I’ve been in New York at The Riverside Church now for about five months, trying to learn the ropes in a beautiful, amazing congregation with such an incredible history.
The adjustment has been exciting and, if I’m being honest, deeply terrifying on some levels. Standing in the pulpit where voices like Martin Luther King, Jr.; William Sloan Coffin, James Forbes — not to mention luminaries like Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama have spoken — it’s daunting to say the least.
So I’ve been adjusting this fall, trying to get to know the incredible people and traditions of this great institution. And I was working pretty steadily toward that end until a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri decided there would be no trial for officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed 18 year old Michael Brown.
Everything began to change for me in that moment, because the day-to-day work of the pastorate became increasingly overshadowed by those questions of institutional integrity and relevance that we’re all asking and have been asking for some time. Is there a future for the church?
As I saw the tears and pain, grief and hopelessness of my congregation and community in response to events on the news, I kept being reminded: this is not a theoretical question anymore.
Shortly after that verdict was returned, I boarded a plane with some faith leaders from around the country and spent 24 hours in St. Louis, Missouri.
We gathered in a church basement, where we listened to young organizers talk about what they were doing and why. Their message was clear: the church is not showing up. The church has no relevance for me, for my life. All our potlucks and hospital visits and meticulously planned worship services are doing nothing to stop Michael Brown from dying in the middle of the street.
On the way back to the hotel we drove past the new police station. Outside the station, a row of national guardsmen in full riot gear lined up shoulder to shoulder holding automatic weapons and blocking entrance to the police station. Across a parking lot stood a small crowd of protestors who have determined not to stop showing up since August 9, 2014, when Michael Brown was killed.
It couldn’t have been more than 20 feet that separated the two groups, but it was clear that the space between them was filled by more than concrete. It was filled with dark, fomenting nights of tear gas and smashed in storefronts. It was filled with generations of misunderstanding and mistrust, with injustice born of ignorance, fear, hatred, and apathy, filled with the legacy of broken systems and broken families, filled with the memories of sons and fathers, mothers and daughters of both law enforcement and civilians alike who would never return home again.
That narrow gap of concrete held the original sin of our nation, and the sin of our fallen humanity, even the sin… of the church.
In a world that considers cathedrals of stone and even the pulpit where Dr. King spoke irrelevant, what is the future of the church?
I think that Jesus, having grown up going to Temple, had a high regard for the institution and the history and message it represented. Because when he got ready to start his ministry in earnest, he marched right into that storied institution and stood up to read ancient words that had, perhaps, become a little rote. They were the words of Isaiah, words about bringing good news to the poor, releasing the captives, letting the oppressed go free, ancient words of a prophet who believed that people of faith were just the ones to do that critical work.
And when Jesus finished reading the text says that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Maybe they all sat in silence, watching with skepticism because, like us, nobody there really believed those things could ever happen in that place with any integrity or power.
But Jesus just wasn’t buying that.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he declared, which seems to me to say: all the promise, possibility, and power of God’s invitation to reconciliation with the world is right here — you just heard it.
Fast forward 2000 years or so, and here we are again, hearing the ancient words of our holy text with dubious ears. Never mind young, secular organizers and protestors in Ferguson… even we don’t often buy the possibility of faith communities holding power for transformation.
It is easy for us to feel convicted to join a march for racial justice or the undocumented. But it’s harder to stand with protesters and reach out to the police department. It is harder for us to invite into covenant not just those churches we don’t know, but those very last churches we would want to be affiliated with. But we must stand in the gap because if the first time we are meeting those who are different from us is in the street in protest and anger after another tragedy, then we have failed.
The deep and foundational tragedy of Ferguson and New York and so many other places across our country is that people who live and work and raise families in the same neighborhoods do not know each other, do not understand each other, and therefore cannot love each other.
Whether our communities are plagued by gang violence or poverty, predatory lending or deportation threats, too many of our neighbors look at the hopelessness of the world around them and believe the words of Jesus can’t possibly be true. They believe there is no release for the captives, no sight for the blind. They believe this because we haven’t been there to show them any differently.
This is our Gospel mandate. We must come out of our pulpits and into the streets, into the gaps of broken relationship and broken trust. We must do the hard and beautiful work of building the beloved community. Amen.