We Shall Not Be Moved

I remember my geology teacher at Cal. State. Los Angeles, Dr. Ehlig.  He taught optical mineralogy, a highly abstruse, conceptual subject.  It required the ability to think in three dimensions all at once.  And it was held after the lunch hour in a hot, stuffy classroom.  When several of us had just returned from the Cabin Inn, stuffed with their huge hamburgers and French fries and a Guinness Stout.  And as Dr. Ehlig droned on, it was hell trying to stay awake.

Dr. Ehlig was a tough grader and we knew that given the small size of our class – only about 15 – there would probably only be one “A” awarded, two at best.  As we held the last review class before the mid-term exam, the question amongst us guys, who would get that “A”s?  (No women, there in fact was only one woman student in the entire geology department at that time).

We, for sure, knew it wouldn’t be Bob Stanton.  He didn’t seem to understand much of what was going on.  As we filed out of the room that day at 5:00 p.m., my money was on my friend Ron.

On the following Monday, when the exams were passed back to us, were we in for a surprise!  Who got the “A”?  SHOCK UPON SHOCK!  It was Bob Stanton.

After class, several of us clustered around him, asking how he had done it.  He said that after we had all left that Friday, he went up to Dr. Ehlig and told him of his confusion about the material and the methods.  He said that Dr. Ehlig had said, “Let’s start at the beginning.”  And he did.  He stayed until after 7:30 that evening explaining the principles and methods of optical minerology to Bob from the beginning. 

That, in my book, made Dr. Ehlig the finest professor I had ever had in my college career.  Dr. Ehlig was like that stout old tree in Psalm 1, planted by an ever-flowing stream of water.  The water of righteousness – the righteousness of kindness, and commitment.  The righteousness of devotion to both his subject and to his students. 

I don’t know if all he did prospered, but that semester, Bob sure prospered.  And so did we all when we discovered the quality of the human being who was our professor.

This is what the writer of Leviticus meant in his admonition for the people of faith to be a “Holy People.”  A people devoted to a vision and a reality beyond and within themselves.  Jesus put it correctly in his answer to a lawyer’s trick question.  “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all you mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Two points about the translation of Psalm 1.  Firstly, the rendering of the Hebrew “baruch,” should be “blessed” — as in “Blessed is the one…”  NOT “happy,” as in our leaflet from Church Publishing for this Sunday.  Happiness is an ephemeral state of being having little to do with the blessedness of God.  “Happy” is to the “blessed” as a Twinkie is to hearty oatmeal.  Incidentally, our last president’s first name is derivative of that concept – every child is a blessing.  Including the ones locked up in cages at the border.  Especially them.

Secondly, the Hebrew tsaddiq, frequently translated righteous, can convey a self-aggrandizing, stuffy piety, the appearance of being holy.  My Old Testament professor, Dr. Knierim of blessed memory, insisted that a more accurate word would be “solidarity.”  The tsaddiqi, the plural, are in solidarity with God and with one another.  Their will and actions are in alignment with that of God and the well-being of the community.  Jesus put it: Love of God and love of neighbor.

Dr. Ehlig is surely one of the tsaddiqi.  His teaching prospered, and so did the geology department for his having been on staff.  For those able to stay awake at one o’clock in the afternoon after a monster hamburger and a glass of suds, he was a dedicated teacher.  After class Dr. Ehlig was a fount of wisdom and a refreshing delight and a true friend – though a tough grader.  He was the personification of “blessedness.”  He was one who stood in “solidarity” with his classes.  His devotion to those of us, even the ones who nodded off, was “holy.”

That image from Psalm 1 of a mighty tree standing straight and tall, was captured in the spiritual of the 60s Freedom Summer.  “We shall, we shall not be moved.   We shall, we shall not be moved.  Just like a tree a tree that’s standing by the water, we shall not be moved.”  The tsaddiqi are that unmovable tree. So were those courageous freedom riders.  Those martyrs, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, tortured and shot at close range in Meridian, Mississippi are to be accounted as among the tsaddiqi.  Their sacrifice has been a blessing to every person fighting for the right to vote.  It was the cowards, the racist scoffers, the chaff which the wind blows away who will be remembered only for the evil they did on that dark night.   

An investigation by the FBI and local sheriff authorities would later reveal that members of the local White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department were all involved in the murders.  Worthless chaff.

America loses track, jumps the rails, when we fall out of solidarity with one another.  David Brooks, in a recent column, “How to Actually Make America Great,” based on a new book by Robert Putnam (author of Bowling Alone) and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, dates the failing of America from the time America was more about “I” than “We.”  Even the frequency of the word “I” in the titles of books published between 1965 to 2008 doubled. [1]

That’s why I tell our House of Hope team, this is a “we” project.  You never begin your report with “I.”  If you believe that “I” is the only one who accomplishes anything, “WE” will never accomplish anything.  And the most important audience for this sermon is myself.  This is a WE project.  Yes, some of us will sleep through the Zoom meetings.  Or miss them entirely.  But, even the lackadaisical, who knows how God might use them, no matter how much they frustrate and annoy the rest.

That is why the redactor of Proverbs can say of a good wife and partner, “She is better than gold, even much fine gold.”  Every sermon, I am blessed to have written, Jai has read through.  She picks up the errors and tells me when I’m not making sense.   When I’ve gone off the rails.  Better she finds this out than you, dear reader.  It’s about “WE.”

