A Worthy Sacrifice – 01/16/2022

Amos 5: 18-24

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them, and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Sermon Text

Tomorrow we mark, on our secular calendars, the work of a man who was committed to justice for all people. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister like his father before him. His father had changed his own name, and that of his son from Michael to Martin Luther in honor of the reformer who, to him, reflected resistance to the evils of the world no matter the cost. The Kings were both ministers, tending to their flocks, but they also cast their eye beyond the needs of the local church to the needs of the culture in which their flock lived. It was not enough to offer pastoral care to people grieving under the weight of oppression, it was necessary to work to remove that oppression from their life. King was a diligent participant in the Civil Rights Movement, an advocate for the abolition of people of color from the tyranny of the Jim Crow South, and from any and all discrimination.

Growing up, we learned about Rev. Dr. King in school. Some of you here might remember the news covering his marches and speeches as they happened. Yet, most people who cover his work do so as though he was merely a secular thinker, an offshoot of the enlightenment that was bringing social change through political action. But Rev. King was not just that, his political advocacy was a ministry in itself. His fight for the rights of all people was rooted in his Biblical convictions about human dignity, and his overwhelming desire was to see God’s glory reflected in the conduct that one person showed another, regardless of appearance, circumstances of birth, or country of origin.

            This mission worked against centuries of human conflict, but especially in the United States. It would be hard to deny that there has always been a tendency for people to fight amongst themselves and against those they write off as members of out-groups. The first thing humanity did outside of the Garden was to kill – Cain slaying Abel out of jealousy.

            Despite what we may think, our modern conflicts are different from the forms of conflict which were experienced in antiquity. While it would not be fair to say there were never ideological conflicts in the ancient world, far more battles were fought of resources than they were for ideas. As empires developed more distinct cultures and exclusionary ideas of in and out groups, conflicts rooted in issues outside of the need to survive became more common. I admit this simplifies human history a great deal, but I am willing to make this sort of statement generally if not specifically.

            The key moment that shaped our modern world in terms of how we formulate ideas like “race” and “ethnicity,” those key places where we choose to favor or discriminate against others, or worse yet to plot violence, was the expansion of European powers into the Americas and into the African Continent. The discovery of the “New World,” led to the enslavement of local populations by Spanish colonizers. Christopher Columbus, governor of Barbados was so cruel in his governing of the colony that a monk reported him to the Spanish Throne and he was repatriated to Spain to stand trial for “tyranny.”[1]

            At the same time, German activity in Africa and on the European continent began to form the first concepts of “race,” as an essential quality of a person. While there had always been general categories of people, usually based on ethnic and cultural groups, the Dutch were the first to make a science of racism.[2] They began to rank the races, the Nordic peoples were the top of the great chain of creation, and as skin got darker and culture became less Germanic, the dignity of people eroded along with it. The Dutch influence would spread to other imperial powers and before too long, a concept of racial superiority undergirded much of European activity in the world.

            Again, I am simplifying the story a little bit, drawing from writers and historians who are infinitely better versed in the subject than I am. However, when we look at the current conflicts in the United States, indeed in any former colonial power, we have to understand that there was a very particular mishmash of philosophic ideas that led to where we are. Slavery existed throughout human history, but chattel slavery and the triangle trade were the first to enslave people exclusively by the criteria of race and to regard the enslaved as having no rights except which were given to them by their “owners.” The abolition of enslaved people in the United States after the Civil War did not cease the problems we had inherited from this mindset, shifting the problem over to segregation, Jim Crow laws, and civilian violence against people of color –  more properly described as lynchings.

            The Church, sadly, through all of this was a supporter of the popular perspective that the enslaved, and more generally people of color, were lesser than white free persons. John Wesley was an outspoken critic of this perspective in the Church, arguing that all people – regardless of race or nation – had equal dignity under God and demanded the end of slavery wherever it was practiced. American Methodists, after the Revolutionary War, buckled to the demands of influential slaveholders, allowing the practice among its members. It was only after a Bishop refused to manumit his slaves that the American Methodist Episcopal Church stood up in any capacity for the enslaved as an institution. The Methodist Episcopal Church split, the North rejecting slavery in all forms, the South insisting it was a right. This happened only a few years before a war would be waged over the same principles.

