May 21, 2017, Are We Thermometers? Or Thermostats? – guest speaker Carroll Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000024
I Peter 3:13-17 “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.”
There is surprisingly little said about persecution in the Bible. Jesus did warn that persecution would be a fact of life for us. The book of Acts details a few examples. Paul mentions it several times but only once does he teach specifically about how to deal with a hostile government. And there is this passage in Peter’s first letter. Today is one of those rare occasions when we will talk about dealing with the higher authorities of this world.
Peter said four things in this passage about persecution by the powers that be. If they persecute us, we will be blessed. We should always be prepared to explain why we have hope in the Kingdom of God and not a kingdom of this world. Never be afraid of them. And be gentle and respectful in our response to them. There is persecution of Christians in many places in the world today, but it is very far away from us here in Norwood. We should always pray for them, and help if we can, but it is more important to understand how Christians are persecuted here in America. I am not talking about what so many Christian speakers talk about. Oh, my, they are making our children learn evolution in public schools! Oh, my, the college professors are laughing at our faith! Oh, me, oh, my, woe is us!
If Peter or Paul could be with us today I think they’d say, “How did Christians get so whiny?” The truth is that being offended, or being made uncomfortable, or being inconvenienced is not the persecution Peter had in mind here. But some people are being seriously persecuted in America and have taken Peter’s words in this passage to heart. The man who comes to mind is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I am nearly finished reading his book, Why We Can’t Wait, about the strikes in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. I lived in Alabama at the time it was happening, but I was just a 12 year old white boy with problems of my own. I didn’t care about the outside world. Anyone who truly wants to understand what is going on in America should read this book. It is part of our history. I want to read a passage or two to show you how carefully Dr. King had read the Bible.
“(we) would extend an appeal for volunteers to serve in our nonviolent army. We made it clear that we would not send anyone out to demonstrate who had not convinced himself and us that he could accept and endure violence without retaliating. At the same time we urged the volunteers to give up any possible weapons that they might have on their persons.” They were arming themselves, not with weapons of the flesh to fight back but with spiritual weapons to suffer, if it were God’s will, as Peter says. The demonstrations were a way of giving a defense of the hope that was in them, and they were kept gentle and respectful. Here is part of a pledge that all demonstrators had to sign: to meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus; to remember always that they were seeking justice and reconciliation, not victory; to walk and talk in the manner of love; to pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free; to sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free; to observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy; to seek to perform regular service for others and for the world; to refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
And they did encounter violence. Police dogs were turned on children, the elderly, unarmed men and women. People were beaten even though they did not resist. People like you, people like your children and grandchildren, were attacked and not only by KKK members, but by the police. This is not “fake news”. It was on live television at the time; you can watch the archival films, if you can stomach the things we did to each other. The brutality shocked the rest of the world; everyone got a glimpse into the dark side of American life. You may not believe this could happen here, but I saw it. I grew up with it.
But the daily violence black Americans had to suffer all their lives had been far worse. “When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’, when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ … when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next.”
Dr. King suffered for doing what was right – imprisoned, beaten, and finally assassinated. We like to talk about how much progress has been made, and it is true there has been some. But not much. There is still violent persecution of our own brothers and sisters in our own country by our own government and it is getting worse. Ferguson, or Texas, or New York City, or in countless other cities when there are reports of violence by policemen against unarmed black people, you want to dismiss it. But it is as true today as it was in Dr. King’s day. In many cities and through the South for more than a hundred years the police have been enlisted on the side of brutality and evil.
Here in St. Lawrence County we lead sheltered lives. Except on campus, there is hardly any diversity to give us pause. We are ignorant of what goes on in the rest of the country and it is nicer that way, isn’t it? We don’t want to believe that our country is capable of such injustice. It doesn’t happen here, we think, so we dismiss the disturbing reports of police violence as fake news but it’s common sense, really. A man whose heart is filled with hate and evil does not become a good man just because he puts on an honorable uniform. We choose not to know the kind of racial injustice that infects our country. We are like the person who secretly knows he has cancer but won’t go to a doctor. Eventually it is too late.
