Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
“I am My Brother’s Keeper – and My Sister’s Too”
Genesis 4:1-9, Mark 12:28-34
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Last Monday, I sat at a Coalition for Youth meeting at Town Hall. This is group of 30 or so members of the community who are involved with our youth. From clergy, to the police chief, to school administrators, to PTA parents, to coaches, this is a diverse group that has one goal – to be there for our youth to encourage and to help them in whatever ways we can.
The main topic, of course, was the teacher from Greeley who has been charged with sexually abusing students involved in the Theater Department and encouraged alcohol consumption and pot smoking.
A great deal has been written in the local papers about this. There was even an article in New York Magazine last week. A lot of parents are angry, and school and community officials are trying to handle and deal with the fallout from this terrible tragedy. Blame is being hurled at the school administration and others for not knowing what was going on.
As I was reading the article in NY Magazine, it occurred to me that not only was the school at fault. All of us have culpability in this situation. The youth who were involved didn’t feel safe enough to come and talk to a clergyperson about what was going on. They didn’t feel safe enough to talk to a police officer, or a coach or any one of a number of other people who were connected to their lives. And, perhaps they didn’t even feel safe enough to tell their parents.
At that meeting on Monday, I voiced this observation, that we are all culpable in this situation. When I finished speaking, I looked around to see how people had taken my comment. I was surprised (and quite frankly, relieved) to hear others confirming my observation by asking, why didn’t the youth feel safe enough to talk to anyone about this? What was it about the culture of this community that perhaps it didn’t even occur to these young people that there were adults both at the school and in the wider community to which they could go?
As I sat at this meeting, I thought about my sermons from the last two weeks. I have talked a great deal about FCC being a safe space that is here for you, me and anyone who crosses our threshold. I have spent a lot of this week trying to think about ways to help our youth know that this is a place that they can come to. This is a safe space for them too, where we will walk with them through whatever they are experiencing.
But, I am wondering if our youth really know that. Do they know that FCC is a safe space for them, too? Do they know that they can come to me or to Bruce or to any one of us with a concern – any concern. If they have witnessed or experienced bullying, do they know that they can raise that concern here? If they are unsure of their sexual identity, do they know that they can raise that concern here? If they have been the victim of abuse, sexual or otherwise, do they know that they can raise that concern here? Of course, I would hope, and pray, that the answer to all of these questions is, yes, this is a place that our youth know they can come to with their questions and concerns, but I am not certain and so, Bruce, and I and the CE Committee will continue to work to ensure that they do know this.
Out of my raising this issue at the meeting, I agreed to chair a subcommittee of the Coalition for Youth that we have named the Subcommittee for Community Healing. We are looking at various ways to help our community voice their concerns, hopefully begin to heal from the mistrust that they have experienced on every level and then, equip all of us with the knowledge of the warning signs as to what to look for in those who might prey upon children, warning signs of at risk youth, and how to try to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Of course there are no guarantees, but every effort will be made to educate the community about these warning signs.
The other part of this that touched me so deeply are the children who are most at risk for sexual predators, the majority of who are struggling with or unsure of their sexual identity. Teenagers who do not feel that they can safely talk either with their parents, friends, classmates or others about the turmoil going on inside of them as to their sexual identity, are more at risk for sexual predators and even for taking their own life. That is not an acceptable potential for any young person. So I want to let you all know that I have agreed to work with the schools and talk with youth who are unsure of or wrestling with their sexual identity – both in public forums and in private meetings. The trustees are aware of this and have endorsed my taking both of these community needs on. I am doing this on behalf of our community because we believe that youth are too important to us. Further, we are commanded by our faith to protect our children. Jesus would expect nothing less from any of us.
One way that we are letting our children and adults know that we care about them, is by our church hosting events such as the Concert Across America to End Gun Violence happening here this afternoon. I am so proud and honored that we can share our sanctuary with the wider community for an event such as this. It is part of our work as Christians.
