Sunday, September 10, 2006

10 September 2006 - Racial Justice Sunday

Racial Justice Sunday
(texts: James 2:1-17 and Mark 7:24-37)


Most of us probably couldn’t have missed the fact that tomorrow is the fifth anniversary of “9/11” – the attacks on The World Trade Centre in New York City and on the Pentagon when many hundreds of innocent people lost their lives.

I expect that this event was one of those events where mostly everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news. The events were terrible indeed.

I don’t know how many of you know that before training for the ministry I worked in the City of London in the pensions and insurance industry. On the 11th day of September 2001, 398 of my colleagues who worked in the World Trade Centre lost their lives.

I know someone from another company who had her life spared because she was on a business trip. But everybody with whom she worked closely lost their lives, including a young man of incredible promise and ability who had just turned thirty. How do you go to work – how do you carry on – when everyone you work with has been murdered overnight?

Let’s say it clearly and unequivocally: these acts were pure, unadulterated evil. There is absolutely no way that the murder of a single human life can be condoned let alone the murder of many hundreds; there is no way to justify such acts of horror. That anyone should claim to commit mass murder in the name of God is an outrage.

The Need for an Enemy

But what has 9/11 got to do with Racial Justice Sunday? I believe that the events of 9/11 were a sort of watershed that allowed many people in the West to believe something that they wanted to believe anyway. And that is a belief in the essential “badness” of people of Middle Eastern Origin and in the essential “badness” of people who profess the Muslim faith.

If you will permit me to wax political for the next thirty seconds, I’d even venture to suggest that this belief in the essential badness of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern Origin replaced a void that had been left when the Berlin Wall came down and we in the West no longer had to worry about the essential badness of those atheistic communists.

It’s as if that part of our human nature that needs to make an enemy of someone was at a loss. People in Western Society needed a group to hate. We needed an enemy. And, as a society, we filled that void and found our enemy in the Middle East. And then “9/11” came along, and then “7/7” in London come along, and we felt that we were confirmed in the justice and rightness of our views that these people are our enemies.

I have allowed myself – as a Christian preacher - to wax political for just a few moments because I believe that this isn’t just a political issue. I do believe that these issues are theological as well and that they are closely tied to the Gospel.

The Gospel and Racial Justice

If you have been asking yourself “What has Racial Justice Sunday got to do with the Gospel?” or “What has 9/11 got to do with the Gospel?”, my answer would be to point you to today’s two bible readings.

The message is quite explicitly stated in James’ letter: “you must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance”.

I believe that James’ instructions about “outward appearance” can legitimately include not discriminating against people because of their ethnic origin or religious convictions. It’s not so much about appearances as it is about believing that one sort of person is better than another sort of person.
James is warning Christians against getting caught up in the worldly idea that the best way to behave is to favour our own kind.

And I think that our gospel lesson is a clear indication that Jesus believed that people of all races were to be included in the Kingdom of God. I acknowledge that the first story – of the healing of the Gentile woman’s daughter – might appear at first glance to suggest that Gentiles are inferior to Jews in Jesus eyes, but I don’t think that’s the case.

I don’t have time to get into “why not” in this sermon, but I’m happy to share my reasons with anyone who is interested after the service.

For the moment, I want to point out two things: Firstly, Jesus does go on to heal the Gentile girl even after questioning her mother. Secondly, this story follows immediately after the story of the Pharisees challenging Jesus about his disciples not following the ritual purity laws.

In effect, Jesus and his disciples are being given notice to either decide whether they want to be in or out of the prevailing religious system that’s governed by the Pharisees. And I believe that Jesus makes a choice to remain outside the established religious system; Jesus choose to identify with the “out group”.

Jesus knows that God does not decide by external criteria who is inside the Kingdom and who is outside the Kingdom. Jesus knows that the Messiah has been sent to save all people, not just a selected in-group. Jesus knows that it is God’s intention to draw all people of all creeds and colours into the Kingdom.

I sometimes get the impression that there are people who think that this message of inclusivity is wishy-washy and bland and wet. And rather than this – allegedly – wet message, they want to hear to strong words of the Christian Gospel.

The Dignity of All People

Imagine for a minute, however, that you are a middle-aged woman born in Africa. You are strong and intelligent and you had the get-up and go to come over to the UK in order to try to make a better life for yourself and your family.

But like everyone in the village where you came from, you can’t read. You can’t read English nor can you read the two African languages that you speak. You do, by the way, nonetheless have a knowledge of the bible that puts most British Christians to shame.

Despite being motivated and intelligent, you are forced to work for a low wage in a menial job where tensions between other employees are running high.

One day, you come to work to find that one of your colleagues has been charged with murdering another.

Imagine that you are that woman. And imagine that God’s word says to you that you are a precious and dignified person whose life is worth just as much as the owner of the business, whose life is worth just as much as an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer.

If you are that woman, the message that God loves everyone equally and intends to draw all people into his Kingdom isn’t bland and wishy-washy. I daresay it’s exciting. And it’s something to get up and shout about. It’s something worth dancing around the church about.

Maybe we’re beginning to catch a glimpse of how Racial Justice Sunday is connected to the Gospel message. Maybe we’re even beginning to catch some of the excitement of the Gospel.

The message that God offers his forgiveness and therefore his Kingdom to all people really is an exciting message.

But this message is also a challenge to the darker side of our human nature. It’s a challenge to us because it’s part of our human nature to want to draw boundaries between who is “in” and who is “out”. It’s part of our human nature to want to designate certain people as being beyond the pale.

I believe that events such as “9/11” and “7/7” have had the effect of legitimizing the fears of many people in the West. It’s given us as a society an excuse to fall back into the temptation presented by our sinful nature. It’s an excuse to see people who are different from us as beyond the possibility of God’s love and forgiveness.

But the exciting message of the Gospel is that God’s invitation is offered to everyone. African Christians have an expression that comes from the Authorised Version of the bible – “God is no respecter of persons” It means that a person’s status in life is of no consequence to God.

Whoever you are, where ever you come from, you are a person of worth, a person of dignity and you are precious in God’s sight.

This is the message of the Gospel and it’s an exciting message indeed, which is why it’s a message of Good News.

The world may be caught up in the fear of people who are different. The world may say that it is legitimate to fear people of Middle Eastern origin, Muslims, black people or Eastern European asylum-seekers,

But, as Christians we have been given the truth and we are called to stand against all forms of racism and xenophobia.

All people are children of God and all people are made in the image of God.

Jesus died on behalf of all people, Jesus rose on behalf of all people and Jesus gave his teachings to all people.

To do justice is to be faithful to the core of the Gospel.

As Christians, we are called to believe in life before death as well as life after death.

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