Truth: Repentance

A large part of the curriculum for my first course in theology (taught by the ever-inspiring Dr. Cynthia Rigby) was theological vocabulary, and the process is just as you may recall from elementary school. We were given words each week which we had to define using dictionaries, lectures, and discussions; every few weeks there would be a short quiz where we were to prove our understanding of this new language we were discovering. We learned little words we thought we knew: Faith. Heresy. Grace. Vocation. Sin. Theology. We learned big words and phrases: Epistemology. Hermeneutics. Predestination. Homoousias/Homoiousios. Fides quaerens intellectum.

In the gospel reading this week (Luke 13:1-9) Jesus uses a word that a lot of us probably know, or at least think we know: repent. When I hear this word my mind is drawn to old-timey pastors holding signs on street corners that read “Repent for the kingdom is nigh!” (Matthew 3:2). I recall being a child, sitting in the old Mile High stadium in Denver, listening to Billy Graham declaring the sins of those in attendance and their need for repentance. Youth conference leaders begged us to come forward and repent of our sins so as to enter into relationship with God. In each of these cases, the definition of repentance has somehow been replaced with confession.

“Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand” Gelatin silver print 28.9×23.9 cm. Dora Maar, 1934.

It’s understandable in the context in which I grew up, where salvific-evangelism and weekly reports of how many so-and-so had saved was king, but I sure wish they’d have just called it confession. I wish they called it for what it was: an act of acknowledging and articulating one’s sin.[1] Their altar calls rarely (if ever) allowed space or time for repentance; these moments in arenas and stadiums are momentarily life-changing, but what about tomorrow? What about when those who went forward to confess their sins had to go home and face the causes of their sins? What about those who confessed on Sunday morning then went about their life Sunday afternoon?

In our new testament scriptures, this word translated ‘repent’ comes from the Greek word μετάνοια (metanoia), and it essentially has two components to it: “sorrow for sin and turning from sinfulness to righteousness”[2] The Heidelberg Catechism – one of the documents the PC(USA) uses to help us understand our faith – tells us that in repentance there is “the dying-away of the old self, and the rising-to-life of the new.”[3] Going further, the catechism tells us that the dying-away of the old self persuades us “to be genuinely sorry for sin and more and more to hate and run away from it” and that, in rising-to-life of the new we have a “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God by doing every kind of good work.”[4]

This is far beyond simply confessing of one’s sins; repentance is the confession of sin and the movement away from it, it’s admission and advancement. When, in the Lukan narrative, Christ tells those in his presence that they must repent, he’s not telling them to merely come forward, admit their sins, and then go on sinning again; no, he’s telling them to admit their sins and work to sin no more. He’s telling them that the mercy of God has afforded them this moment for repentance, for declaring one’s sins and a commitment to move away from them.

When we follow Christ’s call to repentance we take a long, hard look at our own life and the ways and means by which we have violated God’s will. We reflect on those deeds, thoughts, and words which have caused distance between us and our Creator. We admit where we have sinned, where we have failed, where we have done wrong and, in understanding repentance, we don’t stop there; we don’t admit our sins and then go on sinning – no, we confess where and how we have sinned and we work to remove ourselves from them. Repentance calls us to confession and change, to acknowledgement and advancement.

This repentance stuff isn’t just a personal-sin thing…it’s a Christian-community thing. We live in community and sometimes (quite often) we also sin in community. When we follow Christ’s call to repentance, we look at our Christian community’s complicity in slavery, not merely admitting complicity, but also making movements to ensure the end to slavery in all its forms.

We hold difficult conversations about systemic and institutional racism; we read books that don’t whitewash history but ones which plunge us into the blood and tears drawn by slave owners. We make conscious efforts and take deliberate actions to ensure equal and equitable opportunities for all people, not just in our Christian community but in our global community, calling out racism when we see it – even at the risk of our own security and safety.

