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Isaiah 1.16-20

Deuteronomy 10.16-19

Revelation 7.9-12

James 2.1-9

JEDI:  Keeping Peace in the Universe

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Last Sunday I mentioned Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian who suggested the gospel could be reduced to the familiar, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Barth, who most will agree was the preeminent theologian of the twentieth century, also famously said that the good preacher climbs into the pulpit on Sunday morning with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  Fair warning:  I intend to put that theory to the test this morning.

Susan Lorincz was tired of Ajike Owns’ two sons, ages 12 and 10, playing in the empty lot next door.  She often yelled at them to go play somewhere else, and engaged in shouting matches with the boys’ mother.  Last Friday night after another altercation Lorincz threw a roller skate at the 10 year old, and chased both boys away while brandishing the tip of her umbrella.  When they told their mother what she had done, Owens went to Lorincz’s house to talk to her about threatening the boys.  Through her closed front door, Lorincz shot and killed Ajike Owens.  The twelve year old was standing next to his mother at the time.  Is the fact that Lorincz is white and Owens is black relevant to the situation?  If the boys and their mother were white would the encounter have turned out differently?  We will never know; Lorincz tried to use Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as an excuse, but the local sheriff saw no evidence to support her claim.  We grieve for the two motherless boys and for the shattered lives of both neighbor families.

A few mornings ago residents of Hartford’s racially mixed Trinity Street neighborhood awoke to find their lovely neighborhood mural defaced with swastikas and white supremacy symbols, including the number 88, street code for Heil Hitler, and the number 14, which refers to saving the world for white children.  A white 36 year old with a lengthy criminal record was charged with the crime and, given his history, is being held on $150,000 bail.

George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer three years ago, and for all the marches and demonstrations and policies urging us to do better, much has remained unchanged.  You may have read yesterday that the Department of Justice released a report following an investigation of the Minneapolis Police Department.  The report outlined a years-long pattern of unlawful racial discrimination and excessive use of force against people of color on the part of the MPD.  But whatever justice the report might bring to that city, tomorrow there will be another racially charged incident in another city.  “Cease to do evil,” the prophet Isaiah said in the opening words of his prophecy.  “Cease to do evil and learn to do good; seek justice, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  [And] come, let us reason together, says the Lord.”  On this cusp of the Juneteenth holiday, we would be wise to understand what it means to seek justice and rescue the oppressed.  It is clear that Isaiah is not urging us to seek justice for ourselves, but rather for those who remain victims of injustice.

“The United Church of Christ:  ordaining women since 1853.”  There is a reason these words were all over social media on Friday.  They were penned in response to the decision by the Southern Baptist Convention to restrict women from holding leadership positions in local churches, which is actually a reversal of a decision just two years ago to permit female leadership in those same churches.  The Convention went even further and expelled two of its largest churches because they are led by ordained female ministers:  the Saddleback Church in California and Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville.  The Rev. Linda Barnes Popham, the leader of the Fern Creek church for more than thirty years, pushed back against the SBC’s reasoning, which leans heavily on a passage from I Timothy that you and I looked at a few weeks ago and again just last Sunday, where Paul forbids the authority of women in the church.  As Rev. Popham told NPR,

“I certainly believe it’s a matter of biblical integrity.  However, I also know that the spirit gives illumination to our hearts and minds, and we’re able to interpret the scripture through the Spirit’s leading… There are passages such as those in I Timothy that our church would interpret differently than the SBC interprets them.  I just believe that we’re supposed to be under this great umbrella together, because we agree that Jesus Christ is Lord… But instead, the Bible has been used like a weapon by some of these folks, a weapon against those of us who believe it as strongly as they do.  We just interpret it differently.”

 Still, the Southern Baptist Convention apparently isn’t interested in interpretive differences any more than they are interested in equality for its male and female leadership.  I wonder if any of those male executives have read the Deuteronomy passage Deb read this morning, to cease their stubbornness and agree to worship a God who is impartial and shows no favor.  Of course, even if it were to come from the Bible, the fact that a female leader of our church read it would probably be enough for them to discredit.  It appears that in the SBC, to borrow from George Orwell, some are more equal than others.

The Marshall Simonds Middle School in Burlington, Massachusetts began its Pride celebration last week by decorating hallways and classrooms with multicolored balloons and streamers.  Students were invited to wear rainbow colors to school for Friday June 2.  But a handful of older students marched through the hallways of the school, tore down the rainbow flags, stickers and streamers while chanting “U.S.A. are my pronouns.”  (Those eighth graders might want to stick around for remedial English…)  A day that was meant to be a celebration of diversity deteriorated into one that was charged with destruction and mean-spirited invective.  To her credit, Marshall Simonds’ Principal Cari Perchase told her students and staff, “I am truly sorry that a day that was meant for you to celebrate your identity turned into a day of intolerance.  Schools are supposed to  a safe place for ALL students and faculty.”  Superintendent of Schools Eric Conti added, “Like any spirit day celebration… participation is optional.  Respectful behavior across the entire student body, however, is non-negotiable.”  As you and I observed last week, we probably don’t have to wonder very hard about where the disruptive students learned their behavior.  Remember, in the closing chapters of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, God looks out on the multitude of the righteous and marvels at its diversity:  “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, [all] standing before the throne.”  It is reminiscent of the interfaith, multi-lingual, interracial, multi-ethnic crowd who gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost and were blessed by the Holy Spirit of God.  God is not a God of discrimination; if the vision of Revelation is any indication, God is a God of inclusion.

And speaking of inclusion, college and university administrators are on tenterhooks this weekend in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s imminent decision on Affirmative Action.  Both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina have been sued by a group called Students for Fair Admission because of the ways the schools factor race into the admissions process.  The fifty year practice has faced multiple challenges over the course of its application, and it seems as though the present court is prepared to eliminate it.  The policy has always walked a fine line.  Racial quotas have long been forbidden in admissions, but universities have nevertheless been allowed to take race into consideration as a method of insuring a diverse and inclusive campus community.  As Forbes has reported, Harvard has demonstrated that removing race as a consideration would reduce Hispanic enrollment from 14% to 9%, and African American enrollment from 14% to 6%.  In a friend of the court filing, the University of Michigan reported that when it adopted race-neutral admissions policies, African American enrollment decreased by 44%.  It is a thorny issue, and I believe most people of goodwill can support an inclusive campus community while still wondering if including racial balance as an admission factor is the right way to do it.  The letter of James raises the delicate question of inclusion in the second chapter: 

“If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves..?  Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters, has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?” 

Then comes the kicker:  “Is it not the rich who oppress you?  Is it not they who drag you into court?”  I think I will let James’ question remain a rhetorical one as we wrestle with the very real questions of justice, equality, diversity and inclusion.

It seems to me we need to keep having these conversations if we are to achieve a world of universal peace and harmony.  In fact when I looked up the definition of the first part of my sermon title, I read that George Lucas identifies the Jedi of the Star Wars franchise as the “warrior-monks who keep peace in the universe.”  So we might say the same thing about this morning’s JEDI – that is, Justice, Equality, Diversity, Inclusion – as a way of finding God’s peace in our troubled world.

So what do you think?  Was Karl Barth correct?  Is there value to standing in the pulpit holding the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other?  I have tried my best to do that this morning as a way of demonstrating, if we read the Bible with open minds and hearts, it will always be as fresh as tomorrow’s news.

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