As noted, this was a message I presented back in 2005. I am reposting it because I described my own personal encounter with segregation when I was about 12 years old.
This is the message that I will present this morning at Vails Gate UMC (Vails Gate, NY). Please let me know what you think; also, if you want to use what I have written here, please let me know. (This post was edited on 12 March 2008 to remove some programming errors)
In peace and with Christ – Tony Mitchell
When I began reading the Scriptures for today, my first thoughts were of my mother’s home town of Lexington, North Carolina, and the times we spent visiting there while growing up. Hence, that is the title for this sermon. But as I struggled with and worked on this sermon, my thoughts changed from the days past when I was growing up to the days present.
For me, growing up in the south, hurricanes are not just items on the evening news or something read about in the newspaper. So the impact of Katrina has hit me just a little harder than perhaps it did you. And the knowledge of what is happening in New Orleans has added to what I was thinking a few weeks ago.
The three scriptures that we have for today have two common points, fear and trust. While decided several years ago, it is quite evident that they are very appropriate and evident for today.
Very few people seem to be asking what sort of a spiritual impact this disaster will have, and whether we are going to let it affect our consciences and our collective soul. Shouldn’t we all be praying for a spiritual renewal, and for a new era of justice and love? To me, that is the sort of question we should be asking.
Having said this, I’m sure that the people who have been personally devastated by Katrina are dealing with these deeper issues, and I pray that they find the nearness of God like never before.
Our world today is filled with unknowns and fears. Not only have we had to deal with Hurricane Katrina, we read of forest fires in Portugal and the western United States, mudslides in the Alps, the continued violence, destruction, and despair in Iraq, and the on-going famine in Darfur.
Others fears, both real and imagined, gnaw at the back of many minds. We cannot begin a day without hearing what the color of the day is; we have been encouraged to view any stranger we encounter as a threat, either as a terrorist or as one who will steal our identify from us. It is no wonder then that the enthusiasm of the young is being stifled and gradually replaced with caution, reserve, and apathy. (Adapted from “Searching for the Mountaintop – Finding a purpose in a Time of Fear” by Johann Christoph Arnold)
Our politics have almost totally become politics of fear. Politicians no longer campaign on the good things they will do but rather on what terrible things their opponents will do.
I am the son and grandson of career military officers. It is quite likely that my grandfather passed through this region as his infantry regiment was transferred from Fort Meade, Maryland, to Plattsburgh, NY, in 1921. Because my father made his career as an Air Force officer, we moved around quite a bit.
Lexington, North Carolina, is my mother’s home and a place that we visited from time to time. It was the place where I was baptized, and as such, it is a place that I consider one of my hometowns.
One summer during the early 1960’s we were visiting my grandparents. While there my two brothers and I went to the movie theater in town. While trying to find a place to sit, we inadvertently wandered into what one would politely call the “colored” section. Even though the theater was a public theater, this was the south and it was still a time of segregation.
What I remember of that moment was that while it was easy to pass from the “whites only” section, it was very difficult to pass back. The gate that separated the two sections only swung one way. It was easy enough to figure out that you needed to pull the gate back rather than push it forward. But when you are in a darkened theater with two younger brothers, it is a frightening and uncomfortable situation. It is such a situation in which fear can quickly grow.
Unfortunately, the legacy of segregation and the fear that can come from that odious practice is still with us. The news coming out of New Orleans is just a hint of the decades of oppression and fear that was imposed on the minorities in this country.
It was also fear that drove Matthew to write down the words of the Gospel that we read this morning. In all of Jesus’ parables, he challenged the listeners to hear the Gospel of God’s love in different ways, through different experiences, and with different languages. This passage goes beyond anything we might comprehend; it goes beyond the tokenism of inclusiveness to a radical inclusivity where we take others seriously, listen to each other and dare trust that he or she belongs in God’s love as much as we do. (Adapted from “A Careful Read” by Deanna Langle, The Christian Century, August 23, 2005)
If you stop and think about it, these cannot be the words of Christ. As you read this passage, you have to be struck with the paradox posed. If you have a problem with a member of the church, meet with them in private. If there are still problems, then bring along some witnesses and try to work out the problem. If that fails, then they were to be expelled from the church.
Did Christ not seek all those who had been excluded from church? Did not Christ seek those who were expelled from society? So how could He say throw out those with whom you disagree?
