By Nate D. Ledbetter | Homily for MLK Sunday 1.17.21 Scripture: Phil 2:1-11 MSG
Video: Jesus Wasn’t White Mennonite Mission Network Note: Among those who identify as White, we are not the center of the story. I claim no expertise as I'm one among many on life's journey. +++ Way back when before the beginning of time, eternity remained as it is right now. God’s forever Kingdom was and still is before time, right now, and beyond time. We live in the middle part—the time right now. When time runs out for all of us, eternity will live on as it always has. What does our faith have to say to our moment right now? Where does this generation find itself? Dr. Cornel West says, “The sleepwalking is slowly but surely coming to a close as more and more fellow citizens realize that the iron cage they inhabit—maybe even a golden cage for the affluent—is still a form of bondage….” Anthony de Mello once shared: “There was once a woman who was religious and devout and filled with love for God. Each morning she would go to church. And on her way children would call out to her, beggars would accost her, but so immersed was she in her devotions that she did not even see them. Now one day she walked down the street in her customary manner and arrived at the church just in time for service. She pushed the door, but it would not open. She pushed it again harder, and found the door was locked. Distressed at the thought that she would miss service for the first time in years and not knowing what to do, she looked up. And there, right before her face, she found a note pinned to the door. It said, “I’m out there!” This God “out there” Awakens us from our sleepwalking, the One who quickens, corrects, guides, protects—the One who dances with us in the rain, who covers us from the heat and in the cool of the day. The Presence of God holds all things together in a universe beyond our comprehension—a Being that the ancient writers called “Yahweh.”
This is the same God of the Torah whose presence spoke reality into existence, the Originator, Innovator, and Author of spoken word. This is the same God of the Exodus whose presence brought the people up and out of slavery, a faithful God of remembrance.
Lisa Sharon Harper speaks to the reality that this is the same God Who carried the ancient faith of the oppressed, enslaved, and wounded and remains the bedrock of so many who still inspire faith forward for today. So, I implore those who are tempted to leave faith in the name of justice to follow faith leaders on the margins whose lives speak louder than words.
This is the same God who sings over humanity, the One who hears the ache of songwriters and poets who speak of pain and lament and offers healing balm in our broken story. This is the same God who spoke among the prophets who commands a commitment to justice, care for the poor, fatherless, immigrant and widow.
This is a Triune God of community—Father, Son, and Spirit, a God of forgiveness who initiates mercy and compassion, a Holy God whose grace is available to all people. This is a God of Mystery who can never fully be described or understood, but One who can be known. This God is known as Jesus the Christ who was born a refugee, an immigrant, who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Nazareth.
The global faith tradition of which we belong is an invitation to consider the variety of qualities and experiences of Jesus, the Divine Neighbor:
+ He had no place to lay his head
+ He was ruthlessly criticized by religious and political leaders
+ He was accused of being a drunk and a glutton and was often misunderstood
+He recruited an eclectic group of friends to spend time with him and experience life with him
+ He affirmed the prophets, the empowerment of women, and marginalized voices
+ He was mocked, despised, abandoned, and experienced deep loss and trauma
+ He felt the full range of human emotions—joy, sorrow, loss, anger, fear, and familiar with pain
+ He was tempted, incarcerated, beaten by the police, walked death row
+ He chose to die, was crucified, and rose to life against all odds
Dr. Gardner C. Taylor reminded us that Jesus did all of this “in his own clothes.” (Matt 27) This is the Global Jesus who wants to encounter every person with love, forgiveness, and deliverance. This is the Jesus who sees every individual and creates one new diverse family – the beloved community. This is the Jesus who frees individuals, renovates our hearts, renews our mind, heals families, liberates communities, and challenges oppressive systems.
Jesus, the Son of the Triune God, is a Portrait of the Beatitudes and the fulfillment of the ancient law and prophets. Jesus is the New Adam, the New Moses ushering in a New Exodus, and is more than a good man or prophet. Jesus is the Messiah who laid his life down for the world and alive now to save us from ourselves and our sins without judgement.
