What Commission? Kerner Then, Ferguson Today

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Pictures by Marquisha Lawrence, Korla Masters, and Dean Rev. Dr. Deborah Krause.

Today on Monday, February 29, 2016, I co-created a worship service and preached a sermon with the help of a group of people I call “Team Karen.” These are people who have been formative through my years at Eden Theological Seminary through their presence, their ideas, and their friendship. You will see their names in the notes below.

I was mindful that on this day in history, the Kerner Commission gave its report. It was a commission that sought to answer the question of “what happened” and “how can it not happen again” in response to the Detroit uprisings. It spoke boldly about the role of white supremacy in creating poverty and violence (none of the “naming racism is racism” nonsense) and the importance of action to change the untenable course of America toward two societies: one black, one white, separate but unequal. In Ferguson is America: Roots of Rebellion, Jamala Rogers reminds us that the Kerner Commission has words that ring true today and if we are to do anything to change America’s racism, the recommendations of the Kerner Report are a good place to start. It is troubling that even in the conclusion of the Kerner Report, Dr. Kenneth B. Clark says that its words are a kind of Alice in Wonderland– America has heard such words before and not heeded them, and the sick cycle of analysis, recommendation, and inaction is a moving picture reel that rolls over and over again, as more and more people suffer and die… Lyndon B. Johnson failed to enact the recommendations of the Kerner Report, and shortly after the report, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The whole damn system is indeed guilty as hell.

Last week, the Ferguson Commission gave a report at the St. Louis Public Library. I was not able to be there, so please comment below if you were there with your thoughts. In any case, as I was reading the Commission report, I was struck by the 21st century tone and approach to the commission task. It was not an effort to ask “what happened” (with regard to an event) or “how can it not happen again,” but more an effort to open conversations and uplift stories and research about issues that came to the forefront as a result of the Ferguson uprising. It acknowledged that commissions in the past have been ineffective (often citing Lindsey Lupo’s book Flak-Catchers:One Hundred Years
of Riot Commission Politics in America), but that this commission would be an ongoing effort to tackle the underlying issues contributing to the uprising, though it lacks adequate legislative power to implement such changes.

In short, as an older man notes in Dr. Gunning Francis’ Ferguson and Faith, “The young people have done it!”– they have riveted the world’s attention to a place called Ferguson and made it transcend itself, transformed it into a symbol and microcosm of America’s wounds and traumas, its violence and its sins, its pockets of survival and resistance… It felt more truthful to say that today’s John the Baptist is Joshua Williams because isn’t setting a Quiktrip on fire a form of shouting in the wilderness? In the eyes of many in white America, isn’t private property just as sacred, if not more sacred than our temples and churches? Isn’t the right to private property not enshrined in our nation’s Bible, the Constitution? In any case, I was tasked with preaching, and I didn’t feel like arguing.

So I wrestled with the questions:

In this time of voices and tensions and commissions, what is our commission (call)?

What costs are associated with change?

What is sacred and life-giving in a world full of violence and death?

I didn’t answer all of these questions directly, but I walked toward them. Here is what I came up with…

Bulletin

Monday, February 29, 2016

WELCOME TO THE EDEN CHAPEL

Whatever your faith tradition,

whatever your culture and race,

whatever your age, orientation, or differing abilities,

whatever has happened up until now,

may this be a place of grace and healing for you.

 *“Place in the Sun” by Stevie Wonder – Eliza Lynn
(acc. Brett Palmer, Jacob Poindexter, Donita Bauer)

*Centering Prayer – Sarah Dierker

Readings from the Signs of the Times

Kerner Commission Reading – Brett Palmer

Ferguson Commission Reading – Tracey Wolff

*Gospel Readings

Mark 11:12-14 (CEB) – Michael Atty

Luke 13:6-9 (CEB) – Valerie Jackson

Sermon – Karen Yang

*“The Axe Shall be Laid to the Root of the Tree”– Youvette Bland (acc. Brett Palmer, Jacob Poindexter, Donita Bauer)

Announcements – Gershon Dotse

*Benediction – Karen Yang

*Please rise in body or spirit.

