The pastor stands up in the pulpit, clears his throat, and announces: “This morning we are going to talk about racism and reconciliation.”
And all over the sanctuary the congregation winces. Under their breaths, they beg: “Preacher, please don’t do it! You are getting ready to open up a can of worms!”
But the middle-aged preacher, who has opened up more cans of worms than anyone could possibly count, ignores the grimaces and metaphorically gets out the can opener.
Ever since I have been a pastor, church folks have urged me to avoid talking about race.
They say: “If you talk about it, you are just going to stir things up, make things worse. If we would all just leave it alone, it will go away.
And if you think about, those who call attention to the color of their skin are the real racists. They need to stop saying their lives matter and understand that all lives matter. Reconciliation Sunday? Really? Come on, preacher, we just need to let it go!”
And, for the most part, when it comes to talking about race, we white preachers have been very silent.
But guess what? It ain’t working.
The recent Alt-Right White Nationalists’ march in Charlottesville was a stark reminder that racism in this country is not going away that easily.
Yet, many would still rather shut their eyes and close their ears, pretending that racism no longer exists.
A couple of years ago, someone blocked me on Facebook. When I asked a mutual friend why I was blocked. She responded that he didn’t like seeing my Ainsley’s Angels posts of children with special needs. He said that the pictures of the children made him uncomfortable.
“Out of sight out of mind,” as we like to say.
Maybe this is why Jesus talked more about sight than he talked about sin.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus asks: “Do you have eyes and fail to see?” (Mark 8:18)
In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah:
You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes and listen with their ears.
In Isaiah chapter 6, we read that closed minds, closed eyes, and closed ears (ignoring injustice, looking the other way, tuning it out), will lead to “cities lying in waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land utterly desolate.”
Refusing to listen to and understand the cries of injustice— possessing hearts that are dull and indifferent— leads to complete desolation. It leads to tiki torches in Charlottesville, a shooter in Charleston, voter suppression in North Carolina, an assassination in Memphis, Jim Crow in the South, a holocaust in Germany, and a mass lynching of 237 African Americans in Arkansas.
Even if a tenth part remains in it, it will be burned again,
like…an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.’
But listen to the good news. This passage in Isaiah concludes:
The holy seed is its stump.
There’s a holy seed ready to sprout forth. In a land of deep darkness, a light shines forth. In the demise and the decay, there is the promise of new life. Like a candle flickering in the dark, hope is burning. Like a stream trickling in the desert, reconciliation is possible.
And Jesus suggests that the key to reconciliation, healing and redemption is open minds and open hearts.
The mission of Ainsley’s Angels is the very thing that Jesus is talking about here. The primary mission is “raising awareness.” Awareness, says Jesus, is having God-blessed eyes and God-blessed ears. Because whether you are talking about ableism or racism or any other ism, awareness is what is needed before reconciliation can happen.
And with this blessed awareness, what is it specifically that Jesus wants us to see? What do we see for Jesus to respond: “Blessed are your eyes for they see!” “Prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it!”
I believe the answer is in Jesus’ first recorded sermon. In Matthew 5 we read where Jesus went up on a mountain and taught them saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
God-blessed eyes see that the “poor in spirit” and the “meek” are blessed by God; Not the one who has never had a reason to doubt that God was indeed for them, not against them; with them, not away from them. But God-blessed eyes see that God is on the side of the ones who have been degraded and dehumanized by the systems and structures of the priveledged. Their spirits have been crushed by inequitable education, poor healthcare, discrimination in the workplace and racial profiling in the streets. But their future, says Jesus, is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
God-blessed eyes see that God empathizes with the mourners. Not those the Apostle Paul is talking about when he says we should “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:18), or “rejoice even in the midst of suffering” (Romans 5:3-10), but the ones who have a difficult time finding anything for which to be thankful. For them, there is no rejoicing. They are not just complaining about the pain in their life. They actually in mourning over that pain. They look at how their parents and grandparents were valued by the world. They see how their lives are valued. And they look into the eyes of their children and grandchildren, and they grieve for them. But because Jesus knows that love will win, and evil will be overcome, Jesus calls them blessed and promises comfort.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.
Not the ones who are righteous, but the ones on whose behalf the prophet Amos preached: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). This is everyone who have been marginalized by society, even by communities of faith. They have suffered grave injustices just for being different.
They have been bullied so badly by the world that they hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness like a wanderer lost in a hot desert thirsts for water. Jesus says that they are blessed, and they are the ones who will not only be satisfied, but will be filled, their cups overflowing.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Not the pure, but the “pure in heart.” Not those who look like you do on the outside. Not those who share your skin tone. No, God blesses those who dream with Rev. Dr. King for a world where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. God-blessed eyes have the grace to see others as the Lord sees them, “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). God sees them for who they truly are, beloved children of God, created in the image of God, and they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Not the ones who have necessarily found peace for themselves. But God blesses the tormented: the discriminated and the victimized, who, because their lives are so continuously in chaos, seek to make peace whenever and wherever they can. Blessed are those who live with no peace, but seek it, because they will find a home and a peace that is beyond all understanding, within the family of God.[i]
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Not the proud, the boastful and the arrogant. Not the ones who never admit any mistake, those who say they are “the least racist person” or that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body.” But God blesses the ones who are fully aware of their prejudices, the ones who have made mistakes, terrible mistakes, and they know it. Thus, when they encounter others who are also suffering from this fragmented world, they have mercy and compassion. In their hearts there is always room for others. They give mercy, because they need mercy for themselves. And Jesus says, they will receive it.
Do you see what Jesus wants us to see? Are your eyes God-blessed?
What’s the one thing we mortals need in order to see?
We need light.
The good news is that the Lord announces: “I have come as light, as the Light of the World!”
And not only that, Jesus says: “You who seek to be my disciples, you who have answered the call to be my hands and feet in this world, are not only holy seeds in a burned-out stump. You are also the Lights of the World. And you are called not to hide your light, but to shine your light so all may see this world as God sees it.
We are to shine our lights by Stanley with, lifting up, and caring for all people, especially those who are left behind. We are to light it up by defending and caring for those whose spirits have been broken, those who mourn and need mercy, the marginalized who hunger and thirst for justice, the discriminated who seek equity, and the troubled who yearn for peace.
So, as lights of this world, for the sake of this world, may First Christian Church of Fort Smith light this our city up:
So crushed spirts can have new life.
Light it up,
So the despairing can have hope.
Light it up,
So that those who ache for fairness will be satisfied.
Light it up,
So that victims of all kinds of discrimination will see God.
Light it up,
So that those who yearn for peace will receive justice and know peace.
Light it up,
Until the day comes when the eyes and ears of all are finally and fully blessed and the entire human race be reconciled as one.
[i] Inspired by Frederick Buechner. Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), 18.