I got called up for jury duty this week. I do love these civic processes–voting, working the polls, responding to a jury summons. It reminds me that I’m part of a larger whole—often, with people who are quite different from me. But we’re all equal when it comes to serving our larger community. All of us in the Jury Assembly Room got the same summons. Any of us who chose not to show up would get the same personalized invitation from a deputy. No matter our gender or race or economic status, in the Jury Room we’re all equals. Jury Duty is a great leveler in our society. That’s why it’s called a “jury of your peers.”
Jesus would have liked our Jury system, I think. He was all about everyone having equal power in society and, especially, in faith communities. The religious authorities in Jesus’ day? Not so much. The last couple of weeks, we’ve been tracking Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day.
Matthew tells us from the get-go that the Pharisees are trying “to trap Jesus in his words.” They’re trying to get him to say something that will get him imprisoned or that will diminish him in the eyes of the rank-and-file faithful. Here’s the thing. The Pharisees liked their authority, they liked their power. They liked the hierarchical system that put them on top of the heap. Jesus coming and leveling things out, saying everyone has equal access to God? Nah. That wasn’t working for them–because empowering the people meant dis-empowering them. And, like I said, the Pharisees liked their power.
So, they kept asking Jesus these manipulative questions. Finally, an exasperated Jesus asked a question of his own. It, too, was manipulative. He asked it to show just how manipulative the authorities’ questions had been. He asked it to shut the others up. It worked.
THEN, once his detractors have been silenced, Jesus preaches a sermon. The sermon’s title? “Beware the Hypocrisy of the Pharisees.” Listen:
2‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,* and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others… 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. (Mt. 23)
The role of religious leader came with lots of perks. The Pharisees liked their perks; they liked their power. But—as always is the case with exclusive power—for a few people to have lots of power, everybody else had to give up a lot of theirs. This disproportionate divvying up of power created an unjust system, one that was the opposite of what Jesus imagined the kin-dom of God to be.
Here’s how Jesus imagines the kin-dom:
You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.*9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.*11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Jesus isn’t just calling for a redistribution of power. He’s calling for a whole new kind of power, one that isn’t hoarded by some, but rather, is shared by all.
We’ve seen and are seeing the effects of the disproportionate distribution of power in what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri. Curious about what is happening there now two months after the shooting death of Michael Brown, I emailed my good friend Karen, who pastors a Lutheran congregation just a few blocks from Ferguson. I expected to get a couple of good quotes. What I got was a wake-up call.
I share with you now what Karen wrote.
As you know, the violent protests have stopped and demonstrations are becoming more organized (less knee-jerk reactions), but everyone is waiting with baited breath as to what might happen when the grand jury findings come in. I don’t believe that anyone will be surprised if the officer is not indicted. Many will conclude that this is typical of a system in need of deep reform; others will be extremely angry and we will probably see more protests.
While I ask you to pray for us and our communities, we will pray for your community as well. I believe that Ferguson is simply a symptom of racism that is prevalent in every one of our communities.
The ways in which the community has responded over these past few months have been wide and varied, but I must say that God is working through what has been a tragic event. Despite anger and suspicion, people are being moved to come together, talk, and are finding that working together is much more productive than out-of-control, angry protests.
However, let me say that it is also important that the systemic problems of prejudice and racism within our culture cannot be ignored any longer. People are fed up and we will not be able to sink back into our couches of comfort with the way things are any longer. I see what has happened in Ferguson as prophetic for our nation.
Though you are hearing nothing in the media, there are still pockets of the faithful standing guard outside the police headquarters and on West Florissant Rd holding signs and chanting “No Justice, No Peace,” “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” etc. Every week, I hear of one meeting or another in which citizens—neighbors–are meeting with the mayor and city council or police officials to try to hear one another and make changes in the way people are treated within our criminal justice system.
There also are efforts from both in and outside of Ferguson to develop more jobs. One corporation announced a month or so ago that it is building a facility that will bring 200 jobs to the city and another company announced a $1.5 million scholarship program for high school students planning on going to the University of Missouri, St. Louis. (Lack of a good education, housing, jobs are all a part of the frustration people feel for not having an equal chance of succeeding in our culture.)
Okay, a few stories of grace in the midst of all of this:
A group of protestors was challenging a police line in front of the Town Hall. As the chants were being shouted, suddenly a woman walked up to a policeman and threw her arms around him and said (apparently loud enough for others to hear), “I want to hate you, but I just can’t.” The policeman didn’t know what to do, so he just hugged her back with tears in his eyes.
At a meeting called by the Justice Department (which has helped a great deal in guiding city officials, police department, and neighborhoods to talk and listen to one another) just for the citizens of Ferguson (no media allowed in the meeting), two women from the same neighborhood happened to attend. One was white, one black. Though neighbors, they had never talked with one another. They began to talk and several days later a reporter interviewed them. They had become friends, truly friends, and were amazed at all they had in common. In the interview they expressed how thankful they were to have one another in the midst of this crisis.
Finally, I think of Michael Brown’s parents. They are divorced and both remarried, yet they have remained united and steadfast on this one point: there is to be no violence in reacting to their son’s death. They have been outspoken, consistent, and vigilant in trying to get this message across. While they want justice for their son, they believe that demonstrators who engage in violence dishonor their son. They want the killings to stop and want the criminal justice system to work for blacks in the same way it works for whites.
It’s sometimes tempting to see the whole religion thing as passe, antiquated, quaint. But if you read these stories about Jesus, you see that he was– in his time and culture– addressing a dynamic that is still at work in our time and culture. The kin-dom of God—as Jesus described it, preached it, lived it—is a place where EVERY PERSON has equal value, where EVERY PERSON is treated with human dignity, where ALL PEOPLE share power for the purpose of acting others into well-being. Jesus’ death by crucifixion—the preferred form of execution for the Roman Empire—was in the end an indictment of a terribly unjust system.
When my friend Karen says that she will pray for our community because what is happening in Ferguson “is simply a symptom of racism that is prevalent in everyone of our communities,” she is speaking prophetically. She is naming the injustice of racism and calling us to confront it….and heal it…just like Jesus did with the injustices of his day.
In an earlier email to our Women Touched by Grace group, Karen said that one key way to work at changing unjust systems is to focus on the small things—telling our stories, talking with each other, educating ourselves about what’s going on.
Another opportunity to effect change is coming to the table. At a meeting of the Alliance of Baptists many years ago, I attended a session on communion. As we reflected on our experiences of communion, one person said this: “The table is a great leveler. Everyone who comes to the table is equal—equal in need of grace, equal in God’s love for us.”
Perhaps we, too, in a minute might begin (or continue) to confront the sin of racism at the table of communion—a table of our peers.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kim Buchanan © 2014