Delivered at First UMC Clairton, Pine Run UMC, & Glassport UMC. Just a reminder, this is pretty much a transcript of the sermon, so it's written as I spoke it, not how it would be written it for publication.
Scripture: Luke 12:49-56
We often view Christ Jesus as a figure of meekness and humility. We view him as a pacifist and an advocate for extreme peace. All too often, we skip over this passage in the Bible because it doesn’t fit our view of Christ. In a world filled with divisiveness of all sorts – are you black or are you white? Are you a Pats fan or a Steelers fan? Are you a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Green? Are you a blue-collar worker or a white-collar worker? We tend to want a God that would come to unify us all. Frankly, this passage doesn’t sound like something the Jesus we know, and worship would say.
The first few years of my life, and many subsequent summers after that were spent at my grandparents’ house in Selma, Alabama. For those of you that do not know, Selma is home to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a U.S. Senator, Confederate Brigadier General and Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon. In fact, I was Baptized in the church just adjacent to it. This bridge was the beginning of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed March to Montgomery following the deaths of Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, obstruction of black voting rights, and a failed campaign to register black voters.
Planned at the Zion United Methodist Church and Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non – Violent Coordinating Committee organized a 52-mile protest march to the state capitol.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, the county sheriff made a call to all white males to be deputized, and State troopers and county citizens attacked the 500 or so unarmed marchers with Billy clubs and tear gas as they marched onto the bridge. This day became known as Bloody Sunday.
This story should challenge us all. We are taught that love is something peaceful, but in this case, the most peaceful option for those oppressed would have been to stay at home. We are taught that love is something that is not taught, it’s something that is innate and natural, yet in that time and place, racism and oppression was the traditional way of life. We are taught that we are to follow the law, and that the government is an institution that we are to pray for and respect, yet the protestors (who were filled with the Holy Spirit) were breaking it, and protesting their government, leading to their beating.
The reality is that radical love is divisive. The reality is, that if we truly love our neighbors and seek justice for them, it is ridiculously divisive. It is so countercultural. It is so radical. And if we are to read the gospel in its context, Jesus’ message of love used some of the most radical examples possible: A Samaritan helping a mugged Judean. A following of prostitutes and tax collectors. Healing people on the Sabbath. Touching lepers and the unclean to show them love. Our God, dying one of the most painful and embarrassing deaths to show his love for us.
Jesus told us “the thief only comes to steal, to kill and to destroy. I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it till it overflows.” Injustice is stealing people’s futures; injustice is killing the hopes and dreams of those trying to make a better life; injustice is destroying the lives of those afflicted by it – injustice is sinful; and if we believe that light and darkness cannot exist in the same place as our scripture states, our church cannot afford to not remove injustice from our society.
Let me tell you something - the only offensive item in the armor of God is the sword of the spirit which is the word. This word convicts. This word slashes through the evils of racism, classism, greed, bigotry, xenophobia, authoritarianism, and yes - this word cuts through the deepest injustice. And if we believe John 17:17 - that God’s word is truth, then we must be willing to sacrifice our personal privilege and peace for the sake of love. We must value love and justice over peace. And dare I say that if we do not, then we are sacrificing our identity as Christ followers.
These are the principles of which this very Methodist movement was founded. We have always been at the forefront of justice, yet right now we in a rut in our church where we are often so focused on who is sitting in our pews and making sure that we are in a good standing in society that we often forget the people struggling with the injustices right down the street. Methodist were the abolitionists, Wesley and the early Methodists expressed their opposition to societal ills such as slavery, smuggling, inhumane prison conditions, alcohol abuse, and child labor.
Yet, we are often so obsessed with woes that we have secured our decline. But it was the sacrifices of martyrs that brought people to the church in the 1st century. It was divineness of Luther that brought us Protestantism. It was the disruptive Wesleyans, attempting to reform the Church of England and reach those affected by the negatives of industrialism that brought us Methodism.
I don’t want to stand before you today and pretend I am holier than you. I will confess to you that this summer has opened my eyes to deeper injustices than I have ever encountered even in my career in politics. I will be the first to admit that I did not know that there was a food desert 30 minutes from my almost completely white, upper middle-class neighborhood. I will confess that I did not know that there was a school district so impoverished so close to my school district that operated closer to a private preparatory school where students were encouraged to being searching for college and career choices before we even entered the 9th grade than a public school where the individual student is often forgotten by those that legislate on their behalf. I knew that I was privileged, but I did not know how privileged I am, nor did I ever have the chance to see the full effects of my upbringing compared to those that didn’t have it. This I confess to you and I ask sincere forgiveness from God and those that I did not attempt to help in my time of ignorance.
After the beatings of activist that lasted through the night, a second march was planned and a call to all clergy to attend the march was made by the SCLC. This time the marchers, now numbering 2,500 went to the middle of the bridge and turned around after a judge issues a restraining order barring the march.
That evening, a white pastor who had answered the call of the SCLC, Rev. James Reeb was martyred, leading to a turning point in white support for the civil rights movement. The next day, the marchers now numbering 8,000, 16 times the amount that marched on Bloody Sunday, marched from the Brown Chapel AME church to Montgomery and because of the efforts of these marchers’ radical love for God and justice – the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law
Love is not something that should be given so lightly that it does not make change. It is not something that will ever be passive. It is something that will divide. People will dislike you for loving with action. People will dislike when you call out injustice. People will make fun of you for caring about the issues that have no immediate effect on their lives. But following Jesus was never meant to be a comfortable thing. When Jesus said that we must “take up our cross to follow Him” and “blessed are those that are persecuted in my name” – it demonstrates that following Christ was never supposed to be a movement that only involved coming to church on Sundays. Love with action. Amen.