“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
After Jesus finished reading these words, he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.
Then, from his seat, Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The religious leaders that were present spoke well of Jesus and they were amazed at his gracious words. However, as the dialogue progressed, the leaders began to feel the sting of Jesus’ words. He spoke to their lack of compassion, their absence of concern for the oppressed, their failure to provide for the hungry and homeless; Jesus confronted their failure to address the very real social and physical needs that existed among the people of their community. The leaders became increasingly defensive. In reaction to these confrontative words they did what humans do when we do no have a true defense, when we have heard uncomfortable truth – they turned to hostility, violence, and vengeance.
More than two thousand years later the church is still hesitant to take up his mission.
Jesus stated that his calling, matching the prophecy that pointed to him, was to address the very real oppression, misery, poverty, hunger, homelessness – the pain of existing as marginalized people.
At the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention, Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, brought forth a resolution condemning alt-right white supremacy. In committee, McKissic’s motion was denied the approval needed to be forwarded onto the floor of the convention for a vote from pastors and other delegates in attendance. The much needed proclamation would have been dead if it had not been for some white Southern Baptist pastors, who let go of their own fears, and joined the pastors of color, insisting that this resolution receive a vote. These pastors knew that standing up to racism was a risk for which they would surely suffer backlash, and probably be blacklisted by many SBC leaders and faithful – they identified and named their fear deciding to take the risks – it was the right thing to do. It was what Jesus would have done and it was what he was calling them to do in that moment. Thanks to these that took a risk, confronted their fears and prepared for the consequences, the resolution did eventually get a vote and did pass.
It is very human for our fears to stand in the way of us living out the call of Christ in our own lives.
Our gospel passage for today comes after Jesus’ experience with the harassed and hopeless – a large swath of humanity, Jesus prepared his apostles for a mission to address the physical, mental, and social needs of society. He equated the desperate state of the existence which he had witnessed, to that of a person being skinned alive and the skin then being cast away.
As Jesus sent the apostles out, addressing his concerns for the marginalized people and all of the periphery of humanity – this same section of humanity that he had highlighted back on that day in his hometown. He knew that once the comfortable lives of the powerful and entitled were threatened, there would be an uproar. He was fully aware that his apostles would be confronted with this same human guttural reaction.
The apostles were called to go to their own people, a people that were lost and divided. A people looking for the Messiah but blinded by their own false prophets, corrupt politicians, and hardened religious institutions. This was where the message would begin and then, it would go to the world. Ultimately it would brought even to us.
But first, going to their own would be the most difficult. This group would judge them the most harshly, reject them the most viciously, and hate them the most blatantly.
However, there would be some that would would hear and see –
Some would be freed,
Some would grab hold of hope,
Some would, for the first time, know love.
Some would finally find peace.
It would be these that would hear, and these that would accept – the words The Kingdom of Heaven is Near.
Jesus set our to prepare his apostles as they were confronted by their own fears. He named their fears, the worst of the worst things that could happen. He did not soften it, he did not deny it, he did not diminish it, he honestly named the rejection, the accusations that would be hurled, the fists would surely fly, humiliation was guaranteed – they was fears that could be named, and the names were intentionally verbalized out loud.
The worst of the worst fear – death, was addressed by Jesus as he said, do not be afraid of those that can kill your body but not your soul.
Naming fears allowed the apostles to identify the worst, to know the extreme realities they will face. The fears of answering Jesus call – a call of helping the oppressed and hurting, the marginalized, the abused, the neglected, the outcast, the hated.
Later on, Jesus will name this calling – ‘Taking up our Cross’. This is what he was calling on the apostles to do and it is what he calls us to do even now, ..especially now.
This term ‘Take up your cross’ would have been understood in the day. It referred to the marginal people (primarily slaves and rebels) that resided within the Roman Empire who were the targets of the punishment of death on the cross. These people, due to their social and legal status, were despised, hated, and often feared – their primary offense was that they did not align themselves with, or submit themselves to, Rome’s authority. And, those who helped these people always knew that they too risked the same fate. When scripture calls us to love others, care for others, show the compassion that no one else is willing to show to others, there is always a risk. It always requires us to Take up our Cross.
‘To take up the cross is to identify with those that threaten the empire.’Warren Coats
I have a pastor friend, here in Norman, that is in the middle of experiencing the pain of Taking Up His Cross. Recently, he attended a Black Lives Matter rally here in Norman. While there, he was asked why he, a white male pastor, was in attendance at the rally. His response was ‘It is where Jesus would be, it is where God has called me to be.’ He mentioned this experience to his church last Sunday and by the time his head hit his pillow Sunday evening, he had been alerted that four families in his church had already announced they were leaving the church because of his involvement with the movement. This is painful for a pastor, this is threat to a church, this is the cost of Taking Up Our Cross.