When we follow Christ’s call to repentance, we confess the ways in which we have been hurtful, harmful, and hateful toward our LGBTQIA+ neighbors and siblings in Christ. But beyond confession we work to understand, love, encourage, and advance their rights and liberties. We meet to learn and understand language and the importance of word choice. We ensure our own companies – and those we support – refuse discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice. We listen to and honor the stories of coming out, of being invited in, of finding community, relationship, acceptance, and love. We follow Christ’s commands to “do to others as you would have them do to you”[5] and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”[6]

When we follow Christ’s call to repentance, we confess the ways in which we have ridiculed and refused, denied and derided, ignored and insulted those experiencing homelessness, those widows and orphans among us, those unjustly jailed and imprisoned, those who are beyond our income, our intelligence, our imagination. But beyond confession we stand against economic injustices which prevent financial proliferation and prosperity. We defund the ways and means of war, using the money instead to fund shelters and food banks, early childhood education and subsidized healthcare. We seek humane ways to enact justice, fair ways to shape reconciliation, and arrange for restoration. We give food and drink, shelter and clothing, health and healing as freely as it has been given to us.[7]

In repentance we not only confess our sins, we not only work to move away from them, but we live with “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God by doing every kind of good work.”[8] Repentance isn’t some gloomy, dreary, downer – it’s a call to life abundant, life resplendent! Repentance gives us the opportunity to not only be renewed and restored, but to live into it. Through repentance we’re given a new life and a new way of living. Because of repentance we are able to invite others to join us in this joyful, delightful life.

Friends, Christ calls us to repent and he gives us opportunity upon opportunity to do so. But there will come a day…there will come a day when He will judge us. Christ will judge the ways in which we did or didn’t feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger. Christ will judge the ways in which we did or didn’t clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. Repent, my friends. Move away from the death of sin – “more and more…hate and run away”[9] from the old, dead life and run towards the life-giving, joy-filled life found through repentance with Christ. May it be so.

much love. sheth.

—–

[1] The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms s.v. “confession”, Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 63.
[2] The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms s.v. “metanoia”, Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 197.
[3] “The Heidelberg Catechism” Question 89 (4.089) from The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Part I: Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2016), 59.
[4] ibid.
[5] Luke 6:31
[6] Mark 12:31
[7] Luke 6:38
[8] “The Heidelberg Catechism” Question 90 (4.090) from The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Part I: Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2016), 59.
[9] “The Heidelberg Catechism” Question 89 (4.089), 59.

Truth: No Going Back.

Eighth Sunday After Epiphany: Transfiguration Sunday

There’s a danger in seeking to return to ‘normal’ – to those days and things we were so accustomed to pre-COVID. We long for those times when we didn’t worry about masking and public healthcare, about vaccines and business-rights, about being together in work and worship. Now, all of these things weigh heavily on our minds in one way or another because we so enjoyed the way things were.

On this side of it, pre-COVID life feels so footloose and fancy-free, a time when we could do anything with anyone, never having a care in the world. We want to go back to that – to that normalcy, to that which we knew best, to that which comforted us and calmed us. We want to go back to the moments we knew best. We want to go back because it’s in those times and spaces when and where we felt most pleased, most satisfied, most contented.

But the danger in going back – the danger of not moving forward – is stagnation. When waters cease moving malaria and dengue persist, bacteria and parasites flourish. When economies see little or no growth, unemployment rises and sales fall, wages flounder and worker satisfaction dips. When we are no longer willing to ensure future generations succeed, when we fail to guide our children through life, when we ignore mentoring and volunteering opportunities we fall into stagnation – we feel disconnected and uninvolved with the world around us. The danger of stagnation, of going back, of not moving forward is sickness, insecurity, selfishness, separation and death. Returning to ‘normal’…going back…not moving forward is not an option for the living.

