Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46 (from The Inclusive Bible)
I was driving slowly towards Sudbury from Framingham yesterday in a funeral procession for a man I did not know and I was had a revelation: every person who lives or has ever lived in this world has a full and complete story of their own.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had this revelation. When I put together a funeral or memorial service, I always try to sit down with the family to learn more about the one who has died. More than half of the funerals I’ve officiated have been for folks I’ve never met and having the family speak about their hobbies and jobs, their favorite songs and sports, their life’s struggles and successes is a constant reminder that no one in this world is simply a statistic or a stereotype.
As I sat in the funeral procession, I reflected on the events of the past week in Baton Rouge, LA, Falcon Heights, Minnesota and Dallas, Texas. Seven people who would be facing funerals of their own, because of guns, because of racism, because of scapegoating. Seven people whose stories I only know because of the way that they died.
My plan this Sunday had been to continue our “Be The Church” series by moving on to the next statement on our banner: “Care for the Poor.” I would have talked about our biblical call to take care of the “least of these;” I’d highlight that we feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty at Rosie’s Place and with Family Promise, we’ve visited prisons and cared for the sick in many different ways. We do a good job caring for the poor and maybe we can keep trying to do a little better.
That’s what I was planning to preach on, but then this week happened.
This week may have been a painful week for you. My Facebook feed was filled up with people declaring it the “worst week our country has ever faced” or “calling it a week from hell.” The news first broke that Alton Sterling, a 37-year old black man was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, LA. The video of his death was broadcast on news stations and social media bringing into question the actions of the officers. As protests and debates over Sterling’s death were just getting underway, more news and another video just one day later. This time of a police officer fatally shooting Philandro Castile during a traffic stop.
Both of these stories – and the lives of the people involved – once again brought questions to the forefront about how police do their jobs. Statistics show that over 500 people have been killed by police in the first half of 2016. The number of people of color killed has been disproportionately high.
Then more bad news: during a peaceful protest in Dallas, a sniper began shooting at the police officers who were doing their job protecting the gathered crowd. Five officers were killed. Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Lorne Ahrens. Each with their own story.
This may have been a painful week for you.
Or maybe it wasn’t.
I realized this week that I didn’t have to get mired down in the muck of the news. In the midst of sadness and depression, I realized that I had choice. I could simply turn away. I could turn off the news, shut down my computer, play with my kids, and go about my life. I had that choice.
And then I looked at the Bible again.
“Then the ruler will say to those on the left, ‘Out of my sight, you accursed ones! Into that everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and the fallen angels! I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you gave me no welcome; naked and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you gave me no welcome; naked and you gave me no clothing. I was ill and in prison and you did not come to visit me.’ Then they in turn will ask, ‘When did we see you hungry or thirsty, or homeless or naked, or ill or in prison, and not take care of you?’ The answer will come, ‘The truth is, as often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.’ They will go off to eternal punishment, and the just will go off to eternal life.”
My life was not directly affected by the events of last week. I am not a person of color, I am not a police officer. I could have turned off the news, shut down my computer, played with my kids, and gone about my life.
In the scripture, Jesus is talking to people who are not hungry or thirsty or in prison or sick, people who live in their own homeland with enough clothing on their back. The people that Jesus is addressing could also just go about their lives.
But not if they want to follow Jesus.
We are called to look out for each other. We are called to look out for others who are suffering – especially people who are different from we are. If we are privileged enough to be in a situation where we have enough food and freedom and safety it is our responsibility to lift up those who are going without food, and freedom, and safety.
We have a racism problem in this country. It permeates every part of our society, it is so integrated and common that it seems invisible to those of us who are not oppressed by it. I benefit from it every day. It affects every system in our nation, including law enforcement. As a white man who has lived a lifetime not having to worry that I won’t get an apartment because of my skin color, or that I’ll get pulled over for no reason other than how I look, or that any move I make could be met with deadly force, I believe that I have a responsibility to speak out so that everyone has the same rights and freedoms and can live under the same safety that I do.
We have been conditioned to think in terms of “us and them,” to divide our society up into countless different categories instead of remembering that we are all HUMAN. When we face tough times, we seek out an “other” to blame and to strike out against.
This is not a modern American problem, this cycle of violence is as old as humankind. I believe that the Bible,a collection of writings from 4000 to 2000 years old, seeks to address this. The Bible puts a spotlight on our tendency to scapegoat others and I believe that Christ’s crucifixion is a call to put an end to that practice.
We look for someone to blame. Some this week have declared that we need to pick a side: we’re either for the police or against them, we have to choose whether black lives matter or blue lives matter. Again, we are called to find a scapegoat in the hopes that we can pile our sins on them and, once they are destroyed, believe that our problems are solved.
That kind of thinking put an innocent man on the cross. The Romans believed that if they killed the one who spoke against them, their problems would go away. The religious leaders believed if they handed him over, the authorities would leave them alone. The people of the city believed that if they called for his death, they would be protected.
Scapegoating doesn’t work, blaming others for our sins only causes more pain. Christ’s death was supposed to be a wake-up call.
It’s not about choosing cops or people of color. It’s not about saying all police officers are corrupt or all people of color are criminals. We can’t afford to choose sides.
But we also can’t afford to turn away. Those of us who have the privilege of never having to tell our children to “comply, comply, comply” with police officers or to always assume that others are looking at you as a criminal, need to look at the problems that exist and work towards change. We can support police officers and believe that the overwhelming majority are good people while also calling for accountability and training.
After the shootings in Dallas, many police departments around the country saw an outpouring of love. Children baked cookies and sent cards, neighbors dropped in to the station to give show appreciation. I think that is wonderful. It’s one way that we’re called to be neighbors and to act in a way that let’s others know we see God in their eyes.
However, how many of us did something similar to our friends and neighbors of color? I confess that I failed to reach out to anyone to see how they were doing, I didn’t realize how traumatizing it must be to see the videos over and over again, I didn’t send a card or bake cookies for anyone.
‘When did we see you hungry or thirsty, or homeless or naked, or ill or in prison, and not take care of you?’ The answer will come, ‘The truth is, as often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.’
The scripture talks about being cast into an everlasting fire that the Devil has prepared. I’ll admit that Hell and the Devil are not part of my belief system. But. The scripture has a point. Some people called this past week “a week from Hell,” and maybe that’s true. Until we do a better job caring for our neighbors, reaching out to those who are different from us; until we stop scapegoating and othering each other, how many more “weeks of Hell” are we going to face?
It’s a gloomy Sunday morning after a horrible week and this has been a depressing sermon. We need to lament. We need to mourn. We need to go into the depths to admit that our world is broken. If we can’t do that here, where can we go? That’s part of what “being the church” is all about.
However, the story doesn’t end there. Christ bloody and beaten on the cross is not the conclusion.
We are called to be resurrected Christians. We are called to name the sins of our world, confess our wrongdoing, and repent – change our ways – so that our world is transformed into the kingdom of God.
Our call as resurrected Christians is to care for the poor, speak out against injustice, name broken systems, free the oppressed, and share a world of peace with all of God’s children.
Our call as resurrected Christians is to remember that everyone has a story. Hopefully we won’t only hear those stories when they die, that we will remember that we are all human outside of funerals and terrible news stories.
Our call as resurrected Christians is to see Christ in the eyes of everyone that we meet; whether they have the same skin color as us, or wear the same uniform as us, or live we the same privilege as us.
When we can do that, when we can treat every fellow human being with the knowledge that we are clothing, feeding, and fighting for God among us, then – only then – our weeks of hell will come to an end and we’ll hear those words
“Come, you blessed of my Abba God! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world!”