Proclaiming Liberty

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As usual our most recent Sunday 10 AM service was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community — as well as guests.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Isaiah 61:1-4

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.


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IF YOU HAVE BEEN AT CALVARY IN THE LAST COUPLE OF WEEKS, you know we have been talking about some very difficult topics involving inequality and race. Many are understandably weary, and looking for some reprieve. With that in mind, I thought I should consult The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette:

“One of the first rules for a guide in polite conversation, is to avoid political or religious discussions in general society. Such discussions lead almost invariably to irritating differences of opinion, often to open quarrels, and a coolness of feeling which might have been avoided by dropping the distasteful subject as soon as marked differences of opinion arose.”[1]

The Gentlemen’s Book, first published in 1860, also includes tips for etiquette when attending church, including “Never enter a pew uninvited,” and “If others around you do not pay what you think a proper attention to the services, do not, by scornful glances or whispered remarks, notice their omissions. Strive, by your own devotion, to forget those near you.”[2]

For a more recent view, columnist Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, encourages readers to “invoke the etiquette rule against discussing politics, religion or sex at social functions (except among people who are known to be in agreement or unfailingly polite). They know that someone is bound to ask witheringly, ‘Well, what are we supposed to talk about? The weather?’ No. Too controversial. Climate change is only too likely to provoke an emotional argument.”[3]

So at church we’re supposed to ignore people.

In society, we can’t even talk about the weather.

What would happen if the prophet Isaiah came to dinner?

It’s important to know that “Isaiah” wasn’t just some guy who wrote an epic book. The prophetic words we can read in the 66 chapters of Isaiah have at least three distinct authors during a time of great turmoil for the people of Israel, still dealing with exile and captivity, and loss of land that had been held in families for generations. Today’s passage in Isaiah 61 comes from what is often referred to as “Third Isaiah.”

His words were controversial in approximately 515 BCE, and were still controversial when Jesus walked on earth. In fact, Jesus was almost killed for quoting Isaiah in the temple. When he read from the scroll with words from Isaiah, with good news for the poor and release for the captives, he was viewed as a threat. According to Luke 4:28-30, the religious leaders of the time drove him out of town with the intent to hurl him off of a cliff! Jesus escaped and continued to disrupt.

Why were the words of Isaiah so controversial? Who would be opposed to preaching good news to the poor?

William P. Brown, a Professor of Old Testament I respect at Columbia Theological Seminary, explains that the call to proclaim liberty was especially challenging because “’Liberty’ thus means more than freedom; it involves a socioeconomic reconfiguration of community.”[4] The Hebrew word deror, translated as liberty here, also relates to the release of slaves or tax exemption. When Isaiah speaks of liberty and “the year of the Lord’s favor” (61:2), the prophet is calling for a time of jubilee, a year of release when property is returned to its original owners and those held in captivity for debt or military reasons are released. This would have been incredibly disruptive to those in power!

As I shared last week, I know we have a wide range of views in this congregation.

God’s justice transcends our political classifications and the news sources we turn to. The reality is that the some of the same cycles that existed 2,500 years ago are still going strong.

Would we allow Isaiah or Jesus at our dinner party?

If we just keep avoiding difficult conversations, or only discussing challenging topics amongst ourselves, how do we expect the situation to change?

Today it is my honor to introduce Stevon Cook. Stevon is a on the board of San Francisco Achievers, one our focus partners on Calvary’s Breaking Cycles of Poverty initiative. Stevon is a third generation San Franciscan, a graduate of Thurgood Marshall High School and Williams College. After Williams, Stevon returned to San Francisco where he resides in The Bayview and is an active voice for education in the city.


Examining Privilege, by Stevon Cook

This is my first time at this church, and I was really surprised when I came up – you have valet parking. And I walked in and one of the ushers approached me like she’s known me for years, and I was kind of afraid – like, “Do we know each other?” It’s a blessing to be here. Especially around this time of the year.

I have a Christmas story about my grandmother. She raised me, and had taken in some of her other grandchildren before I had come to live with her. One of my older cousins, Marquis – who was about five at the time – he and she left a Christmas event at the church and were driving home when Marquis asked her, “Grandma, Santa was at the event…”

“Yes, that was Santa,” my grandmother answered.

Marquis said, “Well, that Santa was black.”

“That’s right,” said grandma.

He asked, “When is the real Santa coming?”

Which is funny for a kid, but also highlights a lot around how we perceive legitimacy and truth, and what we accept to be real and not real.

