Restoration: When Scripture Makes History

King marchingScripture Lessons:  Luke 4:15-21, Isaiah 61:1-2                                                    

What is your elevator speech?  In 30 seconds or less, how would convince someone to embrace your core values and mission? It must be simple, memorable and exciting.  A Mission Statement grounds you in being clear before you act, so every day you can ask, is this true to our mission statement. Organizations spend a great deal of time and money to get it right.  At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spends 40 days out in the wilderness, fasting and praying, and being tempted by the devil.  That is what it is like to write a good mission statement.  You have to fend off anything that is less than your true self, your highest calling, your better angels.  Jesus had to reject even good things, like turning stone into bread for the poor, because there is something even more important to do.  

Biblical commentators see Luke 4:18-19 as setting the tone for the whole Gospel.  It is Jesus’s Mission Statement.  He does not reinvent the wheel, because his perfect statement has already been written 500 years before.  Jesus doesn’t pull a laminated card from his pocket and begin reading, he opens the scroll to Isaiah 61, and reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Isaiah is the poet of hope and justice, and here’s the context of Isaiah 61.  The people of Jerusalem are tired and discouraged.  They are the grandchildren of refugees, whose families survived the sacking of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, and lived in exile in Assyria.  The have returned to the city full of hopes and grand ideals, like the Puritans and George Winthrop to build a new shining city on the hill, like many immigrant families seeking a new start.  They have heard their parents’ stories of a thriving and prosperous city.  We used to drink Grande Lattes, and wear Prada and Neiman Marcus, and went to Klienfeld’s for wedding dresses.  If only we could say “Yes to the dress,” again.  And you should have seen the Great Temple that Solomon built, it was even better than our work on the pyramids of Egypt.  We built good stuff back in the day. 

So these grandchildren arrive to a city in ruins and land stricken with poverty.  But they are full of ideals, they get busy rebuilding walls, and and then they rebuild a temple.  Now they do not have the resources and tax base that Solomon had, and it’s a rush job, completed in about 20 years.  A good stone temple takes at least a century.  So when they look at it, the Prophet Haggai records their reaction.  "Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?"  (Haggai 2:3) They can’t live up to their own great expectations and they are disappointed.

Somewhere in this context the author Isaiah 61 writes these words about freeing the captives and good news for the poor.  Its purpose is twofold, first, to give people hope that this is truly the work that God is calling them to do, to restore their city, so don’t give up even though it is hard.  But second, it is also to remind people that the true basis of national pride is not the grandeur of the Temple, but in justice and equity in the city so that all prosper together.  This is the big idea throughout Isaiah.  If your foundation of society is justice you will stand firm and prosper together, but if you oppress the poor and live in a great disparity of wealth, you will fail.  Isaiah 61 is a renewing of their mission statement, to strengthen their weary souls.

No wonder Jesus is quick to adopt these words.  The promise is never quite fulfilled, and Herod is busy trying to build another great Temple in lower Manhattan, (uhr …Jerusalem.)  Jesus reads, God brings good news to the poor, jobs and opportunity, free the captives of mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs, restoring the sight to the blind (and to those who don’t want to see.)  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Let me give you a second translation to deepen the impact of this passage, from Eugene Peterson and “The Message.” 

Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”


Think about that for a moment.  Can a scripture make history?  Well, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela quoted this passage in South Africa and ended Apartheid, Harriet Tubman and the abolitionists preached Isaiah 61, and ended slavery. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from Isaiah 61 and brought down segregation and extended Constitutional Rights to black Americans.  Scripture may need people to make history, but maybe people need the history of scripture to make justice.  

As inspiring as Isaiah 61 it is troubling that we have to keep bringing up so often.  Can’t we just preach it once, fix the problem and move on?  Seven years ago I was hopeful that we had a real breakthrough in race relations when we elected a black president, check off the “end racism” box.  This is a milestone that was unthinkable when the Voting Rights Act came into being in 1964.  So I bet black Americans are now going to college in greater numbers, that the unemployment numbers are falling, and racism is on the retreat as we move to a color blind society.  Right?  But apparently the stats aren’t budging at all.  Stats can lie though.  Let’s ask Black Christians how things are going.

“A recent Public Religion Research Institute survey has revealed a devastating truth: While about 80 percent of black Christians believe police-involved killings — like the ones that killed Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Eric Gardner and so many more — are part of a larger pattern of police treatment of African Americans, around 70 percent of white Christians believe the opposite … that they are simply isolated incidents.  And before we begin disassociating with the term "white Christians," we should look deeper. The numbers include 72 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 71 percent of white Catholics, and 73 percent of white mainline Protestants. This is about all white Christians.

So what do we make of this?  Do we say black Christians are biased and paranoid?  Or do we say that most white Christians simply refuse to connect the dots, because we are in denial? 

Apparently, it takes more than seven years of a black President to change the course of 500 years of history since the first slaves were dragged to the colonies.  Despite school busing, affirmative action, Urban Renewal, a War on Drugs, a half century later we have made some gains, but on the whole, when we look at the Temple of Racial Equality we have tried to build and measure it against the soaring aspirations of “I Have a Dream,” –to quote Haggai again- “How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?"   

