Over fifty years ago I distinctly remember being lined up with a bunch of other guys in a dingy, depressing room, downtown L.A., and raising my right hand and swearing to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. We then stepped across a line painted on the floor and, instantly, I was no longer a civilian. For the next two years I would be a U.S. Army medic.”
As part of that induction ceremony, we all were given a list of “General Orders.” These were the duties we are to be about if there is no officer to direct us, if we got separated from our unit. “General Orders” are the common sense actions one would take in any emergency: secure government property, protect life, report to the first officer that one might encounter.
You are part of the Church because you have been inducted into the Jesus Movement. In this day and age, no one is making you be here. You are here because you were Spirit-called. In the Jesus Movement our General Orders are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, and your Neighbor as yourself.” That simple. Common sense. Gospel sense. Gospel orders.
At the beginning there were twelve inductees. “…first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”
Then he sent them out. Their mission? To heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, give without pay.” And why? “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” And travel light. Common sense General Orders.
The “Kingdom of Heaven” – what our brother Martin Luther King called “the Beloved Community” is at hand. This is the inbreaking reality where all are valued for who they are. Sort of like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. We’re here as citizens to fulfill its promise and celebrate its joys.
But there are those who would pain the Beloved Community. Do it great harm. And we are called to action. General Orders time.
This week, the summons came through those agonized words: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
In today’s world the first assignment to those of the Jesus Movement is to remove the knee. Communities of color need to breathe. The scab has been ripped off four hundred years of oppression in America. As George had a knee on his neck, we all have a knee on our necks. Remove the knee! None of us can breathe. It begins with #BlackLivesMatter.
To those disbelieving souls who would object, “Well, don’t all lives matter.” There are some who just don’t get it. Some who don’t know our American history. Some having an appalling lack of empathy. Back to the Penalty Box. You’re not ready for this discussion if the first words out of your mouth are, if your first thought is, “Yes, but…” Best sit down, be quiet and listen. “I can’t breathe.” Do you hear him? Listen to the agony. Humility is the order of the day for you. Those are your “General Orders.”
In another sense, yes, you are right. For the forty percent of Americans who live in poverty and near poverty, your lives matter every bit as much. The lives of the impoverished and left out do indeed matter. Those who live day by day working a gig job with no future, laid off at an economic whim – your life matters. Those downsized, outsourced and abandoned — your communities matter.
Some insight into our common economic and political disenfranchisement might, hopefully, lead you to realize that at the root, you have much more in common than you think with your sisters and brothers of color. Maybe that’s why the crowds in the streets these past weeks are so diverse. Everyone’s marching. We all have a stake in this. The knee on George Floyd’s neck is also on yours. And on your children’s.
The call to us in the Jesus Movement is to tend the sick, lift up the downtrodden, and give hope to those abandoned by this idolatrous, so-called Free Market. Folks, there’s a big fat thumb on the scale. A thumb larded up with billions and billions in bribes to the political elite. This is not partisan. Both parties are equal opportunity grifters. That’s one thing Mr. Trump got right. The system’s rigged.
We can’t breathe. We need a platoon of disciples from the Jesus Movement to remove the\knee. George Floyd couldn’t breathe. Trayvon Martin couldn’t breathe. Folks in abandoned communities all across America can’t breathe. The citizens of the Inland Empire who have suffered decades of political corruption can’t breathe.
Our charge is to remove the knee. We are now all George Floyd. “I can’t breathe,” is our desperate cry. Maybe our dying cry.
While a citizen army of hundreds of thousands mobilized in the streets and boulevards of our cities all across the land, too many of our elected officials mobilized to be scarce.
“I’m not going to criticize other people,” was the lame excuse of one. “I’m late to lunch,” the response of several. Silence. Crickets, the response from others as they passed by reporter Kasie Hunt on the “Walk of Shame” to the Senate Dining Room. Remind me again, what are we paying these folks a salary for?
