Read Luke 6:17-19
My mother used to complain that men made the worst patients. When we finally decided we could be sick, we were helpless and down for the count and it was all hands on deck caring for us because we could not do a thing in our convalescence. Mom would meet our needs, making us soup, getting us to the doctor, let us lie on the couch, watching over us, whatever it took to get us well. Once we showed the slightest improvement however, off the couch, back to school, back to chores and life’s routines.
As many a good caregiver, perhaps mom took her cue from Jesus. Jesus has developed a loyal following. He has jousted with the Pharisees over fasting and working on the Sabbath. He has healed a paralytic, a leper and a withered hand. So with his reputation and work growing, he withdrew to a mountaintop for prayer and contemplation. There he organizes his workforce for the tasks ahead.
As he descends the mountain with focus and a reorganized workforce, a crowd awaits. News of his healing prowess and presence has spread through the region, bringing a multitude and he is swamped by requests for personal healing. He’s got something to say, a sermon to preach. They’ve got disease, unclean spirits and broken bodies. So before he preaches, he heals. All of them. Power came out of him, and he touched every personal ill brought before him.
This is where I think mom took a cue from Jesus. What he did that morning on the plain, was attend to each personal need for healing. Cured all those individual sicknesses. Then, when all were well, crowd still engaged, he cast his eye on all present, letting them know that God sees them all, he preceded to preach about the health of the community. Jesus offered spiritual healing for the community.
It is as if Jesus sought to take care of all the personal ills that troubled those before him in order for them to have clear focus on what he had to say about their collective health. Listen to what he said:
Read Luke 6:20-26
Blessings and Woes. Luke does the Beatitudes with a kick. Unlike Matthew’s version of the sermon, Jesus’ words to us in Luke contain no equivocation. This is not a blessing on the “poor in spirit,” this is blessing on the poorest, most destitute, most unable to fend for themselves, in our society.
Jesus stands on this level place with the disciples and with the multitudes, and he declares to those who have left everything to follow him that theirs is the kingdom of God. This, regardless of how reviled and defamed they might be. And he warns those who do not follow, that their lives will be woeful. God, in Jesus, is turning the world upside down. Jesus is introducing a discipleship far beyond a simple “follow me” to a level of sacrifice that is nothing less than daunting.
A particular part of this text seems relevant for this moment in our lives. Jesus declares: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” We can debate until the cows come home what constitutes rich. Yet in the days we label “Black History Month” with leaders in our state government associated with blackface, a racist form of ridicule and humiliation, I invite you to wrestle with the concept that if you are white in our society Jesus’ curse is on our richness in white privilege.
Now, before you get up and leave, hear me out. I know that you are full of the stories that have been in the paper and on cable news these last two weeks. You may be thinking, this is not why I came to church today. So your natural inclination is to turn me off.
I understand. Yet I believe Jesus is compelling us to confront and deal with the issues of race in our nation in these difficult times. Racial animus is a constituting reality of our society. One that bubbles up and over in moments of flag kneeling or blackface donning. It is never fully healed, only symptoms are addressed. It returns again and again and again.
Let us use this moment of awareness to address not symptoms, but systemic causes. Privilege is invisible to the privilege. So begin by thinking of it this way, race is not a biblical category. There is Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. There is no black and white in scripture. There was never white or black, until about 500 years ago.
Race is a human construct, an invention. The designating of humanity by physical characteristics is a sin created for the purpose of one race dominating other races. Race is humanly conceived, structurally maintained, deeply personal and from a Christian standpoint, sin.
Because power is used to maintain and institutionalize racial privilege, racism is more insidious than disorganized, infrequent racist acts by disconnected individuals. It has become a political reality that has far-reaching economic, social and individual consequences.
For example, our nations post-World War II economic boom was as much a product of the GI bill as any thing else. Hundreds of thousands of returning vets were able to enroll in college, often the first in their families. Returning vets were given loans for homes and a housing boom created communities to welcome them. It was a game changer for millions of Americans and their descendants.
African-Americans were barred from the signal provisions of the bill, money for education and home loans.
Beginning in the 1920’s federal and municipal housing regulations segregated neighborhoods throughout the country. This is how racism is institutionalized. This is how we are privileged.
So what would Jesus have us do? If you look at his teachings, his ministry, if you look carefully at those to whom he reached out and those he called friends, you will see that caring for the inherent and sacred dignity of every single human being was central to his work.
Therefore, if we are to be his disciples, the sacred dignity of every human being, must be as much our passion, as it was his. To really grasp that, specifically on matters of race, we must reflect on our privilege, to recognize it exists, and begin to confess it.
The stories coming out of Richmond reveal, once again, the deep fractures of race in this country and the pain and struggle facing so many people of color.
White people wearing blackface is, was and always will be incredibly hurtful and wrong, no matter the intent. For people of color it is a powerful symbol of mockery and degradation. The fact that these incidents took place in the 1980’s and not the 1880’s tells me that we who are white continue to underestimate the level of racism that is alive and well in our country today.
When it comes to racial reconciliation and healing, we are far from Jesus’ blessing, still on the woeful side of his kingdom.
Healing is more than “can’t we all get along.” Racial justice involves a whole lot more than where people can sit on a bus, where they can eat and the fact that they have an inalienable right to vote. It involves those of us who are white to fully come to terms with the privilege our skin color affords us and to consciously work to reject that privilege. That is the way to find our path out of Jesus’ curse upon that richness from which we, consciously and unconsciously benefit.
There is a parallel between events this month in Richmond and the tragedy in Charlottesville a year and half ago. In both cases the surfacing of racism prompted swift action. After Charlottesville, monuments and statues began to come down. After Richmond, leaders were repudiated. Both justifiable reactions. But just getting rid of statues, or pointing out the failings of individuals does not solve the problem. It only deals with the symptoms of the problem. It is more than monuments and yearbooks. It not just about individuals, it is a collective issue.
We must move beyond individual recriminations and finger pointing, beyond pointing to the speck in our neighbor’s eye, while looking past the log in our own eye, if we are to move beyond the woe that befalls us, the sin at the very heart of our nation, racism.
So what are we supposed to do? I don’t have all the answers. But when we follow Jesus from this plain, we start by being honest about the way things are, and look to the Lord for a new way.
Recent surveys indicate that 2/3 of white people have no one of color within their intimate circle of friends. Jesus on the other hand, included among his closest followers, those he was supposed to have nothing to do with. Tax-collectors, zealots, women of questionable repute.
Second, we can listen to our brothers and sisters of color. Listen to their experience, and honor that experience as real. And we must give attention to the special privileges our skin color affords us in opening the educational, economic and societal barriers that still exist today. Constantly striving to break them down, for all, whether we see them or not.
But this is not about tearing down, so much is about building up.
It is about building up what Dr. King called the beloved community. A community where people of different backgrounds and races and religions and sexual orientations fully recognize that we are all interconnected and that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others.
That is the healing Jesus is offering us in this plain-speaking sermon. Woe to us, if we cannot follow. Thanks be to God that Jesus blesses us enough to call us, of all people, to follow.