Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Today’s gospel lesson from Luke about respect, honor, poverty, and power comes at a time in our nation when issues of respect, honor, poverty, and power seem to be as tense as ever. And on Thursday, this gospel lesson and the tense political and social realities of our nation intersected in a way that I hope has forever changed me.
On Thursday I attended the “Symposium on Race, Faith, & Power” hosted by the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network – a community organizing committee of Indy-area clergy who work to create connections in neighborhoods, register voters, and advocate for city and state-wide legislation that would benefit those who otherwise have little or no influence over such matters.
The keynote speaker was Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould – a pastor from Missouri. She told us about how her mother had played an active role in the Civil Rights Movement in and around Selma, Alabama; how her mother proudly bore a gash on her leg from an encounter with armed police during a protest. Pastor Gould was raised believing that because of the valiant and sacrificial efforts of those on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, including her mother, that black people in America had, in fact, overcome – as their anthem “We Shall Overcome” so beautifully guided them through the struggle.
Living in an integrated society, she went on to earn considerable education, an adequate income, and, by virtue of her role as pastor, a degree of status in her St. Louis suburb. She had pictures in her office of her with significant political leaders including the Governor of Missouri. She thought she had power.
On August 9, 2014, in Ferguson (another St. Louis suburb) an 18-year old unarmed black young man named Michael Brown was murdered* by a police officer and his body was left uncovered in the middle of a street for four hours. Outrage and protests ensued. Rev. Gould put on her clergy stole and high heels and spent her evenings literally pulling young black men and women away from police lines. The young people saying, “The police are going to kill us anyways, what does it matter whether it happens tonight or tomorrow?” One by one she would grab them and tell them, “You’re not dying tonight. God loves you and together we’re going to make this right.”
She told one story of a young man who told her with desperation in his voice, “My car is over there” and pointed to an area behind the police with their assault rifles, riot gear, and tanks. He said he had arrived to join the protest earlier in the day, but the police line had moved forward since his arrival. Rev. Gould, in her clergy stole and high heels walked toward the police line with the young man and tried to explain the situation. She was met with an explicative-laden tirade from the officers who repeatedly told her to “get the F*#@ back" while viewing her over the barrel of assault rifles.
It was in that moment that she realized she was, and always had been, powerless. She had grown up thinking that the key to obtaining power in a racially-integrated society was to be respectable – to look and behave the right way (that is, in accordance with the dominate white culture) so that nothing bad would happen to her. But in reality, her education, her clergy stole, her income, her political photo-ops, and her high heels merely masked the reality that as a person of color she had no real power against the institutionalized structures of racism.
After telling this story, she asked the clergy at the symposium to gather around the small tables and share stories of when our struggle against systemic racism was ignited. I was surrounded by three older African-American pastors. Pastor Leroy talked about how as a young boy in 1950 he witnessed violent protests when the University of Missouri enrolled its first African-American student. Pastor Daniel talked about the shotgun blasts from the guns of white supremacists hat would periodically cut through his home. Pastor Abe laughed and said that because he’s 87 years old he couldn’t even begin to recount his experiences with racism, much less remember when and how it started. Then he turned to me and said, “I’d rather hear from this young man.”
I made the mistake of looking Pastor Abe in the eyes, which nearly prevented me from getting the words out of my mouth. I said, “This right here. This is when it became real. I’m a white 35 year-old man, a religious leader, and I have never done anything to address racism. I'm sorry.”
It’s not like I haven’t thought about it.
I knew it was odd that I never had a black classmate until I entered college. I also knew it was odd that I attended a college in a town next to Gary, Indiana but could go weeks at a time without encountering a black student.
While living in Pasadena, California my wife and I were setting up an evening out with a couple that Lindsey had befriended from her work. The husband, who is black, told me he’d prefer not to meet in Pasadena because he would often get pulled over by police in the city. “For what?” I asked. He gave me the look like, “Wow, you really don’t know?”
I remember conversing over dinner with two clergy colleagues from my Wabash Pastoral Leadership program who are both female African-American pastors. The conversation touched on issues of racial realities in Indiana and I got to the point where I said, “Just tell me what you expect me to do about it.” They responded, “Just listen to our stories.”
I’ve been following closely the social media postings of a friend and college in ministry, Jason Chesnut, who has been involved in the work for racial justice in Baltimore, particularly in light of the lack of justice for Freddie Grey. I even hit the “like” button on most of his posts.
I know Pastor Mark has preached on the topic of race and I've thought they were great sermons.
I recall the conversation with Dr. Leah Gunning Francis at Christian Theological Seminary, who spoke to our Wabash group last month around the topic of criminal justice. The tears welled up in her eyes when she spoke about how terrified she is for her two black sons who are almost old enough to earn their driver’s license. One of her sons has an Autism-Spectrum diagnosis and often waves his hands excitedly in the air – a motion that an anxious police officer could see as a threat if their car with two young black men inside would be pulled over for any reason…or no reason whatsoever.
I notice the casual and unchallenged references in conversations and social media referring to Cumberland and East Washington as “the hood.” I lament the lack of diversity in our schools. The presence of so many Confederate flags in and around town.
I’ve thought about all of this before. But I didn’t get it until I realized Dr. Gould is a pastor who is literally saving lives by telling young disillusioned black men and women that they have something to live for. I've never told a black person they have something to live for. I didn’t get it until I was given a seat at the table, in the presence of African-American pastors bearing the presence of Christ in the poorest parts of Indianapolis. I didn’t get it until one of these pastors invited me into the conversation.
This past Thursday was not the first time that I realized that I am part of the problem. I am a racist. I know this. It was, however, the first time I truly realized I am called to be part of the solution.
This is what it means to make a place at the table, to exalt the humble and humble the exalted. This is what it means to give a banquet and invite those who cannot repay you.
Jesus’ words are not Martha Stewart-like directions for proper etiquette. Jesus’ words are a recipe for changed hearts and holy conversation.
This isn’t a sermon that will end with me telling you to go and do anything any differently than when you came in this morning. It’s just my story about deciding to take Jesus’ words seriously and being open to understanding that I’ve been a part of a very big problem and I’m tired of ignoring it.
If I truly believe in a God who loves unconditionally – a God who created everything in the world and calls it “good” – a God who by definition of the Trinity is a relationship of united differences…then it’s time to make that faith manifest in my actions in the presence of evil in the world today.
* the word "murdered" is a controversial label given that the police officers were exonerated of any wrongdoing; and yet, Michael Brown's death is perceived by many as a murder, nonetheless. My reflection on the topic is rooted in the context of this gathering of clergy and this is the word that was used, which is one reason why I include it here.