Stop, Look, Listen

When I was a young boy our family would take trips from Compton into Los Angeles.  Driving up Alameda Blvd., as we neared the downtown area the railroad tracks for all the industrial spurs would enter the street and run right up the center of the street. 

For a young child, it was both fascinating and scary.  As a boy who loved trains, it was exciting to see them up close.  It was also scary to see them so up close, right out the car window.  They dwarfed us and the screeching of the wheels on the tracks was frightening. 

I remember seeing these signs with two cross arms on the street where the tracks entered the roadway.  Stop, Look, Listen.  When I asked Dad what this meant, his voice got very serious.  He told me that if we didn’t follow what the sign said, we could be run over by a train.  And if I was ever walking along the sidewalk and came to one of those signs, I should do exactly what it said if I didn’t want to be killed.

Well, you can imagine my dreams the next few nights.  It wasn’t the monster under the bed.  It was standing on the tracks where they crossed the sidewalk staring up at a huge switch engine bearing down on me, the metal wheels screeching on the tracks as it got closer and closer.  All the while I was unable to move.  Frozen in place.  Fortunately, I always seemed to wake up before I was run over and squashed like a bug.

As a young child, other warnings had the same effect:  the skull and cross boned on a bottle, toadstools in the grass – do not eat them.  A common nightmare was of waking to find what seemed like hundreds of these toadstools carpeting my blanket.  Finally, I had to go to the bathroom so badly that I really did wake up to find all the mushrooms gone.  The coast was clear.  Hurry, hurry, hurry.

Warnings are essential to survival. 

The passages appointed for this Sunday are all, in one way or another, about warnings.  Ezekiel has been appointed as a sentinel, to give warning to the people of Israel.  “Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.  If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.”[1]

The warning is given, not to condemn but to prevent condemnation.  God takes no pleasure in wasted lives and violence.  “…turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”[2]

That’s exactly why my father told me scary stuff about railroad crossings and poison.  It was that I might have a chance to grow up.  The same reason my mother told me not to run out into the street. 

In the same way Paul warns those in his congregation not to let their living be only dissipation, wasted in debauchery and drunkenness and thieving.  And those given to such he held out an alternative, that of life.  “…you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep…the night is far gone, the day is near.  Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…”[3]

Warnings come in many forms.

As we grow older, we realize the warnings in scripture are not only that we survive but live lives of purpose.  One woman put it recently, what we require is hearts big enough for someone besides ourselves.”

The season of COVID-19 is a season of much pain and difficulty.  And a warning.

Listen to the pain.  Parents, listen to the pain.  The rate of teen suicide and drug use is worse now than ever.  COVID-19 has accelerated everything and made it much worse.   Addiction rates since this pandemic have increased on average over 40 percent.  Stop. Look. Listen, America.

Many evenings at the conclusion of her PBS Newshour broadcast, Judy Woodruff introduces a montage of those we have lost to this pandemic.  These are our neighbors.  Some, our family.  These exemplary lives cut short were led by those who were infused with the values St. Paul lifts up.  They were persons of purpose because they led lives of sobriety, lives of rectitude, lives of generosity.  These are the whole circle of companions who make life worth living.  There are an enticement to generosity and purpose.

They were not only a blessing to others, but to themselves and to God. 

CNN reported the pain on one man, “We ain’t got nowhere to go,” was the cry from the heart of one devastated man as the constable came to order his eviction.  As Israel Rodriguez, Sr., stood on the sidewalk, holding his infant son, also named Israel, workers dumped their entire worldly possessions out on to the curbside.

This is the excruciating experience now of thousands of families who lived on the margin until COVID-19 came along.  This family faces the brutality of a cold world with but a little over three hundred fifty dollars in their account.  Just this last week in Harris County over two thousand eviction notices were served, double what might be a so called “normal” week.

The vast majority of these families have lived lives of responsibility.  They cared for their children and their neighbors.  They had been reliable workers and a blessing to their employers.   Stop. Look. Listen, America.

If we let these people sink into despair and homelessness, into depression and addiction.  That’s on us.  We can bail out the mega corporations.  The banks and United Airlines.  Are these, the little people – are they not more precious in the grand dream of America?  They “played by the rules” and now we toss them aside like so much litter.  Stop.  Look. Listen, America.  Do you not hear the sobs of their children.  Do you not see the fearful glance from mother to father?

