Turn Signals, Part II

John 4: 4-9; 16-24; 27

James 2: 1-13

Growing up, one of my favorite television shows was the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This show was hilarious and hip. It introduced the mainstream, American audience to a young rapper/actor by the name of Will Smith. Incidentally, Will Smith went by the name Will Smith in the television show. The premise, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is that Will was a troublemaker when he was growing up in West Philadelphia. Or, according to his side of things, others were the troublemakers and he got blamed for it. Long story short, his mother sends him to live with his aunt, who is a professor, and uncle, who is a lawyer – both successful enough to have a mansion in Bel-Air.

Part of the reason that this show was so popular was that it brought issues facing African Americans into the middle-class American household. There was one episode that aired during season 1 titled, “Mistaken Identity.” In this episode, Will’s Uncle Phil and Aunt Vivian go to a party in Palm Springs and instruct Will and his cousin Carlton to drive to the party in Phil’s partner’s Mercedes Benz. On the way to Palm Springs, the boys get lost and are pulled over by the police for “going too slow.” Then, the police find out that the Mercedes is not theirs, so the boys are booked on car theft. They’re even told they “match the description” of car thieves in the area.

While in jail, Will and Carlton cannot get a hold of Vivian and Phil. So Will has an idea: he’ll confess to all the car thefts if a local news crew is present to record the confession as well as broadcast it live. A news crew shows up and Will gives his “confession,” with Carlton nervously standing beside him. Sure enough, at the party in Palm Springs, Vivian and Phil see the confession on TV. They rush over to the police station and demand that the sheriff release the two boys. The sheriff brushes them aside, but when Uncle Phil’s White partner comes in, the sheriff does nothing but cater to him. But once Phil’s partner points out who Phil is, and who the boys are, the sheriff knows he’s in trouble. Phil chews him up and spits him out in a tirade that ends with, “You get those boys out of that damn cell or I’m going to tie this place up in so much litigation your grandchildren are going to need lawyers!”

The crowd cheers and the boys are released. But what really makes this episode special is when the family arrives home. We see Carlton trying to explain away the police officers’ actions. He keeps on saying, “They were just doing their job.” This infuriates Will, because Will knows those cops were not doing their jobs. Even after Will gets onto Carlton about how they were pulled over because they were Black, Carlton still insists, “They were just doing their job!”

Once Will goes upstairs for the night, Phil comes in. Carlton says that he’ll have to write Phil’s partner a thank-you note for helping them out. Phil replies, “It shouldn’t have happened in the first place son.”

“Dad,” Carlton stops Phil, “If you were a policeman and you saw a car driving two miles an hour, wouldn’t you stop them?”

“I asked myself that question the first time I was stopped. Goodnight, son.”

Phil walks out of the room and the camera focuses on a confused Carlton, sitting on the couch. “I would stop them,” he says to himself. Then the camera fades out.

You can view that part of the episode I referred to here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQtDXxXyPYQ

Last week we talked about how bad it is not to use a turn signal. How, when you fail to use that turn signal, you’re not treating your fellow people as equals. But now, we have to look at what happens when we fall asleep behind the wheel.

That episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air aired on October 15, 1990. That’s 25 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. 25 years after people marched from Selma to Montgomery. 33 years after the Little Rock Nine entered the halls of Central High School. Yet, the writers of the Fresh Prince felt compelled to bring up racial profiling in their situational comedy.

And, 24 years after that episode first aired, we have the same conversations about race in America today. This is where I have to insert my own qualifier. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m White. Not only am I White, but I’m also a man. Not only am I a White man, but I’m also a straight, White man. AND, I grew up in an upper-middle class household! That means I sit outside of the affected group in these conversations. I am in the most privileged group of people in the world today. People like me have defined history. My ancestors made things happen the way they wanted them to happen. People like me started the Atlantic Slave Trade. People like me instituted Jim Crow in the South. People like me arrest or kill innocent Black teenagers in the streets today.

