On the Lines That Define Us
June 25, 2023
Psalm 69: 13-18
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD. At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me. With your faithful help rescue me from sinking in the mire; let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters. Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me. Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good; according to your abundant mercy, turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant, for I am in distress–make haste to answer me. Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Today’s sermon is titled On the Lines That Define Us. This sermon was first offered in June of 2020, the year George Floyd was killed and one year before Juneteenth was made a national holiday.
Some of my earliest memories are centered around trips from my childhood home in Durham, North Carolina to visit extended family. There were two destinations; each was the birthplace of one of my Grandmothers. One option was to head west, up and into the Appalachian mountains, where we would drive on windy roads for what seemed like hours to reach Great Aunts and Uncles that, even in the 70s, did not have indoor “facilities.” Gravity fed spring water ran through pipes to the kitchen sink in both of the homes we would visit. We would bring all the milk jugs we could fit into the trunk of the car just so we could carry some of that good water home with us. My Great Aunt Lily would be so pleased we had come she would start crying as soon as we drove up. Then she would pull herself together and get back to fixing the meal. Even in the summer, she built a fire in a big cook stove and fried chicken for us; I have never had chicken so good.
The other side of the family was from southeast Virginia, so at least a couple of times a year we would drive north to the sandy flatlands to visit my Grandmother’s birthplace, a large peanut farm in Walters, Virginia. Great Aunts and Uncles would gather there, too, and my Great Aunt Margaret would cry when we arrived and cry even more when we left. There, too, we ate like royalty. There would always be a time in our visit there that I would be called into the kitchen to come see Rufus and Maryliza. Rufus and Maryliza worked on the farm and lived in a house further down the same driveway but I never did visit them in their homes. They were black and they seemed very old, much older than even my Great Grandfather, Papa Johnson. Rufus and Maryliza always came to the back door, never to the side door that the rest of us used. There were predictable things that happened each visit. There would be a flurry of excitement when we heard that Rufus and Maryliza had come. Everyone was obviously so glad to see one another. There would be many questions about how old I was and what did I get for Christmas and things like that. Aunt Margaret would have already prepared a big basket of food that she would hand to Maryliza when they were leaving. We never ate together and yet I had a deep sense that Rufus and Maryliza were part of our extended family.
When I was in middle school, the movie series “Roots” came on television. That is when I began to try to lose my southern accent. That is when I started to ask questions. Years later, I think I was in High School, I was asking my Grandmother about Rufus and Maryliza. She said they were sharecroppers on my family’s farm; they were descendants of slaves. My Grandmother bid me wait while she went through some files and she came back with a single sheet of paper, full of words that had been typed with a typewriter. Across the top it says “Will of James Johnson (d.1829). It begins: “In the name of God, Amen, I, James Johnson…being weak in body but sound in mind and memory, and taking into consideration my advanced age and debility as well as the uncertainty in any situation of this life, think proper to make this my last will and testament: First, I recommend my soul to the merciful God that made me, and my body to be consigned to the dust. As to the earthly things, I give and bequeath them away in the following manner…” From there there is much talk of sons and grandsons receiving horses, furniture, feather beds, property and sums of money ranging from fifty dollars to one hundred fifty dollars. In Item 5 the document states: “I give and bequeath unto my son Wilie Johnson the plantation on which I now reside to him and his heirs forever, and the personal estate he has now in his possession, and the still apple mill, one feather bed, and my negro man Will, to him and his heirs forever and also my Writing Desk. Item 6: I give and bequeath unto my daughter Sally Johnson the plantation on whilch my son Willie now resides to her and her heirs forever, three negro Girls namely Selvy, Tinah and Dinah, tow (sic) of the best feather beds and furniture, one horse called Toby, six Windsor chairs and the sum of four hundred dollars.” The will was notarized on August 28th , 1829.