In the gospel of Luke we read about the Transfiguration of Jesus – an event spoken of in each of the synoptic gospels (Matt. 17:1-8; Mk. 9:2-8; Lk. 9:28-36). Jesus takes the closest apostles – Peter, James and John – and they head off into the mountains to pray. There on the hilltop Jesus experiences the transfiguration; Luke says, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” As great as this is, it gets even better: “Suddenly, they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him (Jesus).” The apostles are in full fanboy mode now, because Moses and Elijah are the prophets, they’re the fathers of the faith, ancient men suddenly present in the apostle’s midst.

Augustin Kolawole Olayinka – The Transfiguration

It’s a moment that Peter desires to be frozen in time – it’s a moment he wishes to remain in forever – and he proposes to Jesus that it should be so: “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah” (emphasis mine). Peter wants to push the pause button on life to hang out with these great men of his faith – a completely understandable desire. He wants to hold on to this moment – so much so that he doesn’t even care if he sleeps in the open – as long as he doesn’t have to move forward, as long as he doesn’t have to return to his ‘normal’ life.

Remaining on the mountaintop with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, though, would mean stagnation for Peter, James and John. What good would it do them to be in the presence of these prophets but have no one to tell? The apostles could certainly gain oodles of wisdom and understanding, but if it’s not shared with others that knowledge stagnates and becomes worthless. What good is good news if it’s not told to others? Peter’s request is understandable – we get wanting to not move forward…we get wanting to go back – but going there is sure and certain death.

There are moments I long for, moments that I wish I could return to: the last time I visited my grandma in the nursing home and held her frail hand; to the moment I selfishly chose to walk away from a dear friendship; to the moment in seminary when I felt most accepted and loved for who I was. I want to return to these moments because they were precious to me, and I want to hold on that…because they were hurtful to me (and others) and I want to repair that…because they were life-giving, life-bearing, life-resurrecting and I need that right now. But those moments are long-gone, and going back to them to remain in them would leave me in the past, in what was, in the things that are long-since dead. I have to move forward, I have to press on because going back would be my own sure and certain death.

We have to move forward, we must move forward because what was can’t be what is, and what is can’t be what will be. The danger lies in staying put, in holding on, in striving to maintain this for all of time. My marriage will die if I try to maintain what is and not pursue what it will be. My self will be a lie if I go back to being the person I was in 2003. My relationship with God will become void of life if I try to keep it the way it is right now without any hope and vision for what it will be.

The Church will die if it tries to go back to ‘normal’ – to those pre-COVID days that we knew so well, that we worshiped in so well, that we were comfortable with, never thinking about accessibility, health care, and connection. Our local church will die if we hang on to what was, to what we were so fond of, to what was best for us in our time way back when. Blacks and Asians, Indigenous and Migrants will continue to face racism, oppression, hatred and death if we go back to what was…if we stay in what is. The unhoused and migrant populations will continue to go unnoticed and abused if we go back to what was…if we stay in what is. The danger in not moving forward is stagnation, and stagnation is sure and certain death.

The manna we are fed is meant for today…we can’t save it, we can’t go back to it. Yesterday’s provision is rotten and moldy and will certainly kill us. The encounters we have with God on these mountaintops are meant for today…we can’t stay here forever, we can’t go back to them. The God we serve is not the God of stagnation and death, but the God of the moving and living.

We are meant for the now and the not yet – we are meant to live, to move, to grow and flourish. We are called to life and hope, to free the oppressed, to lift up the suppressed, to give mercy to those whom we have power over, to love our neighbors – to love our enemies(!). We are called to correct injustice, to care for creation, for widows, for orphans. We are called to life – to life abundant. There is no turning back.

Have you decided?
There is no turning back.
Though none go with you, will you go forward?
With the world behind you, and the cross before you, will you go forward?
There is no turning back – no turning back!
Don’t let death win – have you decided to not turn back?
Life is there, ahead of us, in abundance. Have you decided?
What a world it will be when we declare that there is no turning back!

much love. sheth.

