Text: Luke 4:14-21
The Reverend Dr. Joseph Darby
Racial Justice Sunday is an excellent time to focus on the ministry and mission of Jesus the Christ, to recommit to follow not just Jesus the Lamb of God, but Jesus the revolutionary who shool the religious status quo of His day to its core, who offered salvation but also articulated God’s love through liberation.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that early on in His earthly ministry, Jesus went to Sabbath worship in His hometown of Nazareth, to the synagogue where He’d grown up and was a familiar face. No one was surprised when, as was the custom in synagogue worship, He stood up to read and comment on a passage of Scripture.
No one was surprised when Jesus chose and read a Scripture they that all knew – Isaiah’s prophecy of what the Messiah would someday say: “The Spirit of the Lord us upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed and to say that this is the acceptable year of the Lord.”
None of that initially surprised those who heard Jesus, but when He sat back down and said, “Today, in your hearing, the Scripture has been fulfilled,” when they realized that He was claiming to be the Messiah, they were shocked and confused and angry. They drove Him out of the synagogue and were ready to kill Him before He simply walked away.
Jesus spent the next three years giving life to that prophecy. He carried the good news, advocated for the poor and the oppressed and reached out to those who were shunned, scorned and labeled as sinners by those who claimed to have “good” religion. His work set the stage for His journey to the cross, His work so upset the religious and political leadership that they felt compelled to silence Him.
Fifty years ago, in 1968, the same thing happened to Martin King in Memphis, Tennessee; to Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles, California; to Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton in Orangeburg, South Carolina and to other notable and little-known warriors in the fight for freedom, justice and equality. They followed Jesus by and through their lives, their work, their courage and their sacrifice, and if we are to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord in 2018, then we have to do as they did. We have to follow Jesus, because we do not live in a post-racial America, there’s still work to be done. The President of the United States gives political comfort to white supremacists and condemns what he calls radical Islamic terrorism but doesn’t say a word about the hate crimes that are really radical American terrorism, there’s work to be done. The United States Congress is trying to roll back the clock of civil rights progress and cares more about protecting assault rifles than about protecting the health of all children, there’s work to be done.
The political leadership in South Carolina is consumed with the rights of the “unborn” but can’t build, fund and staff good schools for all of the “already born,” there’s work to be done. Young black men can be hassled by law enforcement simply for being young black men, there’s work to be done. The times are too critical, the need is great for us to settle for “feel good” Sunday religion. We have to roll up our sleeves, take up our crosses and get in step with the Jesus who brings real strength, who brings real joy, who brings real justice, who brings real power.
We have to go beyond what’s safe and polite and carry the good news by advocating for all of God’s children, we have to do so in the spirit of those who faced down fire hoses and police dogs 50 years ago, singing, “Before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free,” we have to follow Jesus!
We have to follow the Jesus who changed the world for the better, the Jesus who announced His mission in Sabbath worship but who didn’t just talk the talk – he walked the walk. He had the nerve to say that the poor in spirit and the humble are actually blessed, to run those who were shaking down the poor in God’s temple out of the temple – the same people who would be payday lenders and loan sharks today – and to condemn those who made a show of their religion but didn’t practice what they preached and actually dealt in division.
Jesus knew that doing so set Him on a trajectory for the cross, He could have played it safe, but He chose to do God’s will. If we are to follow Jesus and stand against injustice today, we can’t be cowardly Christians, we have to step out on faith and do God’s will.
If that means challenging those who tell racist jokes and send racist tweets, we have to do it. If that means speaking truth to those who seek to make political hay by dividing people and passing laws meant to discriminate and disenfranchise voters, we have to do it. If that means rallying and marching and facing down bigots when we could be looking out for self, we have to do it. If that means calling out those who call themselves Christians but will support immoral and profane politicians as long as they like their politics, we have to do it.
We can’t be “light bulb” Christians who turn our religion on for Sunday worship and turn it off when we leave God’s house, we have to follow the Jesus who said, “You’re blessed when people revile you and persecute you and trash you and troll you, rejoice in all of that because God will reward you!” When we have the nerve to come out of our comfort zones, build bridges instead of walls and make it plain that we won’t tolerate intolerance, we can follow Jesus and see laws changed, follow Jesus and see new respect for all of God’s children, follow Jesus and drive bigotry back into the shadows.
