January 15, 2017
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘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.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. 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.”
You might call this ‘Jesus’ mission statement’. They were excited to hear his news, until, he goes on to tell them that this good news is not only for them, but for all people. He reminds them of a time where God brought a famine on Israel as a judgement, while providing bread for a ostracized gentile woman. Not something they wanted to hear. So they banished him from the village and tried to throw him off the edge of a cliff. Dangerous profession - being a prophet.
Our scriptures are filled with them and their messages resonate today more than ever.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Rev. Dr. William Barber, in his must read book, “The Third Reconstruction,” asks us in one of the opening chapters: “What never changes from age to age with God? What is always God’s primary focus for his people? What transcends our labels, our political alliances, and our situational ethics?”
It’s not rocket science folks. 3,000 years ago Micah summed it up in nine words: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. How often have we as a nation failed to live by these words? From the beginning, Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal” - women and people of color were somehow left out, and we’re still struggling to get that right.
It took a civil war, The Emancipation Proclamation, and a brave President Lincoln, to free the slaves. And he who paid the ultimate price. But there were still many battles yet to be won, in the streets and courts of our land, and the hearts of our people, if true equality was to become the law of the land.
For a brief period after the civil war, between 1865 and 1900, a glimmer of hope appeared during what is called America’s First Reconstruction. Barber tells us “Interracial alliances in every Southern state arose to advance public education, protect the right to vote and curb corporate power by reaching across the color line … blacks and whites working together in the South passed some of the most progressive educational and labor laws in our nation’s history.”
But with every reconstruction comes push back and deconstruction. We know it as Jim Crow - attempts to deny the vote to blacks using literacy tests, poll taxes, intimidation and violence, upheld by an ultra-conservative Supreme Court in 1875.
In 1896 the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson “upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring segregation of public facilities, under the doctrine “separate but equal.” But we all know separate does not equate to equal. It appeared the deconstructionists had ruled the day.
But others with a moral conscience would not be silenced. The ‘fusion” movements continued, bringing people together across racial and economic divides, creating pockets of resistance to stand up for justice, while extremists worked to divide and conquer, instilling fear of ‘the other’ to accomplish their goals.
It’s a complicated history, but two specific events helped lead to the Second Reconstruction: the Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board of Education established that intentional segregation was unconstitutional; and the lynching of 14 year old Emmett Till while visiting his family in Money, Mississippi. National headlines finally exposed the violence of Jim Crow in the South. Rosa Parks protested his murder as she sat on that Montgomery bus, and the masses rose up, lead by the inspiring words and peaceful protests of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..
We honor him this weekend, but the Civil Rights Movement would not have led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference without the courage and voices and actions of a fusion movement of the masses, many of whom but their lives on the line. Like Lincoln before him, Martin Luther King Jr. paid the ultimate price - that’s what prophets often do.
Barber writes: “The Second Reconstruction’s power was in cross-racial, cross-class solidarity, embracing Chicano workers, Jewish students, Native American sisters and brothers, Malcolm X’s challenge and the Poor People’s Campaign …When people of all different faiths and colors came together and demanded change from a moral perspective, it touched the conscience of the nation.”
But as we are all too aware, history repeats itself, and the Second Deconstruction was right around the corner, known by the title of Michelle Alexander’s must read book “The Second Jim Crow”. This time it was by voter suppression laws, the war on drugs, which has unfairly incarcerated huge numbers of people of color, and an economic system that has further divided the 1% from the rest of us, that pushed more and more of our population, especially minorities, into abject poverty.
Some of us saw glimmers of hope once again eight years ago this week when our first black president took the oath of office. Had we finally laid to rest racism in this country? Was a third reconstruction on the horizon? Those of us basking in the initial joy of this accomplishment, were blind to the fears and anger brewing under the surface of others in this country who could not bear to see a black man and his family occupy a house once built by slaves, and to others who were truly suffering from lost jobs and a lost future. We listened as others in congress pledged to put a stop to anything Obama tried to do to move our country forward.
As we have moved to reconstruct, others laid plans to deconstruct. Yes, we are a divided nation, more now, I think, than any time since the civil war.
And here we sit, five days until another oath of office is taken and another administration assumes power. Many in this country will be cheering. I imagine some of them might call the president elect a prophet. Others - well - we have other names for him. But I’m not here to bad mouth or call people names. We hear enough of that.
I’m here to look for hope in what for me are very troubling times, even frightening times - like no other that I have lived through, not even when my friends were drafted and sent to Vietnam as I marched in protests. I’m looking for wisdom and guidance for how to move forward in this divided country. And being a person of faith, I look to the scriptures and the voices of other people of faith - to prophets like Isaiah and Micah, and Jesus.
His mission statement in that first sermon is one for us too:
The spirit of the Lord is upon us,
because he has anointed us
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent us to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind
to let the oppressed go free,
His words gave hope to a hurting people. Today the church, and I mean all of us, are called upon to help fulfill this hope. William Barber, a modern day prophet in my opinion, calls us to be a “liberation movement and a sign of what God’s justice and freedom can mean for all people.”
In Chicago, on July 6, 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the 5th General Synod of the United Church of Christ. The UCC was a mere toddler at the time, only eight years into existence. Rev. King told this young denomination,
“Although the Church has been called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.... How often the Church has been an echo rather than a voice, a tail-light behind the Supreme Court and other secular agencies, rather than a headlight guiding men and women progressively and decisively to higher levels of understanding.”
These were challenging words to a young denomination who prided itself on a history of being on the forefront of social issues. His words to the 5th General Synod resonate today, more than ever. Are we heeding them, or are we suffering from social amnesia or complacency? The prophet Amos, who didn’t mince words, told his people, “Woe to you who are at ease in Zion!” Woe to you who are at ease living here in Newton!
Michelle Obama, in her eloquent and emotional farewell address, speaking to the young people in our country, assured them that no matter their faith, color or creed, they have a place in this country. “That glorious diversity is not a threat to who we are, it makes us who we are.” And she followed it up with a call to action:
“I also want to be very clear, this right isn’t handed to you. No, this right has to be earned every single day. You cannot take your freedoms for granted … You have to do your part to preserve and protect those freedoms… You have to be preparing yourself to be informed citizens, to serve and to lead and to stand up for our proud American values, and to honor them in your daily lives…” That message was for all of us, and we need to take it seriously.
I find my hope right now in citizens all over this country: black, white, brown, red and yellow, rich, poor, of all different faiths and ethnicities, having come here from all over the globe, who are rising up in a massive fusion movement, as they did during the Civil Rights Movement, to say, “This is not who we are! We are not a racist, xenophobic, homophobic, mysoginist people! Our sacred texts, no matter our faith traditions, declare that we must do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.
And they are backing up their words in many cases with actions. I saw this first hand last Monday when I attended a “Moral Revivalist Gathering” at the AME Church in Jamaica Plain. We all have our work cut out for us. We can’t afford to sit back complacently waiting for others to do it all for us.
Michelle Obama closed her speech with words I needed to hear: “When you are struggling and you start thinking about giving up, I want you to remember something that my husband and I have talked about since we first started this journey nearly a decade ago, something that has carried us through every moment in this White House and every moment in our lives, and that is the power of hope.
The belief that something better is always possible if you’re willing to work for it and fight for it. It is our fundamental belief in the power of hope that has allowed us to rise above the voice of doubt and division, of anger and fear that we have faced in our own lives and the life of this country, because that is what moves this country forward every single day, our hope for the future and the hard work that hope inspires… So don’t be afraid. Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered.