glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, March 8, 2015

On Jesus, Justice, and Selma: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

I don’t know how you feel, but I think this morning’s gospel story of the Jesus overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the Jerusalem temple must be one of the most dramatic passages in the Bible. Probably because it seems so un-Jesus like. After all, this isn’t Jesus at his softest or kindliest, there’s no little lamb over his shoulders or children gathered around. It’s definitely not the Jesus of stained glass windows or chipper Sunday school songs.

So, every time this reading comes up in our lectionary, as it does in Lent, I find myself feeling a little nervous—not quite sure what I should say. Because, of course, this Jesus swinging his whip and over turning tables, maybe shouting, definitely angry, is hard to talk about. He’s not the Jesus I talk about every other Sunday of the year. But, this story occurs in all four gospels, which is rare and suggests that this is an event that really did happen. Jesus really did this. He really got this angry.

In fact, my third sermon ever was on this very gospel passage. That was all the way back in 1997 and I was just 24 years old—a second year seminarian at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, doing my internship at St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain. Now, like Emmanuel, St. John’s is a wonderful parish, but it’s also very different. It’s definitely more urban. Jamaica Plain, at the time, was less the chic place to live that it is today, more transient, and the vast majority of parishioners, I’d say, were newer to the parish. There weren’t too many who had been there 30, 40, or 50 years as we have here at Emmanuel: a few, but not many. At the time, it also didn’t have many children. It was known especially as a place that was leading the charge in our diocese on inclusiveness for gay and lesbian people. That’s not such a big deal today, but 18 years ago it was still a struggle, even in the Episcopal Church, and even in Massachusetts.

In that sermon I praised the parish and parishioners for their advocacy for LGBT persons, comparing them to Jesus in the Temple, getting angry over injustice and working to overthrow the status quo—both political and spiritual. I also think I said, which I still believe to be true, that it was this very act on Jesus’ part, overthrowing the moneychangers’ tables, and creating chaos in the temple, that led ultimately to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Remember, I was 24 and a brazen young guy, still with a thick Minnesota accent, preaching what I thought was a strong but not particularly controversial sermon for that urban community.

Unfortunately, some in the congregation took offence: older ladies mostly, the few who had been in the parish a long time. Only, they didn’t tell me. They talked to the senior warden and the rector to express their displeasure. So, I didn’t actually know about it until the rector wrote about the sermon and their reaction in her final evaluation for my internship. Actually, the rector was quite supportive of the sermon, but she wanted me to be aware of the power of the pulpit and how we don’t always know the effect that our words will have on others.

Ever since, I have found myself being far more careful when I preach, always asking myself: How will people hear this? Might someone be offended? Is it worth offending, or is there a way I could say what I want to say or need to say in a less threatening manner? And, likely, lots of times I haven’t taken risks that I might have—not always because I was worried about how people would react to me (though, I like to be liked as much as anyone), but also because I wouldn’t want the greater message to be lost.

The downside of this caution, of course, is that what may need to be said isn’t, in favor of a safer, nicer, more neutral message. But if we learn anything from today’s gospel story, it is that Jesus wasn’t always safe or nice. He definitely wasn’t neutral, and I don’t think he expects or calls us to be either, at least not all the time. So, that’s how and why this passage is hard for me—because it challenges me, and us all, to stand up for what is right, and to stand against what is wrong, even if it means discomfort and disruption. This is a preface to saying that what follows may be difficult to hear. It may cause discomfort or disruption. But it’s important to stand up for what’s right and against what’s wrong.

Fifty years ago yesterday, nearly 600 brave Americans did the same: they stood up for what’s right and against what’s wrong, as they attempted a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest their treatment as African Americans, and in particular that state’s restrictions which prevented them from registering to vote. However, when the marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge—ironically named for a Confederate army general, US senator, and grand dragon of the Klu Klux Klan—they encountered police and white civilians determined to stop them, determined quite literally to keep them in their place: with nightsticks, horses, whips, and tear gas. “Bloody Sunday” it was called. 17 were hospitalized and far more injured—age, gender, race, it made no difference.

The police and white citizens of Dallas County, Alabama had hoped that their violent show of force would halt the march to permanently. Only it was televised, demonstrating to the nation and to the world the bravery of the marchers and the depth of racism that infected our nation. Following Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson promised to forward to Congress the Voting Rights Act, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appealed to whites and blacks, and especially clergy, to come to Selma to march in solidarity. And they did. Thousands arrived, and two days later—50 years from tomorrow—2,500 marchers set out to cross the bridge and to walk from Selma to Montgomery. Only, half way across the bridge Dr. King stopped, knelt to pray, and then had them turn back, both to comply with a court order and because he wasn’t convinced of their safety or preparedness to walk the 50 mile journey. “Turn-back Tuesday” it was called. And indeed, they likely weren’t safe: later that night a white marcher was attacked and killed by local Klan members—he was a Unitarian minister from Boston named James Reeb. Those murders were eventually acquitted by an all-white jury.

