What follows is a sermon I preached at Waratah Church on the 14-06-2020
Well, there are about 1000 things I’d rather be preaching on this morning, but as I sat there over the last two weeks listening to Steve speak on the topic of biblical peacemaking I found it almost ironic that at the very same time, a storm was brewing in the U.S. that was really just the first cold front in a long series of storms dating back hundreds of years into American history racial oppression.
But such is the explosion of this cultural moment beyond the boundaries of America that we realised that it was not really just American history but, in a sense, our history as well. A recent study of 11,000 people over 10 years by the Australian National University, found 75% of Australians hold an implicit negative bias against Aboriginal Australians.
That is the only stat I’ll quote. The issue is that statistics provide a platform for secondary arguments that blind us to the fact that the central argument was never about statistics in the first place but rather attitudes and assumptions. As I watched both published and social media feeds over the past two weeks, the comments of various friends and the ‘statements issued’ by other ministry colleagues both within and outside our denomination, I noticed that the need for a measured biblical, pastoral response is crucial. Jesus will hold me responsible if I just lazily outsource discipleship to youtube/social media!
So in a moment, we’ll go through Jesus’s interaction with a religious expert first, then come back to this morning’s bible reading before finally applying it to the here and now. But before I embark on this let me give one more note of preamble. Some may ‘lap up’ what follows, others may find it disconcerting and others still may flat out disagree. I can handle that. Here’s what we must not handle or allow; any idea that these matters are somehow superfluous to the gospel and that a Church’s job is merely ‘to stick to the life after death stuff.’ If we divorce the message of the kingdom from the fruit of the kingdom, Satan has already won and we pose no further threat to his plans.
So, let’s begin.
Mark 12:28-34 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[e] 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[f] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[g] There is no commandment greater than these.” 32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
So, Jesus has been answering the questions of various Pharisees intending to trap him into saying something that would get him arrested. Unfortunately for them, because he is Jesus, he runs rings around their scheme. That is not the focus for this morning, what comes next, however, is. All his mates are trying to trap Jesus, but at some point, this particular teacher of the law has noticed the spiritual bankruptcy of the system he is part of, its inability to match the wisdom of Jesus and it’s preoccupation of ceremonial worship traditions over justice. So he makes the decision to ‘step over’ that system and ask a genuine question for his own spiritual benefit. This. Takes. Guts.
He enters a conversation with Jesus, later affirming Jesus’ answer to his question without some hidden agenda. Therefore, he receives a massive compliment for the very Word made flesh; 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
Here is why this bloke isn’t far from the kingdom of God: because he refuses to hold on to his own assumptions more than pursuing that Kingdom. He is willing to acknowledge what God says even when it challenges his own background. So, he’s on a Kingdom trajectory rather than an idolatry trajectory.
Meanwhile, later on in the New Testament, we read a letter written by James, the same James who was one of Jesus’ earthly family that were so skeptical of his ministry that they tried to commit him to a mental asylum. However, it seems that James also has seen something in Jesus that changed his mind to the point where he authored a New Testament letter. And so, we finally get to this week’s bible reading:
James 5:13-16 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
I want to zero in on particularly verse 16 today for the rest of our discussion. As I watched the scenes on TV and on-line recently, all I could see were deep, deep wounds in need of even deeper healing. Many hurt people hurting people. James 5:16 started to worm its way into my head. So, as we explore and apply this verse, let us hold our own assumptions and backgrounds with open hands.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. No one, and therefore no people are completely without sin in the eyes of God. Be it in the past or in the present. But any conversation about reconciliation is also a conversation about healing, because in a fallen world, we damage each other. Healing in this context means the mending, restoring, renewing and repairing that which is damaged in collaboration with each other.
Assuming that this is the case, what fascinates me about James 5:16 is that healing seems to be contingent upon confession. Not just confession to God, not just confession to anyone. But confession to one another.
Each side, talking to one another. Not merely having a conversation, but confessing their sin. That is where true reconciliation, true healing starts. The question is: who’s going to go first? Those who have been oppressed or those who have had the privilege of ‘no questions asked’? Those dispossessed of their land, or those with the ‘home field advantage?’ In Australia, we are perhaps a step ahead in this process thanks to the national apology of the 13th Feb 08. The question now though, is who is going to lead in actualizing it? Especially if even 50% let alone 75% are (still) negatively predisposed.
Even if you disagree, Imagine for one moment if all of that is true and let me ask this question, As a Christians, people called to carry the cross………who’s going to go first? Someone has got to because as we have seen in an Australian context when you simply throw endless time, energy, and resources at brokenness without first seeking understanding and healing, it just doesn’t work. What if every conflict is an opportunity? It is much more difficult to kneel with Daniel and grieve the systemic, corporate, and historical sins (Dan 9). Especially those that I have benefitted from.
So, after wrestling over it for a few weeks, I’m going to say it; Black lives matter. As a white person, if it makes me uncomfortable that this cultural moment is focusing attention on a group(s) of people that have been systemically oppressed for a very long time then I need to sit in that discomfort and think deeply about exactly why it does, lest I be like the elder brother in Luke 15 who though loved equally by the father, couldn’t see it because he was too upset about the homecoming of the younger. I have also realized that as a white person, I don’t get the authority to pick out which voices in black communities are ‘right’ and which aren’t.
Getting back to the James passage, a cycle of confession implies the presence of forgiveness. Again, who goes first? Who is going to model that? We do. By this, all men shall know that you are my disciples, if you have a love that you’re willing to let cost you something…for one another.
Justice begins in the heart. It is the ethical expression of love. And if I give all I have….but have not love I….I we gain nothing. Love does no harm to others, so if I engage this topic in a way that puts others at risk, that’s not love either. But if it begins in the heart, I can show love through going first in confession.
- I used to say things like: ‘I wasn’t alive in the times of past oppression so it’s not my responsibility’ without ever having a conversation with someone of color and realizing just how much easier it is to get in, fit in and be in society when there’s a whole set of questions you never get asked and a whole array of assumptions you never need to battle against.
- I confess my attitude has at times been ‘with all the funding they get why can’t they just get with the program’.
- I confess that I have been too busy or flippant to bother listening to the stories of the oppressed or bothering to understand their culture.
- I confess that I have failed to confront racism, or even racist attitudes when I have heard and seen it among my brothers and sisters in church contexts.
I’m not confessing for historical sins, I’m confessing my current sins of ignorance, apathy, and arrogance towards history and the stories of other human beings.
Finally, this brings me to the hope, the good news. As a Christian, I have the opportunity to give up my ‘rights’ to take up a cross. As a citizen of heaven, I can trust that Christ will provide my needs to the point where I can adopt a willingness to share. Because my righteousness is not mine but Christ’s imparted, it seems my prayer can be so powerful and effective that it can even change the weather from drought to flooding rains. God’s people can make a difference.
I laughed when I heard the comment recently from Phil Vischer that both left and right media stations got more than they bargained for when they broadcasted George Floyd’s funeral. CNN kept having to hear about Jesus’, justice, grace and mercy and couldn’t cut to an ad break, Fox News kept having to hear Democrat candidate Joe Biden singing gospel music and likewise couldn’t cut away.
I say again: If we divorce the message of the kingdom from the fruit of the kingdom, Satan has already won, and we pose no further threat to his plans.
The way the world is being the first to offer an opinion. The way of the cross is being the first to own our own prejudice and give up our assumptions. Then our prayers can bring floods of justice and mercy where there was only drought. Let us soak our imaginations in the ways of Jesus and then dream out loud.
I close with the words of Tolkien…Even the smallest person, can change the course of the future.