We can do so knowing that we don’t have to fight alone, for the God we serve will be there to bless us, be there to make a way for us, be there to bear our burdens, be there to fight our battles, be there to remind us why one hymn writer said, “I hear the voice of Jesus telling me still to fight on, He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone!”
We have to follow the Jesus who changed the world for the better, the Jesus whose grace and power prompted The Apostle Paul to tell Roman Christians who would soon be persecuted, “Don’t be defeated by evil, defeat evil with good.”
Jesus did His work knowing that he would be, as Isaiah prophesied, “despised and rejected,” but He did the right thing anyway, completed His work on the cross anyway, prayed for the crowds that cursed Him and told a criminal crucified with Him, “You’ll be in paradise with me today.” Jesus had the determination to stand up and serve God anyway.
If we are to follow Jesus today, then we need that same determination – the determination that took Martin King to Memphis, knowing that he might be in danger and that allowed South Carolina State University students to stand up for their rights in the face of heavily armed State patrolmen.
That’s not easy, because when you try to serve the Lord and stand up for justice and righteousness, someone won’t like it and will criticize and even threaten you; but stand up anyhow. If you’re a person of color, they’ll call you an agitator trying to stir up trouble who ought to go back where you can from – even in your hometown – but stand up anyhow. If you’re white, they’ll call you a crazy, left wing do-gooder looking for trouble who ought to sit down and shut up, but you’ve got to stand up anyhow.
If you work to bring people together for honest conversations, if you fight for victims of injustice and stand against overt and casual racism, if you simply acknowledge that the battle for civil rights is still being fought, you’ll be messed with, cursed out, derided and dismissed, but you have to have the determination of the Jesus who said, “I must work the works of God who sent me” and do the right thing anyhow, saying with my spiritual ancestors, “Talk about me as much as you please, the more you talk I’m gonna bend my knees!”
When you make up your mind to serve the Lord and that nothing and no one will turn you around, you can follow Jesus and change the conversation about race and justice, follow Jesus and call people to conscience – outside and inside of the church. You can follow Jesus – not only on Sundays, but at home, at work, at school and in the halls of government and the voting booth, follow Jesus and let God use you to let justice and righteousness flow freely.
You may not be praised by people down here, but God will see and make a way for you, God will see and open doors for you, God will see and renew your strength, God will see and restore your hope. God will use you to change lives, to change the church, to change your community to make America “One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice” – not for some, but “for all” and enable you to find assurance in the words of the hymn that says, “If I can help somebody as I pass along, then my living will not be in vain.
There’s still work to be done. Being black in America still makes it hard to get a good job, to get a mortgage to buy a good house or to walk through some neighborhoods without someone calling 9-1-1, there’s still work to be done.
Drive down very white I-85 in South Carolina and you’ll find a booming economy and good schools. Drive down very black I-95 in South Carolina and you’ll find impoverished communities and schools that can barely make it, there’s still work to be done.
America is still very separate and unequal, we’ve come a long way in the last fifty years, but we still have a long way to go. There’s still work to be done; and if we are, as the Bible says, to love others as we love ourselves, we have to do that work. We have to do it, as the writer to the Hebrews said, “…looking to the Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith.”
Follow Jesus. It may take some time and cost you a few friends but follow Jesus. You may be trolled and criticized and ridiculed but follow Jesus. Do so in the spirit of a contemporary gospel song of my faith tradition that says, “Nobody told me that the road would be easy, but I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.”
Follow Jesus. Make a difference. Speak truth to power. Don’t just talk about your religion – live your religion and work for truth and justice and righteousness.
You’ll be glad you did, because when you follow Jesus, He’ll protect you and sustain you and lead you to new hope, lead you to new determination, lead you to new peace of mind, lead you to new possibilities and enable you to testify, as did the writer of a beloved hymn that those in the African Methodist Episcopal Church traditionally sing on Easter Sunday, “He walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own, and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known!”