Date: February 3, 2019
Scripture Lesson: Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Luke 4:14-30
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
When Jesus visits his hometown synagogue and reads the assigned scripture for the day, the people are pleased and complimentary. The scripture speaks of economic justice. radical redistribution of property and wealth. These people are largely poor and struggling. The Romans are bleeding them dry with taxes to support big building projects that honor the Empire. So, radical economic liberation and inspiration are safe territory. The people like hearing what their Bible has to say about that because it is to their advantage.
But Jesus does not stop there. After reading that scripture, he goes on to reference several other Bible stories. He is not making up something new. He is simply referencing two stories that the people know well. The stories involve two top tier prophets. And both stories tell of the goodness and blessing of God being extended intentionally beyond the bounds of the Hebrew community to outsiders, others, foreigners, strangers. It’s then that the hometown synagogue crowd gets riled up. Maybe living under occupation, economically strapped by the Romans, all they had left to hang on to was their favored nation status with God. They were trash to the Romans, but at least to their God they were still the chosen people, set apart for special blessing. Maybe they were desperately clinging to that little shred of perceived privilege. We know what that is like. We see it in our context today. And when Jesus challenges that, with words from their own scripture, which could not be discounted, that was just too much.
The congregation attempts to stone Jesus and drive him off the edge of a cliff. Yes, think lynching.
Many people see the way of Jesus as a path to being a decent person. To being nice. I read a sermon online about Christianity and the way of Jesus being summed up by the phrase, Just Be Nice. There is a Just Be Nice campaign. You can get t-shirts and bumper stickers and coffee mugs embellished with the phrase Just Be Nice.
I have no problem with the concept of being nice. Especially when you get cut off in traffic. Or someone is trying to break into your house. But we’re told that some slave owners were nice to their slaves, but they were still slaves. In the lesson we heard today from Luke, Jesus is not only citing radical economic upheaval, he is calling for the dismantling of privilege, special status, and exceptionalism. Jesus is drawing upon scripture to remind us that God is the God of everyone. No exceptions. And Jesus is intentionally hitting a raw nerve because that is what faith should do – meet us where we are, and confront what is blocking us from the full, true, goodness and power of Divine Love. It wasn’t enough for Jesus to decry the Romans and the occupation. To be true to his faith, he had to offer an image of the highest good for the Romans as well as for the Jews. Even the Romans were not beyond the scope of God’s blessing.
That is what got him into trouble. That is what got people going. That is why the people want to kill Jesus. Right then and there – no court, no trial, no jury of his peers, no due process.
Jesus is living out of, bringing forth, embodying, envisioning the realm of God, the commonwealth of Divine Love, Eden, the way of God on Earth as it is in heaven, in the fullest designs of God’s imagination. It’s a huge paradigm shift. An alternative reality. It is a restructuring of society, economics, religion, power, and relationships. In the text from Jeremiah, we heard about destroying, overthrowing, plucking up, and then replanting, sowing, and building. Jesus is talking about just such a major overhaul. And he is messing with what people are holding on to, clinging to, desperate to protect – privilege.
This past Friday and Saturday I attended the annual gathering of the Florida Interfaith Climate Actions Network sponsored by the Florida Council of Churches. The topic was “Climate Impact and Environmental Inequity: Toward Justice for All.” During the course of the program, we heard from 6 people in Florida who are working on specific environmental problems that are directly affecting low income communities. People are dying because of these environmentally polluted sites. Babies, children, young adults, mothers, fathers, elders. Are. Dying. Because of pollution right here in Florida. The community leaders that we heard from have done extensive research about the situations they are dealing with. They have mobilized the communities involved. They have met with officials. They have written letters. They have gone to zoning meetings and council meetings and hearings. They have circulated petitions. They have enlisted attorneys. They are asking for the laws of the land to be implemented. That’s all. And they are getting nowhere. Public officials ignore them. Deny them. Put them off. And the corporate interests involved continue to pursue their projects with no checks and balances.
And here is something you need to know about these 6 brave tireless social justice advocates who are devoting every fiber of their beings to their communities. They are black. African American. And that is at the root of why these detrimental conditions exist in their communities and why they are not heard and their grievances are not resolved. The presenting symptom is an environmental issue but the cause is racism. And what is the cause of racism? It is a mash-up of privilege, politics, exceptionalism, and economics.
One of the first things we did at the beginning of the training was to write down what we had to offer – to the group, to the event, to the efforts at hand. Other than a willingness to listen and learn, I didn’t really feel I had anything in particular to contribute. At the end of the gathering, I spoke with one of the advocates. And I told her, that sick as it is, the only thing I feel I have to offer, is my whiteness. She said, “Thank you so much. That is exactly what we need!” And she engulfed me in a warm embrace.
Friends, dear ones, that is horrifying. It’s sickening. And just being nice is not going to create a new reality that is anti-racist; that is completely and fully free of every kind of oppression, where life can flourish, full and sweet for ALL.
We need a total makeover, a complete overhaul. The plucking up and overthrowing that God lays on Jeremiah. And we have our ancient documents to lead and guide us. Our Constitution declares that we are to have a government of the people, by the people, for the people, and that all men are created equal, which should include women, too, and that everyone in this country is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are not even talking about something new. We are talking about something yet to be realized. Still undone. Still waiting to be brought to life.
Friends, Jesus is about much more than Just Be Nice. You don’t need the church to be nice. You can be nice and not embezzle money at work, not have an affair, and donate some money to a charity, without the inspiration of the church. We don’t need the church or Jesus for that. If that is all that the church is about, then it doesn’t really matter if it fades away. People will manage to be nice without the church.
But the scriptures today remind us that Jesus is about so much more than Just Be Nice. Jesus wasn’t just nice to people – saying please and thank you and holding the door. Jesus was about healing and wholeness and honesty and reconciliation. And sometimes that is not nice. Sometimes people try to drive you over a cliff to get rid of you. Jesus was about confronting whatever structures, attitudes, and behaviors we cling to that prevent us from knowing and experiencing the full joyous awesome realm of God right here and right now. Jesus is not about just a new political party, or a new presidential administration, or a new government, and the good that can bring. Jesus is talking about full and complete transformation of our world – as individuals and as social groups. Jesus is about taking everything down to its essence and creating a new reality that naturally incorporates dignity for each and every person. A reality that is based on the inalienable sacredness of Earth and all life. Jesus is talking about sustainable community that serves all and in which no one is taken advantage of. Jesus is not talking about tweaking things, he is talking about a fundamental, radical shift in which the beauty of the reality we but dare to dream unfolds in our midst. It is glorious. It is universal. And it takes a community working together and supporting each other. The church. But Just Be Nice is not enough. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.