Unfortunately, a criminal element, we now know, was organizing to use these massive demonstrations for their own nefarious purposes — outright looters and arsonists. Others were acting out of their varied pathologies. And a few were political subversives – yes, we have evidence of their being egged on by the same malefactors who conspired to manipulate our elections in 2016 to great effect. What a delight the internet can be. For fun, profit, organizing, and election rigging.
The best, the majority inducted into these marches and rallies across the land, they were exemplary of the values of the Jesus Movement – Spirit recruited,
What gives me hope this time, what is different from the demonstrations of the ‘60s of my era is the portrait of this crowd. This is the most diverse group of people ever to come out into the streets of our nation. Those standing in solidarity with George Floyd’s family, those raising the cry for decency, sisterhood and brotherhood – those called to good purpose have been the most diverse group of Americans ever to take to the streets to say, “Enough.” We can’t breathe. They could be Peter, John, son of Zebedee and Bartholomew. Or Alice, Manuel, Serena, Jamil, or Alex. And cast out demons, do they ever! We’ve got whole new batch of ugly demons to confront in American: racism, poverty, dysfunctional politics, a decrepit health care system, hate, a collapsed economy – just to name a few.
We don’t need to worry about boredom and nothing to do. Did I mention a raging pandemic? People dying like flies? Another of our ills needing healing.
The work of those in the Jesus Movement is most contagious. We saw multiple scenes of members of the police, even chiefs and mayors taking a knee in solidarity. It is said that Hope is the evidence of things unseen. We’ve seen some beautiful evidence of Hope on the streets of America.
In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, 82% of Americans support the peaceful protests as a legitimate response to what has happened. Retired generals and admirals have finally spoken up against use of the military against peaceful protesters. The military is not a plaything. It is not a collection of toy soldiers that can be shuffled about as in a game.
All this protest is born of the values and teachings of the Jesus and the prophets. These enduring values are enshrined in our Constitution and common norms of decency.
We are inducted to raise our voices to high heaven over the injustice and oppression done to the “least of these.”
Because we are not bystanders in this democracy, but have power as citizens, it is up to each of us to pull our nation back to our higher ideals. It is up to all of us, in the face of the travesty of justice done to George Floyd to raise his voice, ‘I CAN’T BREATHE.” To raise the voices of all in the face of pandemic, racism, economic collapse and in the threat of a politicized military: “WE CAN’T BREATHE.” That is the commission of our induction into the Jesus Movement.
At the conclusion of his eulogy for George Floyd, the Rev. Al Sharpton asked the question. If time’s up for injustice, what are we going to do with the time left to each of us? Will we fritter it away with sitcoms and mindless consumerism? Will we just go to sleep or indulge in various addictions? Or expend it for that which endures? Kingdom building.
Will we use it to perfect our fragile union? Will we use it in acts of unselfish solidarity? For a cause greater than ourselves?
After I completed my service as a medic I became a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I received my copy of their paper, The Veteran with updates on events, reunions, and projects. Often included are articles on the early history of the organization and the early protest against that war. Laurel Krause wrote of her sister Allison, one of the four students killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State on May 4, 1970 – fifty years ago this month..
One piece that caught my eye as I skimmed the paper. “The Little Girl at My Door.” On his way from Landing Zone Andy into the Vietnamese army base at An Loc, Jack Mallory noticed a group of several children.
“Something wasn’t right, and I told my jeep driver to head over there. Half a dozen kids were gathered around a young girl, maybe 10 years old, lying under a tree. She wasn’t visibly injured, but pale, motionless and dead.”
“Through my interpreter, her friends told me she’d been up in the tree gathering branches for firewood. She had triggered a booby trap set up by the local Viet Cong. A grenade, without pin, had been placed in a tin can with a wire strung across the road. They had hoped that the antenna on an American vehicle would hit the wire, yank the grenade from the can, detonate it over the vehicle. A few minutes earlier, however, the little girl had detonated the grenade herself. She was apparently untouched, except for a small hole not much bigger than my thumb nail, right in the center of her chest. She had bled out internally. Not my fault. Not, directly, our fault.”
