Sunday 13 September 2015

Can we stand it? A sermon for Racial Justice Sunday

Mark 8:38: Jesus said: “If anyone is ashamed of me and of my teaching in this godless and wicked day, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

We’ve just heard Mark’s account of the pivotal moment in the ministry of Jesus when, in the pagan district of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus gathers his disciples and discloses to them the cost of discipleship, what it means and entails to be a follower and not just a fan. First, Jesus tells the Twelve that his sphere of operations will imminently shift from north to south as he heads for a showdown in Jerusalem, where he will be murdered by a political coalition of Israel and Rome. Then, when Peter protests, Jesus vehemently rebukes him and roars that his objection is satanically inspired. Finally, Jesus details the ultimate end of his messianic project, driven to the site of his own execution bearing a cross, diabolical instrument of torture and lurid symbol of shame, the state’s supreme deterrent to those who would question and subvert its authority. Jesus concludes with the words of our text, which speak directly to those who might be ashamed “of me and my teaching”.

What “teaching”? Well let’s go to the heart of it, in this passage from Luke (6:27-36).

This, of course, is Luke’s version of Matthew’s better-known “Love your enemies” passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48) – and a most interesting version it is. In Luke, Jesus says, “Love your enemies … and you will be children of the Most High; for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” In Matthew, however, the rationale for enemy-love is that God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”

The difference, hardly noticeable, is actually quite startling. In Matthew, the reason for loving your enemies is God’s regard for both the evil and the good. In Luke, however, Jesus doesn’t mention the good, rather his focus is entirely on the evil: to the wicked, he states, emphatically, God is kind. This is a subtly but hugely different matter. We might, at a stretch, refrain from doing the wicked harm, but are we willing and able to be actively kind to them? And how kind? Well, again, observe another difference between the First and Third evangelists: in Matthew, Jesus concludes his teaching by saying that we must be “perfect”, as God is perfect; in Luke, however, we must be “merciful”, mercy, you could say, defining the nature of God’s perfection, and thus suggesting just how far – how very far – our kindness to the wicked must go. Taking this commandment seriously, we might protest, is grace gone ga-ga.

Now, shifting gears – it’s Racial Justice Sunday – I want to share with you a passage from a book of autobiographical reflections called Brother to a Dragonfly by the late Will Campbell. Campbell was a maverick minister and civil rights activist. He was born and raised in Mississippi, and by the age of 17 he was ordained and preaching in local Baptist churches. He served as a medic in the Second World War, and then attended Yale divinity school. It was in the mid-1950s that he joined the Civil Rights movement. In 1957 he became the only white person to be invited by Martin Luther King to the inauguration of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in 1963 he joined King’s campaign of marches and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama.

Campbell had a good friend named Jonathan Daniels, a 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian and fellow civil-rights worker who in August 1965 – 50 years ago – was in Lowndes County, Alabama, registering black citizens to vote. On being released from jail for “agitating” (as the local folks put it), Daniels, a Catholic priest, and two black women stopped at a grocery store for a cold drink. On the way out, they were confronted by a deputy sheriff named Thomas Coleman. Coleman pointed his 12-gauge shotgun at one of the women. Daniels stepped in front of her as Coleman pulled the trigger. Daniels was killed instantly, the priest mortally wounded.

When Campbell heard the news of Daniels’ murder, he was with an old friend, P. D. East, a religious gadfly who, a few years earlier, had goaded Campbell into giving a 10-word summary of the gospel. Campbell used just 9: “We’re all bastards,” he said, “but God loves us anyway.” Now, at this moment of crisis, East decided to put his friend to the test. Here is Campbell on what happened next:
“Come on, Brother [P. D. said]. Let’s talk about your definition… Was Jonathan a bastard?”

I said I was sure that everyone is a sinner in one way or another but that he was one of the sweetest and most gentle guys I had ever known.

“But was he a bastard?” His tone was almost a scream. “Now that’s your word. Not mine. You told me one time that everybody is a bastard. That’s a pretty tough word. I know. Cause I am a bastard. A born bastard. A real bastard. My Mamma wasn’t married to my Daddy. Now, by god, you tell me, right now, yes or no and not maybe, was Jonathan Daniels a bastard?”

I knew that if I said no he would leave me alone and if I said yes he wouldn’t. And I knew my definition would be blown if I said no.

So I said, “Yes.”

“All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard?”

