Who is our neighbor?
Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are: love God with all that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself. Sometimes our work as a church is to expand our ideas of who is a neighbor, to find a way to love people who seem very far away, or very different from us. But this week I want to talk about a family from our actual church neighborhood. Many of you have heard the story already. It was on the cover of the Concord Journal this week.
The Cole family lives two short blocks away from this building. They are a family of two dads, one white, and one Asian; and two young kids, one black, and one Latino. The Coles recently put a Black Lives Matter sign up on the edge of their lawn. Soon afterwards, they received a letter from the town Building Commissioner. An anonymous complaint had been submitted through an attorney because the sign violated zoning bylaws.
Now, the sign did violate zoning bylaws. As soon as they understood this, the Cole family moved the sign to a different part of their yard. It’s impossible to know what motivated the individual who contacted the town. However, the Cole family couldn’t help but notice all the other signs up around town that were also violating zoning bylaws. They couldn’t help but wonder if these other signs had generated the same level of attention. And so they shared their story, inviting the individual who filed the complaint to sit down and talk if they wanted to learn more about why the Black Lives Matter sign was so important to their family.
Our neighbors. Our neighborhood.
The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was started by three women as a call to action after the death of Trayvon Martin. Their names are Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors. These three women then helped transform the hashtag into a movement that has included protests and national networking. In their words, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” You can learn more about the movement’s origin, and its values, on the website.
The Black Lives Matter movement is hardly without controversy. Many have misunderstood the meaning of the slogan, thinking that it means “Black lives matter more” instead of “Black lives matter also.” Some take issue with the fact that Black Lives Matter protestors have disrupted political rallies. And it is important to note that individuals and organizations have used or altered the hashtag without honoring its origins or intentions.
Here is why the Coles put up a Black Lives Matter sign, in their own words: “Certainly, we wanted to draw attention and show support for black people being killed in our country at alarming rates, but we also wanted to prove to our children – and by extension our neighbors…that equality is something that matters to us. It’s not enough just to expect equality, and sometimes it’s not even enough to just work for it. We need to demand it.”
Our neighbors. Our neighborhood.
This month, many of us are meeting together to discuss Between the World and Me, a book written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The book is a letter from Coates to his son. Coates writes about his experience growing up and living within a violent wilderness of racism in our country.
I will admit that as a white person of relative wealth, this book is painful reading. It is almost always painful when I take the time to listen to stories of the challenges faced by people who live in this country without the same privileges that I enjoy. Each story is different, each perspective is different, but taken together they paint a picture of a very different country than the one I have experienced. It is a reality that I wish didn’t exist, and one I am ashamed to admit that I often ignore. Listening to these stories raises deep questions about how my privilege is a part of the oppression of others. Listening to these stories raises deep questions about what I ought to be doing about it.
Each of us here this morning has our own story. Each of us has our own story about where we come from, how we identify ourselves, and what overlapping kinds of privilege and oppression we have experienced. Each of us also has our own story of how we have encountered and been taught to understand difference. Our stories inform our beliefs about the strengths and sins of this beloved country of ours, and our opinions about what would best help us to move forward as a society in a positive way. Our stories are different, and so we are bound to disagree, and sometimes disagree passionately – these are questions that touch us deeply.
Where is God in all this? What does our tradition teach us? What does Jesus have to say?
Our tradition teaches us that all humankind are God’s children and created in God’s image. Each person is precious. We follow God when we recognize God’s image in those we have been taught to distrust or discount – when we welcome the stranger, the immigrant; when we care for the widow and the orphan.
Jesus went out of his way to show his love and respect for those at the bottom of the social ladder. He healed the epileptic, the demon possessed, the hemorrhaging: the untouchables of his time. He taught about the goodness of a despised Samaritan. He intervened in the stoning of an adulterous woman. He spent time with prostitutes, with tax collectors, and with other notorious sinners.
In contrast to our civic dialogue, our faith tradition doesn’t talk much about equality. Instead, in law and story, it shows us that God has a very particular care for those in the greatest pain; those with the greatest needs; those experiencing the most severe judgment, isolation, and discrimination.
Some people wonder why we need to have rainbow flags out front, or to call ourselves an Open and Affirming Church. Surely, in this day and age, everyone must know that they are welcome! But, in fact, despite the teachings of Jesus, the church has an abysmal record of welcoming folks who identify as anything other than heterosexual. We need those flags out there, if we want people of all sexual identities to know that they are welcome here in our church community.
Similarly, you could say that our neighborhood doesn’t need Black Lives Matter signs. Surely, in this day and age, and in this place, everyone must know that Black Lives Matter. But, in fact, our country has an abysmal record of honoring the lives of black people. Slavery was the rule of law here for almost 250 years. Widespread voter registration was not a reality for black Americans until 1965. Today we live in residential areas shaped by mortgage discrimination. Racial gaps in wealth, education, arrest, and imprisonment remain enormous. Even leaving out the heartbreaking tragedies of the past few years, it is not at all clear that Black Lives Matter in America.
So what do you think? If we consider our diverse perspectives, our common faith, our current context, how can we best love our neighbors as members of West Concord Church? How are we called to respond when our neighbors are left uncertain if our nation or our even our neighborhood values the lives of their beloved children?
How can we best love our neighbors? I am really asking – not for an answer in this moment, but for your prayerful discernment and open-hearted conversations. Pray on it, think on it, talk about it with one another, and come and talk with me; or with Joanna, leading the Discipleship Ministry; or with any of our church leaders. Let’s find some way to act with love towards our neighbors, and to make this neighborhood and this nation a safer place for all of our children.