What happened?  It is not enough to say Donald Trump came along and made racism acceptable again.  Trump is only a symptom; he is like a virus that seizes an opportunity when the body of the nation is weakened. In a healthy republic, Trump is not a serious candidate.  Trump has just emboldened latent racism that has now showed up on X-rays.  In Iowa, where my mother lives, as they prepare for the Presidential Caucuses, white Supremist groups are making Robo calls on behalf of Donald Trump.  American Renaissance, the group that inspired hatred in Dylann Roof, and lead to his shooting of nine black people in a Charleston, SC church, has a Super Pac and is calling people in Iowa.  (Both these groups are not old racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, they were incorporated in 2009.  We know what happened in 2008, right.)    

We don’t need Muslims. We need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture. Vote Trump.’

The reality is that ending racism is more like curing cancer, it takes more than Vitamin C and one dose or two of chemotherapy.  Cancer attacks the body in so many ways, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer…and there are so many ways that we work to prevent and treat it, radiation, chemotherapy, keeping pollutants out of our food and water.  It takes a major investment of time and money and commitment.  People need support, and rides the doctor, and we have prayer lists.  We all have lost someone close to us, or endured cancer ourselves.

If you are black, you have lost someone to the system of racism.  Maybe it was to drug and gang violence, or prison time for things most people did in college, (since blacks are 10 times more likely to do jail time for drug use than whites) or if you live in Flint, Michigan racism is literally in the water.  The story of the Flint water system is a terrible case of environmental racism. 

BetheChurch1.001So what do we do now?  Healthy organizations go back to their mission statements.

We are here this morning in the midst of a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.  Not just Isaiah, Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr.  But also First Baptist Church, whose members declared themselves to be against slavery in 1840.  (You let a bunch a radicals in when you merged with them!)  It was First Churches that strongly supported the Sojourner Truth statute being placed in Florence against strong opposition. My hope is that 20 years down the road, when I’m retired, a preacher will be standing here saying, look what the people of First Churches did 2016, and 2020.  They stood tall and strong.  Go and do likewise!

Springtime for Liberal Christianity: A Quick Response

I'm glad to see NY Times conservative columnist engaging liberal Christianity. But there are a couple things he misses:

"Douthat's title, "Springtime for Liberal Christianity" is more correct than his column. Most of his critique was true of the progressive churches a decade ago, but decline has brought reform. The most read progressive Christian voices like Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Marcus Borg, Jon Dominic Crossan, are all doing biblical studies and touting a Christianity that is deeply spiritual as well as politically engaged. At the congregational level, there has been a renewal of liturgy, spiritual practices and prayer. Many progressive congregations have also seen issues like gay marriage as pastoral issues, wanting to fully include all people into the life of the congregation. More than a third of my congregation is GLBTQ, so it is not just a political abstraction. 

So it is Springtime for progressive Christianity, but the green shoots are not simply political coming back into fashion, it is the death and resurrection of Christ being lived in new ways in the church.

Read Ross Douthat's full column here.

Mark 4:26-34 "Who Plants Mustard Seed?"

MustardI have preached on this passage many times over the years and I realized this week that I have often missed the real point.  This is a great passage to run out to the Indian grocer, buy some mustard seed for the children’s sermon, and talk about what a wondrous plant comes from humble beginnings.  Therefore, if the Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny mustard seed, we can have hope when we feel our efforts are unremarkable compared to the world’s need, and trust that God is going to do great things from our small plantings, and spread the Kingdom among us.  Don’t be afraid to start small in life, because God always has a bigger plan.  That is not a bad sermon to preach.  I do believe that God can often be found in the small things and lost in large undertakings.  But after a little research, I decided that is not Jesus’s point here in the Gospel.


The first problem I encountered is with the nature of the mustard plant.  Despite the value of mustard seeds for flavor and medicinal purposes, it is not something you want in your garden.  Think mint on steroids.  It does grow into a fairly large bush, maybe four feet tall, and will spread quickly to every horizon.  And what would you do with all that mustard plant?  If you have ever cooked mustard greens, you will know that a little bit goes a long way.  It has a horseradish kick, and you are not going to eat like you would potatoes or tomatoes.  Mustard, in the Middle East, is a weed growing on the hillside, filling in the untamed and agriculturally undesirable spots.  Most of the domesticated mustard grown in the world to make your Golden’s spicy brown mustard is grown in two countries, Nepal and Canada.  My guess is because they have a lot of land areas not really valuable for anything else.  There are no mustard farms in Iowa.  When Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed, watch out.  It means that things could quickly get out of hand as you are unexpectedly overtaken. 


And what about the birds, who come make their nests in the branches of a mustard plant?  I always thought this was a comforting image of how tiny seeds provide a home for the poor birds who have nowhere to nest.  Actually in ancient agricultural areas, where seeds were sown by hand and scattered across the fields, birds were a nuisance.  Remember the parable of the sower who lost many of the seeds because the birds came and ate them.  You really don’t want to encourage the birds to nest around your fields, hiding in the mustard patch and eating up your crops. 


As John Dominic Crossan puts it:
The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses -- if you could control it (The Historical Jesus, pp. 278-279).


This is really not what I expected from the parable.  Note that not everything is beyond our own doing.  The first verse says that we play the role of farmer scattering seeds on the ground.  But after that, seed and soil take over and we have little to do with it until the harvest.  We plant, we take an action, and then so much of the result is out of our hands.