That one was a lot easier. “Yes. Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”

“Okay. Let me get this straight now. I don’t want to misquote you. Jonathan Daniels was a bastard. Thomas Coleman is a bastard. Right?... Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves the most?” His voice now was almost a whisper as he leaned forward, staring me directly in the eyes.

I made some feeble attempt to talk about God loving the sinner and not the sin, about judgment, justice, and [the] brotherhood of all humanity. But P. D. shook his hands in a manner of cancellation. He didn’t want to hear about that.

“You’re trying to complicate it. Now you’re the one always told me about how simple it was. Just answer the question.” …

He leaned his face closer to mine, patting first his own knee and then mine, holding the other hand aloft in oath-taking fashion.

“Which one of these two bastards does God love the most? Does he love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does He love that living bastard Thomas the most?”

Suddenly everything became clear. Everything. It was a revelation. The glow of the malt [whisky] which we were well into by then seemed to illuminate and intensify it. I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter. It was a strange experience. I remember trying to sort out the sadness and the joy. Just what was I crying for and what was I laughing for. Then this too became clear.

I was laughing at myself, at twenty years of ministry, which had become, without my realizing it … An attempted negation of Jesus … and … [a] denying not only the Faith I professed to hold but my history and my people – the Thomas Colemans. Loved. And if loved, forgiven. And if forgiven, reconciled. Yet sitting in his own jail cell, the blood of two of his and my brothers on his hands.
“The Lesson was over.” Well, almost. Campbell still had one thing to say to the teacher, P.D.: “I’ve got to amend the definition… We’re all bastards but you’ve got to be the biggest bastard of us all… Because, damned if you ain’t made a Christian out of me. And I’m not sure I can stand it.”

This “revelation” was a turning point in Campbell’s life. His old friend East had forced Campbell to look at violent racists like Thomas Coleman (who, by the way, would soon be acquitted of Daniels’ murder by an all-white jury) in the light of God’s kindness and mercy, not only for the saintly, the good, the pretty-good, and the not-too-bad, but even for the downright-wicked. And thus opened a new chapter in ministry for Campbell: a vocation to share this radical gospel of grace with the implacable enemies of the Civil Rights Movement, with – wait for it! – the malignant white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan, reaching out to them, befriending them, visiting them in their homes, in jails and hospitals, marrying and burying them.

So here’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking that too often our commitment to working for justice and peace tends to dispense with this radical gospel of grace. I’m thinking that, in extremis – and it’s only in extremis, in crises, that the tire of faith really hits the road – when, say, we are confronted with an atrocity, with, say, a man flying a plane carrying 150 people into a French mountainside, or with a racist shooting in a church in Charleston, or a terrorist shooting on a beach in Tunisia – I’m thinking that here we draw the line. I mean, don’t we? We think surely God cannot extend his kindness and mercy to the perpetrators of such savagery.

Andreas Lubitz, the homicidal pilot of that plane; Dylann Roof, the murderer at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church; Seifeddine Rezgui, the murderer at the Imperial Marhaba Hotel: I wonder what Will Campbell would say about these brutal events, these wicked men? And I’m thinking I know – and thinking that the answer – “We’re all bastards and God loves us anyway” – thinking how it questions me, challenges me, and (dare I say) even shames me. Yes, because it suggests that I might just be one of those Christians who is “ashamed,” as Jesus says, “of me and my teaching”. Because, as Will Campbell admitted, “I’m not sure I can stand it.”

The cross of Christ is hard to bear. Can we stand it? Lord, have mercy!


brian said...

I'm not sure why in particular, but the act of Andreas Lubitz comes to mind fairly often, especially when I am driving. I suppose this has something to do with the fact that I am an anxious driver and the foibles of the human race irritate more when on the road. In any event, I get very angry thinking about the selfishness of Andreas. So many innocent people killed and the lives of their loved ones wounded for life. And I suppose it also that he was in a position of trust and people are so vulnerable on a plane. Such an awful act --- and yet it is precisely in such cases that the universal love of the Gospel in all its wondrous power and grace makes such a difficult demand upon the human heart.

If one doesn't preach this, one really does devolve into the ressentiment Nietzsche thought he saw in Biblical faith. Love that only cares for the winsome, that refuses to embrace the vile simply isn't agape.

So, nicely stated.

Ronell said...

This articles will open-up a Christian eyes when we start thinking who God should dislike. Most of us good Christian will tell God that he better dislike gay people, because we think that is the way it should be.

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