St. Luke’s UMC
August 30, 2020
Justice or Just-Us?
Do We Believe Black Lives Matter?
Luke 4: 16-30
Five years ago one of our pastors, Dr. Marion Miller, convinced me I need to speak at New Directions Church in which our members would be invited to join their members for a service of racial unity. Now, I’m not real proud of this, but I wasn’t eager. It was a busy time of year, I had a lot of other responsibilities and I kept trying to talk Dr. Miller into finding another preacher. But for those of you who know Dr. Miller, you understand she isn’t easily dissuaded. She was passionate about racial harmony in the city. She said to me, “Pastor,” she never called me Rob. She said, “Pastor, I need my colleagues and friends to know your heart. This would be important for you to do.” So how could I say no?
Now this was at the time the Black Lives Matter movement was starting to get a lot of attention and becoming quite controversial. I remember being home one night and contemplating to my daughters about mentioning BLM in my address. They were skeptical. They said, “Dad, do you know what you’re talking about? You should probably steer clear.” But I had an idea, I would even say it was God-given. I took a ten dollar bill and ten ones, and that night in my message I told them that I don’t know what all Black Lives Matter stands for, I know there is criticism from some. But here’s how I look at it. I held up a $10 bill. I pointed out that the value of this one bill is based on fact that it represents ten one dollar bills. It could serve as a metaphor for our society. Our value as a whole is determined by the value of the Ones who make it up. But what happens, if one of the bills isn’t being valued the same? Let’s say, one of the bills at one point in history was only valued at three-fifths the value of others—which of course is what the writers of the Constitution said about Black Americans. Now many people today can say, but we corrected that. Everyone is valued the same. But unless you live in this One’s experience, we might realize that’s not always the case, that the 250 years prior to this constitutional change, so imprinted this belief in others that it is still hard to completely eradicate. SO that Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean all lives don’t matter. It just means that unless we understand that some don’t share the American experience of others, and until we help everyone to know their full value we as a society will not experience our full value and oneness.
The response of the congregation caught me by surprise. You see, in most black churches the people talk back to the preacher. They sometimes say things like, “Help him Lord.” I expected to hear a few “Help him Lords.” But at that moment I didn’t. I heard Amens and then clapping. After the service the pastor took me aside and thanked me for coming. Then he got real serious and said, “I never thought I would hear a white preacher say, “Black lives matter.”
Now please believe me, I don’t tell that story to make me look good, because driving home that night I was thinking about the blessing I received from it all, and how grateful I was that Dr. Miller never gave up on me. She kept persisting, and had I not given in, I would have missed out on something very special.
Jesus came to let people know they matter. He came to announce good news to the poor, release to the captive, hope for the oppressed. No wonder crowds came to hear him. But there were others Jesus tried to reach, others who were not poor or captive or oppressed. He was trying to rescue them to. He wanted save them also, but from a different captor…themselves.
Today’s story is about Jesus first sermon and the response of the congregation. Many scholars suggest that the reason Luke puts this story at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry is because it foreshadows his whole ministry. SO let’s jump into it.
Jesus returns to his hometown in Galilee, a religiously conservative, all-Jewish region, after a time of traveling and performing miracles in neighboring villages. News about him has spread all around. Now he’s back home. There’s a lot of anticipation over this kid they watched grow up now doing things that are stunning people. It’s the Sabbath so he goes to the synagogue. Note that Luke says this was his custom.
Let’s take a moment and understand where synagogue worship came from. This started some 500 years earlier in the aftermath of the Israel being taken away captive by Babylon. The temple in Jerusalem (Marsha—can you find a pic of people being led in exile out of Jerusalem with temple behind them?)represented God’s presence with them. How could they worship so far removed? As the psalmist said, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.” But this is where they made an important theological breakthrough, God is everywhere. God is limited by time or space. God was with them wherever they were.
For Jews who fled to other places they began meeting in little assemblies hence the term synagogue which combines two words meaning bring together. The synagogue became an important way of feeling connected to God. Now, synagogue involvement was limited to just the men, and you had to have at least ten Jewish men in a town in order to have a synagogue. But, still, in a time when it felt God left them, when everything about life had been turned upside down, sort of like a pandemic, the synagogue was a reassurance that God was still with them. In other words, the synagogue reminds us of an important need in our spiritual lives—to know God hasn’t abandoned us.
That’s a need we all have isn’t it? We gather with other people of faith, because we want to be comforted. We want to be reassured things will be okay. Jesus went to the synagogue as was his custom. He understood this need. But Jesus also knew that if we aren’t careful, this needs becomes a spiritual addiction. It leads to a craving just to feel good but not do good. (Spirituality can lead to a craving to feel good but not do good).
