Conscience Do Cost

Readings: Isaiah 6: 1-8; Matthew 9:35-38

By Rev. Dr. Nancy Parent Bancroft

Have you ever watched the series The Wire, the American crime series broadcast by HBO between 2002 and 2008? Set in Baltimore, The Wire introduced a different institution of the city and its relationship to law enforcement in each season, while retaining characters and advancing storylines from previous seasons. The overall theme of the series was about how institutions have an effect on individuals. Whether one was a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, or someone who worked for a newspaper, all were ultimately compromised and had to contend with the institution to which they belonged. The series had lots of violence, explicit sex, and what is referred to as “adult language.” Despite all that, The Wire was lauded for its literary themes, its uncommonly accurate exploration of society and politics, and its realistic portrayal of urban life especially of those living on the margins. The character development was outstanding.  The criminals were often lovable and the supposed “good guys” had serious character flaws. The dialogue was perhaps the best ever written for television and Tom and I agreed that it was the best television show that we had ever watched.  During the Covid isolation period, I rewatched all six years of the series and despite really missing sharing it with Tom, I appreciated it even more.

At the beginning of each show, the creators posted a quotation that was later spoken by a character at some point in the episode. – In one episode the quote was, “Conscience do cost.” In this show we learn that even though justice is sometimes lacking Baltimore’s institutions, one’s conscience has the ability to be permanently at work. Politicians, several police officers, drug dealers and users discover that in order to live at peace with themselves, conscience will cost them, physically, mentally and /or financially. The episode’s quote comes from Butchie, a bar owner involved in the drug trade who listens to his friend Omar, a sawed-off shotgun-carrying Robin Hood-type character who steals drugs from dealers and while supporting the needy in his community. Omar talks about his problems to Butchie, and complains about what he has to do to make things right. Butchie, then empathically replies, “Conscience do cost.”

I’ve thought a lot about that quote these last several months.  I’m convinced that if we are to be fully human, we need to consciously and intentionally remain in touch with our conscience and follow it.  We need to honor our compassion and act as if we believe that we are all truly one family, one with all of creation. But to do so, costs. Costs a lot. Conscience do cost!

In the seventies I worked as a team leader on the psych unit of a teaching hospital in Chicago.  During those years I experienced something very unusual and moving. This hospital was quite close to Skokie Illinois, which had the largest population of holocaust survivors in the U. S. –  around 7,000. Skokie is a very affluent community. The holocaust survivors living in Skokie had created new and successful lives for themselves. Now, thirty years after the end of WWII, after all that they had been through, several were being admitted to a psychiatric hospital, experiencing a mental breakdown for the first time. And not only that, they were very sick and diagnosed with a rare mental illness, catatonic schizophrenia. Most catatonic schizophrenics don’t walk or move their arms, don’t talk and appear to not hear.  They seem to have totally cut themselves off from the rest of the world. They’re totally shut down. While in a catatonic state, these individuals look and act like mannequins.

One of my responsibilities at this hospital was to do an intake interview when patients were first admitted, and of course with these patients from Skokie, I had to rely on family members for information.

During these years I wondered why a few of the many survivors who had suffered similar atrocities broke down years after their trauma, and why most did not and in fact flourished.  What I discovered is that those admitted to the hospital had dealt with their past by burying it. They had given up their cultural and religious Jewishness. They didn’t talk about or tolerate hearing about the past atrocities. They buried themselves in work and family and moved forward. Then, years later, when a child went off to college or married, or they experienced the death of a loved one; that current loss caused all of what they had buried to surface. All of their past un-grieved suffering came crashing down on them, and it was finally too much to bear. The most dangerous thing that they had buried was survivor guilt. They had survived the camps, when their parents, grandparents, siblings, other family members and friends had not.

To a much less dramatic degree, we can also suffer from survivor guilt when we see or hear about bad things happening to others. And haven’t we heard about a lot of bad things, especially in the last year and a half?  Why was I born middle class and white rather than into a black family living in the projects? Why, during the pandemic was I living in a beautiful home rather than, like many of my brothers and sisters, living on the streets? I think that survivor guilt is one reason that I often numb my awareness of the suffering in the world. Like some of my former patients I don’t want to see or hear talked about all of the misery around us, all of the need. It makes me so uncomfortable. To let myself know what I know and feel the suffering around me would require that I act. After all, Conscience — do cost!

And there is so much suffering. So much need! Global warming and all of its ramifications – killing heat, raging storms and wildfires that kill people and animals and destroy the land, whole species disappearing. And then there’s systemic racism, police brutality, gun violence, world hunger, drug abuse, civil wars, famine, the resurgence of the Taliban, huge Covid outbreaks in areas with little or no healthcare resources, political division, fear and hatred of the other – the list is overwhelming. An article in the May 24th issue of Time magazine stated, “Journalists often talk about compassion fatigue, as if getting hardened to the horrors of the world is an inevitable result of being routinely exposed to traumatic situations and stories.” Compassion fatigue. We’ve felt it. It can be depressing.  Depression is an experience of hopelessness and helplessness.  What can we really do to improve any of these problems? It’s like trying to empty the ocean with a thimble. Even if we dedicated the rest of our lives to one worthwhile cause, how much could we really accomplish? And we are so worn down! Pastor Paula talked about this beautifully in a sermon last month. How important it is that we care for ourselves, re-energize ourselves. One, because we are precious in God’s eyes and deserve it, and because all of creation is precious too and needs and deserves our help.

