In honor and recognition of the tradition of “telling the stories” during Black History Month, we are please to share the work of Rev. Dr. Joy Moore. Serving as assistant professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA., and academic liaison to the William E. Pannell Center for African American Church Studies, Joy J. Moore, PhD (Brunel University/London School of Theology) teaches in the area of homiletics and the practice of ministry. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Joy seeks to encourage theologically framed, biblically attentive, and socially compelling interpretations of familiar passages to help people understand the critical issues influencing community formation in contemporary culture. Read the full introduction to Dr. Moore's preaching notes for Black History Month »
Can You See What I See?
It may be right in front of our eyes, but we may still miss it.
Familiarity is an interesting hindrance. Our incredible mind fills in gaps with relatable information, making connections, giving meaning, bringing understanding. But sometimes, the things that have always "been there," we can miss. That is, we do not "see" the misspelling in a document that changes the entire meaning of a sentence. We do not "see" the shaved beard or haircut that gives our loved one an entirely new look. We do not "see" the homeless person hungry outside the restaurant. It is right in front of our eyes; still, we miss it.
The writings in Leviticus are like that for us. We know the troublesome portions, so we ignore the teaching. (Of course, these, too, are troublesome, just in a different way). In the twenty-first century, it is troublesome to speak of holiness. Yet, the writers have captured the practices of holiness that remain awe-inspiring, now as then: a peculiar people in such evident relationship with God that the world takes notice. Troublesome.
Leviticus’s concern with holiness highlights the question of what it means for a society, a culture, a community, to be faithful. (Read, holy.) We consider these to be individual practices, if we consider them at all. But the writers were describing the practices of the people of God. And these practices would be what distinguishes the people as peculiar, countercultural, holy.
It is these shared practices that should be what keeps us from reading Leviticus. Moses is instructed by God to tell the people that the divine expectation is for Israel to be holy as God is holy. And the practices of holiness have to do as much with how we treat one another as how we relate to God. In short, how we love one another is how we love God.
So unlike the worldly tips on how to make a name for yourself, enlarge your territory, and expand your profits, Moses tells the liberated slaves specific ways to demonstrate love of neighbor. It's here in the text and in the warnings to come later by the prophets, but we miss it. So, too, we miss that the canned food drive is a reenactment of leaving some for the poor to glean when taking in the fruits of the harvest. Do not waste, but do not harvest it all. Instead, leave some resources that welcome the poor, the stranger, the wanderer, those who live on the margins.
Loving neighbor involves providing from our hard labor for those who do not have enough. A practice of the black church has long held that the work of the worshipers is to provide for the community where the congregation is located. Can you see that the fish fry, pancake breakfast, and chicken dinners provide for the poor?
Of course, Moses goes on. Expecting that we favor neither the poor nor the wealthy, "neighbor" is not a geographic marker, but an indication of how we treat the co-worker from across town, the clerk at the grocery, and the person in the lane next to us on the freeway (verse 15). So our business practices as well as our personal actions keep us from deceiving, racketeering, and victimizing anyone. Pay those who work for you in a timely manner and be attentive to the disabled (verses 13-14). There is to be no getting even; no blaming your predecessor; no profiting at the expense of others’ bad fortune (verses 16-18). From the Supreme Court to the storefront, such practices provide a glimpse of an ideal community. Can you see it?
Teach the Children Hard Lessons
This reading from the Psalms begins with a confession and a plea.
Here is my own confession: In the face of unjust laws, greed-driven governments, and a vast array of vanities, I am confused. Frustrated. Angered. How does a displaced, marginalized, oppressed people give birth to hope? Possibly, hope is conceived in the peculiar ways of God. So, like the psalmist, my plea is urgent: I seek the ways of the Creating, Covenanting God who liberated my ancestors. These ways I will practice. I want to understand, so I may wholeheartedly keep the promise I now make. The journey I delight in, is the one God directs.
The desire stated here is not for individual gain, so the request includes turning away from looking at vanities. Whether this is King David or some other ancient Israelite, certainly they saw the gain of the nation’s kings. So the request for life in God’s righteousness is no easy request.
The last line (verse 40) begins with the Hebrew interjection hinneh, often translated as "Lo!" or "Behold!" The interjection draws the hearer to the speaker, as if to say, "Pay attention!" The NRSV appropriately translates it with an English imperative, "See!" It senses urgent pleading that permeates all eight verses. Now is the time to pay attention. When we gather each week as a community of faith to hear these statues of God, rehearse these promises made by Jesus, and acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit among us, we are learning again the practices, promises, and patience of the people of God.
During Black History Month, we are invited to learn again the practices, promises, and patience of members of the Black diaspora who hoped in God's good regardless of the goals of the government; helped one another out of neighborly concern as much as national necessity; and practiced a patience that demonstrated a gift to generations yet unborn, even if justice would not be accomplished in their lifetime. It is important for me to learn these lessons. Because the request for life according to God's righteousness still is no easy request.
