Race, Riots, And ReconciliationErwin W. Lutzer | June 7, 2015
Selected highlights from this sermon
Our country is continuing to be torn apart. What could possibly bring us together? What can speak into our generations of racism and social tension?
Paul proclaimed the solution to the long simmering feud between the Jews and Gentiles. While they wouldn’t disown their heritage, the two groups could be formed into one new man – through Christ’s blood. In their time and our time, God is building a new nation which transcends and unites our divisions!
My sermon topic this morning is Race, Riots and Reconciliation. And of course, as you might know, I’m preaching this message because our nation has been torn apart because of what has happened in places like Ferguson, New York and Baltimore, and we don’t know what city is next.
I’m probably not the most qualified person to speak about this topic. There are many others who know a lot more about it and may be more qualified. But I do have a burden, and that burden is for us to understand that in Jesus Christ there is more that unites us than could possibly divide us. The burden is for us to see the church as the place where reconciliation happens, the place that showcases reconciliation to the world.
You know, of course, that many years ago Martin Luther King wrote a Letter From a Birmingham Jail. If you’ve never read that, you really owe it to yourself to read it. It is one of the great pieces of literature that comes out of the civil rights movement. I read it many years ago. I reread it again last week.
More recently there’s a small booklet that has been published by Moody Publishers entitled Letters to a Birmingham Jail. The idea is that many different authors wrote chapters indicating what they would say as to where the whole challenge of reconciliation is (and race relations) today. Bryan Loritts is the editor, and in it he tells a very interesting story. He said that he was on a subway in New York with a friend. And whenever they came to a stop the friend closed his eyes, and then when the train began to move again, he opened his eyes. And so Bryan saw this a number of times and said, “What’s that all about?” And he said, “You must understand that my mother taught me that if I’m sitting down and a woman steps onto the train car, and she has no place to sit, the chivalrous thing for me to do is to get up and give her my seat. But I don’t want to give up my seat today because I am very comfortable here and so I just shut my eyes.”
We’ve all done that, haven’t we? Haven’t we all just shut our eyes and hoped that the issue would go away, or that we would not have to be involved, or somehow it does not exist? This message today is a very modest attempt for us to be challenged to open our eyes.
Martin Luther King, in his letter, said how disappointed he was in the white church during the civil rights movement. He said that he would walk along a street and see these beautiful spires that pointed to heaven, and ask himself the question, “Who really worships there? Who is there and where are they in the face of such obvious injustice?” And then he went on to say this about the church: “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often the church (and I’m sure he’s referring here to the white church) is the arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structures of the average community are consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal commitment to things as they are.” Where was the church during those days?
John Piper, a respected author and previous pastor, said that as far as King was concerned, he pointed us in the right direction – to Jesus rather than to self, to love rather than hate, to the sacrificial church rather than a religious social club. When King was accused of extremism he said, “Was not Jesus an extremist for love? Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you.”
Now, it’s important, I think, for all of us to realize that we have come a long way since the days of Martin Luther King. I was introduced to racism for the first time in my life coming from Southern Saskatchewan, Canada, being raised on a farm, and then eventually ending up at Dallas Seminary in 1963, and noticing that there were “whites only” signs in stores and restaurants and Laundromats. And I was astounded at this obvious racism. Thank God that those terrible, terrible evil days are behind us. But we’re not where we should be yet, are we?
There’s more that I could say, but I must hurry on, and say that as a staff we were having a discussion of the meaning of the word racism. Many people believe it’s always to be defined as the strength of those who are the dominant class, misusing and abusing and using their power against those who may be in the lower rungs of society. When I think of racism, I give it a much broader meaning. I think racism is a feeling of superiority and a feeling of hostility maybe toward people of other races, no matter which race it is, or what the situation is.
Now what I’ve decided to do, recognizing of course that there is a bit of danger in this, but feeling I must do it anyway, is to delineate some of the viewpoints that exist regarding the riots because if I don’t do that, there are people who are going to say, “Well, you know you really skirted the issue, and I really believe this.” And so let’s put it all out on the table, so to speak.
There are those who look at the riots and they say that the riots were ignited by lies and misrepresentation. Particularly the police are oftentimes accused and tried, as it were, by the mob and not given due process. I think one of the best examples of this is Ferguson itself where Darren Wilson was, as you know, vilified, demonized and eventually, as time progressed, our Justice Department under Eric Holder, cleared him of all wrong doing. So there are policemen today who say that we are being judged in advance, and they even fear to arrest people lest they should do something wrong and end up being the target of the mob. The answer to that, however, is this: We must understand that these riots are not so much because of the specific issue per se that happened in a city, but rather a long history of years of discrimination, unwarranted arrests, profiling police brutality, etc.
If you don’t know about this, what you need to do is to listen to the story of some of our brothers and sisters. And I would simply say to our white brothers and sisters that most of us have no idea of this underbelly, and this undercurrent that exists in the African American communities regarding the police. And also let’s keep in mind that the demonstrations themselves oftentimes are totally legal, but the riots are not so much done by the local people as others who come into the situation and make matters far worse.