Our thanks to our worship leaders:

Chapel Assistant: Gershon Dotse

Bell Ringer: Lucas Williams

Bulletins: Laura Oesterle

Place in the Sun” – Stevie Wonder lyrics

Like a long lonely stream
I keep runnin’ towards a dream
Movin’ on, movin’ on
Like a branch on a tree
I keep reachin’ to be free
Movin’ on, movin’ on

‘Cause there’s a place in the sun
Where there’s hope for ev’ryone
Where my poor restless heart’s gotta run
There’s a place in the sun
And before my life is done
Got to find me a place in the sun

Like an old dusty road
I get weary from the load
Movin’ on, movin’ on
Like this tired troubled earth
I’ve been rollin’ since my birth
Movin’ on, movin’ on

There’s a place in the sun
Where there’s hope for ev’ryone
Where my poor restless heart’s gotta run
There’s a place in the sun
And before my life is done
Got to find me a place in the sun

You know when times are bad
And you’re feeling sad
I want you to always remember

Yes, there’s a place in the sun
Where there’s hope for ev’ryone
Where my poor restless heart’s gotta run
There’s a place in the sun
Where there’s hope for ev’ryone
Where my poor restless heart’s gotta run
There’s a place in the sun
Where there’s hope for ev’ryone…

Service Outline:

Greeters – Rebecca Mularski, Tracey Wolff

Welcome – Michael Atty 10:00-10:01

WELCOME TO THE EDEN CHAPEL

Whatever your faith tradition,

whatever your culture and race,

whatever your age, orientation, or differing abilities,

whatever has happened up until now,

may this be a place of grace and healing for you.

Will you join me in traveling back in time to the sixties for “Place in the Sun” by Stevie Wonder?

 *Song – “Place in the Sun” by Stevie Wonder – Eliza Lynn (acc. Brett Palmer, Jacob Poindexter, Donita Bauer)10:01-10:03

*Collect – Sarah Dierker 10:03-10:04

Will you join me in a spirit of prayer and contemplation?

[centering prayer, setting aside burdens to be open in this space, written by Sarah, punctuated by ringing a singing bowl]

Please be seated.

Kerner Commission Reading – Brett Palmer 10:04-10:06

A reading from the signs of the times, according to the Kerner Commission on this day in 1968.

“The summer of 1967 again brought racial disorders to American cities, and with them shock, fear and bewilderment to the nation.

The worst came during a two-week period in July, first in Newark and then in Detroit. Each set off a chain reaction in neighboring communities.

On July 28, 1967, the President of the United States estab­lished this Commission and directed us to answer three basic questions:

What happened?

Why did it happen?

What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

To respond to these questions, we have undertaken a broad range of studies and investigations. We have visited the riot cities; we have heard many witnesses; we have sought the counsel of experts across the country.            .

This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal.

[…]

What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget–is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.

It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation. It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress. It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens-urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group.”

Ferguson Commission Reading – Tracey Wolff 10:06-10:07

A reading from the signs of the times, according to the Ferguson Commission of today.

“This report is […] a hard look at some hard truths. It is confronting our reality.

Governor Jay Nixon’s executive order establishing the Ferguson Commission stated:“[T]he unrest and public discourse set in motion by the events of August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri underscore the need for a thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality and safety in the St. Louis region.”

So often when we talk about our region’s struggles, we flinch. We avoid talking about race, or poverty, or other factors that might make us uncomfortable, even though addressing those issues head-on is what is needed to move forward.

The Ferguson Commission has embraced the call to be “unflinching.””

Please rise for the reading of the Gospels.

*Mark 11:12-14 (CEB) Gospel Reading – Michael Atty 10:07-10:08

A reading from the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Mark. This is WHAT HAPPENED between Jesus and a fig tree.

12 The next day, after leaving the village of Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 From far away, he noticed a fig tree in leaf, so he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it and he found nothing except leaves, since it wasn’t the season for figs. 14 So he said to it, “No one will eat your fruit ever again!” And his disciples heard this.

[Valerie playfully pushes Michael aside to offer her interpretation. Michael acts annoyed.]