But I digress.  Back to Brooks, Putnam and Garrett.  When it comes to our national fragmentation, Putnam and Garett focus on that issue of solidarity.

“The story of the American experiment in the 20th century is one of a long upswing toward increasing solidarity, followed by a steep downturn into increasing individualism.  From ‘I’ to ‘we’ and back again to ‘I.’” [2]

Is Gordon Gekko right?  Greed is good???  It’s all about MY 401(k)?

If our nation continues to pander to self-interest, to self-justifying racial stereotypes, we will have earned that reward.  We will end as a nation like the “chaff which the wind blows away.”  No matter how many nukes we have.  No matter how the stock market is soaring.

Sometimes, laughter is the best medicine.  The only medicine.

I remember one comic who ridiculed Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” and his dissembling about the racism implicit in it.  In a skit portraying Nixon, the comic, mimicking Nixon’s reprise of George Wallace, portrays Nixon as saying, un that droll cadence, “Some believe in instant integration.  Others believe in segregation forever.  But I believe in INSTANT FOREVER.”

 It’s a relief we can laugh at the folly of bigotry, laugh at ourselves as a nation.  The “Saturday Night Live” opening skits have often been my saving event of the week.  And, they’re often an equal opportunity pox on both political houses.  Laughter brings solidarity, when we laugh at ourselves, at pretense and fake piety.

Amy Hunter is an activist out of St. Louis, MO, as well as a diversity and inclusion specialist for Boeing.  Previously, she served as director of diversity and inclusion at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  Before that, as director of racial justice for the St. Louis YWCA.  She has written of the Black Lives Matter that originated in Fergusson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown.  Amy is surely one of the tsaddiqi in my book.

Amy Hunter in her TED talk lets in on the secret of those who just happen to live in the right zip codes, “lucky” zip codes she calls them.  It was privilege, mostly that got them there — privilege they presently benefit from.  The chances of someone from Watts or East L.A. zip code making it to a Beverly Hills zip code is about 5 in 100, if that.  Forget the “Beverly Hillbillies.”  Doesn’t happen.

How can people of conscience respond in good faith?  Amy presents the idea of “Fictive Kinship.”  It means living in solidarity with those didn’t have the good fortune to be born into these “lucky” zip codes.

Her bottom line is that America will live up to its promise only when it is as important to you that a child living in South Side Chicago or Willowbrook (you insert any underserved community across the nation here) – that it is as important to you that a child attending a crap school in that underserved zip code go to a school every bit as good as the one your child attends in Claremont or Oak Park, Piedmont, Montecito or The View.[3]

Those of us who have access, those of us who don’t have to worry about being followed around by security in a department store will only “Make America Great” when we can treat these folks as our own kin.  Though not biologically related, we need to consider others living in “unlucky zip codes” as precious as our own.  Our niece, our aunt, our brother.  The Constitution is our birth certificate, each one of us.  The Gospel mandate is what binds us together.  If we don’t get that, our faith is hollow and we are but an empty, clanging cymbal.

Only if we get relationship right, only then America will be accounted among the righteous.  We will be like a strong oak planted by that ever-flowing stream of righteousness.

The haters?  Their works will shrivel and perish.  They will come to nothing.  We can vote for that kind of dissolute nation.  We can make that dead-end choice.  Or we can heed Amy Hunter’s wise counsel.

It’s all about LOVE OF GOD and LOVE OF NEIGHBOR.  Pretty much one and the same.  We rise or fall together.  In America there is no “I” that is as important, as powerful as “WE.”

I give Amy the “Last Word.”   What she wants, each of us wants, no matter our zip code or race.  She, in daring to share this, is that strong oak tree planted by the stream of righteousness.  What she does and who she is prospers.  This is her testimony:

“When my son was 12, he walked home less than a mile away from our house. And he saw police officers circling. And he knew he was going to be stopped. He was about five houses away from home. And sure enough, at 12, he got stopped. So he came home to me because he was 12, and he was flustered. And he was asking all these questions about what happened and why it happened. And so he said, you know, Mom, I want to know, like, is it because I’m black? I said, I don’t know, maybe. He said, well, I knew you were home, and I actually thought about running home to you. And I said, whatever you do, don’t run.

“And he looked at me, and he said, Mommy, I just want to know how long will this last. And then I looked at my 12-year-old son, and I said to him, for the rest of your life. I want this to stop. I honestly believe that we are the right people to make a change in this community, to be role models and examples of how to get this right and create the kind of world and reality that we’d like to see, to create a more equitable society where there are no lucky ZIP codes.”[4]

Amy, indeed, gets the “last word.”    It’s truly a Gospel word.  Amen

[1] David Brooks, “How to Actually Make America Great,” New York Times, Op Ed Section, October 16, 2020.

[2] Op. cit.

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdX8uN6VbUE

[4] Amy Hunter, TED Talk, “Lucky Zip Codes.”    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdX8uN6VbUE

Dear friends in Christ

October 25, 2020, Pentecost 21, Proper 25

The Rev. John C. Forney

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; I Thessalonians 2:1-8;
Matthew 22:34-46

“We Shall Not Be Moved”

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