Date: Jan. 23, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Nehemiah 8:1-10 and Luke 4:14-30
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
During the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King’s house was bombed He was out at a meeting, but his wife, Coretta, and their baby, Yoki, along with a parishioner, Mrs. Mary Lucy Williams, were in the house. No one was hurt. That night, Dr. King had to pull himself back from descending into bitterness. He tells us:
“I tried to put myself in the place of the three commissioners. I said to myself these men are not bad men. They are misguided. They have fine reputations in the community. In their dealings with white people they are respectable and gentlemanly. They probably think they are right in their methods of dealing with Negroes. They say the things they say about us and treat us as they do because they have been taught these things. From the cradle to the grave, it is instilled in them that the Negro is inferior. Their parents probably taught them that; the schools they attended taught them that; the books they read, even their churches and ministers, often taught them that; and above all the very concept of segregation teaches them that. The whole cultural tradition under which they have gown — a tradition blighted with more than 250 years of slavery and more that 90 years of segregation — teaches them that Negroes do not deserve certain things. So these men are merely children of their culture. When they seek to preserve segregation they are seeking to preserve only what their local folkways have taught them was right.” [From Stride Toward Freedom, 1958, quoted in The Radical King: Martin Luther King, Jr., edited and introduced by Cornel West, pp. 11-12.]
Each of us is in some measure a product of our culture. Part of the function of culture is to form our identity. And, as King alludes, and the “South Pacific” song reminds us, ‘We’ve got to be carefully taught.’ And sometimes what our culture teaches us is at odds with the basic human values of morality and goodness. And it is also at times in conflict with the precepts of our faith as Christians. And, as King points out, and as we know from experience as well as from thousands of years of history, sometimes even our religious tradition leads us astray.
We see this in the story that we heard from Nehemiah. The people all gather for the reading of the scroll. And when they hear the law of Moses, the intentions of God for their community, they realize how far they have strayed, and they are sad, weeping, distraught. But the leaders tell them to rejoice. They see the error of their ways. They are regretful. They want to return to God. They are sorry. They can make a new start. And this recommitment brings joy to God. And the joy of God is their strength. It will give them the power to follow through on their commitment, to start anew, to clean things up. So it is an occasion to celebrate, a new beginning, a re- turning to God.
That is the kind of hope and possibility that King and the Black church saw in the bus boycott and the civil rights movement in general. It was an opportunity for a re-set. To recommit to the values expressed in the Constitution and certainly in the Judeo- Christian tradition. Remember, most Southern segregationists were church goers. Probably most Klan members were church members, too. Here was a moment to make a new beginning. To deal with the past honestly and to chart a new course into the future that would honor the dignity and humanity of all races and classes of people. Everyone truly a beloved child of God. Sacred. To be treated with dignity and respect. Period. And wouldn’t that kind of re-set bring joy to God and offer strength to the people, all of the people?
There is a similar situation in the gospel story that we heard. Jesus is reading in his hometown synagogue for the first time. He is given a scroll. Isaiah. The verses express God’s commitment to liberation — good news to the poor. Well, they were poor, made poor by Roman extortion and taxation. Liberty to those held captive.
They were being strangled under Roman rule. They so wanted their freedom. Recovery of sight to the blind. Yes, they wanted healing and wholeness. Release to those in prison. There were many in debtor’s prison because of the land seizures and taxes. They wanted relief. And the year of God’s favor. That was a reference to Jubilee when all debts were cancelled and all land restored to the original owner. Truly an economic and social reset. They were ready. As an oppressed people, this was good news.
But then Jesus reminds them that God’s liberation is intended for all who are bound, who are suffering. The references to the widow of Zarephath and Namaan are examples of God’s concern for all people not just people of the Jewish tradition. God is committed to the poor and captive whatever their religious or ethnic identity; a God of universal compassion. Well, the people of Nazareth don’t like this. They want favored status. They want to hear about a God that focuses the rescue efforts on them alone. So when they see the gap between their desires and God’s intentions, they are not moved by sadness or regret, they are angry. And they try to drive Jesus off of a cliff. But of course, the purposes of God will prevail. Not only against an angry mob but against the grave. God’s dreams cannot be killed or snuffed out or eradicated.
So when the faith community is faced with the reality of injustice, which is a failure to love on the societal scale, how do we respond? Sadness. Yes. Anger. Yes. And there is denial.
Desert Wisdom from early Christianity tells us: “Abba John the Little said: We have abandoned a light burden, namely self-criticism, and taken up a heavy burden, namely self-justification.”
That was true in Jesus’ day. In King’s day. And in our current times.
But as we heard this morning, ours is a faith that teaches the power of new beginnings, of new starts, of the re-set. We see this in story after story associated with Jesus. Forgive 70 times 7. The prodigal son. The one without sin cast the first stone. And the forgiveness offered by Jesus from the cross. Ours is a faith that is always redemptive and reconciling. This is not to say the past should be ignored or denied or distorted. It is to say that whatever the past, there can be a way forward.