This is an existential warning that cuts to the bone of who we are as a society.  All the while our legislatures are off enjoying their vacations.  Mitch McConnel and his Senate colleagues have over four hundred bills sitting on their desks awaiting action.  But no worry.  No constable, no sheriff is knocking at their doors with eviction papers.

America, these just average Joes and Janes, these people are the heartland of our nation.  Stop. Look. Listen.  Here is blessing before your eyes.  Hear their pain.  Enter into their joy.

As the COVID-19 death toll climbs to two hundred thousand, the cream of our nation is carried to the grave.  At the end of July, the L.A. Times devoted an entire section to the stories of these most average citizens – citizens who in the ordinary lives that they lived were, in fact,  most extraordinary.  They were mothers and academics, food bank volunteers and a nurse who on the side taught CPR classes as a volunteer.

These are citizens who lived their spiritual values.  With their families and neighbors, they walked the walk.  Pastor Alex, on many mornings made his rounds to pick up groceries for the church’s food bank. “His whole life was serving other people.”  That is how his wife Blanca, wanted him remembered.[4]

So many gone.  So many.  These were people who in ways big and small were living blessings of our most gracious God.  They lived the reality of those who had awakened to the dawning of day.  They put on the armor of light.  Every day.

Stop.  Look. Listen.  Hidden blessings are all about.

You know these people.  They are a delight to be around.  They are the ones who staff the volunteer fire department.  They make the PTA work and do the welfare check on their neighbors.

They go out of their way to do a little kindness for their children.  As Elishia and Bobby were walking home from school, they were surprised to look up and see their mother, Patti, pulling up at the curb besides them.  “How would you like to go to Magic Mountain?”  she called from the open window.  Patti had taken the afternoon off from her administrative position at UCLA just to do something special with her children.  Patti was a troop mom for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.  She worked with a foreign student, Lai, from Hong Kong, helping her with English lessons.  Looking back at their friendship, Lai recalled, “She had a heart for everyone.  She and her husband Dan loved long road trips.[5]

So many lost.  So many, and it needn’t have been this way.  America, Stop. Look. Listen.

To friends and family who have lost loved ones who served.  I tell you truly.  They were not losers.  They were not suckers.  They gave their lives for a cause greater than themselves.  Some will not understand because there is no price tag attached to such things as honor and freedom.  The Lady of Liberty cannot be bought with any dollar amount.  She only asks loyalty and duty.  Such things are incomprehensible to one whose heart has no room for any but himself.

If you consider these whom Judy spotlights every evening, friends and neighbors down the street, what you will hear is the beating heart of the Divine.  The beating heart of America.  The Holy is part and parcel of so many of these whom we have lost.  That is St. Paul’s word for us.  That is his message to the Church. “Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day…”  That will be your delight. Your family and neighbors will rise up and call you blessed.  For you are.

As we become children of purpose, we grow into the full stature of Christ.  A lifetime journey.

For some reason, must be Labor Day weekend, speaking of folks who have sacrificed for our nation, who are doers, folks with godly agency — my mind has been drawn this week to those who organize for a better America.  I was remembering that old union song, “Bread and Roses.”  It gave voice to the women mill workers who stuck in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912.  It is a theme song sung at many union events as well as at several women’s colleges.  Made popular by Judy Collins, among others.  It sings the gospel worth of all workers, but especially of all those who toil as “essential workers” to keep life going for those of us privileged to work from home.

Thank you, James Oppenheim, for this rousing union hymn.

The women of Lawrence, MA — you get the “Last Word.”  They marched in gospel “Light.”

Bread and Roses

As we come marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill-lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing, “Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.”

As we come marching, marching, we battle, too, for men—
For they are women’s children and we mother them again.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes—
Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses.

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of Bread;
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew—
Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too.

As we come marching, marching, we bring the Greater Days—
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler—ten that toil where one reposes—
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.

— James Oppenheim, 1911.

[1] Ezekiel 33:8-9, New RSV, 1989, National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

[2] Ibid, 33:11.

[3] Romans 13:11-14, New KJV.

[4] Isaiah Murtaugh, “Alex Bernard,” a part of “The Pandemic’s Toll: Lies list in California,” Los Angeles Times, July 31,, 2020.

[5] Ibid, Tomas Mier, “Patti Breed-Rabitoy.”

September 6, 2020, Pentecost 14, Proper 18

The Rev. John C. Forney

Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

“Stop, Look, Listen”

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