*Luke 13:6-9 (CEB) Gospel Reading – Valerie Jackson 10:08-10:09

A reading from the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to Luke. This is A STORY that Jesus TOLD about a fig tree.

Jesus told this story: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”

[Pause]

Please be seated for the interpretation of the Readings.

Sermon – Karen Yang 10:09-10:19

*Song – “The Axe Shall be Laid to the Root of the Tree” – Youvette Bland (acc. Brett Palmer, Jacob Poindexter, Donita Bauer) 10:19-10:23

Announcements – Gershon Dotse 10:23-10:24

*Benediction – Karen Yang 10:24-10:25

Sermon:

Luke tells a good story, but I love that Mark’s Jesus gets hangry. Can someone help me out, what does hangry mean? Exactly, hungry and angry, or angry because you’re hungry. I love that Mark’s Jesus gets hangry because whether you’re hungry for food or hungry for justice, there is something about hunger that makes us all a little less respectable. Gives us a fire in our belly. Reminds us to fight for what we need.

Jesus was hungry and he wanted figs and when he didn’t find them, he didn’t care that that the fig tree was out of season so he screamed at the tree, “No one will eat your fruit ever again!”

Later Mark says that the fig tree withered and died…

…and I wonder why Jesus had to scream at it, after all, it was only out of season, and Jesus, if you just waited a little longer, now’s not the time, but can we talk about it later?

Jesus, just wait a little longer, maybe later you can come back and get some figs, but not now…

I know you’re hungry, but no figs, Jesus, not now. I know you’re tired, but no figs, Jesus, not now. I know that figs mean blessing and the sun-kissed children of God are tired, and hungry, and poor, but no figs, Jesus, not now.

[Look at congregation]

Tell me, what did Jesus want? Figs. When did he want them? NOW. On the streets, from Ferguson to Palestine, people chant: What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? NOW.

Jesus’ hungry anger is a holy anger. After all, the Gospel of Mark begins with John baptizing people in the wilderness. John’s baptisms are a protest filled with people who are fleeing the religious establishment to make community and search for the sacred in the wilderness. John the Baptist is a voice shouting in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.” He is a voice singing in the streets, “What a time to be alive! The revolution has come.” When John the Baptist is arrested for protesting, Jesus takes his place in the Movement. Being hangry is about survival. It’s about affirming that one’s hunger to live matters and deserves to be satisfied… now. Ultimately, being hangry is about affirming the holiness of our humanity.

In contrast to Mark’s version of what happened between Jesus and a fig tree, Luke’s story seems watered down. According to Luke, Jesus isn’t hangry and doesn’t curse fig trees for failing to bear fruit in the wrong season—that’d be ridiculous! Instead, Jesus is a patient storyteller with reasonable advice. If a fig tree hasn’t been fruitful for three years, maybe add some fertilizer to the soil, and wait a year before deciding to cut it down.

Yes, the fig tree is unfruitful. That is a real concern, but just wait, invest where you are now, and be patient. Work with what you have. If you cut the fig tree down right away, it might even grow back up. You’re a vineyard owner, for goodness sake, think long-term. The fig tree can work as a trellis for the grapes, and speaking of grapes, why are you so worried about figs when you have so many grapes? Make your living in the meantime, after all, grapes are as much a sign of blessing as figs… maybe the best revenge is your paper.

The tensions between Mark and Luke reflect tensions we see today. Between protesting in streets full of tear gas and studying the issues that come to public awareness as a result of such uprisings. Between local uprisings and a unified Movement. Between resisting traditional political processes and pushing establishment candidates. Between fighting for power and fighting for rights. The list goes on and on.

It’s easy to be discouraged by such conflict—aren’t we all in this together? Isn’t that why the Apostle Paul asks the early Jesus movement community in Philippi, “complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other?”

Haha, good one, Paul. Communities that contain people that think the same way are few and far between. And forcing people to subscribe to the same ideology can become a form of abuse.