Honest Patriotism: Crippled by the Manacles of Segregation and the Chains of Discrimination

Ephesians 4:1-6; 25-32 (NRSV)
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

[This is the text of the sermon delivered to First Presbyterian Church of Aurora, MO on July 4, 2021]
—–
The author of this morning’s passage to the church in Ephesus was writing to encourage them, to bolster their faith, and most importantly, to remind them of who they are: free people in service to God, called to live in the world and live out the kingdom experience for their neighbors. The author doesn’t suggest that the church in Ephesus live a good life – he begs them to live a life worthy of the people God has chosen to be God’s own; he begs them to live as a free people in God’s service. It’s language that’s pleasant to our ears, especially this morning.

We as Americans love our freedoms, don’t we? Our entire country is founded on the idea of freedom: on this date in 1776 our country’s forefathers met in Philadelphia, declared twenty-seven grievances against King George III, and summed up the entire document by saying “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.”[i] With the signing of the Declaration of Independence 245 years ago, we as the United States declared our independence and freedom from the monarchy. We set aside this date to commemorate and celebrate our freedom, to reflect on the sacrifices made to be free, and to educate ourselves and those around us about our freedom.

The Presbyterians who signed the Declaration, and those of us who continue in this vein of Christianity acknowledge that our faith and civic lives are inextricably linked to one another, therefore we are committed to active civic engagement, responsible citizenship, and prophetic witness, striving diligently to ensure that all parts of our lives are good, right, and honorable. And when things aren’t good, right, and honorable, it is our duty to make them so. It is our calling as Americans to ensure that these hopeful and hope-filled words are upheld and achieved across our lands: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”[ii]

While the contents of this sentence are aspirational, they are not altogether unachievable, and our nation has made considerable strides to ensure that more and more of our citizenry is able to live out these unalienable rights. President Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the ratification of the thirteenth amendment in 1865 both freed our slaves and abolished slavery while simultaneously taking our nation a step further to ensure that each person in our nation could pursue their unalienable rights of life, liberty, and happiness.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, Lincoln’s decree “came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”[iii] With the Emancipation Proclamation, millions of our nation’s slaves hoped that they would be able to live out the dreams of our nation’s forefathers, for – according to those forefathers – our black brothers and sisters had every right that our white brothers and sisters had: “all men are created equal.”

In the shadows of the Lincoln memorial in 1963, Dr. King reminded our nation of a brutally honest truth: “…one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free; one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”[iv]

Dr. King’s often brutal honesty – not only in this speech, but in so many others – was not an outpouring of hatred felt toward oppressors but was instead the work of his faith seeking accountability for his patriotism; Dr. King was an honest patriot, a person who loved this country enough to remember its misdeeds[v] while also working to ensure that those misdeeds were not merely swept under the rug but were brought to the nation’s collective sight to educate and correct. Today, nearly sixty years since Dr. King’s words echoed across the grounds of the National Mall, we as a nation are still in those same struggles: our black brothers and sisters are still manacled and chained by segregation and discrimination.

While our country has worked to desegregate its schools, systemic racism in our education systems continue to divide our students. Black boys as young as ten are often mistaken to be much older, are more often perceived as guilty, and face police violence much more often than their white classmates.[vi] These deep-seated beliefs and misunderstandings lead to unfair treatment, more frequent suspensions and expulsions, and have fed the ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline. Our students of color are leaving schools in disproportionate numbers, and those who remain often find themselves in chronically underfunded schools and in districts with unlicensed educators.[vii] As they seek learning and education, our young brothers and sisters are still crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

While our nation’s legislators proudly signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they effectively washed their hands of any further work and, over the decades the bill has been whittled down, most recently this past week with the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold two Arizona laws which restrict voting for its citizens. Systemic racism in our elections has upheld voter suppression: enacting strict voter ID requirements and government-validated residential street addresses, felony disenfranchisement, and the denial of representation for US territories.[viii] Through unjust, racist voter suppression tactics meant to target people of color, our brothers and sisters are still crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