It wasn’t until March 21 that the ultimately successful march began, permitted by the courts and with the promise of the protection by President Johnson and the National Guard. 8,000 marchers participated—mostly black, but some whites, some Asians and Latinos. Dr. King led the way, joined by the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, Jewish rabbis, Catholic nuns, and of course thousands of ordinary people. People who were convinced, many through their faith, that they and their neighbors deserve to be treated as human beings—human beings with the same unalienable rights as everyone else. It’s hard to believe that was actually a question, but it was, and still sometimes is.

 Some of you may remember these events first hand. Others like me, have only read about them, or maybe saw them depicted in video footage or in the recent movie Selma. (Which I would highly recommend). Yesterday, to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Pres. Obama spoke on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Our nation’s first African American President speaking on a bridge named for a member of KKK. There is a certain justice in that. By the way, George W. Bush was there, too, and hundreds of members of Congress—Democrats and Republicans alike. Because it wasn’t a political event; rather, it was an American event. In fact, it was a human event.

However, as inspiring as it must have been to be there yesterday, hearing the President in that historic place and contemplating how far we’ve come, in less than a lifetime for many, the work for justice, equality, and human understanding is far from finished. So, also yesterday, 10 of us from Emmanuel joined 150 other Episcopalians from around the diocese to learn how we could inspire and mobilize ourselves for the ongoing work of justice in our time and place, just as the marchers from Selma did in their's. Yesterday we heard of the ministries of amazing people and amazing organizations: struggling on behalf of low-income workers, against racism, and for affordable housing. And we also heard painful stories of injustice in our midst. Among the most moving, for me, was Bishop Gayle Harris telling of her personal experiences of racism.

Publicly, she shared a powerful story of horrible racist acts against her as a young child in Chicago, and then more hopefully of marching with Dr. King as a teenager. After lunch I went over to say hello (we share a special bond since she ordained me), and Bishop Gayle told me other stories—stories of life today, right here in Massachusetts. For example, that she is routinely followed by store security when she goes shopping. And once, in her home city of Lexington, upon leaving a store she was physically grabbed by members of the staff and told that she’s not allowed to leave before her shift was done. They assumed she worked there, and apparently couldn’t imagine that an African American woman would actually be a customer.

Horrified, I suggested in response that she should share these experiences with anyone who will listen, so that those of us who don’t face daily discrimination, just for being alive, can start to understand how ingrained this reality is in our society—whether in Alabama or here in Massachusetts. I thought that as a woman and a bishop people might be more likely to listen to her. And she agreed, but then she also said that it’s important for white people to share these stories as well, in the same way that she works for LGBT inclusion in church and society, even though they aren’t her stories.

So, I’m telling you now, sharing Bishop Gayle’s story. Racism and discrimination are reality in our midst, even here in the north, even in Massachusetts. It is important that we tell stories of injustice, whenever we hear them, so that we can confront it, in our society and also in ourselves, hard as that can be. Because if we don’t, we will allow it to continue, and even grow. In fact, we will allow it to win. Sometimes, hard as it is, we are called to be like Jesus in the temple—overturning the tables of injustice and inequality, so that new life and, indeed, the kingdom of God, can flourish in their place.

Of course, it’s not easy, because we want to be nice, and polite, and socially proper. We are Episcopalians after all--we know which fork to use at dinner. But far more important than being polite and proper Episcopalians, using the right fork, we are called to be Christians, we are called to be disciples of Jesus, and we are called to be human beings, each and every one of us created in the image and likeness of God, whatever our color, gender, background, orientation, whatever and whoever we are. And we are called to stand and sometimes to march beside one another.

So, I thought I would close this morning with some of the speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave after the march from Selma arrived in Montgomery, unfortunately in my Minnesota accent, rather than his strong voice. He addressed the marchers and the crowds and country and world, saying: 

I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?’ Somebody’s asking, ‘When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?’ I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because ‘truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ How long? Not long, because ‘no lie can live forever.’ How long? Not long, because ‘you shall reap what you sow.’… “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

50 years later, the arc of the moral universe is still bending toward justice, and our job, our responsibility, and our calling, with God’s assistance and God’s blessing, is to work together, whoever we are, whatever our color or background, side by side, with each other, and with Christ, to bring that justice fully to life, and with it God’s kingdom. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD