All Lives Matter!


Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton

1/18/2015

 

 One of my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes is this one:
 
“If you can’t fly, then run.
If you can’t run, then walk,
If you can’t walk, then crawl,
But whatever you do,
You have to keep moving forward.”
 
“You have to keep moving forward, . . .”
 
I wonder if Dr. King were here this afternoon what he would say about his own quote in relationship to heightened racial and cultural tensions that have emerged across our world in recent months?  Have we been moving forward or have we taken significant steps backward in the creation of a just, civil, and diverse culture?
 
In his annual "Letter to Martin Luther King,” Bishop Woodie White reflects on the reality that it has only been 50 years ago that racial tensions reached an apex in this country.  It has only been a little more than 50 years since four young girls were killed in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama while attending Sunday School.  It has only been 50 years since the famous “Selma March” that is currently being depicted on movie screens across the country, a march that turned deadly on its first attempt when the nonviolent, peaceful protestors were brutally attacked all because of their simple desire to exercise their constitutional right to vote.  Nicknamed “Bloody Sunday,” this march ultimately resulted, only fifty years ago, in an action by Congress called the 1965 Civil Rights Act that gave black citizens anywhere the right to register and vote protected against intimidation and discriminatory regulations.  As Bishop White writes, “Imagine Martin, it was only 50 years ago, that the most basic right of a democracy, the right to vote, was guaranteed to black American citizens!  Only 50 years ago!”
 
But it was only five months ago that a building racial tension across this country went public, just as the “Bloody Sunday” Selma march did, when the controversy over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown caused an outpouring of protest, not only in Ferguson, but across the world.  And it was five months ago that Eric Gardner was killed in New York City sparking protests around the phrase “I Can’t Breathe.”  It was five weeks ago that the absence of a non-violent means to bring about culture change resulted in the targeted shooting of two New York City police officers, intensifying the racial debate and protest that has so quickly and unbelievably surfaced from both sides: one side concluding that the deaths were clearly the fault of the black community and another believing that they were caused by an underlying racism that views white and black people differently. 
 
“Imagine Martin, it was only 5 months ago, that our country has once again exploded over racial tensions, causing protests and reactions to spill over into our city streets and fear to abound among many!  Only 5 months ago!”
 
But friends, it was only five days ago that tensions around terrorism found its way to the tiny and peaceful country of Belgium -- and just a few days prior to that a massacre took place in France as an outburst of emotion related to religious diversity and freedom of speech.  Jewish neighbors and citizens in both countries are walking the streets, entering their businesses, and going to bed at night in their own homes in fear for their very lives as an extremist group has exhibited its own version of racism which attempts to deny the full liberties and peaceful existence of another segment of God’s family.  
 
“Imagine Martin, it was only five days ago, that our world has once again been put on alert over racially and culturally driven acts of violence that has no regard for human life all designed to make a statement about their view of God!  Only five days ago!”
 
It makes one wonder – are we moving forward or has this slip of judgment quickly turned into an avalanche of racism and hatred that perhaps has only been covered by a fragile veil of common sense and equality.
 
 Oh how I wish William (Meekins) and others had asked me to preach at a Martin Luther King, Jr. service a few years ago when the tensions were hidden somewhat by that vale of denial that believed that we had moved farther forward than we actually have.  It would have been an easier sermon to preach a year or two ago than it is today.
 
It would have been an easier sermon as well had not the fragile nature of that veil been exposed even within the bounds of our beloved home of Western Pennsylvania. 
 
Oh Martin, I can’t believe it’s the 21st  Century and tensions seem to be heightening with violent acts and unjust behaviors. 
 
I can’t believe that we claim to be a sophisticated society, far removed from the days of barbarians and slave traders.  I can’t believe it, yet, even within the bounds of our own Annual Conference, my cabinet gathers every other week to make appointments and, as a result of an inability to move forward among some:
 

  • We bite our nails wondering whether or not a Korean pastor will be accepted or rejected because his dialect is not as refined as our “yinzer” Western Pennsylvania speech patterns. 
  • We guess and second guess ourselves over whether or not a woman will be respected when she ascends into a pulpit because of some archaic belief that she is somehow not supposed to speak in public or exert her leadership at the expense of a man whose ego is so fragile that someone of another gender has to be put down just so he can be lifted up.  
  • And we wonder how much grace there is and how much Jesus’ command to love God and love another is followed when a gay couple has to travel over 100 miles to find a place of worship that will welcome them into their fellowship, offer them words of grace and hope, and value them as people of sacred worth because of the dozens of United Methodist churches between their home and that place that will not welcome two of God’s created children into their fellowship. 
 
