A sermon by Kate Braestrup at Unitarian Univeralist First Church Boston, December 13, 2015
So, a young woman conceives and brings forth a baby. And the baby grows, and waxes strong in spirit, but one day, the kid comes down with a fever. As the child’s temperature rises, as his breathing becomes labored, his frightened mother dials 911. The dispatcher promises to send an ambulance, but also dispatches a police officer. Why a police officer? Well, because a patrolling officer, being already in motion can get there faster. This is what is known as a medical assist call.
Trained in basic first aid, arriving within minutes at the young mother’s apartment, the police officer was able to keep her calm and her baby breathing until the paramedics arrived. As he was helping the paramedics load the baby and the mother into an ambulance, another call came from the dispatcher. A convenience store had just been robbed and the perpetrators were now at large somewhere in the neighborhood.
This, responding to the call of a young, poor mother panicking because her baby was so sick. This is what Ferguson, Missouri police officer, Darren Wilson was doing right before he encountered Michael Brown. That seems like something we should know.
I work as a law enforcement chaplain, specifically for [main game 00:01:54] wardens, and I am the widow of a law enforcement officer and the mother of another. My work and my life experience provide me with a lens through which to view the world and its mysteries.
Any lens with the power to bring some details into sharper focus will, by definition render others more obscure. So this, I humbly acknowledge upfront, there are things I know about, things I care about, things I pay attention to. There are ways of thinking about and working within the world that are informed by my experience with law enforcement officers.
I tend, for example to be strongly interested in the specifics of a case. I tend to be very interested in evidence, in the facts on the ground, and in results. When it comes to trees and fruit, the subject of my sermon this morning, I’m mostly interested in the fruit. “By my works, I shall show you my faiths”, says the letter of James to which I say, Amen.
We are told there is no good tree that produces bad fruit, nor on the other hand, a bad tree which produces good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. Well I’d like to talk this morning about the relationship between the tree and the fruit, the abstract and the concrete. I’ll be reading you a bit from a book called the Torah Manifesto, written by an orthodox, Jewish American scholar, Shaya Cohen.
I met Cohen in the course of my recent and very deliberate effort to break out of my personal, politically liberal echo chamber, to find and actually engage politically conservative persons in substantive conversations about things that matter. I will have more to say about this in future sermons. But anyway, you can know that Shaya Cohen counts himself a conservative.
I say I met Cohen, actually I’ve never met him in person. I made this friend and teacher online. But on the other hand, last weekend, while attending a conference in Texas, I had the pleasure of meeting Cohen’s son. A charming young man who turned up for supper wearing a very large, black cowboy hat over his yarmulke, and side curls.
The aforementioned conference was attended by roughly 400 police officers, and began as such gatherings so often to, with the posting of the colors. As the flags were born by the color guard, times being what they are, I couldn’t helped but notice that the hands we all placed devoutly over our hearts, and our badges, were of as many human skin tones as the most enthusiastic multiculturalist might wish.
Speaking in every American accent you can imagine. Mostly male, but also female. Tall and short and gay, and straight, and republican and democrat. We all said the pledge of allegiance in unison. “One nation, under god, indivisible. With liberty and justice for all.”
On the plane home to Maine, I would read my scribbled notes, my quotes, from the law enforcement instructors, who had conducted the seminars on post traumatic stress disorder, on police suicide, on how to keep faith despite physical and existential threats, and times being what they are. On how to maintain one’s integrity in the face of intense scrutiny and negative public perceptions, and violence.
So here are a few of my notes, scribbled down during these seminars. Quote, “Compassion is the DNA of our profession.” Quote, “Chaplains, you don’t push, you don’t pull. You don’t proselytize.” Quote, “An estimated 15 to 18 percent of American police officers have post traumatic stress disorder.” Quote, “A Harvard Medical School study found that most American police officers average only four hours of sleep a night.” And quote, my favorite. “Police officers must be trained so as to minimize failures of kindness.”
This is how my tribe described the tree. American law enforcement isn’t my only tribe. But American law enforcement is by far the most racially, religiously, regionally, economically and politically diverse tribe to which I may claim membership. I better repeat that. American law enforcement is far, far more diverse than any other community or group to which I belong. More ethnically, religiously, economically, educationally and politically diverse than my denomination, than my alma mater, than my neighborhood, or than either of my professions. That is the UU Ministry, or the company of Contemporary American Authors.
Not that diversity is the goal of American law enforcement. The goal of law enforcement in a democracy is to protect and serve the vulnerable, and to maintain the order that undergirds what George Washington called our experiment in ordered liberty. Freedom of speech for an American police officer means a protestor gets to scream invective in his face. The right to keep and bear arms, second amendment, means an American police officer has always to assume that any and every person he approaches might have a gun.
