January 19, 2020

MLK Sunday  “Let Justice Roll Down”

 

Isaiah 58:1-12; Amos 5:24; Galatians 3:26-29; Hebrews 10:35-11:1

 

The community of Ashland does such a good job celebrating and remembering the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This past Friday, 4 elementary schools got together to reenact the march on Washington DC in 1963, sang freedom songs and give thanks for the leadership and contributions of Dr. King. I am sure today we are not the only Ashlandian congregation today that is focusing on Dr. King, issues of race and God’s justice. Additionally, tomorrow at the armory, there will be a large gathering honoring Dr. King and looking at modern-day issues of race and justice. I’ve never been part of a city that is so actively focused on the legacy of Dr. King, and am thankful to be part of such a mindful community.

 

For today’s sermon, I’ll focus on some passages of scripture which have to do with justice and race, sketch a brief history of the fight for civil rights in this nation, address some of the issues for civil rights today, and then close with a quote from Dr. King and a prophetic push.

 

We being by focusing upon this passage from Isaiah 58. The Old Testament passage for today is one of my favorite passages of scripture, probably because fasting has been a regular part of my spiritual discipline for the past 30 years. It reminds us to fast for the right reasons and not the wrong ones, which are outlined in verses 1-5 of the 58 chapter of Isaiah. God shouts, “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet, declare to the people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins!” Why was God so frustrated and angry with the people?

 

The Israelites were in a prolonged time of unfaithfulness when Third Isaiah preached to them. The people returned from exile of 150 years in Babylon to Jerusalem, but their faith was hollow, false, surface. In verse 3 the people asked God, “Why have we fasted and You do not see? Why have we humbled ourselves and You take no knowledge of it?” God saw their false worship- There were no inner changes, no authentic humility before God for their past sins, no change in the society around them, and so God saw the shallowness of their pretend faith and called them out about it.

 

God then spoke in verses 6-10 with glimmers of hope and grace. God tried to instruct the Israelites on the proper way to fast, to humble one’s self and give God honor-

to help those who are oppressed and free them from the injustices that are heaped upon those who are in need. This is, if you will, a good instruction manual for an authentic life of faith today, and especially as we focus upon issues of race and Dr. King’s legacy. We are to share what we have with those in need, to give shelter to those who have no place to call home, to clothe the naked, and to proclaim God’s justice to the oppressed.

 

By living out our faith in such a way, we receive the benefits, blessings from God if you will as listed in verses 8-12- We will live in God’s light, we will know, understand, and find God’s healing. God will personally be our rear guard- the one who protects us from unseen evils and enemies, and God will answer us when we cry out for help.

 

God tells us in this passage if we remove the yoke from among us, if we see someone who is oppressed and help them in some fashion, God will look with favor upon us.

 

Next comes the one sentence in Amos 5:24, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” These words uttered by Amos came as he judged not just Israel, but all the nations of the world. God found their faith lacking, just as God did in the Isaiah passage. This one verse which called for justice and righteousness (that is right living in God’s eyes) summed up the central message of the prophets. This call for justice and righteousness came as God saw how people were treated throughout the land- where justice in the courts was brought through bribery, the poor were trampled, and people did not speak out against the injustices of the time. Those times sound familiar to today, and so this passage applies to us. Justice is to roll down like waters- similar to when the wadi, common in Israel’s landscape swelled with runoff water in the rainy season, brought restoration and beauty to the parched desert. Then, right living in God’s eyes is to be like that of an ever-flowing stream- that is, people will treat others justly like a riverbed that never fails, never runs dry. This is the kind of world God desired centuries ago and wants here and now.

 

Next, I want to touch upon the passage written by Paul from Galatians. He is writing to the church in Galatia, which is full of both Jewish people and Gentiles- an inclusive term meaning “non-Jewish”. The church is full of different races, traditions, social strata, and backgrounds. Paul calls them to recognize their commonality in their baptisms, that Christ unites them, and therefore there no longer are differences- “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”

 

These passages are but a few of the many which call for a world where people live together as one in righteousness before God, act out their faith in the world and live together in a just society. This brings us to our focus upon the struggle for racial equality in our own nation- its history, and a look at where things are today, and what God calls us to as a result.

 

Although the issues of racism in this country go back much further, we begin with the end of the Civil war, fought between 1861-65 over the issue of slavery and the definition of humanity. After the north defeated the south, in what was known as the Reconstruction period where former slaves were allowed to participate fully in society, congress passed 2 amendments, the 14th, and 15th which gave equality to former slaves and allowed them to vote. In response to these amendments and other freedoms experienced by African Americans in the south, Jim Crow laws were enacted throughout the southern United States, segregating public spaces into “Colored and White” segments. These laws were enforced for nearly 100 years, up until 1965. Some of these laws were also enforced in our own state of Oregon, which had been established prior to the war in 1843 as a “whites only” territory.