This was a lot to take in for me. This was not some story in a history book. These people mentioned were just three generations removed from my own Grandmother, just five generations removed from me. They had the same last name that I knew so well. The same last name of people I loved, good people, kind people. And yet to read in black and white, instructions to pass down people as property, along with things like featherbeds and horses and household furniture. Reading this brought things into sharp and painful focus. I asked my Grandmother many more questions; I heard many more stories. I was most interested in Rufus and Maryliza. They were paid to work on Papa Johnson’s farm. They were housed, but their house could not be passed down to their children because they did not own it. There were clear lines that defined the relationship, and even though the feelings were warm and affectionate, even, the relationship was clearly defined. Everyone knew where the lines were. On that day, sitting at my Grandmother’s kitchen table, us sharing in a collective sadness about the past, I could see those lines reaching back 200 years. But I could see how the lines were bending, too. I began right then to look around for something to bend them with.
So when I read, in the book of Matthew, the words of my teacher, a teacher who says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” I read that he is trying to bend the lines, too. The message I hear from Jesus is, “I am here to affect change. I am not here with an olive branch. I am here with sword in hand. I am here to redefine the lines that hold you back, the lines that hold you down, the lines that have been used to separate you and divide you…but it will not be easy. You may have to take a stand that your family may not agree with. You may have to choose between the way you know and the way I am calling you to travel.”
Jesus is speaking to his fellow Hebrew people, people steeped in tradition that has served them well for centuries but times are changing for them all. It has been nearly 100 years of foreign occupation. The lines of power have worked their way into the Jewish temple and into the hearts and minds of the priests. The welfare of the Hebrew people is being sacrificed to protect the paradigm and those in positions of great power. It is a paradigm that humankind has been creating and recreating since time before mind. It is a paradigm that pulls all the resources to a central place while creating a system of control over those resources.
There is a pattern of this that can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia all the way through the Industrial Revolution to present day 21st century America. An essential part of such paradigms is slave labor. We can read about ancient slave practices in Mesopotamia, but we have a version of slavery in America today. Millions of slave laborers in America work for the federal minimum wage, 7.25 cents an hour before taxes; that’s 290 dollars for a 40 hour work week.
I ask you this, Friends: What kind of a savior does a mother or father in America need when they works 40 hours a week and take home less than three hundred dollars? Do they need a savior who comes to offer peace or do they need a savior bearing a sword, calling for change in an oppressive system?
There are times we are in sore need of peace and in those times there are plenty of verses that can bring us comfort. But there are other times when we need a teacher who is willing to pick up a sword, not to harm but to redefine, to cut away the thought patterns that do not serve us, to cut back and expose things within ourselves and within our culture that do not serve all of God’s people equally. Sometimes we need a teacher willing to hold a sword because when I imagine Jesus, sword in hand, I hear the message that there are times when a choice must be made and my choice may be really different from the choices of my ancestors, my family or my friends. Like the prophet Jeremiah who tries to go along with what others expect and keep his mouth shut; he writes, “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
In closing, I am feeling gratitude for a teacher like Jesus. He extended his care and concern across every line that attempted to keep his people in their places. He welcomed the women, the tax collectors, the lepers, the Gentiles, the rich, the poor, the priests and the skeptics. Jesus knew that the one thing that could unite us is love of God. It is still possible, Friends. That is why we are called to love God above all else. With love of God guiding us, we will know how to heal the past and how to create a better future for each and every one. So be it. Amen!
Lord of all things, empower us this day to be a voice for those who have been silenced. Empower us to advocate for those who have given up hope. Remind us when we falter that humankind has come a great long distance is creating a world where all people are recognized as having inherent worth. Fortify us for the work that still lies ahead of us, Lord. Give us the stamina to persevere until all people everywhere are free, until all people everywhere prosper. In Christ’s name, I pray this prayer we were given so long ago…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from Thessalonians, chapter 5:
“May the God of Peace sanctify you completely, and may your spirit and soul and body be sound.” Amen.