The right to be an idiot means that American police officers spend quite a lot of their working days patiently attempting to sort out the messes that we, their fellow citizens have created for ourselves, and or for one another. Those of us who study the traumas of law enforcement know that post traumatic stress disorder is a concrete neurological injury, inflicted by the work police officers do, and by the things they have to see.
Those scars are invisible. But there were guys in Dallas whose bodies, white bodies and brown bodies, also bore the visible kind. Including the distinctive puckered scars left by bullets, here and here and one here. Several had survived deliberate attempts at assassination in the aftermath of Ferguson.
So when I’m talking faith and works and trees and fruits, theory and real life, this is what I mean by real. One of the more appealing features of the bible, is that it doesn’t stay in the vaporous clouds of theological abstraction very long. The bible gets real. Theory is always combined, often within the same verse, even the same sentence, with practice. Scripture doesn’t give us a tree without showing us the fruit. Not that the book is about botany. At it’s very core, my friends, Shaya Cohen writes, “The Torah is not a history text, it’s not a science book. We don’t need the Torah for that. We can use the world around us to learn about the physical laws about nature. The Torah is instead god’s way of telling us how to live, how to relate to each other, and to the world around us.”
So when god tells us how Adam was made, and the lord formed man of the dust of the grounds and breathed Into his nostrils the breath of life, and many became a living soul, this is not a description of a historical or scientific reality. It is description of what we need to know about the essential nature of human kind. The Torah is telling us that we are formed of two forces. We are made from dust, and from the breath of life. From god’s breath, god’s spiritual energy.
By accepting at the same time, that we are mortal, and we are capable of touching immortality, we can understand why we are here. In our limited lifespans, we can harness our souls to achieve great things. “The Torah, in other words,” he says, “You too.” The Torah in other words, is not descriptive. It’s not descriptive. It’s prescriptive. It isn’t intended to describe what is. For example, that we’re animals. But to tell us what we should be. More. We are to join god in the strenuous, creative dance between theory and practice. Abstract and concrete. Spirit and flesh. Divinity and dust. Tree and fruit.
So when our circumstances or our leaders present us with one of the two, love demands that we seek always for the other. Shown a tree, we must always ask for a look at the fruit. So there’s Mary. She has found favor with god, and now the angel says, “You will conceive in your womb and bare a son and you will name him Jesus, and he will be great, and he will be called son of the most high, and the lord, god will give to him the throne of his ancestor, David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom, there will be no end.”
What does all that mean? Well obviously it doesn’t mean enough. Since Mary, bless her, retorts not with ecstatic, spiritual transports, for which she might be forgiven given that there’s an angel in the room. But with a very basic, practical, biological question. How can this be since I have never been with a man?
Mary gets real. She knows where babies come from. Human beings perform specific human functions, with human parts, and she had to be aware of the real life difficulties likely to arise for her, should the angels prophecy come to pass. There were obstetrical hazards, for which first century medicine offered few remedies. Then there were the lethal, real life consequences meated out to adulterers in the ancient, near East, and for that matter, in parts of the modern near East as well. That is people throw rocks at you until you’re dead.
So forget the elegant safe spaces, renaissance artists painted Mary into for this scene. She was probably poor too. So as a poor, teenage, Jewish female in first Century Roman-occupied Palestine, Mary qualifies as one of those that enlightened students at our elite colleges would identify as oppressed and marginalized.
This is the one to whom, Gabriel offers his beautiful abstractions. Until as I like to imagine it, the suppressed, marginalized human being interrupts the angel. “Dude, where’s the fruit?” “How can I have a child if I have never had sex with a man?”
Among the prophecies in the Hebrew scripture, the birth of Jesus, is said to have fulfilled. There’s a verse in Isaiah. “Therefore, the lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive and shall bare a son, and she shall name him [Emanuel 00:15:32].” So when, with her permission, I should emphasize, god sees to the impregnation of Mary. God is swapping an abstraction, a sign for reality. Not a virgin shall conceive and bare a son, but this particular virgin right here, Mary. Living in a specific time and place, the Galilee, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, and betrothed to a specific man, Joseph. This unique woman will become pregnant, and in the usual nine months or so she will give birth. Not to a sign, not to a son, but to her son. The human, unique, individual, Jesus.
He will walk the earth, work, worship, eat fish, argue with other human beings, and eventually die in the way too many do. At the hands of other human beings. Literally one other human being in particular.
We know where the executioner got his orders, even if we don’t know his name. But he had a name. It was a man, who closed his fingers around the handle of a hammer. It was a human being who pounded in the nails. When presented with any moral assertion, or moral argument, I suggest that we should emulate the virgin Mary. We should expect, even demand that the abstract be translated into the concrete. Presented with a fine tree, we should ask to see the fruit.
