Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there....If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Psalm 139 is one of my favorite hymns of faith. I return to it time and time again: for my own prayer time, for worship and, especially, when I don’t know where else to go.
I love thanksgiving and gratitude and pausing to gather with friends, chosen family and family to return thanks to God.
But this past ten days or so has thrown me for a loop, I have to tell you.
Beirut, Paris, Jamar Clark, Mali, Transgender Day of Remembrance, to name just a few.
And in response, the rhetoric of vengeance, registering Muslims or reinstating internment camps; the self-proclaimed Christian leaders (ones whose central story starts with migrants seeking a place in the Inn) hatefully rejecting any welcome of today’s migrants.
It was a week ago Monday, almost 24 hours since the vigil at the 4th Precinct had begun in protest for the police killing of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis.
I had been there earlier in the day and witnessed the courage of occupying the Precinct vestibule. I’d seen the knitting and singing as women and men and gender queer people from Black Lives Matter put their bodies on the line for what they believed.
Now it was Monday evening, and organizers asked three of us religious leaders to hold the space as they marched to shut down the highway.
Pastor Ashley went with the marchers, I stayed at the Precinct. As most of the folks were marching, the crowd that stayed behind was small. One man, a young African American whose brother had been killed by police about five years earlier, began pacing and screaming at all of us. His rage, his grief, his sense of hopelessness was palpable.
But there was something about my white body in a clerical collar and stole that kept drawing him to me. “You’re a snake,” he kept repeating. “What are you doing here?” he accused.
And I couldn’t help but think about the centuries of white bodies in clerical collars whose preaching and theologizing had supported the Middle passage and slavery and the brutalization of the ancestors whose blood ran in his veins.
And so I stood, trying to embody a different kind of white Christianity, even as I bore witness to the devastation that my people had caused.
It was this past Friday night that I sat at Living Table United Church of Christ for the 17th honoring of Transgender Day of Remembrance.
Over the course of nearly two hours, members of the gathered body stood and walked to the podium and read the names, causes, locations and dates of death of 85 transgender and gender non-conforming people who’d been murdered in the past year. Then a candle was lit, a bell rung, and a collective “We will remember you,” pledged.
And I couldn’t help but take in the brutality—the fact that too many were simply known as “unknown transgender woman” and the reality that more than one had been stoned to death.
I couldn’t help but think about the Biblical stories the killers had been taught.
And so I’ve been praying with the Psalmist and reflecting on thanksgiving and gratitude. And my heart keeps coming back to two related pieces.
The first is that I realize that many of us have been raised in the midst of unfettered capitalism and its unholy theology of racism, sexism and heterosexism.
And in this context, the prayers of thanksgiving that are raised too often sound a lot like prosperity gospel: "Thank you God, for all this stuff I have." "Thank you God for all these clothes, this big house, this ability to consume all I want." "Thank you God that my life isn’t like that person who doesn’t have a job."
It seems to me that we’ve been taught to confuse privilege, which comes from systems of injustice, with gifts from God.
In the face of privilege, which comes from the circumstances that systems of oppression create and from which we benefit, it seems to me that the Psalmist and the gospel of the Color Purple remind us of what true gratitude looks like.
And I think it might go something like this:
If the line between good and evil cuts through each of our hearts. If we live amidst systems which tempt us to choose complicity with power-over every day—and I believe we do—then the gift of God comes this way:
God loves us, not because we are only good. God has a deep, deep love for us which is rooted in a true knowing that the line of good and evil cuts through our hearts. God knows we are capable of complicity and perpetration of evil.
But God also knows that we can choose vulnerability; we can choose the foolish, wasteful, patient revolution of love.
And God is constantly, persistently calling us to practice this revolutionary love.
It is for this relationship with God, and it is for these gifts that we ought be grateful.
Adapted from a sermon posted by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel: Photo by Ashley Harness