But Paul is right in saying that there is joy that comes when people share the same love and can be united in agreement of that love. For all of the tensions between Mark and Luke, they do agree on one thing: the fig tree is unfruitful, so something needs to change, and that change needs to happen now. While Mark’s Jesus immediately curses the fig tree, Luke agrees that after one year, if the tree doesn’t bear fruit, cut it down. If we don’t get figs, cut it down. Mark’s Jesus says, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.” Luke’s Jesus replies, “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”

If we love our neighbors who are hungry for justice, we must be united in our agreement that there are many living systems that promise blessing and life, but are unfruitful. At best, these systems deplete our resources and at worst, they kill our kin. As long as these systems of white supremacy stay standing, we have unfinished business. In the words of the Kerner report, “It is time to adopt strategies for action that will produce quick and visible progress” and it is time to make good on our promises. In the spirit of the Ferguson report, so often when we think about investing in disinvested areas or laying our axe at the root of the tree, we flinch. We avoid talking about it, even though addressing the issues head-on is what is needed to move forward. Whether it’s shoveling manure or picking up an axe, we must embrace the call to be unflinching.

Mark’s account of hangry Jesus and the fig tree tells us the good news that justice has no season because it is Kairos time, it is magic time, it is the time when we are bold to demand that the powers and principalities recognize our humanity, and that they recognize it now and tremble! Justice has no season because we are commissioned in every season to be a student of Jesus and one another, to learn how we can better love one another every day.

Luke’s story about the vineyard owner and gardener tells us the good news that we have life in the meantime, when we are still in the struggle, during the already, but not yet. In the meantime, we are called to roll our sleeves and get familiar with the sweat and tears, the muck and the dirt, the joy and the pain of caring for one another. It’s not glamorous, but it is good.

In the words of Stevie Wonder, there’s a place in the sun, where there’s hope for everyone, where our poor, restless hearts can be free. I know you’re tired, but will you go with me?

Benediction

I grew up with a fig tree in my backyard. Some of my favorite memories were climbing in its branches to watch the birds, looking over my neighbor’s yards, eating the fresh figs, and most of all, playing. In the summer, my sister and her friends would come over, and we’d all climb the tree and pretend we were flying a plane to Australia, with our stuffed animals and our guinea pigs. When I grew older, I started going inside to play mom and fill spoons with icing, or honey, or jam, and call my sister and her friends over to the back door to eat “spoon pops.”

Inspired by these memories, my benediction is this:

Friends, the axe is at the root of the tree. May you practice reckless imagination and sweet hospitality. And may you have the strength to climb higher and higher until you reach your place in the sun. Amen.

“A Place in the Sun” with Lyrics

“A Place in the Sun” with Stevie Wonder

To support Eliza Lynn’s music, please visit: http://www.elizalynn.com/
  Buy her music and stay tuned for her shows.

To put the axe at the root of the tree, please support:
Organization for Black Struggle
Hands Up United
Palestine Solidarity Committee
Latinos En Axion STL
Baitul-Mal
Fight for 15
MORE
Solidarity Economy STL

Other thanks:
Josh Gibson for switching sermon dates with me.
Sarah Dierker for writing the centering prayer.
Youvette Bland for matching “The Axe is Laid at the Foot of the Tree” to the Scriptures.
Eliza Lynn and her mother for thinking of “Place in the Sun” by Stevie Wonder.
Kyle Chears for playing drums.
Stephen Stark for telling me to breathe. Just breathe.
Gershon Dotse for filming my sermon.
Marquisha Lawrence for pre-listening to my sermon before her bedtime.
Harrison Sand for helping me to bring the good news out of the Gospel readings.
Mama Chengfen Frances Yang for giving me the spirit of the benediction.
Jessica Yang, Rebecca Mularski, Amy Stark, Chelsey Hillyer for moral support.
Eliza Lynn, Sourik Beltran, Jenny Gates, Jake Lyonfelds for going out of their way to come to this service.
Jamala Rogers and Tef Poe for their prophecy.
Rev. Dr. Damayanthi Niles for teaching me to love my Asian self.
Rev. Dr. Mai-Anh Le Tran for challenging me.
Dr. Leah Gunning Francis for helping me to see kairos time.
Dean Rev. Dr. Deborah Krause for being an example for going into the streets.
My elders and ancestors who were farmers.
And more…

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