Jesus made an odd statement –
‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace’
It would appear that Jesus has a disconnect with his own words where he is announced at birth with peace; peace was the first words to his followers following the resurrection. These two statements appear to be incongruent, they seem to contradict each other.
The truth is, these two statements are totally congruent and even dependent on each other. At the time Jesus sent out his apostles, the Jews were still looking forward to the coming Messiah. Their anticipation was that this Messiah would actually bring a political peace. Not only would they not be oppressed or attacked, but, that they would become the world power. The peace would be grounded in that human force of a nation that was the ultimate empire.
In actuality, the Messiah, Jesus, came for a peace for all persons regardless of nationality. It is, and was, a peace that would be unacceptable to those who did not want to release their power, their control, their status. Reaching out to, and caring for, the marginalized and oppressed is seldom welcome, advocating for the periphery of society is often a threat.
This was the complaint of the prophet Jeremiah. As he had spent most of his life proclaiming the coming attack and take over by the Babylonians, and some time jail, hated and rejected by even those he consider his friends. All hoped for his demise because they didn’t want to hear truth God gave him to deliver. But, even as he complained to God he admitted that there was a burning deep within him that called for him to proclaim God’s truth, to go where, God led him to go, to speak the words that God gave to him to speak. Even though he was gripped with fear, he knew that he had to Take Up His Cross, he could do no less.
This is God’s Highest Calling, to go to those living in desperation, to care for the marginalized, to be the compassion of God to those who have spent a lifetime of being dismissed, despised, abused, and hated.
This is the reason that Jesus pulled his, still fresh and in the middle of learning, disciples, out of school. He moved them from mere students to the level of proclaimers, to being apostles. There was an urgency that could not be ignored.
‘A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.’Jesus
Jesus was differentiating his call over the hope of an empire of the people. He was heading off those who would try to rise up and take over. Push Jesus to act forcefully. Like Judas did. It is the highest calling, to sacrificially act with the embrace of Jesus, to name our fears and Take Up Our Cross to meet the same world that Jesus called ‘harassed and hopeless.’
It is our Highest Calling.
The Lord has already told you what is good, and what he requires of you: do what is right, love mercy, seek justice for all, and walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8
While German pastor and theologian, Detirich Bonhoffer, was imprisoned in a German concentration camp during World War II for his words and actions against the Nazi politicians and their atrocities, a fellow pastor visited him. Shouting through the barbed wire fence, the pastor asked Bonhoffer why he was there, why had he not just stayed out of the political situation and kept his mouth shut. Bonhoffer responded by asking, “You ask why am I in here, the real question is how is it that you are not in here with me?’
Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A, sat on the stage of Passion City Church last Sunday with Pastor Louie Giglio and African American Christian Musician LeCree – to discuss the killing of Rayshard Brooks the day before and the burning of the restaurant where the death took place:
“We’ve got a real bad situation. We don’t need to let this moment miss us. It has to hurt us. It has to hurt us. And we as Caucasians until we’re willing to just pick up the baton and fight for our black, African American brothers and sisters, which they are as one human race, we’re shameful, We’re just adding to it. Our silence is so huge at this time.“
“We cannot be silent. I think before we start to jump into action we need a personal period of contrition and a broken heart. Not just criticize the people that burnt down that restaurant, we got to have a heart for the Rayshard Brooks and others … We’ve got to have a sense of empathy of what led to this.”
“This is the tip of the iceberg of incredible amounts of frustration and pain that the whole spectrum of the African American community…. most of us white people are just simply out of sight, out of mind. We’re oblivious to it. We cannot let this moment pass.”
Isabel Wilkerson, author, The Warmth of Other Suns , who began calling for empathy in 2016, says:
“We may be clueless and awkward around the subject of race, but we know what the Gospel demands. That we keep working at being better neighbors.”
The question for us, is how are we going to respond to our highest calling? How are we going to live out the Greatest Commandment?
How are we going to love God and love our Neighbors as ourself?
In these past months we have seen the best and the worst of humanity. The best and the worst of those who call themself Christian.
Jesus prepared his apostles by first showing them how God feels about oppression, misery and marginalization – It was undoubtedly a confrontation of their own prejudices and bigotry, then he helped them name their fears, then, they went out.
What will it take for us to have empathy for our fellow humans? What will it take for us to accept the call of Jesus?