It would have been an easier sermon had I been asked to preach it just a few years ago. 
 
But it was not meant to be.
 
As I have reflected on this day and these events and the lives of God’s people, I found myself wringing my hands over the divisions that have been created in our society, across our world, and even in our own minds.  The divisions are real and clearly stated:  some are black, some are white, some are Jewish, some are Muslim, some are Christian, some are atheist, some are women, some are men, some are Korean, some are Indian, some are gay, some are straight. 
 
And as I have struggled for words, I found myself going to a piece of scripture that signals that divisions like these have been a part of humanity’s sin for generations.
 
Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, tensions emerged over whether or not and to what degree the saving message of Christ could be shared with the gentiles.  Acts Chapter 15 details the story of how a model of collaboration took place that, in effect, enabled you and me to hear the Good News of Gods’ love.  But even among the gentiles, division and discord quickly resulted.  One of those places where serious church division took place was in a community called Corinth.
 
In the very first chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth he writes these words that you heard just a few moments ago:
 
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.  (I Corinthians 1:10-17, NRSV)
 
Paul knew all too well that this new church was setting up sides, claiming that because Apollos was a better speaker that he was the way or because Cephas has baptized some of them they somehow had an edge on the other group or because Paul had introduced them to Jesus that somehow he deserved to be idolized more than the others. 
 
Paul shot with a straight arrow that hit the target directly when he said, “all of you be in agreement and (let) there be no divisions among you, but be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” 
 
Eugene Petersen’s, The Message, states it even more directly, “I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common.”
 
United in the same mind.  Cultivating a life in common.  Oh, dear friends, this IS the word of God for the people of God.  These are the words of Paul, but the greater than that, I believe, this IS the word of God. 
 
Paul is seeing that the division of the church is happening because sides are being taken.  He realizes that if someone takes a side with a human point of view that egos and biases will quickly take over.  And so he states, quite clearly, that he did not come to baptize or to speak with eloquent wisdom but to proclaim the gospel so that the true center point, the real foundation of our actions, the shining example of sacrifice, namely the Cross of Christ might not be diluted, trivialized, forgotten or, as Paul said, “emptied of its power.”
 
Paul understands full well the context out of which he is speaking.  He also states his case clearly concerning how the various groups within that context are to behave.  Later on in I Corinthians he states those oft quoted words:  For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. (I Corinthians 12: 12-14)
 
  • INDEED, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 
  • INDEED, the world does not consist of one religion but of many. 
  • INDEED, the country does not exist of one race but of many.
  • INDEED, the community in which you reside does not exist of one viewpoint but of many.
  • INDEED, in your own mind there must contain a depth of love and respect and civility for all of these members, religions, races, genders, and sexualities. 
 
The judgment of each of us who fit into those categories must be left to our God.  Our mandate is not to like the behavioral patterns and cultural differences of many.  NO, our mandate is far more direct:
 
  • You are called to LOVE ONE ANOTHER – no choice, no negotiation, and no compromise. 
  • You are called to LOVE ONE ANOTHER – no piece mealing, no TV tray sectioning, no quiet or passive proclaiming, but all out love. 
  • You are called to LOVE ONE ANOTHER with a love that brings all together held as one by the Cross of Christ and a sacrificial love that was made for everyone: Jew/Greek/slave/free/black/white/Asian/Indian/man/woman/ gay/straight alike. 
    • It is a love that does not have neat and tidy categories or sections but a love that creates a savory stew that blends all kinds of flavors into one delectable and tasty presentation. 
    • It is a love that will not stand for anything less than love and is not afraid to say it and confront anything that seems to suggest something less.
 
