Benediction Online

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fifty Years On

Usually when we see Jesus healing someone it is because they or their friends and relatives have requested it. But in today’s gospel he calls out to a woman who has lived almost two decades bent double and heals her. Even though she hasn’t asked him. What is Jesus doing here? Is he moved by compassion, is he seizing a teaching moment or is he stirring up trouble?

Why did a quarter of a million people head to Washington for a march 50 years ago, and why are thousands of people following in their footsteps this week? Are they moved by compassion, are they seizing a teaching moment or are they stirring up trouble?

Certainly in 1963 the authorities were concerned that there would be trouble. The march was policed like a military operation, literally—it was called Operation Steep Hill. They stopped all elective surgery in Washington that weekend. They stopped the sale of alcohol, cancelled all baseball games, and said that the courts were going to run all night, thinking that there would be a large number of arrests.[1]

But it was a peaceful demonstration with few arrests. Yet it challenged the status quo. Just as Jesus’ decision to heal the disabled woman was a peaceful demonstration of the kingdom of God but also a confrontation with the religious authorities. The point he was making was that religious laws and religious practice are only part of the picture – when they get in the way of us living the reign of God, when they get in the way of us demonstrating God’s love then they are out of place.

At first glance, putting religious practice before practical compassion doesn’t seem to be a big problem in this country today! But the way Christianity is sometimes practiced is contributing to the political impasse. If we imagine God as a purely external transcendent being who has specific laws which we have to obey, then like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time we are going to take rigid positions. We may conclude that abortion is wrong and given the rigidity of our understanding of God’s law it becomes logical to say that anyone who agrees with abortion under any circumstances is suspect. We lose sight of the need for compassion in our desire to be right.

For centuries people believed that slavery was right, and supported this with their reading of the Biblical narrative. Then they believed that white people of European descent were superior to others, and again supported this with a few Bible verses. The 1963 March on Washington is important in our history because it marks a time when people, black and white, said enough is enough - we must treat all people equally - just as the Stonewall Inn riot six years later was an iconic moment when gay people started to demand equality.
But fifty years later we still do not have racial equality. Of the 2.3million people in prison today in this country, nearly one million are African-American. In 2008 Latinos and African Americans together made up a quarter of the country’s population but 58% of the prison population. That is not racial equality. The death of Trayvon Martin was a result of racial profiling, which is a euphemism for racial discrimination. Had he been a white kid things might have been very different for him and his family.

In a country built by immigrants we have an immigration system which is antiquated and which makes it difficult for farmers to legally get the workers they need and leaves thousands of migrant fieldworkers open to exploitation. The bill which passed the Senate is not perfect but it is a significant step forward but it is unlikely to pass the House because the leadership of the House are taking a rigid anti-Obama stance which prevents them from seeing the needs of real people.

What would Jesus do?

I really have no idea what Jesus would do, and in some ways that’s an irrelevant question because he isn’t here and you and I are. It is up to us to find ways to use our power to show compassion, raise up teaching moments and, if necessary, to make trouble. We are fortunate to live in a country where we can have a voice, where we don’t have to take to the streets and risk having our children killed by riot police or by chemical weapons. But we don’t use the voice that we have. When was the last time you wrote a letter to the Editor or to an elected representative? When was the last time you chose to get involved with a situation that calls to you? As Christians we are called not just to go to church and do our spiritual practice but to be informed and active citizens. We are called to make the world a better place for all people, and that will only happen through systemic change which primarily happens through government.

If our religious practice does not include supporting those who are working for a world of equality and freedom then Jesus is talking directly to us when he says “You hypocrites!”

This week there will be people in San Luis Obispo who are part of the movement for immigration reform and there will be several opportunities to meet them and learn more about it. There are details on the notice board  - a potluck on Wednesday and a prayer vigil on Thursday. I hope that some of us will be able to be there.

Fifty years after the March on Washington it is time for us to stop thinking of the civil rights movement as something in the past but to realize that the reasons for the Jobs and Freedom march are as relevant today as they were then - the discrimination, joblessness and economic inequality faced by African Americans. For the past six decades the rate of unemployment among black people has consistently been twice that of whites.[2] It is lower for Latinos, but still 2% higher than for the white population. It is not surprising that gangs flourish.

It’s time that we added our voices to the voices of those who are calling for equality. It is time for us to financially support organizations that work for an end to discrimination and to provide jobs for those who are chronically unemployed.

It is time for us to find creative ways, like Jesus, to show compassion and to confront the rigid thinking and the systemic problems which keep people bent over and limited for decade after decade.


  • I thought this an excellent sermon, and especially liked the use of the bent-over woman as a symbol of our inaction. Thanks Caro!

    By Blogger (The Rev.) Brian McHugh, at 12:01 PM  

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