Sunday, December 28, 2014

Preaching Difficult Subjects, Like Racism

A sermon, including: What is jazz? and a story from NPR
Text: Matthew 2:13-23 [especially 2:16]

People often ask why is this terrible story in the Bible?
First, There is no evidence from any source
that Herod had children under two years old killed as is told in this story.
The whole story is a legend, told to make a point, or several.
First, this story answers the question, How did Jesus come to live in Nazareth?
Second, it is a reminder that the power of the Roman Empire,
the authorities, were threatened by Jesus and his teaching.
Preachers mostly avoid this text. Why don’t preachers preach about certain topics?
And why is it that there is so much about politics in the Bible
when we don’t want politics in our churches?
[When we read about Herod or Rome, or centurions, or the crucifixion, we are talking politics.]
This is a sermon with lots of questions.

The whole story is meant to make us think and feel about Jesus as Messiah.
One thing to notice is that Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt to escape Herod.
They took Jesus to Egypt just as the Hebrews had gone to Egypt many years before.
It ties the story to particular passages in the prophets,
since the author of Matthew is always trying to show
that everything about Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy.

The story of death surrounding Jesus’ birth
signifies that the child as an adult will be crucified.
Such tragedy so often seems to accompany happier events in life.
And the story holds meaning for us today because it is a reminder to us
of the great tragedy and suffering in life, much of it terrible and pointless.
This story is called “the slaughter of the innocents,”
and there is no shortage of stories in the news of the slaughter of innocents
        – in our cities, on our streets, and in family homes here in the US;
in towns and deserts of Syria and Iraq, in Yemen, in Mexico, Nigeria,
                        and too many other places.
In the US alone there have been a total of 17000 homicides this year so far.
(We are not the most violent nation.)
There have been more than 12000 deaths by guns so far this year.
We assume that most of the victims were innocent,
but then there was no trial for those who might be considered guilty.
The slaughter of the innocents is real and contemporary; not just in the past or elsewhere.

A few brave pastors did preach on this when it came up in the lectionary
2 years ago just after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, when 20 children were killed.
It seemed more relevant then.

Of course preachers don’t want to talk about gun violence either.
The only times anyone walked out on a sermon I preached was when
I spoke about crazy people with guns when John Lennon was killed,
and again later when Reagan and Brady were wounded.
Why don’t preachers preach on certain topics?
You can imagine.

Fortunately, there is a lot less violent crime than 10, 20, 40 years ago.
And with DNA testing since 1989, 20 men on death row have been released.
They were exonerated from having anything to do with the crimes for which they were convicted.
A lot of innocents have been let out of prison.
300 prisoners have been released from prison after DNA found them not guilty.
They had served a total of 4,337 years in prison.
2/3 were African-American, but Blacks are only 13% of the population. Injustices abound.
How were these men convicted if they were in fact innocent?

One reason might be that prisons are full because people were and are afraid.
Studies have shown again and again, that if you watch local television news,
you will have an exaggerated sense of violence around you.
We fear things happening to our or our loved ones
that wouldn’t actually happen in a million years. [The murder rate is 2 in a million people each year.]
But there are many people in the news business and in politics who want us to be afraid.
Fear is a terrible thing.
The angels tell us Xmas eve, “Fear not.” Jesus grown up tells us “Don’t be afraid!”

One more thing preachers avoid. Preachers don’t want to preach about racism.
Reading American history I have discovered racism is the most prevalent,
foremost, biggest, most important, most destructive, most dehumanizing,
factor in American history and current American life.
Most of us white people don’t want to know this. We want to deny it.
We don’t want to believe that we are privileged,
that we receive favored treatment just because we are white.

I have been thinking a lot about racism because it was in the news
while I was reading books on the history of jazz.
I didn’t think it would be an education in race and racism, but it is.

A big question in music is What is jazz?
[Bernstein in his Young Peoples’ Concerts 60 years ago
        didn’t give a complete answer]
I have learned that jazz started on slave ships and in cotton fields down south.
In the 1700's these slaves found themselves ripped from their homes,
barely surviving terrible experiences on slave ships from Africa,
then living on plantations with strangers.
The slaves on a given plantation were from different tribes.
They all had different traditions, and had to learn from each other.
They had different traditions of singing and drumming,
and so they borrowed from each other.
As they adopted the Christian religion of their masters,
they mostly weren’t allowed to learn to read or to have drums,
so they sang and clapped and danced
to express their experience of God and Jesus and their hope for liberation.
They sang about their troubles and prayed in song.
Because their lives were so bad, they sang about their troubles
and they sang about being happy.
All that sad and happy music became the blues.
After slavery they moved into cities, like New Orleans,
where they picked up trumpets and clarinets
                and other instruments.
They took European music and added their bent notes,
         and flat 3rds and 7ths and 5ths and 6ths.
With the introduction of phonographs and recordings
they created music that drove White people crazy
                 after 1900.
When a few White folks started playing and singing it
similar to ways that the Blacks did,
                  White folks began to accept it.

Nearly every popular song for the past 100 years has
        been a rip off of some Black musician’s creativity.
What is jazz?
Jazz is the music of suffering people from Africa
which expresses pain and joy, given to all of us.
That’s what it is.
It is their lives – distilled, poured out, and drunk up.
None of us can live easily with too much suffering of the          innocents around us, so we need that music.

I end this sermon with a story,
         about Christmas and questions, among other things.
This story was told on the radio program, “This American Life.”
The show was called “Kid Logic.”  The story was told by a father. He said:
It all began at Christmas when my daughter was four. “What is Christmas?” she asked.
So I explained that this was the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
We bought a kid’s Bible and had readings from it at bedtime. She loved them.
She wanted to know all about Jesus. We read about his birth and his teachings.
She would ask constantly what a phrase meant.
She especially liked “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”
And we would talk about these old words and what they meant.

One day we drove past a church with an enormous crucifix. “What’s that?” she asked.
I had never told her that part of the story.
So I told her, “That’s Jesus.  I haven’t told you the end of his story.”

I told her how he ran afoul of the Roman government,
how his message was so radical and unnerving to the authorities of that time that they killed him;
that they came to conclude that he had to die. His message was too troublesome.

In mid January, her pre-school had Martin Luther King Day off.
So I knocked off work that day and thought we would play.
At breakfast I plopped the newspaper on the kitchen table.
The Arts section was on top with a huge drawing of Martin Luther King by a ten year old.
“Who’s this?” my daughter asked. “That’s Martin Luther King,” I replied,
“And he is why you are out of school today, in celebration of his birthday and his life.”
“So who was he?” she asked. “He was a preacher,” I answered.
“For Jesus?” she asked. “Yeah, he was,” I said.

Now it’s very hard to explain these things to a four year old.
It’s the first time they hear anything. You have to be careful how you phrase everything.

So I said, “He was a preacher and he had a message.” “What was it?” she asked.
“Well, he said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about this for a minute and said “That’s what Jesus said.”
“That’s right,” I said.  “It’s sort of like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you.’”
She thought for a minute and then asked, “Did they kill him, too?”

The seeds of Jesus’ life and teaching bear fruit, again and again.
May the result continue to be not only surprising but transformative of our lives.