June 14, 2020

It’s Not My Issue

Passage: Matthew 27:22–24

Click here to listen to the podcast of this sermon.

I tell you this morning I've tried him and I know him and I found him to be a friend. A friend to the friendless, a mother to the motherless, a father to the fatherless. —Dr. Nicholas Pearce

Dr. Evertsberg: So for the last several years Marty Shapiro, the president at Northwestern University, and Lallene Rector, the president at Garrett Seminary, have thrown these wonderful events for local clergy in Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka, Kenilworth, so on and they throw us a lunch twice a year and they have one of the speakers at the University talk to us about relevant issues for clergy and I've become a good friend of my buddy Dr. Nicholas Pearce there. We've built up a little friendship over the years.

As it says in your bulletin, Nick is a professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He has his own consulting business and he's also the assistant pastor at the Apostolic Church of God on the south side of Chicago.

So I was thinking very much about my friend Nick these last couple of weeks and I phoned him last week to see how his congregation was doing. He thought I was just reaching out to say hello, but I really had an agenda next to that task. I was hoping that he would bring the word for us this morning and he agreed six days later, and here he is. He's going to bring us the word of the Lord this morning.

And I hope what we're going to do--the whole worship service concluding with the benediction in the postlude--and I hope you'll remain with us for another 15 minutes after the worship service because Nick and I are just going to talk. I'm going to ask him some questions and he's going to respond and tell us what things are like in the African-American community. So Dr. Pearce, thank you for bringing us the gospel this morning in your inimitable, powerful way. We are looking forward to hearing God's good word for us today.

Dr. Pearce: Grace and peace to all of you, the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is a joy to be here in the sanctuary, the Kenilworth Union Church once again, to declare the word of the Lord, and I must rush to express my gratitude to your senior minister, the Reverend Dr. William Evertsberg, and the entire pastoral staff, leadership team of this fine assembly.

As we turn to the word of the Lord and to the word of his grace to ask that you would join me in the 27th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew and in the 22nd verse you will find these words:

"Pilate asked them 'what should I do then with Jesus, who was called the Christ?' They all answered, 'Crucify him.' Then he said, 'Why? What has he done wrong?' But they kept shouting 'crucify him' all the more and when Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere but that a riot was starting instead he took some water washed his hands in front of the crowd and said 'I am innocent of this man's blood. See to it yourselves. And all the people said "Amen.'"

Let's bow our heads for a moment of prayer. Eternal God, we bow our heads before you now, beseeching your throne that you might send your word clearly and distinctly. Your word is still a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our pathway, and so we pray this day that you would open our eyes that we would behold wondrous truths in your word. Give us eyes to see, ears to hear, the heart to receive, and the will to do your word for your glory and for our good through Christ our Lord, Amen.

This Sunday morning I've been led to share from the subject "it's not my issue." It's not my issue. In a 1963 profile of Swiss theologian Karl Barth, recorded in Time magazine, he admonishes young theologians to "take your Bible and your newspaper and read both, but interpret newspapers from your Bible." That advice is certainly as timely as ever as we consider the headlines in our newspapers and on our social media feeds reporting cities across this nation on fire and shining a bright spotlight on interracial and interfaith, intergenerational and even international protests calling for racial justice.

While some choose to hold on to their Bibles as political props, the principled Christian must hold on to the sacred scriptures as the microscope through which to examine the times in which we live and to diagnose the pandemics of the soul that grip our present age in order to administer the healing balm of the love of God. Indeed, the Bible is the only book that you can read that will read you at the same time. And if ever there was a time we needed the Word of God, that time is now.

In the Bible I grew up reading, the words of Jesus and the New Testament were printed in red, and I believe in times like these if we just get the red-lettered parts right we'd be doing okay. If you if you can't get Habakkuk and Amos and Leviticus and Haggai, if you can just get the red-lettered stuff good, I think we'll be all right.

Like in Mark 12 where Jesus said love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. There's no command greater than these. But unfortunately, many of us are paying more attention to the infamous question of the lawyer who in the face of this truth asked Jesus, "So who is my neighbor?" That's a question that seeks to corrupt the call to love our neighbors in favor of only loving our neighbors who are like us.

It's a concept that we social scientists call homophily, love of the same. And some of us go so far in loving those who are just like us that we actively and consciously dislike, discount, disregard, and hate those who are not replicas of our race, our socio-economic stratum, our political affiliation, and our policy preferences.