So the scripture reading that day was from Isaiah 61: The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to announce good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.
Jesus then sat down. That was how you taught then, you sat to teach, and the first words of his first sermon were, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Note the word Today. It means right now, this moment! Not yesterday. Jesus doesn’t come celebrating how they have made so much progress in the past. Not tomorrow, he doesn’t glibly talking about how someday things will get better. He comes to make God’s promises happen now. And notice the response, “All spoke well of him.” Why? Because Jesus was giving more than a subtle hint that he was the Messiah. The passage Jesus read from Isaiah is connected to the Year of Jubilee described in the Torah, a once in 50 year celebration in which debts are forgiven, captives are set free. The belief was the Messiah would usher in the Year of Jubilee.
Everyone was excited. Their boy is the Messiah! If that’s good news for anyone, it’s them! You see, people understood that when the Messiah comes, this was to set free God’s people. It was good news for Jewish people. And if a Messiah was from their town, then he was going to do something special for just us.
Jesus understood this. He grew up in this world. He knew the things people said about others who were different from them. He knew the social order of life everyone believed was ordained by God. The Talmud records a morning prayer every Jewish man was to say first thing each day: “I thank thee O Lord that you have not made me a woman, a Gentile, or a slave.” In other words, Jesus grew up in a time and place where to be told as a Jewish man that he had privilege wasn’t something to get defensive about but be thankful for. That’s just the way the world is…so people thought.
Then Jesus continued his sermon saying they would no doubt quote a popular saying of the time, “Physician, heal thyself.” Literally it means, “A physician cannot heal those who know him.” What does that mean? The more we know about somebody the less likely we are to give them authority over us. Maybe its jealously. When you’ve known someone all his life, it’s easy to say, “Who does he think he is? He’s no better than me.” A physician cannot heal those who know him. Maybe it’s because we know their mistakes or past and therefore assume that defines them. A physician cannot heal those who know him.
Either way, in order for someone to be a true physician we have to give them authority. We have to be willing to accept their challenges. Quit eating fast food. Go on a diet. Start exercising. If a doctor is going to be effective, we have to be willing to let that person tell us what we need to hear. Otherwise…, well, it’s like Jesus said. “A prophet is without honor in his hometown.” Prophets didn’t typically tell you what you wanted to hear. They told you what you needed to hear. But if we already have our minds made up, if we already know what’s best, then we do don’t receive it. Jesus is telling people that when the things we believe get in the way of our caring about the full needs of others, we believe the wrong things. He’s coming to tell people to hold our convictions lightly and people tightly, not the other way around!
And this is where things really went south in the synagogue that day. Jesus quotes two examples from the Old Testament about the prophets Elijah and Elisha. You might remember we did a series on them back in June. Both of the stories Jesus referenced were about the prophets doing miracles for non-Israelites. Jesus is announcing that he will be a Messiah who doesn’t show favoritism to them, but he is inviting them to be a part of a mission to carry good news to Gentiles. And the people got so mad they tried to take him out of town and throw him off a cliff to kill him.
In this story, say scholars, we have a mini-picture of Jesus’ whole ministry. He comes to announce good news to all people; his own people don’t like it, and he will eventually be killed for it. Why? Because that day in Nazareth Jesus put on a T-shirt that said, “Gentile Lives Matter.”
I’ll let you sit with that one for minute.
The question is, do we believe that? In a sense, unless you’re Jewish, we have to We’re all Gentiles! Jesus comes to announce grace and welcome for everyone. But the question is deeper than whether we believe we are welcomed. The question for us means will we join Jesus in announcing good news to anyone who has ever been treated with lesser value? Do we believe, for instance, that Black Lives Matter?
I’m not talking about a political cause. I’m not talking about defunding the police. Even leading black congresspeople do not endorse that idea. But, we can at least understand the feelings behind it can’t we? When not more than 2 months after watching a white police officer put a knee to George Floyd’s neck this week we saw a white officer shoot Jacob Blake several times in the back at point blank range while his children were in the car beside him. Surely we understand the anger.
If all we do is get angry back, then we do nothing more than what the people in Nazareth did that day and we get offended and we try to silence the voice that would say anything other than we are just fine the way we are. If we respond by saying, “But what about the violence? What about the looting? What about crimes committed by black people?” Well, sure that’s wrong. It’s all wrong, but all we do is point out other wrongs without doing anything, then nothing changes.
I heard Tyler Perry speak in an interview recently. He talked about calling out the wrong when a police officer was shot in Atlanta and going to the precinct to offer support to fellow officers. He talked about going to the homes of victims from crime, as well as marching for Black Lives Matter. He said, “I’m going to call out wrong whenever I see it. But the point is to try to change wrongs whatever they are.”
