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Advent Grief: Enough is Enough

December 10, 2014

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at The White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 7, 2014

Isaiah 40: 1-11           Mark 1:1-8

On Friday afternoon I was part of a protest here in White Plains, like those across the country, shouting “Enough is enough.” The grand jury decision this week not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, by choking him to death for allegedly selling cigarettes, sparked outrage across our country. If some folks found wiggle room in the conflicting testimony of witnesses in Ferguson, MO, Eric Garner’s death, captured on videotape, has elicited questions about our justice system from across the political spectrum. The 75 people gathered in Renaissance Square on Friday chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe.” At one point we dropped to the ground, a die-in where we laid motionless and silent on the hard, cold cement for seven minutes, the time Eric Garner lay on the ground without any attempt at resuscitation or medical attention. Then we marched up Mamaroneck to turn onto Martine until we reached the Westchester County Legislative Building. There we circled up near the steps where Kenneth Chamberlain, Jr., whose father was shot and killed in his own apartment by White Plains police just three years ago, led us in the cry, “Enough is enough.” “We aren’t against the police. But they must be accountable. Enough is enough.”

The demonstration was well attended by clergy from all over Westchester, including thirteen Presbyterian ministers. We stood together as people from across the county, people of different races, different faith traditions, people of all ages, and there was this sense of anger yet possibility, an outrage that was being channeled into purposeful and thoughtful engagement. Later on Friday evening, there was a vigil in Nyack with hundreds of people standing witness with candles against the cold, dark night, together, searching, committing, grieving, hoping.

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But this week I have also heard despair voiced by a number of people I really respect. Nothing is going to change. In a few weeks “we” will have forgotten, or moved on to other things, returned to normal – I can only image ‘we’ means white people – while Black and Brown people will return to some combination of anger and acceptance because, after all, nothing is going to change. And that despair is real and, frankly rational. Because police brutality directed toward men and boys of color has happened as far back as we can remember and continues to happen with chilling regularity. That is the backdrop for the two recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – these were not anomalous, singular problems, but rather the killing of these men was emblematic of the violence deployed against African-American and Latino men and boys by law enforcement with impunity. “Indict the System,” read one sign at a NYC protest last week. And that, to me, is accurate. For grand juries have, over and over, refused to indict police officers for brutality and that’s one of the reasons for the push for independent prosecutors rather than grand juries to investigate these cases. But the system is, of course, bigger than simply the justice system. The system means those social, political, and economic forces that replicate discrimination and violence in the daily fabric of our life together.

A few weeks ago, here in this sanctuary, twenty five people from Hudson River Presbytery engaged in a conversation called “Beyond Ferguson: Race, Racism, Privilege and Power.” When asked what we feared most about the conversation we were about to have, several participants said “I fear that we will talk honestly tonight, and then do nothing;” that these kinds of conversations would be too sporadic across our nation to effect any real change. Through personal sharing and small group conversations, the four co-presenters, including Elder Leslie Mardenborough and the Rev. Sarah Henkel, led us through an in-depth presentation of the historical, socio-economic, and political context of the tragedy in Ferguson and the killing of Michael Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson.

At the time of our conversation, neither grand jury decision had yet been made. But that even if there were indictments, we were keenly aware that those indictments alone would not bring resolution to the deep-seeded structural inequities in our communities. The conversation on November 20th ended with this question “What one thing do you commit to do?”

Last year community members and several clergy came together to form the Westchester Coalition for Police Reform. The coalition works to make our own community safer with improved community-police relations and greater police accountability and transparency. They meet on the second Thursday evening every month, which as many of you know is my Sabbath day and the reason I cannot attend regularly. But I will be there this week and it would be wonderful if we could get a delegation from our church to go, so we can think together about how we will step into the future together. The meetings take place at Memorial Methodist Church on Bryant Ave.

God sent Isaiah to speak words of comfort to a people who were no longer looking for it; to a people who had given up hope. And he said, “in the wilderness, prepare a way of the Lord.” In the wilderness – in the place beyond safety, prepare the way of the Lord. In the place where it seems nothing will ever grow, prepare the way of the Lord. In the very valley of despair; prepare the way of the Lord.

To this hopeless people, the prophet says, don’t give up. To this exhausted people, the prophet says, you shall not be doing this alone. To people who had seen it all, Isaiah promises that they will yet see something extraordinary – the very glory of God revealed.

Isaiah’s words echo to us across the generations reminding us that when God comes “all people shall see it together.”

Following the sermon we sang hymn 138: “Who Would Think That What Was Needed”

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NOTE – My three Advent sermons are connected through the ministry of the Prophet Isaiah and function to describe a particular kind of advent longing through the experience of protest, grief, and action. They are usefully read together and in order: Advent Protest: The Court of Last Resort; followed by Advent Grief: Enough is Enough; and Advent Action: Stepping Up. Thus may we prepare the way of the one who is always coming.

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