A sermon preached on Sunday, January 25, 2013
Fred Korematsu/Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday
What would it be like if every morning men and women gathered to hear the children at Korematsu Discovery Academy unroll a scroll and read:
Korematsu. We stand up for what is right. Discovery. We are the innovators and the explorers of the future. Academy. We are scholars. Together we have the power to reach for the stars.
Now imagine that when one of those children tried to take a stand for his Constitutional rights, he heard these words:
. . . we cannot reject as unfounded the judgment of the military authorities and of Congress that there were disloyal members of that population, whose number and strength could not be precisely and quickly ascertained. We cannot say that the war-making branches of the Government did not have ground for believing that, in a critical hour, such persons could not readily be isolated and separately dealt with, and constituted a menace to the national defense and safety which demanded that prompt and adequate measures be taken to guard against it.
These are the words Fred Korematsu heard from an interment camp in Utah. When he was a child, no hopeful creed filled his heart with hope and as a young man, the words from the Supreme Court’s decision nearly crushed any vision for a meaningful future. His prophetic voice bears witness:
It became twice as hard to live here decently. You had to prove you’re more american than japanese. But I couldn’t even do that. When I went to join the Coast Guard, I was denied enlistment because Japanese americans were perceived as a threat. When Executive Order 9066 was issued by FDR, forcing Japanese Americans into prison camps, it burned me up that this happened. I was so determied that I am an American. After the evacuation notices were posted on telephone poles, I decided to go back to work, ignored the order. I was arrested and a judge said I violated the military order. 4 MPs with guns surrounded me. And me and my family were sent to the Topaz incarceration camp in Utah. I had no luggage – just whatever I had on my back. Our house had no floor, just dirt. one light bulb and an iron cot with straw. I felt like a prisoner of war.
If Fred’s words, the school creed and the Supreme Court decision were read aloud in the market square in the same way that Ezra read the Torah, I wonder if all the people would weep as they did when Ezra welcomed them back from the exile?
Just 20 years after that fateful Supreme Court decision, a young prophet’s voice rose up from a Birmingham jail, asking the same questions of his brothers and sisters in the church:
… I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are. (excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail)
Why has it taken so long for us to weep?
Will we weep
When choices have to be made between putting food on the table or paying the rent?
When a whole generation of young adults is threatened by gang violence?
When a whole group of people are isolated because they look like they come from the Middle East?
When families who speak Spanish are targeted for deportation?
When children are shot in an elementary school?
When will we weep? And when will our weeping drive us to action?
When Israel came together to hear the word of the Lord and Ezra opened the scroll – they wept when they heard their sins spoken out loud because even though generations had passed since their ancestors were sent into exile, they knew they were not innocent. Yet as surely as the Torah reveals sins, it also reveals the source of hope: the God who keeps promises; the God who bridged the gulf by making a covenant with Abraham; the God who promised to Jacob “I am with you and I will protect you everywhere you go”; the God who heard the cry of the people enslaved in Egypt and delivered them from oppression; the God who forgives sins; the God who brings courage when strength is gone.
This is what it looks like when the people gather to hear the word proclaimed and then let that proclamation shape and energize their life in community. The biblical text does nothing on its own. When Ezra lifts up the scroll and opens it for all the people to see, they stand in reverence but it’s not the scroll they revere. They are in awe of the God whose saving actions and presence are described in that scroll. And for that community, sent into exile because of their own disobedience. It’s no wonder all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. They knew that the source of the law that convicted them was also their source of hope. Their weeping is more than a sign of repentance. That weeping drives them to change the behaviors of their own past and strive for a different life together.
Jesus did not fare so well when he opened the scroll. In fact, the words he read caused the crowds in his own hometown synagogue to rise up against him, nearly forcing him off the cliff. The people did not weep in recognition of their sins. When they heard Jesus speak from the prophet, the words made them angry because they challenged their status quo way of living. When prophets speak the truth, even those who know and love them best find their way of life challenged.
On June 5, 1966, King called his own congregation to the great prophetic task of rethinking the true purpose of the church. In that bold sermon he lifted up a vision that speaks prophetically into our own future:
The church is not a social club although some people think it is.
The church is not an entertainment center although some people think it is.
The church has a purpose.
Heal the broken hearted, bring good news to the poor, free the captives, bring sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
It was clear to him that If the church doesn’t speak to these things, it isn’t a church. The church must say something, must do something.
To be the church, the living body of Christ, we must be about proclaiming that THIS is the year of the Lord’s favor – this is the year that the oppressed are freed. This is the year that the church, you and I, must be on the front lines in the battle against injustice, with words and actions that proclaim: The time is now.
This is the year the broken-hearted find healing because we have begun visit, call, and be present with them in their pain.
This is the year the captives are released as we stop imprisoning each other in real jails and in the jails of our expectations.
This is the year sight is restored to the blind as we stop looking the other way, stop making excuses and join with others to work against violence in our own community.
This is the year we must stop worrying about how we’re going to move into God’s prophetic call because we have limited money and energy.
This is the year we boldly proclaim that THIS is the year of God’s favor. NOW is the acceptable time. Together with Martin and Fred and Jesus, we are called to answer and to work until the waters of justice have poured over everyone, and God’s righteousness flows like a life-giving stream among us.