After the death of Michael Brown, protesters started carrying signs that said, “Black Lives Matter.”  In response and after two New York City police officers were killed, protesters started carrying signs that said, “Police Lives Matter.” 
 
The Reverend Gil Caldwell, retired United Methodist pastor, has suggested that instead, perhaps WE should be the ones who start carrying signs that simply say, “ALL LIVES MATTER!”   
  • ALL LIVES MATTER in the eyes of our God.  If it were not so, Jesus would have never commanded us to love God and love neighbor. 
  • ALL LIVES MATTER in the eyes of a true disciple of Christ who strives to live a life according to the love of our Lord.
  • And IF ALL LIVES MATTER, ALL MEANS ALL – Black & White, US & French, woman & man, gay & straight.  There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free for we were all made to drink of one Spirit and were all baptized into one body.  Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many and, in the name of Jesus, all of those lives matter.
 But there is something required of us, something very specific required of us in this room:
  • What we need today is a new civility.  A new commitment to non-violence and a way of peaceful reaction that ultimately will bring about more change than any bullet ever will. 
  • A new commitment to civil disobedience, naming that which is wrong and standing boldly on what is right when it comes to the level playing field needed in order for all people to have a chance to receive the new life that only our God can provide. 
  • A new commitment to not standing on the sideline but instead calling out the wrong and boldly proclaiming the right with a civility that will turn more heads than any angry tirade ever will.  That new commitment will make another of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quotes come alive, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”
 
After those four young girls were killed by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King eulogized them by saying these words, “these girls have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows.  They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. . . .They have something to say to each us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.”
 
That’s what I want to say to you today in the midst of these days of rising racial tension, uncertain terrorist activity, and ongoing “isms” that alienate and harm:  We must substitute courage for caution.
 
We do not live in Ferguson, Missouri or New York City, or Paris, France, or Brussels, Belgium.  We live in the towns and boroughs of Western Pennsylvania.  And although we have not made the national news as of late, we can testify that racism, sexism, cultural-ism, and homophobia exist and abound in the places that we ourselves call home.  We have blacks who fear for their lives, women whose leadership is disregarded, Koreans who are made fun because of their dialect, gays that long for a church family, and a whole host of others who feel neglected, abused, and left out because of their appearance, their economic state, or even their political persuasion. 
 
Could it be that our sin is the sin of silence?  Could it be that we contribute to the problem because, unlike Dr. King’s challenge, we have allowed caution and apathy to trump courage and advocacy?
 
A new civility is not the result of staying silent.  A new civility proclaims the love of Christ at all costs, in all circumstances, and among all people, even the ones you may not like. 
 
We have, in our midst, people who have been and are hurt because the alienating, discriminating, and damaging words of others have not been confronted and challenged by those of us who have remained silent and not found the courage to truly proclaim the gospel of the one who binds us together in the foundation of love.
 
These are perilous times, my friends.  Danger and discord abound, perhaps more than many of us have seen or remember in our lifetimes.  Division and threats to our very lives have found new techniques and venues to promote their viewpoints.
 
But in this service, in the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, there is an assembly that has gathered.  It is a throng of participants who have met up at an assigned time and place for a specific and designated purpose.  It is a protest group that has been handed placards that say “ALL LIVES MATTER.”  This gathering may not be a “Selma march,” but they are being challenged to conduct a “Monroeville march,” leaving this place with courage to boldly state what is right and not settle for anything else.  And if that throng of participants leave this place with renewed conviction to level the playing field for all of God’s children, there will, no doubt, be challenging days ahead, days when we may not be popular but days when we will be judged as being faithful. 
 
And when we are discouraged about the severity of the fight before us, may we once again hear those words from one who was not afraid to be faithful in the midst of the adversity:
 
“If you can’t fly, then run.
If you can’t run, then walk.
If you can’t walk, then crawl.
But whatever you do,
You have to keep moving.”
 
May it be so.  Oh God in heaven, may it be so.
 
Amen. 
 
This post is the text of the message Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton delivered at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Worship Celebration, sponsored by the Greensburg and Pittsburgh districts, on Jan. 18 at Monroeville United Methodist Church. The scriptural text was I Corinthians 1:10-17.  
 

 

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