James Atwood, author of America and its Guns: a Theological Expose, writes that, “Preventing gun violence is a spiritual mandate from God.” He points out the following reasons, which convinced me that this is a spiritual mandate:
“That each of us is created in the image of God; each of us is a child of God; each of us is a brother or sister in God’s family; each of us is a neighbor whom we are commanded to love as we love ourselves; and, we cannot love our neighbor, brother or sister, without caring deeply about that which hurts or kills them.”
Caring deeply about that which hurts or kills them. Mr. Atwood, of course, is talking about gun violence. I am talking about not only gun violence, but any kind of violence or abuse or hurt that our children or members of our community experience. We are called by God to care, and caring means not just talking about it, but doing something about it.
Sometimes I think that we feel that a problem is so vast that we can’t make a difference, so why bother. I remember reading a short story about a man who was walking along a beach that was littered with star fish that had be washed up on shore at high tide and didn’t get taken back into the ocean with the receding tide. This man was picking up star fish and throwing them back into the ocean. Another man watched him do this for a while and thought that what he was doing was rather ridiculous because there were literally hundreds of starfish on the beach. He thought to himself, “This man could not possibly save them all. Why is he bothering?” Well, he approached the man and said something like, “Why are you doing this? There are too many of these starfish here for you to save. What difference are you making?” The man picked up another star fish, threw it into the ocean, turned to the man and said, “I made a difference for that one,” and kept walking and picking up the starfish and returning as many to the ocean as he humanly could. He was satisfied that he had done what he could do.
I offer to you that that is the same for each one of us. We can only do what we can do in our little corner of this world, and that is enough. We cannot forget that God has called upon us and helps us to do things for those who are hurting and in need both near and far which the two reading today highlight for us. We do try as best we can to care for our neighbor as Jesus indicates in the Gospel of Mark.
In Genesis, it is interesting that Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is not answered by God. Instead, God asks Cain, “What have you done?” Now, we know that God knows what Cain has done, and yet God asks him, “What have you done?” What is it about asking the question to which we already know the answer?
It used to really bother me when I was a child and my mother would ask my brother and me what we had done, when it was as plain as day that we had wrestled with each other in the living room (which we knew we weren’t supposed to do), knocked over the end table and ripped the lamp shade. It was an accident, but she made us claim it before we were sent to our rooms as punishment.
There is something in owning what we have done that is an important part of our both naming what we did and then learning from that in order that we not do that again. Now a ripped lamp shade definitely doesn’t come up to killing one’s brother, although sometimes my older brother would claim that that was what I was trying to do to him – and of course my counter claim was that he was trying to kill me.
I think that that is what drove me to speak out at the Coalition for Youth meeting last Monday. It was my owning that perhaps I had not done enough to create that safe space for our youth. I am not indicating that any of our youth were directly abused at Greeley. However, there were children that saw what was happening, or were aware of various things happening and chose not to say anything out of loyalty to the teacher, or their friend, or they didn’t understand what was going on. There are any number of reasons they might have decided not to tell an adult what they suspected was happening. I don’t want to second guess or judge the youth of Chappaqua, so please don’t hear my words as indicating that. I am stressing this because as a house of worship, we need to ensure that our youth feel comfortable enough to question whatever they see, or don’t understand, or disagree with. We have a Safe Church Policy that the Church Council and the CE Committee worked on diligently. Bruce, Jana and I have worked together to ensure that it is followed. It is a sound policy. But a policy is on paper. How we enable our youth, how we interact with them, how we respect and support them, is what I believe will make a difference for them.
Trust has been broken – there are deep rifts in this community. In order for trust to be rebuilt, work needs to be done. Additionally, because I believe that prayer works, you will hear in our pastoral prayer today and in the weeks and months to come, a prayer for our wider community that healing will begin, that trust will be rebuilt and that we will become a stronger community because of that healing and building of trust.
We all bear a responsibility to each other and to the most vulnerable in our community. I pray that you will never wonder, “Am I making a difference” and have that hold you back from doing something or trying something new.
God expects more from us, and I pray that we as individuals and as a community also want to do more for the most vulnerable among us. Only then, as Jesus said, will we come close to the Kingdom of God.