Sermon for Sunday, December 7
You don't know me, and I don't really know you, but I know who you are. I guess pretty much everyone in American can say they know who you are by now. Like me, they’ve seen pictures of you leaving the funeral of your son, Tamir Rice, who was shot to death November 22. Although, “shot to death” makes his passing sound fast and probably painless. In fact, after the bullets entered his belly, Tamir lived for 24 more hours before he died. I pray, Samaria, that he did not feel pain during that long day. Like I said, you don't know me, and I don't really know you, but I can guess that you are feeling pain, unspeakable pain, and that you will for a while. It looks from the pictures I’ve seen like you have people to surround you now, and love you and hold you up and I pray for your friends, also, that they can be strong and loving and patient with you in the days and months to come.
I don't know you, Samaria, but this is what they say about you. They say you were a drug dealer, that your husband beat you and so did the boyfriend who moved in after your husband took off. They say these things grasping for ways to understand. As if by growing up accustomed to violence there might be a reason, any reason at all, why your twelve year old son was killed less than two seconds after contact by a police officer responding to a 911 call about a black male with a gun. That black male was your son, Tamir. He was 12 years old and his gun was a toy.
I’m thinking about you as my small family and I go about our Christmas traditions. They are not big or exciting, these traditions. We put up a tiny tree and we decorate it, we watch Charlie Brown Christmas, and instead of baking cookies, we boil spaghetti noodles and heat red sauce from a jar in honor of my mother in law, who was not renowned for her cooking and who made spaghetti as her fancy meal every Christmas eve.
And I think about you and wonder what your traditions with Tamir were, try to imagine what you are feeling as you step into each hour, each day, knowing that you will not share this season, or any season, again with him.
I’m thinking about you as we go about our Christmas traditions here at church too, one of which is to hear story of a madman in the desert, calling all to repent, to turn from sin to make room for Christ. John did not call people one by one, but all together, all at once. He is calling us, too, Samaria. Not, as theologian Karoline Lewis writes, “for our own individual sins which we know are many and perhaps easier to admit because we can keep them to ourselves.” John calls us “to repent of our communal sin, our national sin, our global sin, in the presence of one another.”
And his words sound more urgent and true this year than ever before. Because what is Christmas but another story of a mother, and of a son born in hope but lost too soon, killed at the hands of the authorities who feared him?
Heartbreak comes early, long before Jesus is grown up and put to death on the cross. Because just after the baby is born in the manger into poverty and uncertainty, but visited by kings and shepherds alike… Just after the child is greeted, as all children born are surely greeted, by angels singing… Just after that story comes this one. A man in power, a king, will run rampant and will have all the sons killed, because he fears them.
And the scripture will wail, "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
I’m thinking about you, Samaria, and about how right around the time that someone was calling 911 to report that your son had a toy gun at a park, I was at home clicking this link someone sent me on the internet, an ad from a British grocery store chain, ofall things, remembering the Christmas Truce of 1914.
The ad is like a tiny 3-and-half minute documentary. It shows British soldiers under loops of barbed wire, shivering in the snow and damp of open trenches. It’s mail call and a young man named Jim opens a package containing a photo and a bar of chocolate. There are brief smiles that get bigger as he first hears and then joins in the song of the German voices coming across the fields. We hear Silent Night in two languages as dawn breaks. Jim, moved by the music and maybe the first rays of the sun, raises his arms in the air, climbs out of the trench and under the barbed wire and starts to move across the field. At first, the other side threatens to shoot, but then one German solider named Otto realizes that Jim is unarmed and calls a halt to shooting. Everyone puts down their guns as the two youngsters clamber thru the barbed wire and across the winter field to meet with a handshake. Then, before you know it, all the men are out of the tranches, taking pictures, one British fellow giving a German soldier a shave and haircut using a long straight razor. Without sharing language they share photos and schnapps and even a game of (football). Before long, the guns sound again and the men rush back to the their separate trenches. But then Otto finds a chocolate bar in his coat pocket – Jim had slipped it to him somehow. And both men smile.
I watched that video, and then I showed it to my son. Have I mentioned my son? I guess not. He is 12 years old, too, like Tamir. His name is Elijah. And after he watched the video, Elijah asked, “Well they must have ended the war then, right? After that happened? The war was over then, right?”
And I had to tell him, no, the Christmas truce of 1914 was just four months into the war, a million young men had already died in battle and it would drag on for several more years after that. We’ve worked so hard to keep Elijah safe, shield and protect him but still somehow he has to learn that the-world-is-a-dangerous place and we parcel out that information bit by bit. I don't know you, Samaria, but I’m guessing you did not have the privilege of withholding that piece of information from Tamir. I’m guessing that your son knew that the world was a dangerous place already.
Well, anyway, I think about the Christmas truce way back in 1914, 100 years ago, and I think about you and me. See, those soldiers in the trenches – they had way more in common with each other than they did with their families back home (who were rationing coal, but at least had a small fire to sit around). And they even had more in common with each other than they did with their superiors back at headquarters.
They want us to be enemies, Samaria. You - a black drug dealer with an order from a judge to complete a GED. And me – an overeducated white suburban woman. It’s in the best interest of those in power, we are learning, if we stay far apart from each other. It’s their best interest to keep us afraid of one another. It’s in their best interest if we never climb out of our trenches, climb under the barbed wire, and meet one another on the common ground of our grief, our hope and our outrage, on the common ground of what Peacebang describes as “listening, witnessing, mourningand embracing.”
My heart is broken open, and it hurts, because 12 year old Elijah lives and 12 year old Tamir does not. And that broken heart moves my feet to take those steps out of the trenches, around the wires, across the frozen ground. I don't know what those steps will look like, Samaria, but I’m taking them. Taking steps to repent of the racism and injustice that I know I carry within me as a person of privilege. Taking steps so that my white son will make the world better than he found it, not worse. Taking steps so that not children die in the park, or on the street or in their homes. Taking steps so that, I can – in humility and with the greatest respect – hear your pain and carry it along with you, if you’ll let me.
Dear Samaria, 100 years ago young men in the line of fire just a few years older than our boys stopped fighting and started singing. That song led to a shaky handshake and even a sort of friendship. And peace happened, just like that. In our memories and in commercials, this can make the work of peace seem sweet and easy. But of course it is not. Those steps I’m talking about – I make as many back as I do forward.
Peace is not the easy way, violence is.
Peace is the difficult way,
but I’m choosing it in remembrance of Tamir and in honor of you.
The way is difficult, but it starts with prayer, and with the first steps. 100 years ago, the old carol, Silent Night, it was a first step. It was a small thing, but it held enough power to stop guns. So, here are the first steps I’m taking, Samaria. When I hear the song Silent Night this Christmas season – on some store’s loudspeaker or coming across the radio or in my own sweet church - I'm hearing it as John’s voice and I’m stopping to repent, pray for you and for our boys and for all of us that we might cross no woman’s land and one day meet there in the middle. It’s not enough, not nearly enough. But it is a start. And my prayer is that from those first steps, we will, all of us, be shown the next and the next and the next.
Your sister on the journey,
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round ‘yon virgin, Mother and child
Holy infant, so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace.