I listened to a podcast on my commute to work yesterday titled “Jim Wallis in Conversation: Revealing Ways to Bridge the Divide.” In Episode 1, he interviews his friend, Rev. William Barber in a conversation about systemic racism, Christianity, American politics, and movements that are making a difference in the world. I’ve heard snippets of Rev. Barber’s speeches/sermons before, and I’ve even purchased one of his books (but have yet to read it), but after listening in yesterday, I was energized by their outlook, their connection of faith with justice, and their ability to turn feelings of despair into action, courage, and long-term engagement. They mentioned a lot of scripture, but I was particularly drawn to read again Luke 4 and Matthew 25.
Rev. Barber noted that Jesus’ first recorded sermon (Luke 4) and his last recorded sermon (Matthew 25) were political. He says that Jesus’ first sermon was a “policy” sermon – good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, healing the brokenhearted, release to the captives — stating that these were moral values that directly challenged the notions of greatness being purported by the empire. In Jesus’ final sermon, Barber notes that Jesus was not talking to the individual, but to governments when he said, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” and conversely “I was hungry and you didn’t give me food.” I think this struck such a chord with me, because of our highly individualized lifestyles in the United States. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go on at length, but technology (iPhones, personal computers, drive-thru conveniences), architecture (big houses without front porches), national “cowboy” narratives (survival, good guy/bad guy, super heroes), business design (cubicles, individual recognition), cars (cup holders, fastpasses), and religion (personal relationship with Jesus, public piety)…all of these things and more perpetuate an I/Me mentality, pushing us further and further from communal living and communal responsibility. I’m not arguing that any of these things on their own are bad or should even be abandoned, I simply use them to remind myself that this ideology or way of living is foreign to much of the world and most certainly not the context in which Jesus taught. So when Barber says that Jesus is speaking to the nations, and it is right there in the text, it cues me to tune in. What have I missed? What have I forgotten? What do I need to learn now and put into action?
Matthew 25 was the conversion text for Wallis and Barber calls it a text that cuts to the core and brings about revival. He says it is the measure for all followers of Jesus. In it, Jesus proclaims to the sheep and the goats (nations) the measure of love or standard by which they did or should have acted. The nations that are righteous are those that feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisioned. This means that it is not enough for me to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or visit the imprisoned. While lovely, kind, and worthwhile, it is not enough. I need to do the longer and harder work of changing the systems that keep people hungry, thirsty, “foreign,” naked, sick, and imprisoned, so that my nation (not me, my family, or even my church) is following these standards of love, compassion and mercy.
When I think about food boxes for the poor, poisoned water for children, lack of clean water for folks after disasters, immigration policies that tear apart families, walls that divide neighbors, the disproportionate numbers of black and brown bodies imprisoned and killed every single day in this country, it’s easy to feel despair and hopelessness and rage. And when I, as a proclaimed follower of Jesus, fail to join him in his mission of serving the poor and liberating the oppressed, then I have to check myself and start again. Barber says that if you think standing up for justice in love and mercy is easy, then you haven’t read the prophets, and you most certainly have not read Jesus and that (and I paraphrase): We would rather this not be our cup, but since it is our cup, we’re gonna bear this cross. We will not become what we hate. Every battle, even military battles, are fought from higher ground. And, so this is the rallying cry, the reminder, the encouragement to begin again, to dig in, and to keep up the work.