 

Segregation became an issue, not just in the South, but all over the nation. Consider the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Essayist Erin Durham tackles the segregated history of that city in her work, “Mapping inequality,”  writing, Racism plagued the political, economic and social policies of Baltimore throughout the twentieth century. In 1910, Baltimore city enacted legislation that promoted the racial segregation of neighborhoods. Housing developments and neighborhoods set up restrictive covenants that refused the admittance of Jews and blacks. A three-tiered real estate market developed in the early decades of the twentieth century in which housing property was clearly delineated along racial lines. Housing remained very racially restrictive, with the real estate board disallowing black agents from joining until the 1960s, and banks declining to supply loans to African Americans.” Those problems of neighborhood segregation continue today in many cities throughout the United States and have contributed greatly to Baltimore being one of the most segregated and violent cities in the nation.

 

As WWII began, Blacks were hardly able to fight for their country in a fully segregated US armed forces, often being passed over for enlistment by all-white draft boards. In 1941, hundreds of thousands of Blacks marched upon Washington DC, demanding an opportunity to fight and to demand equal employment rights. As a result, African American involvement in the military went from 4,000 troops in 1941 to well over 1.2 million by 1945. And in 1948, President Truman ended segregation in all military branches of the US armed forces. All of this history led up to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950-60s.

 

In 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to get up from her seat on a bus so that a white man could sit down, this led to a boycott of the Montgomery Alabama bus system, organized by a young Rev Martin Luther King Jr.  This action was the beginning of and the nonviolent protest movement for racial equality. 2 years later the Supreme Court heard Brown versus the board of education, making segregation illegal in all schools throughout the nation. Then in Arkansas, 9 Black students attempted to attend an all-white high school in Little Rock but were denied entry. Federal troops were called in by President Eisenhower, and the students integrated the all-white school. Next came the Civil Rights act of 1957, banning segregated business places. Yet Jim Crow laws held on in the south. This led to the Freedom Riders of 1961, organized by Bayard Ruston to challenge those laws, especially on busses. Black and white college students rode on those busses into the south and met heavy resistance. An all-white mob attacked and beat many of the riders in Birmingham, and set one of the busses on fire. 2 years later in 1963, 4 African American girls were killed at the 16th Street Baptist church in a racially targeted bombing. This and other acts of racism led to the March on Washington DC in August of 1963, where more than 250,000 American, both black and white called for racial equality, and Dr. King addressed the nation with his “I Have A Dream” speech  This protest led congress and President Johnson to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A year later in 1965, during a peaceful protest march in Marion Alabama, African American Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and murdered by an Alabama state trooper, leading to peaceful protests by Dr. King, a young future congressman John Lewis and many others in a march from Selma, to the state capital of Montgomery.

 

The march took place on March 7, 1965, organized locally by Dr. King, Amelia Boynton, and others. State troopers and county posse men attacked the unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas after they passed over the county line, and the event became known as Bloody Sunday. Law enforcement beat Boynton unconscious, and the media publicized worldwide a picture of her lying wounded on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  A Unitarian minister, James Reeb was later beaten and murdered. The violence of "Bloody Sunday" and Reeb's murder resulted in a national outcry, leading President Johnson to pass the Voting Rights act of 1965. In 1965, activist Malcolm X was assassinated. In 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. Yet the call for equal rights and an end to segregation did not end with their bloodshed, but continued, and continues to this day.

It continues in the face of white nationalism, as attacks against people of color are up every year since 2016 in this nation. White supremacy groups and individuals feel empowered by the current administration’s rhetoric on immigrants at the border, Muslims, and saying “good people” were on both sides of the riot in Charlottesville. It continues as people are pulled over by authorities for “driving while black”, or attacked because of their Jewish or Muslim heritage at places of worship. The Civil Rights movement was not a movement encapsulated in history. It is a movement that continues and is so needed today, first enacted centuries ago by the God of justice in Israel- a cry for right faith to challenge oppression and for justice to roll down. It continued as Paul called the Galatians to see one another from the content of their character in Christ, not the color of their skin or their heritage.

 

The Hebrews passage Paula read this morning reminds us that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen.” So, we see a world full of racist ideology, but we see more through the eyes of our faith- a vision for what the world could be, a world where people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. So with hope, with conviction, let us act to bring about a just, peaceable, harmonious world. We have much work to do.

 

In closing, I invite you to hear the words of the Rev. Dr. King, from one of my favorite books, Stride Toward Freedom. “An effort the church can make in attempting to solve the race problem is to take the lead in social reform. It is not enough for the church to be active in the realm of ideas; it must move out into the arena of social action. First, the church must remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. Only by doing this can it be effective in its attack on outside evils…It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning, the same hour when many are standing and singing, ‘In Christ there is no East nor West.’…and any discussion of the role of the Christian minister today must emphasize the need for prophecy. They must be prepared for the ordeals of this high calling and be willing to suffer courageously for righteousness. May the problem of race in America soon make hearts burn, so that prophets will rise up, saying ‘Thus sayeth the Lord.’ And cry out as Amos did, ‘Let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

 

And so, my sisters and brothers, this day I use my prophetic voice to say, let justice roll down! Let it roll as we recognize that the struggle for racial justice is current, real and that the words and examples of Dr. King are not just meant to be celebrated over a weekend, but rather lived out over a lifetime. Let it roll as we admit to our white privilege. Let it roll so that one day we might see each other as neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, black nor white nor Asian nor Middle Eastern nor Hispanic nor other, but as common children of the Creator of all things who loves us, and calls us to love one another. Alleluia! Amen.

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