A couple of weekends ago New Community had the chance to host, along with some other neighborhood churches, my friend Ed Gilbreath. I reviewed Ed’s new book, Birmingham Revolution, a few months back. For the Chicago Revolution conference Ed spoke about Rev. Martin Luther King’s time in Birmingham, paying special attention to his time in jail and the resulting letter that is now so well known. He then traced Rev. King’s time to Chicago and pointed to the challenges he faced here. The entire conference was thought-provoking, challenging, and encouraging and I’m including Ed’s talk here because I think it’s very worth your time.
The Church is dying. Or maybe it’s the churches that are dying. I’m not sure which it is, but a consistent and dire theme within the literature written about church would have one believe that it’s all but over: Churches are closing their doors; Young people are choosing vague spirituality over congregational identity; Christian Faith can’t keep pace with the rapid change that defines our culture. And on it goes.
Surely some of this is true. But what is patently false is the idea that church is somehow on shakier ground today than it was during some idealized time in the past. Not only that, there is plenty of life within the churches in our towns and cities- if you know where to look.
Over the past few days I drove around our corner of the fly-over states visiting some of these churches. (Maybe that’s part of the problem. Some of the naysayers need to cease with the flyover pronouncements, walk away from their statistics for a minute, and visit some real live churches.) I sat in on a pastor’s meeting where a Hispanic pastor talked with his white colleagues about the many opportunities for ministry in their state. I had dinner with a couple who live in the city that had the country’s last documented lynching; they hope to start a multi-racial church in this segregated place. I met with a Kenyan pastor in St Louis whose church welcomes new immigrants who know almost nothing of the country they’ve landed in. The next morning I had breakfast with a bi-vocational pastor- he does construction work part time and pastors a young congregation of university students and professors with his remaining hours. From there I drove to Champaign where I was given the opportunity to preach at an African American congregation whose ministry to the marginalized has caught the attention of the city’s politicians. My trip ended in Bloomington, in the small sanctuary of a 2-year old church. On Sunday evenings they turn their space into a warming center for their neighbors who don’t have homes. I watched and listened as these men and women talked, laughed, and slept before moving on to the night shelter.
The Church is dead? I don’t think so. Long live the Church. Long live the churches.
I’m in the middle of a few days of travel to visit different church planters in Illinois, Indiana, and St. Louis. Earlier today I spent a few minutes at the Old Courthouse, the site of the Dred Scott cases in the mid 1800′s.
Here’s a lightly edited version of the sermon I preached at New Community Covenant Church on Sunday. Unlike most of my sermons this one was written quickly, after the news broke from the Michael Dunn trial on Saturday evening.
In November 2012, 17-year-old African American Jordan Davis and his friends were parked outside a convenience store in Florida when an argument broke out with the white man parked next to them about the volume of their music. The argument ended when the man, Michael Dunn shot 10 rounds into Davis’ car- some of those bullets hit and killed Davis. At his trial Dunn claimed he felt threatened, that he had to stand his ground. No gun was ever found in the young Jordan Davis’ car. Last night a mostly white jury found Dunn guilty on lesser counts of attempted murder- but for the actual murder they couldn’t agree. And so again, a young black man’s life is taken and it’s not called murder. Again, as the trial proved, the responsibility was placed on the dead man’s life to show that he didn’t deserve to die.
As Joshua DuBois wrote on Twitter last night, “Unbroken line, Emmett Till to Jordan Davis. Deadly to whistle, to play loud music. Deadly to be a young Black man in America, 2014.”
So today I want to talk about justice.
As it relates to yesterday’s verdict, I assume there are at least three groups of people here this morning: the distracted, the despairing, and the discouraged. Today I want to talk about justice by giving a word of conviction from Jesus’ life for the distracted, a word of comfort from Jesus’ death for the despairing, and a word of challenge from Jesus’ resurrection to the discouraged.
Conviction for the Distracted: Jesus’ life.
We begin with one of Jesus’ most well known parables from Luke 10:25-37.
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
We tend to focus on what the priest and Levite didn’t do and on what the Samaritan did. The first two walked by while the Samaritan stopped and cared for the battered man. But the passage records something in common between the three: they each saw the suffering man. The priest saw and passed by. The Levite saw and passed by. The Samaritan saw and took pity.
Which says to me that there is seeing and there is seeing. You and I see injustice everyday, but we don’t really see. We don’t see the humanity behind the suffering. We are too distracted to see. The priest and the Levite had places to be and people that were counting on them. Heck, they had God’s work to do. We understand this. Your life is busy. Your job is demanding. Your family is chaotic. But there are a whole lot of busy people with chaotic lives who are deeply aware of the injustices facing themselves and those they love.
What is distracting you? Please don’t blame your busyness. There are a whole lot of people who would love to trade their suffering for your busyness.