I am really interested in colonial American history and read all I can about it. Colonial Americans had been treated as inferior by the British for a long time and resentment was boiling over. They had no say in their government. They had to pay taxes that seemed to target them unjustly. They were despised by the British. The protests before the Revolution were really a Colonial Lives Matter movement, though they didn’t say it like that. And the British simply ignored them, would not listen to their grievances and suddenly it was too late. But I want you to understand something critically important. The grievances of colonial Americans against the British – “No taxation without representation” – were trivial in comparison with the grievances of black Americans against white Americans. Slavery, then de facto slavery, and violent oppression ever since. Patrick Henry said it, “Give me liberty or give me death”, and now black Americans are saying it too. The question is, will we ignore them until it is too late?
We here in the north country are simply ignorant of the true evil that is being done, even in New York state. It is so horrible I think you would have had to live in the midst of it to believe it. I did live in the midst of it. My family was part of it. Racism is all through my heritage in a way that it is not in yours. I know it from the inside. Learning about it has had the same effect on me that it might have on any of us if we discovered that our mother had been a prostitute and our true father was a customer. That’s how racism makes me feel.
Some of you may have heard this story before, but bear with me. When I was 14 my father had gone through a year of unemployment and finally got a job in Georgia. We were pretty strapped for cash and I needed to get a summer job to help buy groceries. My dad had a friend who was the foreman on a nearby peach orchard and he got me a job. I was a “nickel pitcher”. Picking the peaches was done by black people who were brought to the orchards in school buses – school buses that would never take their kids to school. Whole families came, kids to grandparents, people who had to work and could not get decent jobs. They worked all day in the Georgia summer. The owner didn’t think it was necessary to provide bathroom facilities for the workers. My job was to stand in a central row for the tractors and wait for the workers to bring in buckets of peaches to dump in the central bin to be picked up later. When they did I was to throw them a nickel for their pay. And easy job, but I was almost fired once. The boss caught me handing the nickels to them. They weren’t supposed to think they were people, like us, like me. We had to keep them in their places. This was two years after the Birmingham strike.
I was 14. I was disturbed but it was easier to not think about it. The owner of that farm was the state senator from our district, but you know he didn’t represent the rights of those workers when he went to Atlanta. The foreman of the farm eventually quit that job and took a job as deputy in that town. You know he didn’t treat black people as real citizens. Not much changed after the Civil Rights Act. We patted ourselves on the back for being good people and let things go on mostly as they had before. It’s what we do.
In the confession every Sunday we confess things we have done and things we have left undone. One of the things we tend to leave undone is learning about the true nature of the evil that seeps through our country. Our sin is that we live in a democracy. The Roman Christians had no power to change the way things were, but we do. Because we have the right to choose our government, we have the responsibility to stop our government when it does evil.
I will close with one more quote from Dr. King: “There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being disturbers of the peace and outside agitators. But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were a colony of heaven called to obey God rather than man. Things are different now.” Well, the powers that be are not disturbed by the Church anymore. They use us to get elected and count on us looking away when they are cruel.
I think I would summarize Dr. King’s message to white America from another reading for today, Acts 17: 23-31. It is a bit long to quote in full, especially since I have gone overtime already. Paul is addressing the Areopagus in Athens and begins by pointing to the altar with the inscription “To an unknown god”. What they worship as unknown he proclaims to them, and points out how their idolatry was in ignorance of God’s true nature. Then he concludes by saying, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed…” It could just as well have been America he was talking to. Our history shows that Jesus Christ is an unknown God to America. Dr. King came in His name and pointed out the deliberate ignorance we white Americans have chosen in regard to the oppression of black Americans. God has overlooked that time of willful ignorance but now He commands all of white people to repent because He has fixed a day on which He will judge America. Let us therefore repent.
“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” Let’s start thinking of ourselves as a colony of heaven. Let’s start thinking of ourselves not as a thermometer of the world but as the thermostat that keeps it right.