No not our fault, directly. Much of the racist history in America, not our fault, directly. Most do not scream racial slurs or expressly oppress. We would be horrified to have thought that it was our knee on the neck of another, snuffing out the last remaining seconds of life. Surely, we would have reacted to those dying words, “I can’t breathe.” This is what we learned as inductees into the Jesus Movement. It’s what we would have been taught in most any of the great religions of the world. Yet, collectively, our knee has snuffed out the breath of too many. Like that tragic event around a tree in a Vietnamese countryside, blame for the tragedy of that war is complicated.
Regardless of fault, and the American foreign policy of that time was surely complicit, how do we move on?
Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s answer has been to build links of people-to-people connection with the citizens of Vietnam. Approval has recently been received from the headmaster of a village school, Binh Thanh, to begin he construction of a future VVAW library. Many of us have donated to its construction. This last March was the organizer, Chuck Theusch’s fifty-third trip on behalf of VVAW.
Will this library bring back that little girl? Will our efforts to transform policing and our criminal justice system bring back George Floyd? No, that pain will endure — but goodwill and friendship can triumph over evil and death. Empathy and amends are tokens of Grace.
We are the incarnation of love that trumps hate. We in the Jesus Movement, by the power of the Pentecost Spirit, we usher into reality a New Heaven and a New Earth. “On earth as in heaven,” are our orders.
Just how did we get signed up? Over what line did we cross into this Jesus Mission? It was when the Holy Spirit got into our hearts and grabbed up our imagination. In that instant, we knew that Love is the Answer. My friend Ed Bacon says that each morning we wake up, we have a choice. Will we live in the House of Love or the House of Fear? The Spirit prompts our better angels. Most of us. Most of the time.
Presbyterian pastor and writer, Frederick Buechner, tells us of our duty in the Jesus Movement, in the Life Movement – it is our Vocation. Which is?
“Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
For many our vocation has been to be out in the streets. Wearing your facemask. Keeping proper social distance. It has been to labor in crowded hospitals tending to the sickest of the sick. It has been in a newsroom. It has been keeping folks safe on the streets (Yes, there are good police who actually care). It is that teacher attempting to figure out technology in order to reach out to her students. It has been to mourn George Floyd.
Our vocation is where we are placed. It is where “our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” It is our commission.
Our commission is to speak truth in a time of lies and violence.
When peaceful demonstrators were summarily rousted by clouds of teargas, chemical agents and flash bang grenades from Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, for a militaristic photo op, while our Secretary of Defense thought they might be walking to the park only to “inspect the restrooms,” some of the better angels of our retired military saw the danger of this spectacle. They found their voices. Senator Mitt Romney, unlike so many other senators, was not out to lunch. When our president made a travesty of our Christian heritage, waving about a Bible as if hawking a frozen steak on the Home Shopping Network –desecrating our church — religious leaders, the Catholic Archbishop and my bishop, spoke out against this tawdry spectacle – even the Rev. Pat Robertson and other Evangelicals – leaders often quiet on political matters, raised their voices. Our vocation is often to speak out, to exorcise the demons of racism, of hate and the perversion of Jesus message of peace. God is not a plaything.
In the end, our commission, our vocation, General Orders if you will, is summed up in a poem by the Jesuit brother Peter Byrne, “We are Simply Asked.”
We are simply asked to make gentle our bruised world,
To be compassionate of all, including oneself.
Then in the time left over to repeat the ancient tale,
And go the way of God’s foolish ones.
 Jack Mallory, “The Little Girl at My Door,” The Veteran, Spring 2020.
 Peter Byrne, “We are Simply Asked” as set to music by Jim Strathdee, “Light of the World,” Caliche Records, Ridgecrest, CA, 1982. Words copyright 1976 by Peter Byrne, S.J. Music by Jim Strathdee, copyright 1981.
June 14, 2020
Pentecost 2, Proper 6
The Rev. John C. Forney
John 9:35-10:8 Inducted