The prophet Jeremiah speaks in anguish: “Disaster overtakes disaster.”

There were other African Americans killed by police officers before Eric Garner was killed by New York City police in July 2014. Although New York Police Department policy prohibits the use of chokeholds, the maneuver was used on Garner. He repeated “I can't breathe” eleven times while lying face down on the sidewalk until losing consciousness. Countless other African Americans had been killed before Eric Garner, but his killing was recorded. Maybe something would change.

But a month later Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson. This time, perhaps because of Garner’s recent death, the outcry and the outrage were great. The cry “Hands up. Don’t shoot” was echoed across our nation. Even the United Church of Christ began working to keep people mobilized and engaged in countering institutional racism and sanctioned violence. Maybe something would change.

But then just three months later, in November, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by police who left him for four minutes with no attempt at first aid. This happened in Cleveland, the UCC national headquarters. It was there that the Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive minister for Justice and Witness, called this “murder by law enforcement.” Tamir Rice was just a child. Certainly something should change.

But of course nothing changed.

Disaster overtook disaster.

A year later, we were able to listen in as Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke to his son in Between the World and Me:

You know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.

Coates concludes: “All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”[i]

Nothing changed. We have seen in recent days how nothing has changed.

Many saw the video of the shooting, the execution of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa. He had car trouble. He was waiting for help after his SUV broke down. His hands were up. A police officer in a helicopter saw a black man and from on high made the judgment that he looked like “a bad dude.” A few seconds later the father of four was shot and killed.

In Charlotte last Tuesday Keith Lamont Scott was sitting in a car waiting to pick up his son after school. In short time he was shot by officers who were looking for someone else.

Disaster overtakes disaster.

How long before this happens in Iowa?

How long before this happens in Iowa City?

The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. seem as though they were written in recent months: “If you try to tell the people in most Negro communities that the police are their friends, they just laugh at you. Obviously something desperately needs to be done to correct this. ….Police must cease being occupation troops in the ghetto and start protecting its residents. Yet very few cities have faced up to this problem and tried to do something about it.”[ii]

It isn’t, as Mick Jagger channeling Lucifer once sang, that “every cop is a criminal.” It isn’t that the lives of police officers or other lives don’t matter.

But we must join with others in saying that Black Lives Matter because these are the lives that are most at risk in encounters with police. 

For many, African-Americans continue to be Ralph Ellison’s “invisible man,” who says at the beginning of that novel: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

And when white people do see, well, we have been shown once again, as one person recently said, “that race can — and does — shape who’s seen as ‘bad.’ The death of Terence Crutcher is a distressing reminder that race informs which people are seen as threats, which in turn affects whether police encounters turn adversarial, which in turn determines people’s likelihood of being killed. You don’t have to be black to imagine the terror people feel knowing that their skin color means there’s a chance they will at some point be seen as a threat, a police officer will react to them as such, their every hesitation or terrified motion will be interpreted as failure to comply, and they will end up dead.”[iii]

Let me be clear. This is not an abstract worry. Some in our congregation know this fear first hand.

We could despair over our situation. When we hear King’s words we could lament that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And when we turn to scripture this morning, there is little that suggests otherwise.

We hear Jeremiah speak and there is little that give hope. Jeremiah speaks of judgment, not correction or winnowing or cleansing. We hear only of judgment and destruction.

Jeremiah wrote at a time when the nation of Judah was threatened by external enemies. It seemed as though the judgment of God was coming harshly and swiftly upon the people. It would be so great as to seem like the undoing of creation, with the earth returning to chaos and void, with the heavens having no light, without human beings, without life.

The people were skilled in doing evil, Jeremiah said, but did not know how to do good. Many had said “It shall be well with you,” but those were words spoken by the foolish and those without understanding.

To such a people, Jeremiah spoke the word of God saying: “On that day, says the Lord, courage shall fail the king and the officials; the priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded.” The civic and religious leaders would be of no use, as surprised and shocked as everyone else.

And here we are, thousands of years later. In spite of the obsession with terrorism, is there not a greater threat from within—the racism that is so entrenched in our nation, the racism that no one wants to see, the racism that strips us of courage and leaves us appalled and astounded? Is there not a great judgment and great destruction that we are bringing upon ourselves?

Across our country there are ongoing, concerted efforts to take voting rights away from people—new laws that put new burdens on African Americans.

Across our country there are ongoing concerted efforts to keep immigrants out and to deport those who are here.

Across our country the “alt-right”—the voices of white supremacy—are more and more entering the mainstream of political conversation.

Courage has failed our politicians.

Several years ago our denomination urged what were called “sacred conversations on race.”

Now our denomination has released a curriculum on “white privilege.”

And a recent poll suggests that the only religious group less supportive of Black Lives Matter than evangelicals is, yes, you guessed it, mainline Protestants.

Our religious leaders are appalled and astounded, but, really, of little use in dealing with this ongoing evil in our nation.

In my own foolishness, I want to give you hope. I want to say, “It shall be well for us.” That’s what you expect me to do. That’s what you pay me to do.

But words of hope are hard to hear.

Near the end of this morning’s reading from Jeremiah we hear this: “Thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.”

It is as if the God, who thundered judgment and total destruction, cannot really bring this about, will not really bring this about. And so, while filled moral outrage, God whispers, “I will not make a full end.”


Maybe we, too, can yet join with God and not make a full end of the disaster that we are bringing upon ourselves and our nation.

Maybe we can stand against the cowardly political rhetoric based on hate and fear.

Maybe we can look at the racism in ourselves even when it leaves us appalled and astounded and ashamed.

Maybe we can let our eyes be opened, and with new sight see what we don’t want to see and find our path toward new possibilities.

In Bethsaida some people bring a blind man to Jesus seeking his healing touch. After laying his hands on the man, Jesus asks, “Can you see anything?”

His curious reply is, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”

And to be honest, all too often, that seems to be the way that white people view people of color. We don’t see people. We see threats. We see “bad dudes.” We see, as one Congressman said this week, “people who hate white people because we’re successful.”

The only hope we have here is that in all the Gospels, this is the only account of a healing that does not take place immediately. Here new sight comes only gradually. And some would suggest that this is the reason that this story was left out of both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.

But there is something encouraging for us in this story of healing in stages.

It reminds us that the healing we need is a process. Remember that story in Genesis about the Adam and Eve and the serpent? In it the serpent promises instant awareness: “Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” If we want quick solutions, the serpent has them for us.

If we choose to follow in the way of Jesus Christ, our sight, our healing, our wholeness might take a little longer.

The quick answers are not the ones we really seek.

We seek the answers that come when we have been touched for a second time, recognizing that if “clear sight” does not come right away, we must continue to pursue it until we are able to see things as they are. “Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

Listen. Listen carefully. You and I might yet be able to hear the voice of the God who whispers, “I will not make a full end,” so that from us those words become a shout of hope, an announcement of a new beginning.

Look. Look closely. You and I might yet be able to see with clear sight, might yet be able to see our neighbors for who they are, women and men, girls and boys created in the image of God, our sisters and brothers.

When we listen, when we look, we might at last engage in the dialogue that is needed, the conversations that will change us as we heed the words of the old song:

Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what's going on

[i] Ta Ne-Hisi Coates, Between the World and Me, pg. 9.

[ii] MLK, “A Testament of Hope,” in A Testament of Hope, pg. 325.