Sermon for Sybrina Fulton

from Psalm 43

Do me justice, O God, and fight my fight

against a faithless people;

from the deceitful and impious man rescue me.

For you, O God, are my strength;

why do you keep me so far away?

Why must I go on mourning

with the enemy oppressing me?

Dear Sybrina,

You seem to me devout in your faith, but I’m not much of a church-going woman.  I wanted to tell you I attended services this morning with my husband. I didn’t know what else to do.

Because I spent last night weeping for your dead son.

No, not for Trayvon Martin, your boy I never knew, your boy who everybody now claims to know, your mythologized boy whose broken body you healed in his boyhood.  I cannot know or pretend to know your mother’s grief.

I spent last night weeping:

I wept out of shame, because our country disappointed me so badly that I wasn’t sure I could ever love it again.  Because our country owes you an apology.  Because our country should get on its bony knees and repent.

I wept for my students, especially my male students, because I know as only a teacher and parent of teenage boys knows such things that they are still learning how to become men. Seventeen year old boys can’t always tell when to play aggressive and when to play calm, when to push back at the world as they will inevitably have to do, when to puff their chests, and when to run.  They might choose poorly, and adults are meant to protect them by choosing wisely.

I wept because I had a poet’s words in my head the sadness lives in the recognition that a life can not matter.  Because I helped raise that poet’s daughter, a daughter with a black mother and a white father.  Because once, while she sat in the bathtub and I on the toilet holding her towel, she said, “I am dark like Mama and you are light like Papa.”  And I told her, “Yes.  But it doesn’t matter.”  Because I’m afraid I lied to her and that it does matter and that I knew I was lying and because maybe I was afraid to say it mattered because I didn’t want to “see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky.”

I wept because I am a woman, and therefore, I too know the world is a dangerous, unjust place.  Because I know the endangered can never explain to those people who have always been safe just how dangerous.  Because I am a woman and people might excuse violence against me because of the body I was born into, because of what clothes I might wear, or where I might walk at night, or because I might respond to a predator with something less than deference.

I wept because people have guns who do not need guns.  Because those people often think they’ll be better than their darkest anxieties and fears, their most deeply embedded biases. Because that’s the worst kind of arrogance: to assume we can see, name, and control the violence inside us.

I wept because Florida decided that a man can lynch another man and hide the word “lynch” from the world–and worse still from himself–inside legalese.

I wept because on Day 23 of the trial you tweeted You can break a woman down temporarily but a real woman will always pick up the pieces rebuild herself and come back stronger than ever. Because I hope you’re right, but I’m not sure.

I wept and I wept.

When I arose from all that weeping, like I said, I went to church.  The Gospel reading for today came from Luke, the tale of the Good Samaritan.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He said to him, “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with your soul and with all your strength, and with all your heart; and your neighbor as yourself.

Your neighbor as yourself.  Your neighbor.  Your neighbor.

Amen.

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Sermon for Sandy Hook

I couldn’t write this sermon over the weekend.  I didn’t trust my own overwrought emotions in the wake of news from Newtown, Connecticut.  I wanted to write about that horrific event, but I also wanted to avoid overt anger, unchecked sadness, sentimentality, or a callow analysis of what went wrong–all things I’ve been guilty of in the last 72 hours as I attempt to get my head around children getting murdered.

Today, I write this with a no less heavy heart, but with what I hope resembles composure.  Also, what I want to write about has changed.

I wanted to write about what I believe contributed to the shootings, to write about any of the following:

1) our absurd justifications that, no matter how well articulated they may be by lawyers or NRA reps, still insist that our Second Amendment rights trump children’s lives*;

2) what my friend and colleague described to me as “the unspoken pain of the American experience”;

3) what progressive theologian Walter Wink called the “myth of redemptive violence” in our major religious and cultural stories;

4) the travesty that is our mental health care system; or

5) our gendered culture and how dangerous it is for how it alienates and abuses young men as much as young women

I could sermonize about any and all those things at the drop of a hat.  But then my topic came to me instead from Facebook.  One of my “friends” posted the following meme as a response to the tragedy on her Facebook wall:

 

So, today, in honor of Sandy Hook–its fallen students and teachers–I’d like to write about separation of Church and state, about prayer in schools,  because of all the ridiculously stupid things to blame for Friday’s tragedy the secular nature of our public school system strikes me as the lamest and, ironically, the most violent and dishonorable too.

