(Matthew 25: 34-46)
Facebook, at times, reminds me of that game we played as kids where you would sit in a circle and one person would start by whispering something into the ear of the person next to them and it would get passed around the circle until it came back to the original sender who would then repeat what was just whispered to him or her and then tell everyone what was originally said. And we would all laugh and giggle at how far from the original statement it was and, often times, very silly. I’m sure we played it on Wednesday evenings at Methodist Youth Fellowship, MYF.
And, Facebook blew up last week with one of those exaggerations. It started out with the suggestion that the song Lift Every Voice and Sing be sung prior to the beginning of a few sporting events and other major gatherings. That it be sung before the National Anthem, hence the ensuing firestorm. Why the big deal you ask? Well, when word got out it was known as the “Black National Anthem” the “purists” recoiled in horror. We already have a National Anthem for everyone they cried. If the blacks get one, then where will it stop? Will we have to sing a National Anthem for every other minority? As it got passed around the Facebook circle it quickly morphed into being required singing before every event, preceding the National Anthem, to actually replacing the National Anthem. The purists began making threats to boycott any event where the Black National Anthem was going to be sung and would refuse to support any team that allowed it to be sung.
Of course, I’ve resisted the urge to tell them that the song is a hymn that is in our United Methodist Hymnal and that it’s a song of praise. I mean, who could have a problem with singing a Methodist hymn before a sporting event, especially if you profess to love Jesus and football! The song was originally written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson over 100 years ago. The poem was performed for the first time by 500 school children in celebration of President Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, 1900 in Jacksonville, Florida. The poem was eventually set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and was soon adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as its official song. It is one of the most cherished songs of the African American Civil Rights Movement and is often referred to as the Black National Anthem.
Verse One goes: Lift every voice and sing Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us, Facing the rising sun of our new day begun Let us march on till victory is won. It’s a verse about the harmonies of liberty where everyone enjoys unfettered access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a verse that gives a nod to God for the faith that the dark past has taught them, and a song that sings of the hope that the present day brings them, and that they will march until the victory is won. That doesn’t sound too objectionable, in fact, it sounds downright Christian.
Verse two continues: Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chastening rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed? We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, Out from the gloomy past, Till now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast. Well, it’s no bombs bursting at night or by dawn’s early light for sure. But it does acknowledge a dark past where no one came to their aid, kind of reminiscent of the days when Moses led the Israelites out of bondage when they were enslaved in Egypt. An acknowledgement that God heard their cries and sent them someone to lead them out of their gloomy past to freedom. Doesn’t sound too unreasonable. In fact, it’s kind of biblical.
Verse three concludes: God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand. True to our God, True to our native land. A grateful acknowledgement that God has always been with them, bringing them far and leading them to the light. A profession that God has kept them from straying from the path and that they have not been distracted by what the world offers, pledging to remain true to God and their native land, America. Pretty radical stuff if you ask me.
I mean, these are people who are singing praises to God for seeing them through some incredibly difficult and dark times, and who only want the benefit of the claim that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that are among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
How would Jesus feel about us, as a people, working to deny some of his children, the least of these, the basic essentials of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? I think our scripture reading for this morning gives us a pretty good idea. When the king, Jesus, comes to sit on his throne, he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the goats from the sheep. Spoiler alert. You don’t want to be a goat. To the sheep, those blessed by his Father, he will tell them to come and accept their inheritance because when he was hungry they gave him something to eat, when he was thirsty he was given drink, when he was a stranger they took him in, when he needed clothes he was clothed, when he was sick he was tended to, and when he was in prison they came to visit him. The righteous, the sheep, asked him when they had done such things to which Jesus replied; I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. Then he turns to those on his left, the goats, and says; Depart from me, you who are cursed, into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. And he points out that when he was hungry, thirsty, alone, needed clothes, sick and in jail, they ignored him, pretended he didn’t even exist. Of course, they indignantly wanted to know what proof he had that they had not done such things and Jesus replied; I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.