So take for a secular example, we must fight racism. Now you may object. Racism isn’t a vaporous abstraction. The writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates certainly claims that it’s anything but. “Racism”, he writes, “Is a visceral experience. It dislodges brains. It blocks airways. It rips muscle. It extracts organs. It cracks bones. It breaks teeth.” But racism doesn’t do those things. People do those things.
Another example from the same source. “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to my naked,” he writes. “Before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape and disease.” It is no conceding too much to the NRA, to assert that the youthful Ta-Nehisi Coates did not get punched by amputated voodoo fists, but by people. Probably the other boys in his neighborhood. Crack wasn’t floating around, inserting itself into random lungs and rape wasn’t an element of life in Baltimore. It was a crime committed by specific men against specific women.
If we are talking about the inner city Baltimore in which Nehisi Coates grew up, the overwhelming statistical evidence tells us that those wielding the guns, fists, knives were predominantly black, and so were their victims. That is simply a fact, though it is one that for some reason we must acknowledge only delicately, if at all.
That’s too bad, because I don’t think we can fight racism anymore than we can fight evil. One way or another, for better or worse, we will end up fighting people. We may end up fighting one another. To make any difference at all in actual human lives, we have to address ourselves to realities on the ground. Those are too complicated to see through a single lens, or heal with a single theory. The dust, the earth of which god made the original human being, the [ha-adam 00:19:50]. That was a reality on the ground and of the ground.
You can’t breathe spirit into the nostrils of an idea. Mary did not labor to give birth to a concept, and the Roman [inaudible 00:20:04] pilot did not order the torture and execution of a word, but of a man. That pilot was a Roman, turned out to be an inconvenient truth for Christians. Once the Romans became their protectors. Blame was pinned upon the Jews with dreadful, long-term consequences that played out in real lives down to the present day.
So I say it matters who picked up the mallet. It matters who drove in the nail. To fail to name the agent deprives everyone of agency, deprives everyone of hope, and deprives everyone of the power to see each other as clearly as we must if we are to love one another, and love god, and create with god, a better world.
The son of a New York City police officer began his sophomore year at a very fine, Maine college last Autumn. Though Maine can’t boast much in the way of diversity. Still the earnest students at this very fine college were eager to do their part for racial justice.
So there, on their mostly white college campus, in the all white town, in a almost all white state, they hold their demonstrations, and chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” And held a few die-ins. All of which, if nothing else, must have made life a little difficult for this young man in his sophomore year, I think. Writing a term paper, or studying for exams, while your class mates are out in the quad loudly declaring that your father is a racist. Maybe even a murderer. That’s got to be tough.
But what are the feelings of one actual young man, compared with the imperatives of fighting racism. So in December, some of these students boarded buses and went to New York, where they marched down Broadway, with those who chanted, “What do we want? Dead cops. When do we want them? Now.”
Two days later, that sophomore’s father was shot dead. One of two New York City police officers deliberately targeted for execution in revenge for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Remember what I said about the diversity of American law enforcement. One in four police officers nationwide are not white. Over half the New York City Police Department are members of minority groups, including this kid’s death. Raphael Ramos, who was so proud of his boy.
Officer Ramos would have fit right into the diverse crowd of cops I met with in Dallas. But kids like his son remain uncommon at the aforementioned very fine Maine college. Just as they are uncommon in our UU denomination, and in the UU ministry. We should all be taught in ways that minimize failures of kindness, I think. Since a tree will be known by its fruit.
Incidentally, Wenjian Liu, the other office shot dead with officer Ramos that day, arrived in this country as an immigrant from China in 1994. He had studied accounting in college. A pretty abstract subject for a non Math person like me. But he became a police officer. “I know that being a cop is dangerous, but I must do it,” he told a friend. “If I don’t do it, and you don’t do it, then who is going to do it?”
College students across the country were, and are chanting and marching and pretending to die for an abstraction. There were, and remain any number of things they could do to make their words incarnate, to make their abstractions concrete. Maybe some of them might consider becoming the new, improved non-racist police officers they’ve been demanding. They could be the change they want to see. They could be the ones who for all their imperfections actually show up to help. When fists, guns, knives, crack, rape and disease find their real target. When real mothers call because their babies are sick, and they are afraid.
“Nothing is impossible with god,” the angel said. Mary, who was after all, putting her own body, her own real life on the line, said, “Here I am. Here am I. The servant of the lord, let it be with me, in reality according to your abstract word.” So it is possible.
In any case, let us be thankful today for all the good trees who bare good fruit. By her works, Mary showed us her faith. So I say this boldly, while humbly acknowledging my lenses and their limitations. Concretizing the abstract is the whole point of the incarnation we will in a week or so be celebrating. [inaudible 00:26:06] made flesh and born from the blessed womb of his real, and realistic Mom. As each of us is born, here to harness our souls, and within our limited lifespans to achieve great things. To make love into life. This is what we, as human beings, and as children of god are called to do. Amen.