Our nation’s doctors take an oath to “do no harm or injustice”[ix] to their patients, yet systemic racism pervades even our medical spheres. Hospitals and clinics once designated for ethnic minorities continue to experience significant financial constraints, often under-resourced and under-staffed. Medical professionals’ implicit biases inadvertently permit black patients to receive less care and treatment compared to their white patients. In the past six months we have seen how COVID-19 treatments were quickly and effectively rolled out in white communities, while both testing and vaccines have been slow to find their way into communities of color.[x] Our brothers and sisters are sick and dying without treatment, still crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

While our nation’s military recruits men and women from all ethnicities, commanding officers of color are less likely to be taken seriously, to be respected, or to receive promotions. The military judicial system has “no explicit category for hate crimes, making it difficult to quantify crimes motivated by prejudice,” leading to soldiers with extremist views remaining in uniform. Persons of color are less likely to receive promotions, they experience flagrant racist epithets, and are not allowed to use protective hairstyles, leading to hair loss, scalp pain, and having to find ways to have straight, European hairstyles.[xi],[xii] While voluntarily and courageously serving our nation, our black brothers and sisters in uniform are still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

From sea to shining sea, systemic racism has pervaded our Church – not just in the deep south. Protestant denominations taught that the mark – the curse – of Cain was dark skin tone. They taught that the descendants of Ham would be cursed with dark skin and would face perpetual slavery for sin. Our own Presbyterian denomination preached that “Africans were cursed and deserved slavery for both their nature and their willful sin.”[xiii] One of the co-founders of my alma-mater in Austin – a Presbyterian Seminary – railed against radical social theories which asserted that all men are born free and equal[xiv] and pressed that “racial purity was the ultimate value, and racial segregation was essential to protect the purity of the white race.”[xv]

The White Church in America continues to ignore the racial injustices that pervade all spheres of life – even within its walls – by “responding to ‘black lives matter’ with the phrase ‘all lives matter’…by telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concerns are ‘divisive’…that although the characters and the specifics are new, many of the same rationalizations for racism remain”[xvi] in these walls. We humbly pray that God’s kingdom come and be done here on earth as it is in heaven while we sit back and shrug our shoulders as our black brothers and sisters are still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.

“We have been a country, and we have been a church, which has paid scant attention to the voices of people of color. We have been a country, and we have been a church, which has paid scant attention to the voices of women. We have been a country, and we have been a church which has paid scant attention to the voices of LGBTQ persons.”[xvii] We have been a country, and we have been a church which has paid scant attention to the voices of our veterans. We have, in the words of Letty Russell, accepted that “the marginalization of the powerless as a given.”[xviii] The manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination placed on the arms of our black brothers and sisters are the result of our misdeeds, and we continue to let them remain.

On this Independence Day it is not my intent to make you feel uncomfortable, and if you feel that way I invite you to welcome those feelings as they come. It is my intent, however, that we become honest patriots like Dr. King who chose to love this country enough to remember its misdeeds – “those times and places where particular groups were denied equal protection under the law”[xix] Dr. King lived up to those words from Ephesians we heard earlier and lived in a way that was worthy of the people God has chosen. Always humble and gentle. Patiently putting up with each other and loving each other. Trying his best to let God’s Spirit keep hearts united. Doing all this by living at peace. Most importantly though, Dr. King knew that we were all part of the same body and he chose to tell the truth[xx] no matter how difficult it was to speak.

We must be committed to this same truth telling – even the truth make us feel uncomfortable. We must be committed to the truth because we are called to this work. We must be committed to the truth because dishonesty displays a fundamental lack of respect for other persons. We must be committed to the truth because dishonesty corrodes trust and weakens our ability to participate responsibly in the world.[xxi]

Ephesians commands us to stop lying and to start telling each other the truth. The truth, this morning, is that racism and oppression are not merely relics of the past, long since legislated away, but have an active and resounding role in every place and space in our great nation. Our lips may utter “all men are created equal” but our actions often tell a different story: racism is alive and well in the institutions and systems throughout America the Beautiful.