There are those who feel that this passage from Matthew comes from the later church and not from Christ. How could Jesus have been speaking for the church when there was, at that time, no church? Would He really have said treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector when His own actions ran counter to those words? Remember that on a number of occasions He healed Gentiles and even had dinner with Zaccaheus, a tax collector. Even Matthew (or Levi in some translations), one of the twelve was a tax collector. So there are problems with this passage. It is possible that these verses are the reflection and thoughts of the early church.
These words still have a meaning for this day and time, for this is a passage of patience and gentleness. When you feel that you have been wronged by someone, you should make the first approach. When you point out that fault that has produced the rift between the two of you, it is to be done in love and friendship. One should use such a visit as this for the purpose of regaining a lost brother or sister, not for humiliation or condemnation.
Even if this private visit fails, the individual should not be branded as anything publicly. Two or three others, chosen for their Christian grace, are to be told so that their urgings can be added. It is only if they fail that the whole congregation should be told but not so that they can thrust this individual from their company and compassion. Only the individual’s own actions can drive them from the church.
These passages offer us a glimpse into the problems of the early church. Even then, there were careless and wayward members; sometimes there were even open scandals. The epistles confirm this picture of the early church. When we re-read verse 18, we see that it has been fulfilled. The church sometimes determines what interpretations should be forbidden (bound) and which should be sanctioned (loosed). The church, both the early one and today’s varieties and versions, have not been as gentle in discipline as the Gospel reading proposed. The church many times has acted with cruel vigor. The curse and penalty discussed in 1 Corinthians 5:5 (“hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature (that his body; or that the flesh) may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5: 5) is not gentle and it has been carried far beyond Paul’s time.
Matthew has combined in this writing a call for Christian patience and a great yearning for unity in the church. (Adapted from The Interpreter’s Bible – a commentary in twelve volumes, Volume 7 – Abingdon Press, 1951) There was truly a fear that there would be those whose work would destroy the building of the church and perhaps there was a need for such scripture. But fear should never drive what we do or we should we use fear to disenfranchise people.
We should never see the Bible as closed and only an answer book. To do so would be a grave error on our part. We will continue to use scripture to attack others and thus perpetuate violence against one another and justify harm in God’s name. When this is done, we limit God.
We must listen and read passages such as these very carefully and honor the questions and tensions that they raise in us. If we listen with “new ears” we always will hear something different from what we expect. What we should take from this passage is that we are encouraged to remove the divisions between people, not building up walls that divide. We are encouraged to unite people with Christian love and grace, not separate people through fear, hatred and condemnation. And do we not sing
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me….
I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now, I see.
T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear the hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far…
and Grace will lead us home.
The Lord has promised good to me…
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.
In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., came to Memphis to help the garbage workers in the strike against the City of Memphis. On April 3rd, he spoke not knowing what would transpire the next day. On that night he said,
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop…and I’ve seen the Promised Land…I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
On the next day, Dr. King was shot down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Martin Luther King foresaw his death. He knew without a doubt that it was coming, and he had every right to be afraid. But he wasn’t. So why should we?
There can be no doubt that there was fear in the minds of the Israelites that first Passover night. What if the Angel of Death should not see the blood smeared on the door to their house? What if the Pharaoh would not heed this last warning from God and let them go? What were they going to find as they went out into the desert? There truly must have been fear in their minds. But they trusted God.
And just as they trusted God to lead them through the desert and to the Promised Land, so too must we trust in God. So too must we work to show others that God has not forgotten anyone. In the reading from Romans for today, Paul quiets our fears. We know that our future is secure through Christ’s death and sacrifice on the cross. The blood of the lamb smeared on the doors of the Israelite homes in Egypt is now the Blood of Christ soaked into the Cross on Calvary. With this, how can we be afraid of what might come before us.
We must, as Paul encouraged us from centuries past, to replace fear in this country with true Christian love. If we allow fear to control our lives, it will conquer our lives. And if fear conquers, it will breed anger; and anger will bring hate. We must bring, through our words, our deeds, our thoughts and prayers the light of the world that was brought in our lives when we first accepted Christ as our Lord and Savior.
In a time when disaster seems to bring out the worst and causes mankind to distrust mankind, we must work to bring out the best in people. In a world where people see disaster and question the very existence of a loving and kind God, we must use our skills and talents to show that God is a positive presence in every ones lives.
For me, Lexington is just one of many places that I call home. It is where I came to know Christ as a baptized infant. Though it was a place where I came to know one manner of fear that people used to control others, it was a place in which my journey with Christ also began. We each have such a place in our lives; we must work to make sure that others do so as well.