Psalm 139: 1-18, portions of The Color Purple
Lyndale UCC—November 22, 2015
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel
As a prayer this morning, I’d invite you to turn to Hymn 283 and join with me in song. And please feel free to harmonize as much as you are led.
O God, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
It was Monday night, almost 24 hours since the vigil at the 4th Precinct had begun in protest for the police killing of Jamar Clark. I had been there earlier in the day and witnessed the courage of occupying the Precinct vestibule, I’d seen the knitting and singing as women and men and gender queer people from Black Lives Matter put their bodies on the line for what they believed.
Now it was Monday evening and organizers asked three of us religious leaders to hold the space as they marched to shut down the highway. Pastor Ashley went with the marchers, I stayed at the Precinct. As most of the folks were marching, the crowd that stayed behind was small. One man, a young African American whose brother had been killed by police about five years earlier, began pacing and screaming at all of us. His rage, his grief, his sense of hopelessness was palpable. But there was something about my white body in a clerical collar and stole that kept drawing him to me. “You’re a snake,” he kept repeating. “What are you doing here?” he accused.
And I couldn’t help but think about the centuries of white bodies in clerical collars whose preaching and theologizing had supported the Middle passage and slavery and the brutalization of the ancestors whose blood ran in his veins. And so I stood, trying to embody a different kind of white Christianity, even as I bore witness to the devastation that my people had caused.
It was this past Friday night as I sat at Living Table United Church of Christ for the 17th honoring of Transgender Day of Remembrance. Over the course of nearly two hours, members of the gathered body stood and walked to the podium and read the names, causes, locations and dates of death of 85 transgender and gender non-conforming people who’d been murdered in the past year. Then a candle was lit, a bell rung and a collective “We will remember you,” pledged. And I couldn’t help but take in the brutality… the fact that too many were simply known as “unknown transgender woman” and the reality that more than one had been stoned to death. I couldn’t help but think about the Biblical stories the killers had been taught.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Psalm 139 is one of my favorite hymns of faith. I return to it time and time again… for my own prayer time, for worship and, especially, when I don’t know where else to go.
This week was one of those weeks. I’ve had preaching on my calendar for over a month as Ashley knew she’d be gone for Thanksgiving. And I was very excited to preach on Thanksgiving Sunday because thanksgiving is one of my favorite spiritual disciplines and joys. Maggie and I chose the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2006 for our church wedding and chose as the theme a Dag Hammerskjord quote, “For all that has been, thanks, for all that will be, yes!”
I love thanksgiving and gratitude and pausing to gather with friends, chosen family and family to return thanks to God.
But this past ten days or so has thrown me for a loop, I have to tell you. Beirut, Paris, Jamar Clark, Mali, Transgender Day of Remembrance, to name just a few…. And in response, the rhetoric of vengeance, registering Muslims or reinstating internment camps; the self-proclaimed Christian leaders (ones whose central story starts with migrants seeking a place in the Inn) hatefully rejecting any welcome of today’s migrants.
And so I’ve been praying with the Psalmist and reflecting on thanksgiving and gratitude.
And my heart keeps coming back to two related pieces.
The first is that I realize that many of us have been raised in the midst of unfettered capitalism and its unholy theology of racism, sexism and heterosexism. And in this context, the prayers of thanksgiving that are raised too often sound a lot like prosperity gospel…. Thank you God, for all this stuff I have…. Thank you God for all these clothes, this big house, this ability to consume all I want. Thank you God that my life isn’t like that person who doesn’t have a job.
It seems to me that we’ve been taught to confuse privilege that comes from systems of injustice with gifts from God. Lorelle Saxena’s words express some of my distress with this kind of thankgiving.
There is no reason, not one single reason, why I deserve shelter, food, stability, safety, health, or your regard any more than any given Syrian refugee. Not one reason. My home, my education, my business; the way I look, the way I talk; the fact that I come home to a safe, whole, healthy family every day–every one of those things is a privilege that I fell into by the random circumstance of being born in this country to parents who valued academic achievement. I, or you, could have just as easily been born in Syria, or Burkina Faso, or Afghanistan. Do you really think that you’re a different kind of human being than the refugees? Do you think your privilege is earned?
[She continues], compared to most people in the world, you and I are rich with privilege, much of it just because we were lucky enough to be born in a country fat with it. I woke up early this morning and made organic, whole-grain muffins for my son, then dressed him in warm clothes, put sunscreen on his little face, strapped and buckled him into his bike seat and rode along peaceful streets to deliver him at his warm, nurturing preschool. There were so many levels on which I was able to protect him. Every breath of this morning was a privilege. Meanwhile millions of children who months ago had bedrooms and dinner tables and doctors and schools are sleeping directly on the ground, their parents unable to secure shelter or food for them, much less healthcare or education.
And no, that is not your fault. But that’s not the same as it not being our responsibility. We have everything we need and then so much on top of that, and we can choose to exemplify to our own children one of two courses of action: we can open our clutched fists and share with our fellow humans all the abundance that exists here–or we can hoard it, greedy and bloated and fearful.
… there is no such thing as “our own.” Every human is our own. Every hungry child, grieving mother, frightened husband, weary grandmother is our own. Nobody gets to pretend our world is a different world from the world that creates civil wars and bombs and hunger. We are all toeing this same precarious, shifting tightrope of a life. Anyone can fall at any time. All there is to catch us is each other.
In the face of privilege that comes from the circumstances that systems of oppression create and from which we benefit, it seems to me that the Psalmist and the gospel of the Color Purple remind us of what true gratitude looks like. And I think it looks like some of what Fred Smith has been trying to lift up in his Jung class and some of what we’ve been grappling with with the Green Team and in our work on whiteness.
And I think it might go something like this:
If the line between good and evil cuts through each of our hearts…. If we live amidst systems which tempt us to choose complicity with power-over every day–and I believe we do–than the gift of God comes this way:
God loves us, not because we are only good. God has a deep, deep love for us which is rooted in a true knowing that the line of good and evil cuts through our hearts. God knows we are capable of complicity and perpetration of evil.
But God also knows that we can choose vulnerability… we can choose the foolish, wasteful, patient revolution of love. And God is constantly, persistently calling us to practice this revolutionary love.
It is for this relationship with God…. it is for these gifts that we ought be grateful.
People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.
This week there have also been visions of this gift, this thanksgiving, this color purple… at the 4th Precinct as, after a night of violence most likely caused by infiltrating white supremacists and anarchists, we sang and prayed and marched and came together—Jew, Christian, Muslim, pagan, atheist, white, Black, Asian American, Native American in a shared witness for justice…. During the Transgender Day of Remembrance as we claimed the power of life that always rises up… in the widower whose wife was killed at the Bataclan concert hall who made the video entitled, “You will not have my hatred” and in this story:
After learning [her] flight was detained 4 hours, [Naomi Shihab Nye] heard the announcement: If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately. [She writes]:
Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this.
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick, sho bit se-wee?
The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—
she stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,
Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her—Southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.
Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends.
Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering Questions.
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,
the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same
powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African American, one Mexican American—ran around serving us all apple juice and lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.
And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—
had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,
With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
this is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost
Thanks be to God for all the purple God has planted…. And for our noticing… and responding.
 Alice Walker. The Color Purple. (New York: Pocket Books, 1982).