Owning up to this truth, claiming this truth, and living it out in the world is challenging and difficult, and in the case of Dr. King – and so many others like him – this honest patriotism led to his murder. But this work must go on. It must go on for Ahmaud Arbery, hunted down and murdered in a Georgia subdivision. It must go on for George Floyd, murdered on the streets of Minneapolis for suspicion of using a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. It must go on for Christian Cooper, a bird watcher in New York who was reported to the police because he asked a woman to put her dog on a leash. It must go on for the eight people murdered in a shooting rampage across three Asian spas in Atlanta. It must go on for French and William Godley and Eugene Carter, lynched without trial down the road in Pierce City in 1901, one of many public lynchings throughout southwest Missouri and deemed by some to be ethnic cleansing.

To find, speak, and continue speaking this truth we as honest patriots must do three things. First, we owe our nation our prayers for understanding and growth, offered to God with full belief that God hears these prayers. Second, we assume responsibility for our community, working in, with, and through the systems and institutions around us to root out all forms of racism, inequality, injustice, and misuses of power. Third, we call our nation, systems, and institutions to task when they fail in their obligations and, when necessary, we utilize the power of conscientious objection and civil disobedience.[xxii]

I know for some of us, Aurora feels far from racist as we go about our lives, hearing good talk from friends and neighbors. It’s easy to get into the cycle of thinking that racism doesn’t exist in Aurora because there’s only white people. If we’re honest patriots we should question this thought…we should question why our community is so white…we should question why the over sixty lynchings that occurred in our state continue to cast long shadows on this land. We should question why our neighbors feel comfortable flying confederate flags and using racial slurs in dinner conversations. If we’re proud to be in Aurora we should be taking some long, hard looks at our history, rooting out the spaces and places where our neighbors were denied equal protection under the law.

Friends, “if the Christian Church fails to address the complex and thorny issues of racism in our own time, we have failed our fellow believers, and our Creator.”[xxiii] Let us work on ourselves, striving to live as God’s beloved and chosen ones, maintaining unity and making peace. Let us stop lying to ourselves and each other, speaking truth, kindness, and mercy. May we stand today as honest patriots, working to shatter the manacles of segregation and dismantle the chains of discrimination so that all who are created equal may be treated equal, free to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In God’s mercy, may it be.

—–

Endnotes:
[i] Thomas Jefferson, et al, July 4, Copy of Declaration of Independence. -07-04, 1776. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mtjbib000159/.
[ii] Thomas Jefferson, et al, July 4, Copy of Declaration of Independence. -07-04, 1776.
[iii] Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” (speech, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963), American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.
[iv] Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” (speech, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963).
[v] Donald W. Shriver, Jr. Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
[vi] Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD. and Matthew Christian Jackson, PhD., “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children” The University of California, Los Angeles. February 24, 2014. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-a0035663.pdf
[vii] Gillian B. White, “The Data Are Damning: How Race Influences School Funding” The Atlantic, September 30, 2015. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/09/public-school-funding-and-the-role-of-race/408085/; Joy Resmovits, “American Schools Are STILL Racist, Government Report Finds”, Huffpost, March 21, 2014. Accessed July 3, 2021. www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/21/schools-discrimination_n_5002954.html
[viii] Danyelle Solomon, Connor Maxwell, and Abril Castro, “Systemic Inequality and American Democracy” Center for American Progress, August 7, 2019. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2019/08/07/473003/systematic-inequality-american-democracy/
[ix] “Greek Medicine” History of Medicine Division, Nation Library of Medicine, February 7, 2012. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/greek/greek_oath.html
[x] “Systemic Racism and Health Care, COVID & Treatment” National Institute for Health Care Management, February 11, 2021. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://nihcm.org/publications/systemic-racism-health-care-covid-treatment
[xi] Andrea M. Peters, “One Proposal for Improving Army Inclusivity for Women of Color: Update Hair Regulations” Military.com, August 21, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.military.com/daily-news/opinions/2020/08/21/one-proposal-improving-army-inclusivity-women-of-color-update-hair-regulations.html
[xii] Jon Niccum, “Army’s Conflicting History of Haircuts and Racial Identity Explored in New Article” The University of Kansas, December 9, 2019. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://news.ku.edu/2019/12/06/army%E2%80%99s-conflicting-history-haircuts-and-racial-identity-explored-new-article-2
[xiii] Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 19.
[xiv] Robert L. Dabney, “Anti-Biblical Theories of Rights,” Presbyterian Quarterly 2, no. 2 (July 1888): 215-42, 219.
[xv] Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, 25.
[xvi] Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019).
[xvii] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Resolution on Honest Patriotism (Louisville: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2018), 13.
[xviii] Letty Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 35.
[xix] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Resolution on Honest Patriotism, 2.
[xx] Ephesians 4:1-3; 25
[xxi] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Resolution on Honest Patriotism, 8-10.
[xxii] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), A Resolution on Honest Patriotism, 14-15.
[xxiii] Dennis Hollinger, “Racism and the Church: How Should We Respond?” Center for Pastor Theologians, September 29, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2021. https://www.pastortheologians.com/articles/2020/9/29/racism-and-the-church-how-should-we-respond#_edn1