For those who call themselves Christians who harbor hate in your heart, I pray that God alone would transform your heart, and free your mind from the self-righteousness of scrupulous religious rule-following, to embrace the unconditional, unmerited steadfast, and faithful love of God that God has shown for us in Christ but between the unconditional love of neighbor and the unequivocal hate of neighbor lies a deceptively attractive middle ground of apathetic indifference. It is the place where we see inequality and injustice and shrug our shoulders and say "it's not my issue." "Well you know my favorite basketball player of all time is black, so I couldn't be racist."

"I didn't personally create the racial wealth gap, so why am I responsible for fixing it?"

"It's not my issue. I didn't ask to follow around the black families who enter my department store. I didn't make the rules. I didn't make the policy. It's not my issue."

"I wasn't the police officer who killed the unarmed African-American man. It's a terrible shame. It's not my issue."

Such thinking betrays not only a fundamental sociological misapprehension but also a deeply flawed theological conclusion that allows many of us to distinguish between social justice and personal righteousness. Personal righteousness and social justice are linked. Many of us have unfortunately attempted to reduce the Christian faith to a matter of our personal spiritual practice instead of embracing that true Christian faith is a movement of transformed hearts, minds, and hands coming together under the lordship of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, tasked with establishing God's will on earth as it is in heaven.

Social justice and personal righteousness are inextricably linked throughout the scriptures, even deriving from the same Hebrew root word. Thus, it is impossible to follow Jesus Christ and at the same time be unmoved by the unjust conditions in society that move the heart of God.

It was James who wrote in James chapter 2 verse number 18: "Show me your faith without your works. Now I'll show you my faith by my works." James is not at all suggesting that good works are capable of meriting God's unmerited favor; he is, however, plainly conveying that true faith, while personal, is not private. True faith starts in the heart but is expressed outwardly through public action. Conveniently looking away from injustice in favor of a broken status quo is not an option for the child of God.

It is this sin of lukewarm, passive-motivated blindness in the face of injustice that we see etched into the passage from Matthew chapter 27: "Jesus was on trial before Pontius Pilate, the Italian governor of the Roman province of Judea after having been famously betrayed by Judas, one of his disciples, for a mere thirty pieces of silver.”

As governor of a colonized land largely inhabited by people who did not look like him, Pilate was not only responsible for collecting taxes and overseeing the military police force, but also for interfacing with local Jewish religious leaders and serving as the head of the judicial system. The gospel account of Jesus's trial before Pilate suggests that as Pilate examined the charges against Jesus, he knew that true justice would not be served by sentencing Jesus to death as an enemy of the state.

In Matthew 27 verse number 22, Pilate said to the crowd "What do you want me to do with Jesus Christ?" and the crowd replied "Let him be crucified." In verse 23 he said "Why? What evil has he done?" and the crowd had no good answer other than to reiterate their demand that Jesus be crucified. Pilate had no reason to harm Jesus other than caving to the crowds’ causeless hatred for the sake of political expediency and self-preservation.

Sacrificing justice for self-interest is a spiritual crime. In fact, in the Luke 23 rendering of this episode, Pilate go so far as to say "I find no fault in him." Instead of standing up for what was right given his position of power and privilege, Pontius Pilate reached for the water basin and publicly washed his hands, vainly aiming to absolve himself of the guilt of condemning an innocent man to death. In essence, Pilate said to himself and to the culture shapers and thought leaders of his day, and to the members of the religious establishment that had gathered to pressure him into complicity, "It's not my issue. I'm not taking any responsibility for the miscarriage of justice that this righteous man is enduring and will endure. I am innocent of this innocent man's blood."

The truth is that the guilt that is born out of complicity is worse than the most stubborn stain. Just as Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth uttered after washing her hands for a quarter of an hour, trying to rinse off the uncleanness of her complicity in the assassination of King Duncan, we must confess today as she said, "Here's the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand."

It was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote in his book Strength To Love that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. Despite the fact that this powerful white man knew what was right, he was swayed by the crowd to crucify an innocent person of color and had the very blood of Christ on his hands.

Jesus Christ, who knew no sin but became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God.

Jesus Christ despised and rejected of men a man of sorrows acquainted with grief.

Jesus, the righteous branch, the Good Shepherd, the Word made flesh.

Jesus, a brown-skinned Jew whose very existence threatened the establishment.