Jesus welcomes all people everywhere to find rest and life in him – regardless of affiliation, gender, identity, status or creed and breaks down every barrier that divides God and humankind. Jesus of Nazareth is the One I want to listen to and follow.
A friend of mine often says, “It is what it is, and it ain’t what it ain’t.” The call of the church now is to name what is and what isn’t. We must name our realities (plural). We’re called to uphold the joy of justice or our society suffers. Joy roams freely when our house is in order. It’s been said that we are only as healthy as our neighbor.
When we envision Jesus, what do we imagine? While the Scriptures don’t say much about the appearance of Jesus, why do so many of the common images of Jesus depict Whiteness? What about other Global expressions of Jesus? Would we welcome Brown, Asian, Latino or Black Jesus into our homes? Jesus is a person of color. The Global BIPOC Jesus is the One I want to listen to and follow.
Philippians 2 describes the posture and humility of how Jesus emptied himself and became one of us. We remember that all of this happened in a particular time, culture, and place. The Text indicates, "If you have" or “since you have” or perhaps even “since you know.” Let’s build upon what we know. We know that our consolation, comfort, fellowship, and affection is found in Christ, and we know that our unity is built upon the common ground we have in Christ. We also know where Bethlehem is located – the place where Jesus stooped down into this world. I think we know that Jesus’ family fled to Egypt. We cannot deny that Jesus was born indigenous to the Middle East. I think we know the historical paintings of Jesus as a Swiss man with wavy blond hair and blue eyes isn’t theologically astute (in reality, tone, ethnicity or solidarity).
Our call is to follow Jesus as he is and as ourselves. Let us love our neighbors as ourselves, not as somebody else. I grew up with green eyes and bleach-blond hair, until it began turning silver. I think we know where Jesus grew up and what he read from the scroll of Isaiah concerning his own mission and identity. I think we know our nation’s documented history and our racist ties to the project of Whiteness and religion. I think we saw the photos of the Confederate flag and noose at the U.S. capital on January 6 – All in the name of a false jesus (small j). Whiteness is a social construct. It’s not only “out there,” it’s in here on the inside, our subconsciousness. It’s the air we breathe, and the water we swim in. It’s the language we speak. It’s felt in our bodies.
Are we then denying what we know to promote allegiance to a person, party, ideology, or culture over and above the Son of God? Is our first allegiance not to Christ and his Kingdom? Let us see one another, our textures, stories, colors, cultures, and lives as an expression of God’s global diversity. Together, we mirror the communal image of God. We are one human race.
We are invited to adjust our lens to see through another’s eyes. As one example when reading Scripture, Pastor Sandra Van Opstal offers a perspective, “You don’t need a White theologian and a commentary to understand the book of Ruth. Just ask a Syrian refugee.”
We are called then to look to the interests of those who are crying out above the interests of our own. What we face now is not about one person or one moment. What we face now is the mirror held up before us, reflecting what we see within ourselves. This is not a time for casual neutrality when the heresy of Christian Nationalism pervades our nation like cancer. We must denounce White supremacy in all its forms as Philippians 2 reminds us that God lifted Christ far beyond or Supreme over anyone and anything, ever. In a day when Caesar claimed to be the son of god, in a time when Caesar claimed to be divine, the writer of Philippians reminds us of our ultimate citizenship.
On this MLK Sunday, let us not water down Dr. King’s scathing prophetic words to White pastors and moderates alike (#peacewithjustice). As we approach the impending inauguration, the living church only has today. We have no guarantee of tomorrow. We only have today. We are called now to “drive a stake in the wheel of injustice.”
If the cultural roots of Jesus don’t matter, then we are at risk of worshipping an idol made in our own likeness and promoting Whiteness over Jesus himself. Jesus didn't deny his own humanity. While fully God and fully human, Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man. If we dehumanize Jesus, then we inevitably dehumanize our neighbors made in the likeness of God. This of course leads to grave heresy.
Was this not the reality of The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny? We reap what we sow, and the sins of the Big C church are now on display. What if we laid down our pride and shared our power? What if we listened to the expansive Body of Christ around the world?
God continues to write a story of redemption throughout human history. Spanning time and space, God is behind, below, beside and ahead, standing with open arms ready to embrace us. There are seasons of life…smooth highways and rocky realities, small corners, shadows, and wide open skies – and we know that we cannot walk this path alone. We know that our stories are a part of something larger beyond ourselves.
From the beginning, God’s story has revealed a God who has pursued relationship with us. We were created from this Earth by a God who loves us more than words can explain. Yet those of us here recognize that this world is not the way things are supposed to be. We are invited during these moments to stop and think about what life is really all about. God created life and story, and it is precious to Godself. With the fall of humanity, death entered the world, causing life to become fragile, and it seems that people of faith are also at risk of dying from no longer loving our neighbor.
Yet, these days life can feel overwhelming. In a media world of trauma, we can begin to feel frozen. Pauline Boss calls this “ambiguous loss.” We need soul care. We all need rest. Jesus didn’t have a Messiah complex. Even Jesus rested. What about those whose confidence feels shaky in the Big C church? Henry Nouwen offers wisdom: “It is important to think about the Church not as “over there” but as a community of struggling, weak people of whom we are part and in whom we meet our Lord and Redeemer.” I’m grateful for God’s mercy toward me as I often fail to live what I profess. I’m grateful for the patience people offer towards me. We’re called to progress and joy, not perfection (Philippians 1). And the Holy Spirit gently calls: Christ in you is the One we’re waiting for.
This is the God who provides the quiet strength to speak before kings and walk by faith. We can choose hope, not an empty promise or a false peace, not a hope without critical thinking or the real emotions of anger, disappointment, or isolation. Hope is already here—for our neighborhoods, our families—on a street near you. The day is coming when God will restore this world and wipe away our tears. God keeps no record of wrongs.
This God is an Artist, a Poet, full of color and movement beyond our wildest imagination. This is the God who loves a good party, turns water into wine, and says there’s always room at the table.
My prayer is that each of us will hear that beautiful and unique call that God has written for our lives and then step forward in faith. In the words of Maya Angelou: “Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation..." Reggie L. Williams reminds us that meeting Jesus is encountering a moment of decision, a divine no and yes. No to judgment and death and ego. Yes to the life of Christ on the underside of power. In closing, this generation is calling for structural change and relational healing. We all have a role to play. Our work now includes the ongoing process of repentance, to disciple young leaders, change false narratives, find common ground, and to remain open to the new ways God is moving in our neighborhoods. Our vocation now is Christ. Our witness now is interwoven with justice. The work is guided by mutuality and solidarity. We may never live to see the results of our work, and yet God is moving even when we don’t recognize the movement. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who has the Spirit of God (John 3).
And now, deliverance awaits—
go and be present, change the narrative
and respond to what you hear and see.
+ Notations +
Introductory Video | “Jesus Wasn’t White”
Inspiration by Lisa Sharon Harper | Freedom Road
Matt Krick and Rob Bell inspired, “Life is precious, life is fragile, and this life is not all that there is.” MLK Reference | #PeaceWithJustice | “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Inspiration to “drive a stake in the wheel of injustice” | The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute Quote by Henry Nouwen | Henry Nouwen Society
On human emotions, "My Anger, God's Righteous Indignation" / Willie Jennings
Quote by Maya Angelo | Medium Magazine
Inspiration on “decision” by Dr. Reggie L. Williams | "Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance" Mr. Jeff Olsson inspires the closing benediction, “And now, go and be present and respond to what you hear.” Special thanks to Mr. John Topliff for your friendship, spiritual direction, and for the wise feedback you offered on this writing.