Rejecting Jesus

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Photo by Scott Olson at Getty

I gave this sermon at the 2015 National Festival of Young Preachers, hosted by the wonderful Academy of Preachers, on January 3rd. It is a second look at the passage in Matthew’s Gospel about the Final Judgment. You can find my first sermon on the passage, given at First Baptist Church in Henderson, NC, here. While I do like the first version of the sermon, I may favor this shorter, but firmer, Version 2.0. I think it absolutely necessary for white preachers to be speaking truth about race and issues surrounding it in the United States. To some that is obvious truth, but to others it is not. There is a strong tradition among white (mainly liberal Protestant) Christians in the United States of remaining silent in the face of racialized injustice. We assume our mental ascent to higher ideals and virtue makes us exempt from the consent silence affords oppressive systems. This sermon is particularly for my white brothers and sisters who have, intentionally or not, missed Jesus staring them in the face – just as I so often do.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for 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 did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they also will answer, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-46, NRSV

We like to be uncomfortable with this passage. It’s almost fashionable to be uncomfortable with this passage among my peers. We don’t like its (how did the sermon guidelines put it? …) “belligerent and divisive language.” We like to be inclusive, ecumenical, and friendly. We don’t like to be judgmental! Judgment has gone out of vogue and we avoid it like the plague. We love, then, to be uncomfortable with this passage. It is my contention, however, that many of us in this room are all too comfortable with this passage and we may not even know it.

This is a sermon for my brothers and sisters who look like me. This is a sermon for the church I grew up in and the church in which I will serve. This is a sermon for white people, a sermon for my white church, because my white church has become way too comfortable with this passage — at least the first part of it anyway. And unless any of you think you are going to be exempt from this sermon, I’m talking about liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, urban, suburban, and rural. I’m talking to white folk, because we have a problem.

The problem has been around since the time we started calling ourselves white and it has become especially obvious, at least to us, in recent days. From Jamestown to Michael Brown, we have loved all too much the separation of the sheep and goats. We have perpetrated this unjust judgment based on the myth of race.

Let me tell you a story.

In 1607, white Christians arrived in North America at Jamestown and claimed this land our own. In 1619, white Christians first kidnapped Africans and brought them to these shores as slaves. In 1691, Virginia law first declared white people to have more rights than blacks. This is how we separated sheep from goats.

After 1776 when white Christians fought a war for their independence from other white Christians, white Christians enacted policies that stripped land from Native Americans and only allowed white Christians to own it. In the 1790s, two men named Blumenbach and Buffon, white Christians, invented racial categories to pseudo-scientifically justify white supremacy. In 1830, my state of North Carolina prohibited black people from learning to read. This is how we separated sheep from goats.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, white Christians started a war over black bodies. White Christians today like to pretend that the good Christians were abolitionists, but most Christians were not. I come from a church that split from its northern counterpart because of slavery. Just because I am a different kind of Baptist now doesn’t mean I’m exempt from this prejudiced legacy, because my spiritual ancestors did nothing good about slavery. Most of my contemporaries haven’t done much better. What white Christians have said about the black community has not often been good. And that’s how we separate the sheep from goats.

Even after a war, emancipation, and reconstruction, white Christians made special effort to separate the sheep from the goats. Slavery didn’t end with emancipation. Southern states built up private prison systems and enacted laws to put black people in them for free labor. Birmingham, one of the cities I call home, was built on the backs of these souls. Today, this prison industrial complex has more black people inside it than were enslaved in Southern chattel slavery. In 1896, we had separate but equal and the birth of Jim Crow, but even when Jim Crow went away, he didn’t die — he just changed. We still have white churches, white businesses, white neighborhoods, and white schools that are not legally “whites only” but might as well be. And that’s how we separate the sheep from goats.

Unless you thought we were finished, white Christians separated sheep from goats with ropes in Southern trees. Thousands of black men and women died by lynching for whatever reason whites could devise. Lynching didn’t stop after the Civil Rights Era either — it just changed. There was a lynching in North Carolina just this past year when Lennon Lacy was hung from a swing set in Bladenboro. The authorities decided to do nothing about it. There was a lynching in Ohio when Tamir Rice was shot for playing in the park and when John Crawford was shot for shopping in Walmart. There was a lynching in New York City when Eric Garner was choked to death for a fineable offense. There was a lynching in Ferguson, Missouri, when Michael Brown was gunned down while unarmed and left lying in the street for four hours. This is how we separate the sheep from the goats.