But just because I’m like those people, doesn’t mean I am those people. But because I am like those people, I benefit from a system that has wreaked havoc on those that are not like me. If I had it my way, White people all throughout history would have acted differently. If I had it my way, Black parents would not have to tell their sons and daughters to be cautious of police. If I had it my way, there would be no White privilege.

And the church is filled with millions of White people who think exactly like me. Good Christians don’t want there to be an unbalanced system in which people are treated like second-class citizens based on the color of their skin. Good Christians don’t want police to react violently to people who are protesting for their basic human rights. Good Christians don’t want Amnesty International to monitor situations in their own country because of the brutality of the current system in place. Yet, in a country full of good Christians, this is the case, and has been the case, for the entire history of our country.

We, as Christians, particularly White Christians, have a troubled past. We have a past full of genocide, slavery, discrimination, and many, many uncomfortable things. We have a history of shying away from things we’re uncomfortable with. We have a history of, when faced with injustice, putting the car in cruise control and saying, “God will take care of it… eventually.” We just stay the course that society has lined up for us. People that enjoy the status quo set our GPS to the easiest route. We watch all of this happen, and we care not for the justice that God wants.

The Jesus that was at the well would be extremely disappointed in us. This Jesus who was at the well engaged a woman. Men didn’t talk to women one-on-one in those days! The Jesus that was at the well engaged a Samarian woman! Jews hated Samarians! Jesus at the well engaged a Samarian woman that had been divorced multiple times! Divorced women, particularly women that had multiple husbands, were thought to be the worst kind of person! A woman who had been throw to the bottom of the societal pyramid directly received the message of Christ. The Jesus that approached the well threw away the shackles of societal expectations. Jesus at the well engaged that person on the bottom of the pyramid as a full and legitimate equal person. But that’s not what we do.

We put people in compartments. Rich are treated better than poor. White is treated better than Black. Men receive more advantages than women. We separate ourselves from each other. Our society is asleep at the wheel, but still has the cruise control set at 60 miles an hour. Our societal automobile has become a dangerous, dangerous weapon.

Be quick to note that the disciples thought it was strange that Jesus was talking to this woman. They questioned this interaction. “Why are you speaking with her?” They didn’t say anything, though. They just let Jesus be Jesus. But in that letter from James, we see that this action had a profound impact on the disciples.

James says every time we show favoritism for one person over another we fail. Every time we ignore that certain people receive preferential treatment over others, we fail. Every time we see that one group of persons in our society is treated worse than others, we reject the Jesus who openly talked to the woman at the well. We see what Jesus taught us, and we turn the other way. Even in this section of the letter, we hear James declare to us, “… ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

There’s this web-comic that I absolutely love. It describes the process of God creating a new child. It starts off with God and the child on a cloud together and God leans over and says, “Looks like you’re about ready to start.” God picks up the child and asks, “What would you like to do?”

“What would you like me to do?” the child answers.

“That’s up to you,” God says as he’s carrying the child over to a smaller cloud, “Just be nice and try to have fun.”

The child is now floating down to Earth on the smaller cloud and says, “That’s easy!”

With the smaller cloud out of the picture, we see God walking away and shrugging, saying, “You’d think.”

It’s hard for us humans to just be nice and have fun. It sounds easy, but we’re so easily corruptible. We’re made good, in the image of God, but once we get going, we forget that image. We know we can love one another, but it’s just so hard to do so. We know wrong when we see it, but it’s easier to walk away than confront that wrong with love. We see our faults in the past, but we’d rather sweep them under the rug than face our own shortcomings.

Despite all this, we have hope. We have hope, because we were made to act in love. In the lectionary for today, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul tells us, “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake… For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” Treat all people like Jesus treated the woman at the well. Love all people as you love yourself. Accept the challenge to love.

Acting in love is facing injustice head on.

Acting in love is facing our shortcomings.

Acting in love is admitting to the oppressed when we have been the oppressors.

Acting in love is walking in the light, towards equality for everyone.

Let’s wake up! Let’s take control of the wheel! Let’s use our turn signals! Let’s get off of the map that the oppressors want us on and find our own routes! Routes filled with love and justice and equality! Go forth from here and all spaces and use your turn signals with love and peace and grace!

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