I have a buddy who lives in Florida, who posts pictures of the beach in February, when all his friends up north are miserable with gloom and cold. He’s a retired minister and I know I should be happy he’s enjoying his senior years, but from December to March every year I don’t like him. A few years ago, a hurricane struck and filled his house with water and sand, but he didn’t post pictures of that. The ocean has many fine qualities, but self-regulation and restraint aren’t among them.
One day, Jesus was talking with his disciples about the difficult standards of love, and says to them, “Be ye perfect, as God is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Perfection is an elusive quality and therefore rarely attained. It takes the pressure off a bit to know the original meaning of the Greek word wasn’t perfect, but mature. “You be mature, as God is mature. You be grown up, as God is grown up.”
Our last time together, we defined a grown-up as someone who is consciously aware of their feelings and takes responsibility for their decisions and actions. Lately, we’ve born witness to the cultural and national challenges when people who should be grown-up, aren’t.
I promised, in this sermon series, to describe the characteristics of grown-up people. Today I want to talk about self-regulation, the ability to live within appropriate boundaries and control yourself without others having to do that for you. Because we don’t want to be like the ocean, sweeping past our boundaries and swamping everything in our path.
I had an Aha! moment while writing this sermon, a moment of awareness. I was thinking of self-regulation and began thinking of the people protesting throughout the country these past two weeks, the vast majority of them peaceably, a very small number less so. But in my mind, I had made little distinction between the two and had found myself thinking, “They need to learn to self-regulate.”
I even started a sermon about it. Then I went for a motorcycle ride, which is what I do when I need to think, and it occurred to me that if in the long history of America white people like me had done a better job of self-regulation this protesting and looting would not be happening.
Four hundred years ago, my Europeans ancestors decided to steal people of color away from their families and homelands, cram them into the claustrophobic holds of ships, and carry them across an ocean to build a prosperous new nation whose wealth and freedom my ancestors never permitted them to share.
We created a justice system that imprisoned African Americans for the slightest offense, penalizing them for behavior we celebrated when committed by whites. Which is why, to this day, a black man can be arrested for public intoxication and loitering for drinking wine on 38th Street, while a white man can drink wine at the Symphony on the Prairie at Conner Prairie and be lauded as a man enjoying the fruits of his labor. If he owns a business and brought a customer, he can deduct that bottle of wine from his taxes.
We drafted black people to fight our wars, wars involving the same European nations that had enslaved them. Then when they were fortunate to come home to their loved ones, we still didn’t let them vote, still terrorized them, still confined them to menial jobs, and still excluded them from the GI Bill which made possible the vast economic growth of the white American middle class. Today, the average white family has assets of $170,000, while the average black family has assets of $17,000.
In 1947, the president of the Dodger’s baseball team, Branch Rickey, hired the first black baseball player, Jackie Robinson, to play professional baseball. He made Mr. Robinson promise that when taunted and tormented, he would never respond, never complain, never talk back, no matter what taunts or trash came at him from players or people out of the stands.
That was 73 years ago, and we’re still demanding black athletes be seen and not heard. If you don’t believe that, just ask Colin Kaepernik.
This past week, I was pulled over for speeding, driving a car with an expired license plate. I was greeted by a smiling police officer, then sent on my way with a friendly warning to slow down. But we know what happens, far too often, when people of color are pulled over, don’t we?
When people of conscience said Black lives matter!, too many others said All lives matter!, as if white lives were equally at risk. Let me remind you of the story in Luke 15, how when a shepherd had 100 sheep and one sheep was in danger, the shepherd did not pretend all sheep lives mattered. He knew the life of the one was especially at risk, was especially endangered, so set about to save the one. Let’s stop with this nonsense that all lives matter, as if all lives are equally at risk, when that is clearly not the case. Now, after 400 years of harassment, of physical and legal bondage, of deprivation, of white feet on black necks, African-Americans have said Enough! No more!, and the response of too many is to complain that windows have been broken. I marvel at the patience and restraint of black Americans, even as too many white Americans are aggrieved, believing their liberties compromised, for being asked to wear a mask during a pandemic.
We have been the unregulated ocean forgetting its boundaries, sweeping across the land, swamping houses, tearing families apart and asunder. And now we dare cry about windows? In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln, said of the Civil War, “Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said four thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”
I don’t know how many windows will be broken, and to be honest, I don’t care. Glass is just sand, calcium carbonate, sodium carbonate, and a lot of heat. So I don’t care whether windows are broken. But I do care how many black lives have been broken because of our failure to grow up, to regulate ourselves. I do care that our white lives have been like a virus to black lives, how with stamina and determination we have crossed the boundaries of decency to protect our privileges, overwhelming and infecting the lives of black America. Now our black neighbors and friends, laid low by the disease of racism, are demanding access to the medicine of justice. And God, who is always on the side of the beaten down, is watching. God is watching.
If water could talk, each drop in every overpowering wave would say it was just a drop. Each drop would humbly cite its modest power, oblivious to its collective energy and power. Just so, our single lives, though seemingly powerless and ineffective, have as a collective power acted as a tidal wave, often swamping the lives of black Americans, reducing them to ruin.
To be grown up is to self-regulate, which means in this hour we must be acutely aware of the power we wield for good and for ill. Friends, I pray that God, at the moment of our judging, find you and I mending what we have consciously and unconsciously helped destroy. Let it be said of us, as Quakers, that the power of our lives was finally and ultimately devoted to good.