Signing Petitions in a Partisan World
Just a few decades after the demonstrations of justice evident in Jesus, the church in first-century Greece—Corinth—was having its meltdown. Fractured by partisanship and enthralled with their own candidate, they’ve forgotten the gospel. In our day-to-day existence, it doesn't take long for the community to forget the power of the cross.
So Paul begins to write. Like Martin Luther King Jr. writing from the Birmingham jail, when Paul writes to the community of faith in Corinth, there is a problem. These letters frame the church, just as the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, Sojourner Truth, and James Cone shape the imagination of the black community. Even more, Paul's Epistles have been signed by their readers like petitions for justice in a partisan world.
Paul’s letter here is directed to the in-house catastrophe rather than to those outside the community who live shamefully. His message draws from the ancient Scriptures, with the expectation that his people are to be God’s holy people. Yet, contrary to one scholar who believes the problem was rooted in a lack of appreciation for holiness, the obstacle Paul addresses here is arrogance. It is self-centered arrogance that directly opposes the vulnerability of God made evident in the foolishness of the cross. God’s power through the madness of Jesus’ death should send tremors through their complacency. Then as now, the church is called to live through oppression, taking action against it. For there is hope: there is Resurrection.
For the Spirit that put on human flesh now dwells with the church. The place where God’s presence is most evident in the world should be the community of the people of God. Have you ever noticed how the modifiers before community reveal more of our identified loyalties? Wesleyan. Methodist. Conservative. Evangelical. Feminist. Queer. Millennial. American. To name this in no way expects the church or the community to be a monolith. Still, our one sure foundation is the crucified one. We cannot underestimate the extent to which the justice of God will be contrary to the ways of our culture. Rightly joining together to protest the system should never reduce the promises of God to national symbols. These symbols are built on a political foundation addicted to the plundering of the poor and of the earth, to propping up foreign regimes that systematically victimize their citizens, and to corporate capitalism that privileges the historic centers of white supremacy in the world. Indeed, for all the gain that the election of a black U.S. president represented, even it seduces us to settle for the candy of national symbols rather than savor the meat of God’s promises. Resistance to the plundering policies of one administration lacks righteousness, if we give a pass to administrations we favor that likewise are founded on exploitive trade agreements, violent foreign policies, and cruel campaigns of deportation. We cannot proclaim the power of the cross with that kind of hypocrisy.
The apostle challenges the Corinthian believers to remember that the wisdom of any given time is foolishness in the frame of reference of Christ. What the godly insist on as righteousness may not always align itself with the futile rationalization of the culture (verses 18-20). So, then as now, we should not boast about human leaders – even those who have been faithful. Whether Wesley or Washington or Thurman, it is not about who taught us, nor by our generation, but by God who has spoken to us through his Word (verses 21-23). Our lives demonstrate on which dotted line we have signed.
What Have You Heard?
Once a week, we gather to hear the teachings, practices, and expectations made available through the community called Christ-followers. Once a year, we pause to hear the teachings, practices, and expectations made available through the community that has been othered as black through the institution of slavery that enabled America to become the great nation she has been. And yet, what we have been taught, what we have heard, has become a shadow of the potential, accomplishments, and confidence of either community.
Like Moses, Jesus teaches in tweetable phrases (#sermononthemount), but his words reflect the justice expected by the laws Moses conveyed. In recent years, the teachings of the black community have expanded beyond a poem by Phyllis Wheatley, a biography by Frederick Douglas, and an anthem written by James Weldon Johnson. Beyond the one-liners, the contributions to science and medicine of Katherine Johnson and Vivian Thomas, the contributions to the civil rights movement by William Harbour and Charles Person, and the senseless deaths of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, are a people who took seriously the idea of turning the other cheek. They were forced to go the extra mile. Previous generations have prayed for those who persecuted them. Without reward, those who ran underground with Harriet Tubman and sat at lunch counters in the south demonstrated the kind of perfection that comes when humanity truly bears the image of the Creator God who understands what it means to be rejected.
It seems the expectation was for the people of God to keep these practices whether the rest of the world did or not. It was this attitude that fueled the nonviolent resistance of the twentieth-century. Treat others justly, even if they are unable to treat you so. This is God's way of responding to human arrogance. When we are holy as God is holy, our care for others means generosity to those who least deserve it. We offer kindness to those who practice evil, all the while taking care of our own community without expecting others to do it for us.
What have you heard? Jesus is teaching that keeping the letter of the law will not fulfill the justice of God. Only by being different from the culture around us will the world notice God in us. Only by being a living example of righteousness, mercy, and humility will the world glimpse the Kingdom that God is forming through the Spirit-filled community inspired by the life, death, resurrection, and promised return of Jesus.