I think the events of today – the angst that is happening across the country around the decisions from the grand juries – represents a commentary on privilege and citizenship, and the divides that are being increased between communities.

It’s really hard to talk about these things in a larger societal way. It’s much easier to reflect on them in one-in-one conversations. When I met the founder of SF Achievers, Henry Safrit, I was at Thurgood Marshall working directly with students that had the same life experiences that I did growing up. Henry is from the South and comes from a very different life path. When we met, it was fascinating to me that this older white man was giving money to kids he had never met so they could go to college, because he saw a need that had to be addressed. Many of us celebrating that – we thought it was fascinating. But when we started to have conversations around the nature of the problem facing black boys in school, that’s when we began to have some real differences of opinion. We had some very tense conversations about why things were the way they were.

In San Francisco, we have the widest achievement gap in the state of California. So the difference between students that achieve at a high level – White and Asian students between African American students – is larger than any other city in the state of California. We have also noticed through the events of the past several weeks – people have talked about the disparities in the criminal justice system, and how so many outcomes have been racialized – how black and brown folks are disproportionately sent to jail for the same offences of white people. So these conversations are constantly happening, but why they’re happening – why things are the way they are; how did we get to this point, and where do we go from here?

There are two ways of thinking about the problem. Either you can believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with the black and brown people that are being adversely affected by the system – that in some way this community of people is inferior. You can believe that these kids comes to school and are just like everybody else, but for some reason they just can’t get it together. For some reason they just commit more crimes than other people. That’s one way to think of it – that these people are somehow inferior.

There’s another way of thinking. Which is that we’ve designed an institution that does not understand, nor wishes to acknowledge, that it has failed to support a community of people in the way that it should. And we call that “institutional racism.” So based on what you look like and what community you come from, we can predict what your outcomes will be –purely based on race.

To find a solution requires people like Henry and myself working together, not only to support people in need, but to also change our perspectives about what they need.

This year, I actively sought to be part of the power structure in San Francisco. I ran for School Board. I probably littered your neighborhood with my face. The way I see working through these issues is through policy. As the youngest candidate in the race, in a citywide election, I put my hat in the ring to run for office. It was the most fascinating and difficult experience I’ve ever undertaken. And I lost by a tiny margin – a half percent of the vote. The person who backed me the most was Henry, who held three events for me and talked to all of his friends – folks who don’t agree with my politics at all had my sign in their windows. Henry has privilege. I had no idea what John Weems looked like before yesterday. He asked Henry if he know someone who could speak about these issues, and Henry told him about me. Now here I am in front of you, a group of people I’ve never met. That’s access and privilege. And now I’m benefitting from that in some way – to extend the work that we are seeking to do together.

The facts are clear. There is a big problem with the way our institutions are affecting certain communities. The Black Live Matter movement was founded by a group of black lesbian feminists, and co-founder Alicia Garza endorsed my campaign. So we have people like Henry, a retired doctor living in Pacific Heights, doing this work, and Alicia starting a movement that has gone nationwide – stopping the BART station, shutting down the freeway, also doing this work. Both essentially saying the same thing: that sometime is fundamentally wrong with the way our institutions are treating these certain communities. And unless we come together to find common solutions and raise awareness, the issues will continue.

This is an invitation. An invitation to vote for me the next time I run… And invitation to speak to people like Henry. More so, an invitation to look at the privilege that you occupy in your community, the network that you’ve established for yourself, how you extend that network to people in need, and who deserves a helping hand and who doesn’t. That work is difficult, because it’s internal work. And it’s not necessarily something I would bring up in casual conversation. But it is a real invitation. We live in this city together. My grandparents built a life here – my grandfather working in the ship yard. They lived in Western Addition, when nobody wanted to live there. Now my grandma’s home is worth millions of dollars, and people call her every year asking, “Miss Cook, if there was anywhere in the world you could live after you move, where would it be?” And she says, “Heaven.” She’s not going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere. And the people here that remain, that really care about the future of this city and our community, are charged with not sitting on the sidelines and getting involved. That starts with acknowledging our own privilege, seeing how it plays out in our lives and in the lives of people around us, and figuring out ways to leverage it to move another generation forward.

So thank you all for letting me be here. I appreciate you, and I look forward to meeting all of you.



[1] Cecil B. Hartley, The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness Being a Complete Guide for a Gentleman’s Conduct in All His Relations Towards Society (First published 1860, Accessed via eBook, 2012), 13.

[2] Hartley, 183-84.

[3] Judith Martin, “Miss Manners,” The Washington Post, April 13, 2014.

[4] William P. Brown, in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 53.





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