Jesus, sui generis, the precious Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

I'm talking about the real Jesus this morning. The Jesus of the scriptures. Not the blond-haired, blue-eyed NRA card-carrying capitalist life coach Jesus we have fashioned as the mascot of America, leading us to victory in unjust wars as we float through life on flowery beds of ease enjoying outsized stock returns and then exchanging those stock returns for tax breaks in a perverted pseudo philanthropy that seeks to support the very people at whose expense those funds are accumulated in the first place.

If we're honest, I imagine that many of us would confess that we too have been complicit through our silence as the “COVID 1619” pandemic of racism has spread in this country over the last four centuries. Many of our companies, our universities, our wealth, and even the communities in which we reside have been built upon a foundation of racial injustice. Some of us figure, "I inherited it. It's not my issue."

But as we see in this text, silence is consumed. There comes a point when you recognize that as you comfortably follow the crowd, you've stopped following Jesus. Or maybe you never were.

Tolerating injustice in order to protect your privilege and maintain the social order is not the call of Christ. It never was. It never will be.

But can I tell you the Good News this morning? This text is tailored to teach us though water cannot cleanse the heart of its guilt, the blood of Jesus can. No matter how stubborn the stain, no matter how longstanding the sin, the blood of Jesus is powerful enough to block it out.

The blood of Jesus still has miraculous power. There's wonder-working power in the blood of the lamb. The blood of Jesus still reaches to the highest mountain and flows to the lowest Valley. Blood of Jesus will never lose its power, no matter how many innocent black lives are unjustly cut short like Jesus' was.

No matter how many of us have our right to justice systematically withheld by the suffocating ethos of Anglo-centricity.

No matter how many of our ancestors have their bodies held in the belly of slave ships fueled by heretical and isogenical theology.

No matter how many of our children are subjected to the modern slavery of substandard education and disproportionate mass incarceration.

We serve a God who is near to the brokenhearted and on the side of the oppressed. We still choose to believe God, not out of a fairy tale eschatological fatalism, but out of a blessed assurance that those who trust in Jesus Christ won't be ashamed.

I tell you this morning I've tried him and I know him and I found him to be a friend. A friend to the friendless, a mother to the motherless, a father to the fatherless.

I've tried Jesus and I know him to be a doctor when healthcare is withheld. A lawyer in a crooked courtroom. Food for the hungry and water for the thirsty. Jesus is the lifter of the brokenhearted and a deliverer for the oppressed. He is our God, our help in ages past, and our hope for years to come. He is shelter from the storm, a blast in our eternal home. That's why the songwriter said “Be not dismayed whatever betide,” because God will take care of you.

It is that same God in Jesus Christ who one Friday on a hill called Calvary hung between two thieves and died an innocent state-sanctioned death, leaving his mother to weep in unmitigated sorrow and leaving his friends scared that they'd be next.

It was that same Jesus who they buried in a borrowed tomb to remind us that no matter how dark the night, it won't be long, because only one Sunday morning Jesus rose with all power in his hand to prove that innocent blood is never shed in vain.

That same Jesus fifty days later sent back the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost not just to save souls but to serve as the active power of God in the earth, transforming hearts, redeeming the brokenness and God's creation to the glory of God. God gave us the Holy Spirit and good sense so we'd have the clarity and the courage to do justice, to love faithfulness, and walk humbly with our God.

Brothers and sisters, if racism or any of the defamation of Christian character is God's issue then it's our issue too, whether it's found in our hearts or found in the halls of our institutions. Ignorant indifference to injustice is not an option for the faithful child of God. We the stand with Jesus on the right side of history and on the right side of the gospel, or we stand against Jesus and in so doing stand against the inherent value in full dignity of hundreds of millions of black and brown brothers’ and sisters’ lives throughout the ages that God made.

If there's anybody who ought to be on the side of right on the front lines of the fight for justice and our classrooms and border rooms and in our streets it ought to be the church. It ought to be those who name the name of Christ whose sins have been forgiven and whose names have been written in the Lamb's Book of Life and God.

We're grateful that you have given us the gift of your Word, the gift of your spirit, the gift of another day because we know that with these gifts comes responsibility. To whom much is given, from the same much is required and so we pray that you will burden our hearts with the things that burden yours. Cause us to grieve the things that cause your heart to break. Cause us to not rest without repentance. Cause us to not be content with status quo, enhancing complicity. Help us to see that perhaps you have called us into this place, into this time on purpose.

Perhaps it is like Esther that we have been positioned in the kingdom for such a time, as this gives us clarity regarding the call that you have for each of us and the courage to say yes to your will, no matter the cost. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.