We don’t need the prayers of any particular religion in schools because prayer already exists in school.  School is prayer.  A school is a kind of church, a sacred place where diligent, caring, inspired, and humble souls do God’s holiest of work.  I say this without the thinnest trace of self-aggrandizement or shame.  I am a teacher.  My husband is a teacher.   We both could have been lawyers, doctors, business people.  We did not “fall” into teaching.  We chose it.  We chose it because we have a brand of faith that lives right up against religious faith; no one could do our job without it.  Trust me.

Of the many names given to Jesus in the New Testament, one often used was “teacher”, from both the Greek didaskalos and the Aramaic robbouni, used by Mary Magdalene in John 20:16 and translated literally as “great teacher.”  And in Mark 13-16, Jesus said to his disciples:

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”

If there is any place in our secularized society that God lives, it must be in the schools.  Anyone who doesn’t know this already isn’t paying attention, and perhaps should look toward his own home, his neighborhood, his television if he suspects a lack of holiness in his child.

Like many teachers across the country, I walk into my school today with new eyes, my chest like a taut balloon filled to the popping point.  “Hi, Ms. Fleming,” some students call from their little territories in the library.  Some have commandeered the island near the magazines, others the cave under the stairwell, marking their spots in even this small world.  They smile widely, unaffected by three-day old news as children tend to be.  Most of them can’t see further back than breakfast.  “Hi,” I say back and try to look them directly in the eye.  With my eyes, I am trying to say I love you.  I am trying to say I’ll step in front of a gun for you.  I am trying to say thank you.   I am praying.

So are they, which is precisely what makes the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary so chilling for me.  Adam Lanza walked into–not a mere school–a temple with three guns and mountains of rage.

All day long I watch students send up tiny prayers, little feathers of devotion the wind catches and carries.  They are trying to find out.  They want to know.   Who am I?  Where do I come from?  Why am I here? They ask the questions religion asks under microscopes and scalpels, on canvases and musical instruments, on three-point lines and stages, in syntax and 10th grade vocabulary words like sanctimonious, sadistic, solace.

The boy in sweatpants furrowing his brow over an algebra formula on his final examination.

Lord hear our prayer.

The girl who asks the student in the corner, alone, to join her and her friends at Whataburger for lunch.

Lord hear our prayer.

The English teacher who writes “nice metaphor” in the blank margin of a C student’s essay.

Lord hear our prayer.

The cafeteria worker who has the Chinese symbol for “hope” tattooed behind her ear.

Lord hear our prayer. 

The 14 year old dyslexic boy who cracks open the spine of a dictionary to look up “mortality”.

Lord hear our prayer.

The baby children who like stickers on their quizzes and practice looping their g’s and q’s.

Lord hear our prayer.

The security guard who waves traffic-weary parents into a carpool line.

Lord hear our prayer.

The brown-haired beauty who starts her personal essay with the confession, “Sometimes I make myself throw up.”

Lord hear our prayer.

All of the students and teachers bent over books or lifting their chins toward a midday sun that rips through the classroom window, their silken heads tilted toward the great mysteries of life, of which there are so, so many.

Lord hear our prayer.

 

Amen.

 

 

*In all this talk of semi-automatic rifles and mental illness, people forget that ALL guns are designed to kill.  No one has remembered to mention in all the newspaper catalogues of recent gun tragedies Trayvon Martin, also a child, also murdered with a gun to which no one with the savior complex or xenophobia of George Zimmerman should ever have access.