The Harvest

In the early morning hours of May thirteenth I was on my morning walk, listening to NPR as I headed south from the seminary campus.  I passed the only people in public these days: the men and women experiencing homelessness, sleeping peacefully tucked away in the entrance ways to buildings.  The morning was quiet, the sun, warm.

I turned east onto Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard as the news reporter continued in my ear: “The killing of a black man in Georgia received little attention in February.  Later, a video circulated.  And it’s a big part of the news now.  The shooting of a black woman in Louisville, Kentucky, received little attention in mid-March.  Now that has become part of our national conversation.”[1]  That morning I learned about both Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, two souls taken from this world, one for jogging while black, the other for sleeping while black.  As I moved down the boulevard named for the slain civil rights leader, my heart sank as the story of stolen, innocent lives unfolded before me.

The news cycle continued past these two names and I found myself, two weeks later, scrolling through Facebook where I came across the now-infamous photo of a white police officer, his hands casually in his pockets as he knelt on the neck of a black man.[2]  I had no context for the photo at the time – I didn’t know why George Floyd was face-down on the pavement, and as I looked at that picture, it really did not matter.  Deep in my body there was an immediate gut-wrenching…as I unknowingly witnessed the murder of a black man.  If you have seen the photo, you have witnessed the murder of a black man.  And we have all seen it.  We have all witnessed the murder of a black man.

*****

Matthew 9:35-10:8 (NRSV)

“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

*****

The Jesus we see in Matthew is a busy Jesus: having been baptized and tempted, Jesus has returned to Galilee where he begins to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17).  His proclamation on the mountainside is recorded in chapters five through seven, and afterward, Jesus goes full-speed through the region performing all sorts of miracles: he heals the lame, he casts out demons, he calms the seas, and he raises the dead.  Only briefly does Jesus slow down to call Matthew into service and have a conversation with both the pharisees and John’s disciples.  Our Lord then gets back to work and, to make up for lost time, performs four more miracles within ten verses! 

And we finally land in today’s passage, where it summarizes the busy-ness of  Jesus: he’s seen the sick, the wounded, the blind, the lame, the diseased.  He’s cared for the abused, the weak, the poor – and the rich.  It feels like he’s worked non-stop since he left that mountain: Jesus is still at work proclaiming the good news, curing disease and sickness, bringing dead to life.

Within all this furious movement, it is here that the biblical text seems to stop.  And it focuses on this moment, saying: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.”  Jesus stops long enough to see the crowds of people around him.  He witnesses their diseases, their wounded-ness, their dejection. 

The text says Jesus felt compassion for them.  The Greek word for compassion that is used here is ἐσπλαγχνίσθη (esplanchnisthē) – it is a feeling in the inner-most parts of the body, where one’s heart-feelings reside.  Jesus’ compassion as he saw the crowd was a gut-feeling – a deep, heartfelt, emotional compassion.  The verse could read: “Jesus, seeing the crowds was a gut-wrenching moment and he felt nothing but compassion for them…”  He felt punched in the gut because when he looked – when he honestly looked – he saw people who were harassed and helpless…people who were wounded and tired…people who were like lost sheep without a shepherd in sight.

