The Work Continues

2022 Black History Month Sermon Series Lifting Up the Lives of Black Presbyterians
Preached February 20, 2022
United Presbyterian Church, Peoria, IL

Scripture: Psalm 37:1-11 and Luke 7:27-38 
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The text before us today provides a lot of contrasting material…
John is the greatest AND he’s the least
John is more than a prophet AND he’s only a prophet, not the ONE.
Notice that there’s not a single do. Not a single don’t.
Jesus isn’t giving a laundry list of what to do, but he is point out what the path looks like…

Theologian Justo Gonzalez points out that what we’re seeing here is a powerful statement of what Jesus will teach throughout the Gospel of Luke – what he preached in the first synagogue in Nazareth – that the kingdom of God is a radical reversal of the existing order. And that nothing should get in the way of God’s justice.

Jesus said: “Among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” But Luke then follows with the story that it was the tax collectors, who were considered the worst of sinners, who were the first to acknowledge the justice of God. At the same time, the religious insiders, the ones who should be first in line to proclaim the justice of God, would not. In the passage that follows this one, we see this played out in real life, as a woman (remember women are among the lowest in society) who is identified by Luke as a sinner, anoints Jesus’ feet while the Pharisee who invited him to dine had made no such efforts at hospitality and welcome..

Still, in that context, it must have seemed odd that Jesus didn’t express more concern about what was happening to his cousin, John. The fate that has befallen him is not that far from the threat Jesus received from his own neighbors. And we might wonder…
Was Jesus insensitively arrogant when he stated that John was great but not the greatest?
Was he somehow living into his God-ness – knowing the future and moving in that direction?

If we learn anything about Jesus by reading Luke’s gospel, we have to recognize that Jesus wasn’t about any of that. What he was concerned with was the urgency of need and the power of God’s good news to meet the needs he proclaimed when he first unrolled that scroll in Nazareth… good news for the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed. AND we must recognize that every turn Jesus makes toward this work cost him something. Leaving John in jail might have been one of the hardest things Jesus had to do, but the work of carrying the good news of the God’s love couldn’t be locked up with John. It had to change and move forward.

It seems that Jesus recognized that the concerns about John held by those around him were more than the typical transitional concerns people might bring. What he sees in them is a deeply ingrained habit – dare we say – a sin – that provided them with an exit strategy whenever the message didn’t line up with their desires, when the word spoken required them to change their behaviors, when the vision cast was for those beyond their inner circle. Jesus called them out for moving the target, and then for shooting the messenger when that messenger failed to hit a target that had nothing to do with God’s vision:

For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

These days we might say: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t…
Notice… that didn’t stop Jesus… it didn’t stop his disciples… it didn’t stop the many witnesses for God’s justice who struggled and suffered through the ages… It certainly didn’t stop Rev. Henry Highland Garnet who began life as an enslaved person, struggled to get an education, suffered an illness that resulted in the amputation of his leg in his twenties and continued his work as an abolitionist and as a fighter for justice for black peoples until he died in 1882. Friends, that was just 140 years ago! What an example he set for the church today!

It’s a good thing that God understands that letting go of whatever it is that has a hold on us is one of the most difficult things we ever do, because we have lots of opportunities to practice this. And all we have to do is look around to see the urgency of the need for God’s justice all around us.

Here’s just one example: According to Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the country, in 2019, in Peoria County, almost 21,000 people, that’s just over 11%, including 6,500 children, experienced food insecurity. Once 2021 numbers are processed, that number is projected to be just over 13%.

Let’s imagine for a moment that Feeding America is John the Baptist. They are pointing to the need for repentance. Do we as disciples of Jesus say: “Well, we’re not John the Baptist so his work doesn’t matter any more”?

We can turn to the words of Rev. Garnet who, in his “Let the Monster Perish” speech to Congress in 1865 proposed a way through for those white legislators, many of whose families had bought and sold Black people for generations. He said:

…Let us here take up the golden rule, and adopt the self-application mode of reasoning to those who hold these erroneous views…Is slavery, as it is seen in its origin, continuance and end, the best possible condition for thee? Oh, no! Wilt thou bear that burden on thy shoulders, which thou wouldst lay upon thy fellow man? No. Wilt thou bear a part of it, or remove a little of its weight with one of thy fingers? The sharp and indignant answer is no, no! Then how, and when, and where, shall we apply to thee the golden rule, which says, “Therefore all things that ye would that others should do to you, do ye even so unto them, for this is the law of the prophets.”

Let the Monster Perish (a speech to Congress, February 12, 1865)

What if we replaced the word slavery with hunger?

Let us here take up the golden rule, and adopt the self-application mode of reasoning…Is hunger, as it is known in Peoria, in its origin, continuance and end, the best possible condition for us? Oh, no! We we bear that burden on our shoulders, which has been laid upon our neighbors? No. Will we bear a part of it, or remove a little of its weight with one of our fingers? The sharp and indignant answer is no, no! Then how, and when, and where, shall we apply the golden rule, which says, “Therefore do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law of the prophets.”

Here at UPC, we might answer Garnet’s questions a little differently. We care about hungry people. We participate in the Snack Pack program, we offer Food on the Fourth and we support the Peoria Porch Pantry with their community garden. To be sure, this goes a long way toward filling empty stomachs. But here’s the rub – remember those “woes” Jesus spoke from last week’s sermon? Especially the one where he specifically addressed hunger: Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will be hungry?

Was he trying to tell us that we are going to starve next? I don’t think so – but he was calling us to that harder work. Our work shouldn’t end with providing food through these organizations, we have to get after what it is in our way of living that causes hunger in the first place. How do we take up Jesus’ work and ensure that there is no more hunger – that not one more child ever experiences hunger?

When we start to dig deeper into our Matthew 25 initiative work that calls for eradicating systemic poverty, we will have to look at our ways of living – as individuals, as a community, and if we’re true to Jesus’ call, we have to do this in the context of the larger community.

To be sure – this raises more questions than it answers… but if we look to Jesus and see how he responded to his critics in today’s text, we see that he just keeps moving, that he’s almost never in an easy conversation, that he chooses to engage whenever and wherever he can to dismantle prejudices and point out opportunities for change. As we seek to follow him, let’s take our inspiration from the vision cast by Rev. Garnet.

When all unjust and heavy burdens shall be removed from every man in the land. When all invidious and proscriptive distinctions shall be blotted out from our laws, whether they be constitutional, statute or municipal laws. When emancipation shall be followed by enfranchisement, and all men holding allegiance to the government shall enjoy every right of American citizenship. …When there shall be no more class legislation and no more trouble concerning the black man and his rights than there is in regard to other American citizens. When, in every respect, he shall be equal before the law, and shall be left to make his own way in the social walks of life.

…The good work which God has assigned for the ages to come will be finished…When caste and prejudice in Christian churches shall be utterly destroyed and shall be regarded as totally unworthy of Christians, and at variance with the principles of the Gospel…and not till then, shall the effectual labors of God’s people and God’s instruments cease.

Rev. Henry Highland Garnet in Let the Monster Perish

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