2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6A) June 14, 2020
On a lazy afternoon this past week, Phoebe and James and I headed out to get some fresh air. The kids were on their bikes, super excited, and full of energy. As James circled the Tara High School parking lot, without warning he came off the bike and gave himself a good scrape. That was it. We were done, James let me know. Home time now. As we headed out of the lot to walk the bikes home, someone shouted out. Do you need a bandaid? A police officer, who’d been parked up at one corner of the campus, had seen the fall and offered to help. The officer was everything you could wish for. Caring, professional, and funny — making James smile as she asked about his booboo. This was a good day from a great cop, an ordinary but welcome act of kindness from those charged to protect and serve.
At their best, police officers and other law enforcement officials embody the compassion of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. This officer certainly did. Here, in chapter 9 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus goes about the cities and villages, curing every disease and every sickness. Officers, like Jesus, go out into a world in need of healing. A world in need of redemption. At their best, officers serve the community by the little things — like fixing scraped arms, or by closing off streets for a fundraising run. At their best, officers serve the community by the big things, putting their lives on the line, like Jesus, willing to go to the point of death for those who they shephard.
According to The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, in the U.S. there were 135 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty in 2019. That’s if we include those who were killed in traffic accidents and other incidents. We give thanks for these officers for their lives of sacrificial service and pray that they may rest in the nearer presence of God.
While we rightly mourn and honor the loss of these officers, that doesn’t change the reality that, at their worst, law enforcement officers can be a source of violence and brutality. According to the Washington Post, in the same year, 2019, 1,004 people nationally were killed by police. The journals “Nature” and the Scientific American report similar numbers in 2018. And while white people make up the majority by the sheer number alone, proportionally, by a percentage of the population, African American men, are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than someone that looks like me.
Racism and inequality is, of course, a global issue. In Australia, for example, the systemic injustices against Aboriginal people are intolerable. There, it’s deaths in custody which highlight this most clearly. “Indigenous people are 10 times more likely to die in prison than non-Indigenous people in Australia.”
“Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” Matthew records the authority, the power, the responsibility given to Jesus’ disciples. Here, I think about the authority, the power, and the responsibility given to police officers. I think about the trust that Jesus put in his friends to do good and to seek justice and healing. And I think about the serious business law enforcement is. “It is this awesome power that they have that no other profession has,” says Justin Nix, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
Today’s Collect invites us to pray that through God’s “grace we may proclaim God’s truth with boldness, and minister God’s justice with compassion.” We’ll notice that one of the first things that happens in today’s Gospel is that Jesus sees the crowds. The text says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Our first and primary task, as ministers of justice and compassion, is to see the violence in our midst for what it is. We need to see and to hear and to truly listen to those in our streets. This is not about one incident. Nor two, or three. No, what we see and hear today in through protests around the country and the world is something much deeper and profound.
We hear the crushing, debilitating weight of institutional inequality manifesting itself in the power and passion of those who protest. It’s not just one man who was denied breath. Rather, it’s a collective people who can’t breathe under the weight of years of systemic racism; the weight of years of racial profiling and targeted senseless killing. To dismiss the whole issue as a case of “a few bad apples” sadly misses the point. Minimizing and downplaying the issue reinforces entrenched racial prejudice.
Truly listening means engaging in the act of compassion, as our Collect Prayer encourages us. Compassion is not just empathy. Compassion is not just walking about in someone else’s shoes, as Atticus Finch would put it. Compassion is grounded in “the motivation to do something to ease suffering.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus models compassion. His first response at seeing the crowds, harassed and helpless, was to summon the twelve disciples and give them a mission to go out and to ease the suffering of the world. They were to go and proclaim the good news, “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” And these disciples were to go without payment and to travel light. The disciples were to save all their energy for the task of compassion.
When James came off his bike the other day, there’s no doubt that he received kind, and compassionate treatment from the police officer. Based on my anecdotal evidence during my time in Baton Rouge, I don’t have any other reason to expect any different for myself and my family in the future. All my encounters with the police here have been great: officers who patiently walk the School Campus when a false alarm has gone off, for example. Or those who close off the streets and ensure the safety of those running to raise money for breast cancer treatment. Or the wonderful, honorable job the police do in escorting the clergy and family from St. Luke’s to the graveside for a funeral. For me and my family and our church, law enforcement here is all good and as it should be.
However, we’d be naive to think that everyone’s experience is the same.
We’d be in denial if we were not able to see the images on our TV screens, and to hear the cries of distress in the streets, and not be able to see those who Jesus saw: those harassed and helpless ones who need our compassion. Despite my quoting of statistics earlier, I know, and I think we all know, that compassion begins where statistics and numbers end. The 117,000 people who have died from the Coronavirus in the U.S. are just a number without connecting the names and the lives to those same statistics. So too are the many who die as a result of violence in our streets each year. They are real people with real families. With daughters and sons. Spouses and work colleagues. Homes with dogs and cats to be fed and plants to be watered. So, friends, let us pray today again:
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.