Universe. The essay was called “The Star Thrower” and it has been adapted, simplified into this little story.
One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”
The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”
“Don’t you realize”, the man asked, “there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”
The boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Turning to the man, he said, “I made a difference for that one.”
Those of us who have made a decision to be Christian have done something more significant than simply joining another social organization that does good things. We’ve decided to commit ourselves to acting a certain way as well. We’ve decided that our human relating should be respectful, loving, accepting, courageous. We’ve committed ourselves to behave toward others in ways that are sometimes difficult - biting our tongues, withholding observations, however insightful, tempering our opinions with the reminder that we ourselves may not be right or fully informed or free of personal agendas. We’ve committed ourselves to the painful, constant work of uncovering our own shortcomings and dealing with them by themselves, rather than as they compare to the shortcomings of others. We’ve promised to act and love and sacrifice for those who are hated, mistrusted wounded and marginalized, all without counting the cost.
And we’ve committed ourselves to change the world. For some of us, that commitment takes the form of evangelizing, believing that if we could just convince all the world to be Christian, that would solve the world’s problems and make God happy. Not all of us Christians agree with that approach or that goal. Oh, we want to make God happy. We just don’t necessarily believe making us all into one particular type of Christian will accomplish that elusive achievement. Some of us Christians believe that our purpose is not to make everyone like us. Rather, our Christian mission is to make everyone into God’s image, who God wants them to be, their best selves, loving, generous, free from the violence within and protected from the violence without. Some of us think God likes diversity, color, varieties of language, worship practices, and complexity. Some of us think God does not want uniformity so much as unity, not oneness of opinion so much as oneness of respect, not singularity of personality so much as the single experience of love.
What works do you suppose, to fulfill that divine desire? How should we do that? Should we save one starfish at a time? Or change the systems that pollute the waters. Should we spend one year making one baby a little healthier, more trusting, and stronger, experiences that he won’t likely remember when he becomes an adult, or should we work to break the chains of addiction, poverty, and sexism that create thousands of similar, unreported situations? Should we draw attention to one small Mississippi community that is manipulating the laws protecting public education to accomplish racist separations, or should we reform the entire system of public education in this country, guaranteeing equal access to equally excellent education that is equally supported financially? Should we write notes and Christmas cards to individual New Hampshire National Guard soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, break open the secrecy that surrounds the high rates of suicides of returning soldiers and guarantee full physical and mental health care for all returning soldiers, or should we demand a different kind of foreign policy, seek international security through generous contributions to health care, infrastructures, and education? Should we try to imagine an alternative to dispute resolution? We do that in our children’s classrooms. Couldn’t we try it on the international stage?
When Jesus responded to the Pharisees, he told them he would do both – he would go about healing individuals, and soon, he would come to Jerusalem to confront the powers and principalities. He didn’t allow himself to be trapped into being only one kind of Savior – one kind of Messianic hope. He didn’t say – I’m going to help these individuals who are suffering and leave Jerusalem to its own problems. Nor did he say to the suffering individuals – I’ll be right back, but first I have to go overturn the occupation of the Holy City. Jesus did not choose which task was more important.
That’s the Messiah I follow. He chose to do both because both needed doing. So, that’s what I’m going to do, too. And I think that’s what you should do as well. And I think that’s what we should do together in this church, because that’s what I think it means to be a Christian – to care for and love the suffering individual and change the systems that cause the suffering. That’s what will work. Amen.