Midwives of Change: A White Priest Responds to Ferguson

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Proper 16, Year A

I read an article in the digital news outlet, Quartz earlier this week. Written by a woman named Janée Woods – a former attorney who now works for a nonprofit focused on supporting community engagement, strengthening democracy and fostering racial equality.  The article was provocatively titled, “12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson”.  Perhaps some of you saw it as well. The title certainly caught my attention and quite frankly, many of Ms. Woods’ words called me up short.  She had noticed that after Michael Brown – the unarmed teenage boy who was gunned down by the police in Ferguson, Missouri – her Facebook feed was filled with words of anger and grief about his death.  But, when she looked more closely, she noticed that the majority of those posts were written by “black people, Latinos, Asian Americans, [and] Arab American Muslims.”[1]  And, when she looked to see what her white friends were writing about she saw instead, video after video of the ALS ice-bucket challenge and messages about the suicide of Robin Williams.  Ms. Woods has nothing negative to say about those who are posting about ALS and suicide; but, she did wonder why “an unarmed black teenager minding his own business walking down the street in broad daylight gets harassed and murdered by a white police officer and those same people seem to have nothing urgent to say about pervasive, systemic, deadly racism in America?”[2]

Before I go any further, I’m going to say that I do not pretend to know what took place in the interaction between Michael Brown and the police officer Darren Wilson.  But I do know that whatever it was resulted in the death of a teenage boy.  And that had that same teenage boy been white, he would most likely be alive today.  Did Michael Brown do something wrong?  At the end of the day, that really doesn’t matter anymore.  Because what does matter is that another black male’s life was cut short in Ferguson, Missouri 15 days ago.  And Ms. Woods’ comment about her white friends’ Facebook status updates called me up short.  Because I looked at my own posts:  pictures of vacation, updates about a book I was reading, and yes, there it was, August 11, my own post about the tragic death of Robin Williams. 
I cannot claim vacation ignorance.  I was aware that Michael Brown had been killed.  I was aware of the mounting tensions in Ferguson, Missouri.  And I chose to remain silent.  And the more I thought about my silence, the more I realized my silence contributes to the problem – the problem of the persistent divide in this nation between black and white.  And the more I thought about my silence, the more I recognized the reason for my silence – fear.  What if I say the wrong thing?  What if I inadvertently put my foot in my mouth and upset the members of this congregation who are black?    So here is where I begin: I confess that I often say nothing because it seems safer than inadvertently saying the wrong thing.  I confess that I often do nothing because it is easier than putting myself in harm’s way.  Perhaps some of you can relate to this.  And if not, I hope you will bear with me this morning because I think it is something to which this morning’s reading from Exodus speaks to quite clearly.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women . . . if it is a boy, kill him.”  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”  Upon hearing this, the king of Egypt, proclaimed, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile.”  But when one little boy was born, his mother and sister did not throw him into the Nile to die; instead, they hid him in a basket placed among the reeds along the bank of the river.  And this baby was found by the king’s daughter and lived. And he was called Moses.[3] 
The midwives saw injustice and did not stand silently by; no, they found a way to creatively live according to God’s ways.  The mother and sister, risked their lives when they ignored the king’s edict and instead hid the newborn infant in the reeds along the bank of the river.  I sometimes imagine myself in the stories of our faith.  When I was a child, I often imagined myself as Moses’ sister, waiting alongside the bank of the river “to see what would happen.”  As I’ve grown older, I like to imagine that I would be one of the midwives who defied the king or perhaps the mother who hid Moses among the reeds.  But, the fact is, I know better.  More likely than not, I would have been afraid – as these women no doubt were.  But, unlike the women in this story, I would more likely have been one of the perhaps hundreds of mothers who did not find a way to defy the king, one of the hundreds – perhaps thousands - of mothers who instead grieved the loss of a child and carried with them the guilt of that child’s death for the rest of their lives.  Not because they did anything wrong, but because they couldn’t find another path forward in a system that was broken.   
We must find another path forward in our system that is broken. A system that left unchanged, according to the NAACP, will incarcerate one in three black males born today at some point during his life time.[4]  A system where, according to an article in Mother Jones,  “black people are more likely than whites or Hispanics to experience a police officer’s threat or use of force” and where, at least  six unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police so far this month: Eric Garner, age 43, Staten Island, New York;  John Crawford, age 22, Beavercreek, Ohio; Ezell Ford, age 25, Los Angeles, California; Dante Parker, age 36, Victorville, California; Kajieme Powell, age 25, St. Louis, Missori; and Michael Brown, age 18, Ferguson, Missouri.[5]
We must find another path forward.  We must not be silent. Because as Janée Woods points out in her article – and as we know in our own community of Evanston  – “People are literally dying.  Black people are dying.”[6]  The Pharaoh of our land is sentencing these young boys to death – our young boys.  We must stand together as midwives, as mothers, as sisters, as fathers and as brothers to dismantle the racist system that continues to infect our churches, our communities, and our world. 
This morning I close with this reminder from our Bishop Jeff Lee, “At every baptism we ask, ‘Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?’ Let our answer today and everyday be a clear and compelling ‘We do!’ Let our lives be the answer.”[7]

[1] Janée Woods, “12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson,” Quartz (August 17, 2014) accessed online at August 22, 2014.
[2] Woods.
[3] Exodus 1:8-2:10.
[4]“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” NAACP accessed online on August 22, 2014.

[5] Jaeah Lee, “Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?” Mother Jones (August 15, 2014) accessed online on August 22, 2014. Josh Harkinson, “4 Unarmed Black Men Have Been Killed By Police in the Last Month,” Mother Jones (August 13, 2014) accessed online on August 22, 2014. Taylor Wofford, “New Video Emerges of Plice Shooting Kajieme Powell in St. Louis,” Newsweek (August 20, 2014) accessed online on August 22, 2014.

[6] Woods.
[7] Bishop Jeffrey Lee, “A Call to Prayer and Action,” Telling Our Stories, Episcopal Diocese of Chicago (July 17, 2013) accessed online on August 22, 2014.