Justice begins with seeing. Jesus’ entire life was about seeing those whom others overlooked: the woman at the well; the bleeding woman; the tax collector in the tree; the daughter of his country’s oppressor. The Samaritan was able to get off his donkey and care for the beaten man because he saw him. He saw, on the side of the rode, another image-bearer of God who was created for God’s glory. He saw one whose dignity and worth had been violently undermined.
Don’t misunderstand me: this isn’t a pep talk how important it is to notice people. In fact, seeing is fundamental to our Christian faith. To begin with, our very salvation is precipitated on the fact that God saw us. We are like the Hebrew Children suffering under in bondage to whom God said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them.”
Our place within the Kingdom of God; our identities as children of God; our rescue from sin by the hand of God… all of these exist because God saw us. He saw our plight. He saw sin’s oppressive hand on our backs. He saw us and he came down to rescue us.
And there’s more: Jesus’ life was about making blind people see. In Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4:19-19 he quotes from Isaiah to lay out his agenda: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Now Jesus certainly came to with good news for real poor people and real prisoners and real blind people and real oppressed people. But as the Gospel’s also make clear, every one of us suffers from spiritual poverty and blindness. And Jesus came to heal that blindness so that we would no longer be bound within our own small worlds like the priest and Levite.
Listen: Jesus came to save you from your selfishness. He came to make it possible that you love your neighbors; really love them- as much as you love yourself. Jesus came to rescue you from the petty distractions and idols that have consumed your devotions and attentions so that you might actually see this world in all of its ferocity and pain and wonder. So to the distracted there is a word of conviction: Wake up! Jesus came that you might see.
Comfort for the Despairing: Jesus’ death.
For those who are not distracted, the murder of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and Haydiya Pendleton and the Dunbar High School student earlier this week cannot help but weigh heavily. These injustices, along with the lies and systems that seek to legitimize them have begun to grind you down.
It’s not that you don’t want to have hope it’s just that it always seems misplaced. Regardless of who the mayor is or police chief is or schools CEO is it’s the same story. Some of you hear the news of Jordan Davis’ demise and you immediately think of your own sons and daughters. As Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote in The Atlantic last night,
Jordan Davis had a mother and a father. It did not save him. Trayvon Martin had a mother and a father. They could not save him. My son has a father and mother. We cannot protect him from our country, which is our aegis and our assailant. We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition.
The Psalmist could be praying on your behalf when he asks of the Lord in Psalm 94:3-7,
How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant? They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, Lord; they oppress your inheritance. They slay the widow and the foreigner; they murder the fatherless. They say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.”
To the despairing and the doubting I can only hope to point to the one who well knows your grief. He is the one the prophet spoke of in Isaiah 4:3-5,
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Here is the Bible’s seemingly impossible claim: God’s justice was accomplished when the universe’s injustice came crashing down onto Jesus’ innocent head. That is, on the cross where Jesus hung the monsters of evil and wickedness and destruction that have wreaked havoc on our world and in our lives turned the full force of their violent fury onto God’s perfect Son.
And it was here at the cross, despite our complicity with the very evil that crushed Jesus, it was here that our salvation was accomplished. It was here the poor heard the good news that the kingdom of heaven was theirs; it was here that prisoners learned that their jailer would answer to a higher authority; it was here that scales fell from blind eyes; it was here that oppressed bodies were unshackled and ushered into freedom.
So despite the despair and doubt that some of you carry, the cross of Jesus compels me to speak to you boldly this morning. The cross does not allow me simply offer my sympathy or my empathy, as important as those may be. The cross does not allow me to offer small words of comfort; little bandages for gaping wounds. The cross does not allow me to explain away the ugliness of last night’s verdict with catchy phrases or spiritual slogans. And while we must acknowledge the despair and doubt; while we must lament together another act of justice- what the cross does not allow us to do is to grant more power to these unjust acts than they actually posses.
You’ve heard me say it many times and I will say it again from the shadows of Jordan Davis’ un-vindicated death: What the forces of evil meant for our destruction, God absorbed for our salvation. What was meant to kill us, God bore so that we would live. What appeared to the entire world as God’s defeat was, in fact, the place where God’s victory was accomplished.
And while the cross has profound consequences for our salvation and God’s restoration of all things- the cross has equally profound consequences for every single place in our world where it seems that evil is winning. Within the reality of God’s coming kingdom, there is not one tragedy that cannot be redeemed.
Does this sound callous or like a shallow cliché? I promise you, it’s not. The cross of Jesus signals to every power and principality of evil that their days are numbered. It is a reminder that their power is finite and their end secure. It is a proclamation that God is holy and just and not to be trifled with.