As overwhelming as it may seem to us to see a crowd of needy people, for our Lord it was a catalyst toward action as he moves into action, responding to the needs of the people.  His compassion moves him into action.  His compassion moves him forward.  His compassion moves him to recruit helpers. 

In the name of compassion, Jesus speaks to his disciples, telling them to see as he sees: the harvest is plentiful, but the workers few.  He tells his disciples to change their vision so they can see the needs staring them in the face.

In the name of compassion, Jesus tells them to pray for God to send workers, and quickly they become the answer to their own prayers – the disciples become the apostles, the laborers in the Lord’s harvest. 

In the name of compassion, Jesus summons the twelve and gives them authority to do just as he himself has been doing: casting out unclean spirits, healing socially-devaluing illnesses, curing every bodily sickness. 

In the name of compassion, Jesus calls them by their name: from Peter – the rock upon whom Jesus will build his church – all the way to Simon the Zealot and Judas the betrayer.  Jesus calls this imperfect group and commissions them to do the compassionate service needed in the world.  These men didn’t meet the needs of the people: God meets the needs of the people through them. 

In the name of compassion, Jesus gives them a specific and timely mission: go not to the Gentiles, nor to the Samaritans, but go instead to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And as they go they should spread compassion by not only proclaiming the good news, but by curing the sick, cleansing the lepers, casting out demons, raising the dead. 

In the name of compassion, Jesus makes these disciples his apostles and sends them out to the lost sheep.

Ahmaud Arbery.  Breonna Taylor.  George Floyd.  Three persons of color murdered in the land of the free.  Three Americans slaughtered for being non-white – three of but thousands upon thousands of now-saints who have been harassed, mocked, stalked, targeted, arrested, beaten, murdered and assassinated.  We are witnesses to these crimes. 

The crowds are crying with exhaustion…do you see?
The virus continues to ravage the weak and elderly…do you see?
Our leaders continue to remain hidden in their ivory houses…do you see?
We cast one another down with our hands and our voices…do you see?

God’s beloved children – just like you and me – are cowering like helpless animals, wondering where our leaders are…wondering where hope is…wondering if times like these are too difficult, even for the Lord.

Look.  The children need diapers and formula and shelter.
Look.  The men and women need jobs and financial assistance.
Look.  The schools need funding, and buildings, and teachers.
Look.  The hospitals need masks, and gloves, and workers.

The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers, are few. 

We have gathered as disciples under the teachings of Jesus long enough.  Open our eyes.  Look at the crowds.  Jesus is summoning us even now, and is gifting us with the authority to do as he does.  Jesus is calling each of us by name.  Jesus is calling us to be apostles, to be sent out.

The kingdom of heaven draws near! 

With gut-wrenching compassion, let us proclaim the good news of the royal reign of God! 
With gut-wrenching compassion, let us drive out unclean spirits!
With gut-wrenching compassion, let us heal every socially-devaluing illness and every bodily sickness to which we bear witness.

Return life to the dead…make clean the unclean…drive out evil.

You saw his face pressed against the hot asphalt… 
You saw the violent response to peaceful protests…
You saw the homeless man on the corner this week…
You saw news of an elderly person’s death from the coronavirus…

My God, the harvest is plentiful!

__________

[1] “Shooting of Unarmed Black Woman In Kentucky Gets National Attention” NPR: Morning Edition, May 13, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/05/13/855096212/shooting-of-unarmed-black-woman-in-kentucky-gets-national-attention

[2] “Killing of George Floyd” Wikipedia, last modified June 10, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_George_Floyd

*****

[This is the text of the sermon I preached for the Committee on the Preparation for Ministry for the Presbytery of Pueblo – one of the required steps in the ordination process for the PC(USA)]