            The Northern Methodists were not much better than the Southern ones. They joined in with the opinions of people like then President Abraham Lincoln, arguing that people of color could never live among whites as equals. They were some of the staunchest advocates for Liberia, seeking to remove people of color from their midst rather than seeking true peace. It is because of this failure to see all people as equal that prominent figures like Frederick Douglass left the Methodist Church, and that Bishop Richard Allen separated from the Church to form his own denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

            Even after the Northern and Southern Methodist communions came together again in the 1920s they did so as a segregated body. Black Methodists were part of their own conference, the “Central Conference,” distinct yet connected to the wider Methodist General Conference. This term, it should be said, is still used for any Methodist Conference outside the United States. It was only in the merger of 1968, when the Evangelical United Brethren joined the Methodist Church, that the Church formerly integrated – and only then because the wider culture was now accepting of the idea. The Church, the champion of God’s justice, has often failed to uphold its high calling.

            I could talk about a dozen more denomination who faced similar troubles. I could also point to the persistent drum beat underneath the “civilized” veneer which the Church had put on in its tolerance and support of oppression. The constant beat of the drum of justice. There were always the abolitionists, always those fighting for integration in every aspect of life, always those rejecting any definition of a people that denied them being made in the image of God. These people were the ones who defied the Spirit of the Time, who prove that those who lived before us were not above reproach, that showed that morality is more timeless than we might think.

            It is in that tradition of justice workers that our opening subject comes into view. Rev. King was one of those people who fought for Justice no matter the cost. He was imprisoned multiple times, he was written off as a rabble rouser, accused of starting riots, and would ultimately go on to be murdered for the work he did. In fact, it is one of the letters he wrote from jail which makes the above deluge of history necessary. In King’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail, he lays out the framework he uses to plan his political actions. More than that though, he names the most dangerous force working against his ministry. It is not in the racist mobs, not in the Klu Klux Klan, but in the white moderate Christian, that King sees the most danger for America.

            As I mentioned a moment ago, King was often accused of causing unnecessary trouble. His methods disrupted public transportation, they prevented people from going about daily life, they forced people to see and hear the cries of those in need around them. These disruptions are at the root of protest – a protest that does not inconvenience people has no teeth, it does nothing other than make the people protesting feel good about themselves without actually causing any changes in the world around them. Yet, people insisted King was wrong to disrupt, wrong to rock the boat, wrong to speak up because everything would get better if they only waited.

            Yet, as King pointed out, there was never a time that people of color would get their fair share unless they made a fuss. To quotes him directly, and I use his exact words so excuse the antiquated language:

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.”[3]

            The United States is a place of untold potential, it is a place of abundance, and it is a place that we are all here proud to be a part of. Yet, we cannot deny the legacy which we all carry with us. While we are not responsible for the sins of our ancestors or for the sins that led to the unfair systems that live on into today, we are responsible to do are part to help break every chain that keeps people from living a full life. There is still prevalent racism in this country. There are still people discriminated against, bullied, and killed because of the color of their skin. Until such a day where we erase any image of humanity that denies the image of God from our hearts and minds, we will always find ourselves guilty – not of the sins of our fathers, but of our own inaction.

            Our scripture today is one of my favorites because it opens with a powerful warning to God’s people. “Woe to you who seek the Day of the Lord!” The day that God is coming to set everything right, the day when all wickedness is cast down and the righteous uplifted. “Woe to you!” Because we are unrepentant in our wanderings away from God, unrepentant in our support of injustice, unrepentant in our stopping up our ears to our neighbors. “Woe to you!” because we cannot see that God does not want prim and proper people respecting the status quo, but a community that is willing to stand up for the least of these, even when they look nothing like us.

            The sacrifice we offer to God, in faith and in prayer and in ministry, is a sacrifice of our own feelings of superiority and apathy. Superiority that makes us doubt the intentions of anyone outside ourselves, and apathy that makes us unwilling to help anyone who is not directly tied to our own interests. God forgive us of our inaction and God free us from the brokenness which has plagued this nation from its inception. Let every person be as a sibling to us, let every barrier we erect between one another be cast down, and let love be the banner we are willing to fight for the rights of all people under. Let us see justice roll like water, and righteous flow like a stream. – Amen.

[1] Giles Tremlett. “Lost Document Reveals Columbus as Tyrant of the Caribbean.” In Madrid. Reprinted in The Guardian.7 Aug. 2005.  Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/aug/07/books.spain

[2] Again, this is a simplification of a very complex dynamic, but more information on this can be found in.
Josiah Young. Dogged Resistance in the Veil. (Norcross, Georgia: Trinity Press International. 2003)

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail. August 1963. Available at: https://www.csuchico.edu/iege/_assets/documents/susi-letter-from-birmingham-jail.pdf

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