I know this requires faith. But consider again in whom we place our faith. Jesus said in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” So let me nudge the despairing just a bit more. If indeed God has overcome the troubles of this world through the suffering and broken body of Jesus – one who knew the face of injustice and oppression – then there is no situation of injustice that is beyond hope.
Challenge for the Discouraged: Jesus’ resurrection.
Finally, many of us this morning simply feel discouraged. You’re not distracted. In fact, you’re profoundly aware of the harsh realities surrounding us. You know that although white kids are more likely to use drugs, black kids are 10 times more likely to be arrested for it. You know that while the USA has 5% of world’s population but 25% of its prisoners, with a disproportionate percentage being people of color: 1 in every 106 white men; 1 in ever 36 Hispanic men; 1 in every 15 black men are imprisoned. You know that since the 1960’s the unemployment rate for African Americans has consistently been double that of whites. You know about the impact of redlining, housing covenants, and state-sponsored segregation enforced by bank lending policy. You know about the bamboo ceiling in the workplace that encourages the model-minority myth for Asian Americans while excluding them from top levels of leadership. You know about Hispanic immigrant churches that today are gathering in fear, wondering who will be deported next, what child will be left without a parent.
No, you’re not distracted. And You’re not despairing either, though you can imagine getting there. No, many of us feel tired, worn out, and discouraged. We relate to the disciples, walking home after the crucifixion. Not sure what happened, but sure that it wasn’t what we’d hoped for. And it’s not wrong to be discouraged; this life provides plenty of fodder for discouragement. But, even in moments of profound disappointment, discouragement can never be the only word.
If the Distracted are convicted by Jesus’ life, the Despairing are comforted by Jesus’ cross, then you – the Discouraged – can be challenged by Jesus’ resurrection.
One of the great surprises of the story of the early church is how the disciples could morph from a discouraged group of people returning to their homes after Jesus’ death to a bold community after the resurrection that is unafraid of the very same individuals who killed their Messiah. The key to understanding this transformation comes in the closing lines of Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2:36. “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” In other words Jesus’ death and resurrection are not only the surprising way through which God rescues us; they were also God’s strategy to accomplish victory over all of God’s enemies, over every source of evil and injustice.
Peter, the same disciple who once told Jesus to quick talking about going to the cross because would-be Messiahs who die on crosses are failed Messiahs; that same Peter now acknowledges that it was through Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection that his kingdom has now been inaugurated; it is coming; it is breaking in.
Earlier in his sermon Peter says that God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t a magic trick. It wasn’t an amazing miracle to convince us that he really was God. His resurrection is a victory; a victory over death itself; a victory that establishes his authority as King and Lord and Messiah. His resurrection is, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, like the first fruit of a harvest- it is evidence of what is to come in a world that still rejects his reign, where death still demands our fear and submission. But this king, Paul goes on to write, will rule until that day- when he “hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “[1 Corinthians 15:24-26]
What does this mean for the discouraged among us? It means that when Jesus sent out his disciples after his resurrection to represent his kingdom, he did so a conquering king. When Jesus said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he is reflecting the authority that comes from accomplishing our salvation on the cross and rising victoriously over God’s enemies – including death – at the resurrection.
Jesus’ resurrection calls us to action. Not in some vaguely spiritual way where everything is going to be OK. In fact, earlier in Matthew Jesus says to his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.” [10:16] No, the resurrected and victorious Jesus has sent those who confess him as Savior and King into the real world. The King has come to the world and we are sent as his representatives, his ambassadors, and his witnesses to proclaim with our words and our lives that a new kingdom is coming. We are sent to show that the powers of evil that seem entrenched, insurmountable, and irresistible have, in fact, already been defeated. Their thin power is based solely on uncreative lies and systematic deception.
The resurrected Jesus has sent us with words of life on our lips and the power of the Holy Spirit in our bodies. We have been sent to the young men who heard once again last night at the verdict of Jordan Davis’ killer: your life is cheap. We have been sent to underfunded classrooms that reek of lowered expectations to demonstrate a dignity and value that cannot be bought. We have been sent to courtrooms, newsrooms, boardrooms, and political backrooms and other places of power to remind they powerful that there is a King to whom they will answer. We’ve been sent to family members and neighbors who tacitly approve of systemic racism.
You see, followers of Jesus are like the Samaritan- we are called to acts of compassion and mercy when we come across injustice. But there’s something else. At some point we have to ask why it is that innocent travelers keep getting beat down on the Jericho road. Yes, we’ll patch you up and pursue your healing, but followers of Jesus are called to travel further up the Jericho road to find the source of these travelers’ misery. This is the work of justice. We are called to those places in the world where God’s will for humanity’s flourishing is opposed; we are called there to invest our lives, to pray with our hearts and our bodies- God may your will be done here as it is in heaven!
I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.
Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.
I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.
- “Is Atheism Irrational?” Interview with Alvin Plantinga in The New York Times.