White Christians have the luxury of ignoring these situations with little to no consequence for their ignorance. White Christians have the luxury of turning off the news, signing off Twitter, and hiding #BlackLivesMatter from their newsfeeds. White Christians like me have the luxury of self-selection. White Christians like me have the luxury of speaking when we want to speak and remaining silent when it gets difficult or unpopular. We remain silent all too often in the face of injustice and our silence makes up complicit in terror. Worse, we do not remain silent and instead side with the forces of oppression and injustice. We post in defiance that #AllLivesMatter neglecting to insist that #BlackLivesMatter, we blame the victim as if such petty crimes were worthy of spontaneous execution, and we only give white people the benefit of the doubt. In our support for the status quo, we separate the sheep from the goats and assert that Black Lives don’t matter. By ignoring the racial problems in our systems and in each other, we claim that Black Lives don’t matter. When we do not even indict, to say nothing of convicting, those responsible for the ending of Black Lives, we say Black Lives don’t matter. When we choose to tune it out, we are not being silent. We are saying Black Lives don’t matter. And when we reject Black Lives, make no mistake, we are rejecting Jesus.

We are rejecting the Jesus who does not separate between the sheep and the goats like we do, but instead separates them based on their ability to see him. Jesus condemns the goats when they do not see him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the stranger, and those in prison. Likewise, my white church stands condemned whenever we do not see Jesus in the world around us. James Cone asserts in his most recent work that we have for too long denied or ignored the connection between the cross and the lynching tree. When we see individuals unjustly executed by the oppressor, we must see Jesus. When an unarmed black man is shot and his body left in the street for four hours, we must see the horror of the crucifixion. In times like these, we must see Jesus in our black brothers and sisters or we probably won’t see Jesus at all.

Unless you think I am performing some interpretive gymnastics, look at this passage. He said to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for 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 did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Jesus makes it plain here that he is present among oppressed and marginalized communities. Jesus is there, crucified, in the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Tamir Rice and scores of others. Jesus is there among communities that struggle with hunger, thirst, and other basic needs – and our racist systems impose those struggles disproportionately on black communities and other communities of color in the United States. In supporting either through our action or inaction, our knowledge or our ignorance, white Christians are committing heresy, rejecting the incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel is one of Incarnation. It speaks of a God who became flesh and lived among us. Our Gospel, too, speaks of Incarnation here and now. Through the presence of the Spirit, Christ is still with us. But when my white church fails to see him among her brothers and sisters of color, my white church is committing heresy. Our ignorance is a denial of the Incarnation, of Christ’s presence with the oppressed. There is only one response to the active pursuit of such heresy, and that is repentance. The Gospel for my white church today is one of repentance. The goats do not rush to repentance in this passage. Instead, they engage in insistent denial. “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?” They say this despite Jesus having already said in their presence that “just as you did it to one of the lease of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Instead of confronting the evils of the world and their own heretical opinions, they deny that the problem even exists. “When did we see you?”

In Black Theology and Black Power, James Cone explains the situation in which the white church (to which I belong!) finds itself: “It is the job of the Church to become black with [Christ] and accept the shame which white society places on blacks. But the Church knows that what is shame to the world is holiness to God. Black is holy, that is, it is a symbol of God’s presence in history on behalf of the oppressed … Where there is black, there is oppression; but blacks can be assured that where there is blackness, there is Christ who has taken on blackness so that what is evil in [our] eyes might become good. Therefore, Christ is black because he is oppressed, and oppressed because he is black. And if the Church is to join Christ by following his opening, it too must go where suffering is and become black also.”

There is much talk about why the church is dying these days, and by “the church” authors and commentators usually mean white Protestant churches. This passage makes plain why our church is dying. Jesus tells us that we have failed to see him. In our failing to see Christ, we are failing to be a church. In failing to see Christ, we are failing to see our own salvation. The heresy infecting our white church is bigger than our pitiful response to police brutality. It infects our core – it is our unwillingness to recognize and participate in the Incarnation of Jesus, which is our salvation. Until we can recognize Christ in the world where he actually is, my white church will die. The time came a long time ago, and I can only hope and pray that the time has not already passed, for us to repent and believe in the Gospel and the Kingdom of God, that Gospel spoken among and for the oppressed, the Gospel for the hungry, the Gospel for the thirsty, the Gospel for the naked, the Gospel for the stranger, the Gospel for the sick, and the Gospel for those in prison. It is in that Gospel that we must believe and live.

Let us pray.

God of the Oppressed, forgive us for failing to see you. Forgive us for rejecting you. Give us vision to see you and strength of soul to come and be with you. Amen.

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