This is one of the key functions of Christianity — to help people move forward, toward greater wholeness and community for everyone so that all can thrive and flourish. It is a message of hope and transformation. With God ALL things are possible.
So it is not surprising that when it came to the bus boycott in Montgomery, this amazing mobilization was possible because it was supported completely by the Black churches of Montgomery. The churches offered their buildings for meetings several times a week for months often involving thousands of people. The churches offered their vehicles for transportation, their staffs and facilities for operations, and of course, they provided constant spiritual support through worship, prayer, and inspirational preaching from all of the clergy. It took a lot to keep people motivated and moving many miles for months and months. And the churches were there. Persisting in this painful process of transformation. This re-set.
These churches were very different in character and from different denominations which had different theologies and interpretations of scripture and ritual practices, but they could all agree that each and every human being was made in the image of God. They could agree that they were worthy of being treated with dignity and respect. And they could agree on loving your neighbor and loving your enemy, those that revile and persecute you. On those basic Christian teachings, they could agree.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the Christian community coming together like that today, white or Black. Things have become so fragmented and siloed and divided. Are there basics the faith community can agree upon? I sat near someone at a recent legislative update for religious leaders, and the topic of gun violence came up. The legislator is working for gun control. I made a comment to the woman beside me about how that was in the spirit of Jesus, and how Christians are to love their enemies not shoot them. She replied that that was appropriate for those times. At her church, they had armed security details. Ok. Well. Do we have any common ground? I don’t know. And this is a problem because the moral voice of the church, consistent with the teachings of Jesus that we see in King and others, is desperately needed today. Yes, there are fewer church goers than there were in the 50’s and 60’s. And, yes, the power of the church in society has decreased, but the possibility still exists for those of us in the church to embrace the moral authority of our tradition and speak up and speak out and not only against racism, but against every form of oppression and global warming which are strangling our country and our world.
Here there is more that we can learn from the bus boycott. When the court ruling mandated the integration of the buses in Montgomery, the Black church leaders made a concerted effort to prepare their people for this new reality. They passed out sheets with guidelines about how to behave riding the bus. They did trainings on how to behave a variety of situations that may arise. They practiced how to respond to hostility from white people. The ending of segregation on the buses was a huge re-set for Montgomery, and the Black leaders wanted to make sure that their people were prepared for this new reality. They wanted to do all that they could to support this new opportunity. They wanted to make it work for everyone. They did not want to antagonize the white bus riders or fuel further hostilities.
And how about the white churches of Montgomery? How did they prepare their people for this re-set? For this new reality? For this unfolding manifestation of the liberation that Jesus refers to from Isaiah in the story we heard today? Despite encouragement from their Black colleagues, they did nothing. Nothing to help prepare the way. Make the road smooth. Clear the path. Nothing. Maybe they thought Jesus would take care of everything for them. We don’t know.
What we do know is that we are a re-set religion. We are a faith rooted in new beginnings. The God of our tradition never abandons us. Divine Love is constant and unfailing. Our turning toward God, toward justice, toward love, toward wholeness and healing, is always an occasion for joy!
We have mammoth societal problems that plague us, and we are all dealing with personal dis-ease and heartbreak and grief. There is addiction, mental illness, and the psychological toll of the pandemics – covid, as well as racism, and sexism, and ethnocentrism, and white supremacy. There are so many divides. And now more than ever, the voice of Christianity is needed to echo Jesus, our teacher and leader – Love. Yourself. No matter how others or society treat you. Love yourself. You are holy and sacred. Love your neighbor. No matter what that neighbor looks like. Or where they are from. Or what foods they eat. Or what language they speak. Or what they wear. Or where they sleep. Love every neighbor. For every single human being is a temple of Divine Love. Love your enemy. Those who hate you. Disagree with you. Seek to harm you. Those you don’t understand. Those you can’t stand. Those who do harm. They can only be made whole with love. And we can only be made whole when we love even those we consider vile, misguided, and evil.
We come here each Sunday, to this sacred space, to this community of love and spiritual support, to be reminded of the dreams of God. And to equip ourselves to live into the compassion and healing that is possible for not only for us but for our enemy, and for our beloved world. We come here to train ourselves to go out into the world and treat everyone as sacred and holy and to honor the earth despite the forces of the culture around us that deny this reality. We come here to learn about how to seek reconciliation and restoration of relationships. We come to learn to be freed from the past which binds us and to pursue dreams of forgiveness and new beginnings. We come here to practice being part of a new reality. To be reminded that another world is possible. Things can be different. There can be change.
Here we are reminded of what is in our sacred story. There is good news for the poor. There is liberty for the captive. There is sight for the blind. There is release for those who are bound. There is economic liberation.
As we heard this morning, Jesus slipped through the crowd that sought to kill him. His ministry did not end on the brow of the hill near Nazareth. The way of God’s universal justice and solidarity and peace will persist and prevail. 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.