This past week, while on vacation, I did something I’ve never done before.
I packed everything I thought I might need, including a tent, into a backpack
and set out across the Scottish highlands
where a friend and I hiked up into the shadow of CairnGorm Mountain
(the second highest mountain in Scotland)
along a small, flowing stream into the hills.
There’s a reason that nobody really lives in the highlands of Scotland.
They look really nice from a distance --
with the purple heather on the hills and all that --
but when you’re actually up in them,
the heather creates this kind of spongey surface on the ground
that you can’t really walk on without risking one of your feet falling into a big hole
and possibly breaking your ankle.
The going’s pretty rough without a path,
and our path was less of a path, and more of some rocks
that had been thrown together in a path-like-shape.
As we climbed up through this rising valley between the peaks,
it started to rain really hard,
so that the path we were on turned into more of a stream,
with deep rivers of water flowing beneath us
and lots of places that looked solid until you stepped in them
and found out actually they weren’t.
We emerged at the top at a silent, shimmering lake,
with no one around for miles
and the wind blowing hard and cold.
It’s not a very hospitable environment,
yet my friend managed, during a break from the rain,
to get the tent up, and that night, with dry clothes on,
we slept warm and dry and secure in this...dwelling place
that he had made
as the wind howled around us.
How lovely is your dwelling place, Oh God.
That’s how this psalm begins.
It’s a psalm about the home --
or a kind of home --
that we find in God.
A home that we can imagine in God’s temple,
where there’s even a place, up high in the rafters
for the sparrows and the swallows.
But it seems as well
that this temple, this dwelling place of God
is more than the building itself,
but as one scholar put it,
“the community of God’s people in and with whom God is present.”
Not just a building, but a community.
Happy are those who live in God’s house --
Happy are those who find a dwelling place with God.
High in the mountains of Scotland,
I was far from home:
far from my little apartment in Brooklyn with its warm bed
and accompanying cat.
But strangely, I found that I felt at home in that little tent.
I was at home wherever I was, because God was there with me.
And being warm and dry didn’t hurt.
On the mountain, I thought of those who don’t have a home.
Not a house or apartment or even a tent,
but make their homes instead in doorways or subway stations
or on heating grates in our city.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young.
This morning the New York Times told one piece of the story of Ms. Alyce Herndon
who moved to Ferguson, Missouri in 2003,
“because she felt it was a good community,
safer than the...portion of the [nearby] county where [she] lived previously
and with better schools for her children.”
Ms. Herndon, an African American woman, and her family
had previously lived in Jennings, where in the mid-1970’s white neighbors
in her primarily white neighborhood
had stuck an afro pick in her lawn and set it on fire.
We might imagine that Ms. Herndon moved to Ferguson
because, like the swallow of Psalm 84,
she was looking for a safe place to build a nest for her young.
She was looking for a dwelling place,
where she might nurture her family in peace and safely.
She now lives on a multicultural block in a town that seems to offer everything --
shops and restaurants.
But Ferguson, as the nation has learned this week,
is burdened by a legacy of racial conflict and tension
set off by the shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager
killed by police, apparently for walking in the middle of the street.
The Times writes of a town stricken with white flight,
where the population is predominantly black but the power structures are still white.
“Although about two-thirds of Ferguson residents are black,”
writes the Times,
“its mayor and five of its six City Council members are white.
Only three of the town’s 53 police officers are black.”
We’ve been talking a lot about race at St. Lydia’s over the last two or so years.
It’s a conversation that I feel is important to our congregation’s spiritual well-being,
and it’s a conversation that must be ongoing.
About a year ago in Theology Circle
we read womanist scholar Delores Williams’ book, Sister’s in the Wilderness.
In it, Williams makes the case that the modern day treatment of African Americans in our country
means that African Americans live in constant “threat of death-dealing circumstances.”
This “discouraging of black progress,” adds up to something
that some, she tells us, are labeling genocide.