In today’s OT scripture reading we hear Isaiah mouthing our own thoughts. Isaiah, an official at the court of King Uzziah, is sad and upset. His beloved king, considered one of the greatest after David and Solomon, is dead; Isaiah feels deprived of the comfort and security he drew from his relationship with the king.

Then while in the temple, he has a vision that changes everything. God is surrounded by seraphim. Seraph in Hebrew means, “burning one”. These are terrifying celestial beings.   As they face the divine presence, they cover their faces with their wings, like little children who cover their faces with their hands hoping they might not be seen. They call “Holy, Holy, Holy”.

As Isaiah witnesses this, his awe becomes fear. He is convinced that having been in God’s presence will mean the end of his life. “Woe is me!” he says, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 

In seeing God, he sees himself as well. His unclean lips are a metaphor for his sinfulness, his limitedness, his wounded humanness and that of the people. Then we read, “. . . one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’”

As his sense of unworthiness and limitedness are taken away, Isaiah is transformed. Now that he has seen and experienced God’s presence, he is hearing God’s concrete question: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Isaiah’s fear is transformed and he follows his heart and enthusiastically speaks: ‘Hineni’, Hebrew for “Here am I!”

Hineni’ is a bold statement of presence in the midst of transition and change. It’s the response Abraham gives when God calls him to sacrifice Isaac; it’s the word the child Samuel uses when God calls him in the middle of the night. By saying Hineni, Isaiah opens himself to a new adventure, a commission by God.

 The Bible is not a history book.  Yes, it does include some historical events, but it’s also filled with metaphor, allegory and parallel processes. Many of the stories about individuals, really refer to God’s relationship with all of us. They are stories of welcoming, and inclusion and how important each one of us is to God. These themes are repeated over and over again throughout scripture, because just as Isaiah is awed by his strange vision, we have a very hard time believing that the Creator and Sustainer of all life cares personally about us as individuals, and seeks to be in a unique relationship with each one of us.

In both the old and new testaments, characters are always being called. And the people being chosen and empowered are flawed and limited. And when God chooses someone in the Bible, included in the call is always the message, “Do not be afraid,” and the reassurance, “I will be with you.” And these stories about Abraham and Sarah, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Esther, Peter, Paul and Mary are our stories.

 We are born limited, imperfect, we are born self-absorbed and self-centered. We need to be taught to share. And we are born into relationship, with each other and with all of creation. We are one family. And we are born with gifts and abilities and resources.  We are born into a world of great need. And we don’t retire from Christianity. No matter how old we are or how limited and worn out we may feel, we remain members of the world community that we ignore at our own peril. We need to keep contributing to grow. And as living beings, to stop growing is to die.

We need not do much. But we must do something. Yes, conscience do cost.

One issue that we may be called upon to address is racism.  We, living in Maine, have likely not been personally affected by this injustice that has plagued our country since its inception. But, during our isolation period of the pandemic, maybe, like me, you became more aware of the prevalence of systemic racism, the intensity and wide existence of discrimination, and the numbers and determination of white supremacists. Systemic racism refers to policies and practices that protect white privilege at the expense of everyone else.  If we are going to have a truly just nation, laws and practices will need to change, and if not us, our white children and grandchildren will feel the consequences as a level playing field is finally created. 

Some of you know that before the pandemic, my son Andrew starred in a Broadway musical, Freestyle Love Supreme.  The show was awarded a special Tony two weeks ago.  The show is returning to Broadway in October, but Andrew informed me that he would not be performing in as many shows as he did in the past because they will be including more people of color in the performances.  Andrew, though disappointed for himself, totally supports this move. He believes that it is absolutely the right thing to do. And I was so proud of him as he shared his thoughts and feelings about this with me. Conscience do cost!

As systems hopefully change for all those who have been discriminated against, people of color, women, LGBTQ, and immigrants, those of us who have led privileged lives will have the opportunity to support the progress of justice through our words and actions, even when it means that we or ours may need to give up some of our unearned privileges for those who through no fault of their own have suffered.

Survivor guilt, compassion fatigue and our own sense of being limited may tempt us to numb our awareness of need, but we can’t let these human challenges outweigh our divine call to be God’s healing presence in the world.  In today’s service and in the beauty and goodness all around us, may we experience Divine nurturance and strengthening. And let’s continue to support one another so that we will let ourselves hear God’s call and respond, “Hineni! Here am I; send me!”

I’d like to end by leading you in a short meditation. Wherever you are, please take a deep breath in. Hold it a few seconds, and let it go.  One more time.

Do you believe that you are precious in God’s eyes? As you listen to the music, please let yourselves feel God’s unique love for you.

God is always looking upon you with love. Rest now in that love.

As you listen to God’s continuing call in your life, what brings you peace?

What Challenges you?

How will you respond?