We are at a crossroads. The country is in crisis. The government has turned its back on its people—sowing division, harassing and oppressing its most vulnerable citizens, committing acts of violence to maintain power over those who live at the margins. Even worse is the betrayal of the religious leaders, who turn a blind eye to these atrocities perpetrated against the very people they are meant to protect. We can no longer sit on the fence; the time for action is now.
I am, of course, describing the situation in which Jesus finds himself in this morning’s scripture lesson from Matthew. We come to this story after 5 chapters describing the details of Jesus’ ministry. After covering the teachings of Jesus over the course of three whole chapters, the author of the gospel shifts the narrative in chapters 8 and 9 to Jesus’ actions. Jesus pivots from words to deeds, dominated by miracle stories that include six healings, two exorcisms, a rescue on the water, and a raising from the dead—just to name a few.
From these several chapters of teaching and action that precede our scripture reading, we learn some important context. New Testament professor Dr. Warren Carter describes the building tension between the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire and God’s empire expressed through the actions of Jesus. The town leaders and religious elites oppose and vilify Jesus, discounting his acts of healing and exorcism. Jesus, in turn, indicts them for their failure to provide for the most vulnerable, and he laments the oppression of his people at the hands of leaders allied with Rome.
“By contrast,” writes Dr. Carter, “the marginalized and broken receive Jesus’ ministry positively in being healed and exorcised…[After all,] healings and exorcisms enact the blessing of God’s empire on the poor, transforming destructive economic circumstances, social isolation, political oppression, and religious marginalization.”
And that’s right where we find Jesus at the beginning of our scripture reading this morning—at the end of the 9th chapter of Matthew. I want you to hear it again:
“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.” (Matt. 9:35-36)
Jesus’ purpose and motivation are clear. His actions challenge the brutality of the Roman Empire and the apathy of its religious elite. His actions bring mercy and compassion to the marginalized and oppressed. His actions express God’s empire. And so, Jesus sends out his disciples to do likewise. The time for learning is over. Just like Jesus, the disciples must now pivot from words to deeds. Jesus empowers the disciples to continue his mission—to heal and repair the harm done by the Roman Empire. To usher in a new empire--God’s empire.
But Jesus sends out his disciples with a warning. Your work will be hard. Suffering and persecution are inevitable. Your message of mercy, compassion, and justice will challenge deeply embedded belief systems, and it will be unpopular with many. But if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house. You will be vulnerable like sheep among wolves. Government authorities and religious leaders will persecute you, for your actions are subversive and threaten their power.
“For Matthew, the church is about actions consistent with the mission and qualities of Jesus,” writes Dr. Carter. “[This chapter of Matthew’s Gospel] points churches in this direction. In societies where creature comforts, wealth, security, power, and status are so important, this chapter offers the massive challenge for churches to be always moving obediently to embrace active, counter-cultural mission for others.”
Friends, I don’t know about you, but this gospel story and this warning from Jesus resonate deeply with me this morning. This is the story of the beginning of a movement rooted in justice, mercy, and compassion; it recounts the moment Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to spread the good news and to bring about God’s empire; it is a beacon of hope to those who are oppressed, afflicted, and brutalized by their own political and religious leaders. This noble counter-cultural justice-seeking movement is the genesis of Christianity.
And yet, I do not recognize that same sense of mission in many of today’s churches. We seem to have lost our way. We have focused on protecting our comfort, wealth, power, and security, often at the expense of seeking justice for the harassed and helpless. Nearly 57 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. In that letter, Dr. King writes:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
These words from Dr. King are probably as hard for you to hear as they are for me to read. They hold up a mirror to our faces and force us to examine ourselves. They highlight the frustratingly little progress we have made towards racial justice over the past 60 years. These words speak truth, and sometimes truth is uncomfortable.
These words make me uncomfortable. They force me to recount the many times I stayed silent to avoid conflict or tension—the many times I reworded a sermon or changed a lesson so I wouldn’t “rock the boat.” So many times I stood by silently as a spectator watching someone else being oppressed. In those moments, my silence made me an accomplice to that oppression. And for that, I am sorry.
This morning, I want to say something that I have been too afraid to say before. Today, I want to speak words that I have not heard spoken from this pulpit in my five years at Royal Lane. Black Lives Matter. Yes, Black Lives Matter. And this shouldn’t be a controversial statement. Surely, we can all agree that Black Lives are sacred, that Black Lives are precious, that Black Lives are beloved.
But our nation has a 400 year history of perpetuating the idea that whiteness is the norm, and everyone else is substandard. White supremacy is so embedded into the fabric of our society, that it has become necessary for us to remind each other and ourselves that Black Lives do matter.
And it isn’t enough to just say the words. As Jesus teaches us in our passage from Matthew, we have to pivot from words to deeds. Jesus did everything in his power to challenge a culture that oppressed and marginalized the vulnerable. Through his actions, he aimed to transform and heal a broken system and to bring about God’s life-giving empire. He acknowledged that the work would be sometimes contentious and often dangerous, but his disciples went anyway.
Church, we are at a crossroads. The country is in crisis. The government has turned its back on its people—sowing division, harassing and oppressing its most vulnerable citizens, committing acts of violence to maintain power over those who live at the margins. Even worse is the betrayal of the religious leaders, who turn a blind eye to these atrocities perpetrated against the very people they are meant to protect. We can no longer sit on the fence; the time for action is now.
Join a protest, a rally, or a vigil. Educate yourself on white supremacy and racial justice. Read up on how you can become an anti-racist. Listen to the stories of Black people, and listen with intentionality. The work of racial justice and anti-racism is hard, but it is important and necessary. At times, it can feel overwhelming. And for those of us who are white, it will be tempting to shut it all out when we feel fatigued and the media attention fades. But please remember, out-of-sight/out-of-mind is not an option if you are Black in America.
The transformative work Jesus sends us out into the world to do will be hard, it will be long, and it will not be without conflict. But it is required. So, how will you commit to doing justice? How will you work to usher in God’s life-giving empire?