As many times as I have read this passage and preached on it, what stuck with me this time was Jesus’ pointed remark about what they, people who knew better, did not do, their act of blatant omission. It’s like he’s saying that they saw the injustices, the wrongs, and although they may or may not have been directly responsible for the hurtful action, by their silence or acquiescence, they are just as wrong in the eyes of God. Yeah, I know, that’s pretty harsh but it’s undeniable. And, I’ll admit, there have been times in my life when I’ve been a witness to something wrong and I stood silent, pretended I didn’t hear it or see it. It’s easy with 20/20 hindsight to look back and say that if you had been in that situation you would have spoken up, taken action. And the purists are the first ones to proclaim that they aren’t racist, in fact, they don’t have a racist bone in their body and some of their best friends are minorities. Who is more of a disappointment to Jesus?
So, we have a pretty good idea where Jesus stands on not lifting up our brothers and sisters, but what is the United Methodist Church’s position? Paragraph 162 A, Rights of Racial and Ethnic Persons-Racism, of our Social Principles says; Racism is the combination of the power to dominate by one race over other races and a value system that assumes that the dominant race is innately superior to the others. Racism includes both personal and institutional racism. Personal racism is manifested through the individual expressions, attitudes, and/or behaviors that accept the assumptions of a racist value system and that maintain the benefits of this system. Institutional racism is the established social pattern that supports implicitly or explicitly the racist value system. Racism, manifested as sin, plagues and hinders our relationship with Christ, inasmuch as it is antithetical to the gospel itself. In many cultures white persons are granted unearned privileges and benefits that are denied to persons of color. We oppose the creation of a racial hierarchy in any culture. Racism breeds racial discrimination. We define racial discrimination as the disparate treatment and lack of full access and equity in resources, opportunities, and participation in the Church and in society based on race or ethnicity. Therefore we recognize racism as sin and affirm the ultimate and temporal worth of all persons. We rejoice in the gifts that particular ethnic histories and cultures bring to our total life. We commit as the Church to move beyond symbolic expressions and representative models that do not challenge unjust systems of power and access.
So, in the spirit of transparency, it is important to acknowledge that at one time in our Methodist history we were a separate but equal church. We had a separate conference for our African-American Methodist churches and it wasn’t until the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement, that the Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church was officially abolished in 1964, integrating them into the church. You can imagine the heated discussions held around conference tables during those turbulent times about whether or not it was acceptable for blacks and whites to worship together. They are equal! Why would they want to worship with us? They’ve got their own preachers, their own churches, their own hymns. I’m sure they’re happier with the way it is. Sure they’re separate, but they’re equal.
The point of our scripture lesson is that God will separate his obedient followers from pretenders and unbelievers because the real evidence of our belief is the way we act and treat others. To treat all persons we encounter as if they are Jesus is no easy task. What we do for others demonstrates what we really think about Jesus’ words to us; feed the hungry, give the homeless a place to stay, look after the sick and so forth. Now, some people justify their actions by saying that Jesus was only talking about these kinds of people, his own people who were down and out. But John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist denomination, said in his notes on this passage; But let us likewise remember to do good to all men. We have to ask ourselves; how do our actions separate us from the pretenders and unbelievers?
Jesus doesn’t mince words and is pretty tough on those self-righteous hypocrites and pretty much washes his hands of them, banishing them. He has no use for them what-so-ever. Even though they didn’t do anything overtly, it was their acts of omission that troubled him the most and he took it very personally.
We have no excuse to neglect those who have deep needs, and we cannot hand over this responsibility to the church or to the government. Jesus demands our personal involvement in caring for the needs of others. The focus of the parable is that we should love every person and serve anyone we can, even if they can’t do anything for us in return. Such love for others glorifies God by reflecting our love for him as we lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty. Until then, let us march on till victory is won.
Please pray with me.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by Thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand. True to our God, true to our native land. In Jesus name, we pray, Amen.