“Recently I heard a Harlem, New York, woman describe what she called 'genocide, American style.' She said,
'You close off opportunities for people through inadequate and inappropriate education, which therefore renders them unemployable. You take away their housing and they become beggars on the street. You give them a historical memory of organized white violence breaking into their communities and killing them at will, and the courts not prosecuting white violence against black people. You constantly harass them through police brutality...You make sure the people in the community cannot accumulate wealth because you shut off their access to financing and to borrowing power from banks. You introduce a system of welfare that breaks up the home and devalues black fatherhood. You control the media so that black people are projected as criminals and the general public gets the idea that black people are morally depraved...American power structures can then say, ‘black people did it to themselves; they committed suicide.’ Therefore, the charge of genocide is not made against the State, even though the State has been one of the chief architects of black hopelessness and death.'”
The chief architects of black hopelessness and death.
I know that not one of us in this room
actively seeks to be an architect of hopelessness or death.
But I also know with just as much certainty,
that the house in which we all live, every one of us,
is constructed by those powers --
built by the architect of hopelessness and death.
Constructed with the matierials of violence and oppression toward black people.
All of us in this country live within the lines of the same blueprint.
The difference is that living in this house --
in this dwelling place --
is much more death-dealing for some people than for others.
And those death-dealing experiences are doled out based on skin color.
I did not move to Ferguson in 2003 to make a home for my family like Alyce Herndon did.
But if I did, I can assure you, that neither I,
nor any son of mine with light skin like mine,
would be murdered in the manner Michael Brown was.
It is not one cop.
It is not one town.
It is the architecture of our nation.
It is the dwelling place
that offers no place --
no beams or rafters or security
for our children of darker hue
to be at home
to build a nest,
to live in safety.
I know that it can feel hopeless
to face the reality of the blueprint we’ve all inherited.
To see the truth of this house we all live in together.
For those of us who are not people of color, it can be tempting to turn away.
There are others who do not have such a choice.
In the midst of this, it feels to me, so often, like anything I might have to offer is very, very small.
Community organizer Saul Alinsky acknowledges this feeling,
writing that our pursuit of justice is like climbing a mountain --
but the climb never ends.*
You never arrive -- you just have to be sure to get enough rest along the way.
So bring a good strong tent.
And make yourself a dwelling place, right there on the side of the mountain.
The Psalmist writes that she would rather stand in the threshold of God’s house
than live in the tents of wickedness.
And I think that quite often
standing at the threshold is the closest we ever get,
at least in this world.
We may never make it into God’s house --
we’ve inherited so much from a very different kind of architect --
but just because a step is small
doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.
The Psalmist talks about walking “upright,”
or some translations say, “with integrity.”
The word in Hebrew, tamim, means
“whole, entire, complete.”
Though the architecture we live in may be death-dealing,
I believe that we can learn to walk in ways that are life-giving.
We can walk in ways that are whole.
Ways that are full.
Walk in ways that give life rather than take it away.
So tonight we’re walking.
After tonight’s service I am going to light a vigil candle
and invite anyone who would like to to walk with me --
to walk around our neighborhood
in witness to the injustice of the architecture
which is just a present here in Brooklyn New York
as it is in Ferguson, Missouri.
We walk knowing that we’re not whole yet,
we’re not complete yet,
we don’t have all the answers,
but God is in the midst of moving us there.
We walk knowing that in doing so we will not fix the architecture,
but will at least draw attention to the fact that it is broken.
We walk to practice remembering that justice and mercy come first.
We walk to witness to our neighborhood that we remember
that justice and mercy come first.
We’re not walking far, and we’re not walking long,
but at least we’re taking some steps toward the dwelling place of God.
Toward building a nation where black teenagers
can make a visit to the corner store
and not be treated as criminals.
We’re taking steps -- just a few --
through the threshold
and gazing into the house of God.
*Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky, 1971