So when it comes to racial injustice, what can we do?
Jesus came to invite people into his mission of doing something about the wrongs of his day, and changing the systems that cause a person to feel devalued. This is what we believe as Methodists. This is what our Methodist Church stands for. Just listen to some of the statement from our United Methodist Book of Resolutions:
The racist system in the United States today perpetuates the power and control of those who are of European ancestry. It is often called “white supremacy.” (Paragraph 3371)
United Methodists are called to “unite our efforts within the Church to…Work for the development and implementation of national and international policies to protect the civil, political, social, and cultural rights of all people such as through support for the ratification of United Nations covenants on human rights.” (p.3371.6)
We support Affirmative Action and ask people not to be members of clubs or organizations that practice exclusivity in any way to work to change that or resign their memberships.
And there’s a lot more. That’s not Rob Fuquay. It’s not St. Luke’s. It’s the United Methodist Church of which we are all apart. We are called to join Jesus in the work of, what was it Pastor Jevon called it last week, Redemptive Disruption. Jesus’s ministry began the way it ended, with people wanting to kill him, because he said in his own way that Gentile Lives Matter. He died for us so that we might know that truth. He invites us to find our lives by living that truth for others. And what a shame it would be to miss out on that.
When Black Lives Matter began I heard people say things like, “That’s wrong! All lives matter. Everyone should matter. Saying Black Lives Matter just divides us further.” But in bringing attention to one doesn’t mean another has to matter less. It means when one feels less worthy that is the one who needs most attention.
I remember years ago attending the birthday party of a matriarch in the church I served. This was a wonderful, loving woman who was just adored by everyone. She had a large family, like 6 or 8 children, about 20-30 grandchildren, and great grandchildren were coming along. It must have been like her 90 birthday. The family had a big celebration. After she blew out candles on her cake and opened presents, someone said, “Grandma did you always love each child the same?” She said, “Oh heavens no. I could never do that. I tried to notice the one who needed love at the time, and give that one my attention.”
How different would things be if we could deal with this issue not as a political one, not even as a social problem, but like a loving grandmother, and say, “There’s a wrong happening here. This is what needs our attention.”
What if we were that church, the church God placed here at just this time with the influence and potential we have, to be used as God wants in this matter of race? What if we said this problem is bigger than my personal preferences? What if we all asked, “God what do you want to teach me about this matter? What if I try to learn from a different perspective than what I currently hold?” What if we said, “This may be controversial and upset some people but we are going to be that church that talks about it anyway. We can’t afford to be quiet.” I believe we’d be like a church I visited some years ago in South Carolina.
Susan and I took the girls for a vacation to Myrtle Beach. We left to come home on a Sunday, but we were committed to worshipping somewhere even on vacation. I liked using it as a chance to experience different churches. I found out about a fast growing, young new church that happened to be on the highway we took home, so we went there.
I noticed, but not as much as I would now, that everyone was white. They were young. Children seemed to be running everywhere. It was a contemporary church with a great band and praise choir. Lots of energy.
Well that Sunday the pastor preached on racism. He used the story of Moses’ sister and brother criticizing him because he had married an African woman. He had this gentle but firm was about him to speak truth in love. He talked about how racism wrecks relationships and works against the purposes of God. He spoke honestly about loving black people, but not just being polite. He said they needed to change as a church and do more to welcome black members and engage in the issues that hurt the black community.
I was getting fired up by this guy. I thought, “No wonder this church is exploding. He’s biblical solid and willing to address tough topics.” At one point he stopped preaching and said, “How are we doing? Anyone getting mad yet? Well, this is something I believe God is mad about so we need to keep going.” I thought, “Why are you asking if anyone is getting mad? This is great stuff.” And then I remembered I was in South Carolina, so I figured he needed to do that. But I left that day inspired by that young man. He lovingly said to his church, we are going to be tough enough to have tough conversations. Its too important not too.
About 160 miles away in the mostly white community of Lexington there was an eight year old boy named Dylann Roof. He was living with an abusive stepfather who mistreated him and his mother. Some years later, when Dylann was 21, he drove to the all-black Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC where joined a Bible study group and then pulled a gun and killed nine people because of the racist ideology he came to believe in.
I look back now and think, what if he could have known a church like the one I attended that day. A church that cared enough to be on the lookout for a kid in an at-risk situation and draw him into a loving community that cared about him, where could have heard a sermon like I heard that day, where he would have been principles that countered what he was reading online.
What if he had been a part of that church?