But all of this reveals the darker reality. I’m quoting now an African American. “All of this reveals the darker reality of what African Americans deal with every day. And if it is not addressed there will be more riots in the future.” We must keep that context in mind. There is a simmering anger toward the police.
Secondly, there are those who say, “Well, comparatively, a lot of energy, and a lot of media and a lot of time is spent against the police, but what about black on black crime?” If black lives matter, and surely they do, then what is being done regarding the teenagers in Chicago and other cities that are almost weekly being killed as a result of black on black violence? An African American by the name of Vaudie Vacom agrees and says, “If a few black men, killed by cops, require a national dialog, what does the overwhelming number of black on black murders require?”
A couple of comments though! Statistics would indicate that where you have a poor white community that lacks jobs, that is marginalized and does not have good schools, you would discover that white on white crime is almost percentagewise just as it is even in the African American community. Now sometimes you can use statistics one way or another, but the fact is that oftentimes this kind of violence is because of a sense of hopelessness, the sense of marginalization, the feeling that there not only is no hope for us, but we ourselves are hopeless people. And as a result of buying into that kind of a mentality, what you have is the outgrowth of the violence that we see sometimes in all of our communities, but particularly in those that are under-resourced, those that are neglected and so forth.
Let me also say that the issue of black on black crime is constantly being addressed. There not only are various marches and various speeches, but programs for the young people. Opportunities oftentimes are given so that they can work, so that alternatives are being given.
Another viewpoint is that poverty is blamed and poor schools and all that is serious, but the real cause is fatherlessness. And the answer to that is simply, “Yes, that is true.” But I want us to understand for a moment what it is like to live in a community where there are no schools that will really prepare you for the real world. And not only that, no jobs are available and there seems to be a strike against you right from the beginning because you are of the wrong skin color. I want us to understand that point. And many of us struggle to understand it, but we must understand it.
There is a pastor in a suburb, a very good pastor, who made this statement, however: “When Jesus told us to fish for men, He didn’t tell us to clean up the aquarium.” Now he’s a friend of mind and I told him, “You know, I really disagree with that. If we lived in an aquarium we would soon insist that there be garbage pick-up, that there be sidewalks, that there be schools, that there be adequate resources because the aquarium is very, very important to us, and we underestimate the fact that many of these basic services even don’t exist in some of our communities, and oftentimes these communities are overlooked as I’ve already mentioned, and they go through their own difficulties in terms of trying to even get the attention of the deep needs that do exist.
Now, of course, I could also mention that politically there are different points of view: the conservative social agenda or a more liberal social agenda! All of these things play into the divide that we seem to see in America. But here’s a question for you, my friend. Does the New Testament present a vision of reconciliation that is so powerful and so strong that we don’t have to agree on all of these issues? There may be truth in all of them, and many people pick and choose between the issues. Is it necessary to resolve all those issues before we are fully and totally reconciled in Jesus – genuinely reconciled? And the answer is, “No, we can still have our differences and find Jesus to be more powerful than politics and the issues that divide us.”
Now in order for us to see this, I want you to turn in your Bibles, and once again, I hope that you have your Bible with you in whatever forms you bring it. I have preached on this passage before, but this week as I read it and meditated on it, I said, “God, help me to see this passage with brand new eyes.” And I believe that He answered that prayer. I’m in verse 13: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two.”
Let’s take a deep breath and find out what’s going on here in the text. The Apostle Paul is talking about the Gentiles as being far off. They did not receive the covenants of God. They were not the ones who were blessed as the Jews were. And as a result of this, the Jews became very racist against the Gentiles. They called them the uncircumcision, and that meant that you are rejected by God and you are not part of the covenant.
Worse than that, they called them dogs. It’s impossible for us to recreate the kind of hostility that existed between the two groups. Certainly it was probably worse than the hostility that exists today in America between the races. But notice what the Apostle Paul says. Let’s go through this more carefully: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” Many people think it may even be the dividing wall in the Temple that kept the Gentiles from the kind of closer worship that the Jews had, though the Jews themselves could not go into the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could do that. But nonetheless, the hostility was broken down. And more than that, it says, “making peace that He might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby (I’m in verse 16 now) killing the hostility.” What Paul says is this. Did you notice? “From the two He makes one new man. Of two He makes one man.”
Boy, this struck me this week. What Paul is saying is that when God reconciles people (notice carefully), the Gentiles do not have to become Jews, the Jews do not have to become Gentiles, but God says “through the Holy Spirit I create one person.” One new man! And then He illustrates that in a number of different ways, as we shall see in a moment.
What God seems to be saying with clarity to me is that in this body which God creates and which is described in the next verses, obviously blacks do not have to become whites, and whites do not have to become blacks. Asians do not have to become Latinos, and Latinos do not have to become Asians, and on and on we could go in terms of diversity. What we’re saying is, a Gentile doesn’t stop being a Gentile, and a Jew doesn’t stop being a Jew, but in Jesus one new person has been created that transcends all of those differences, and that’s the transformation that God wants to bring about.
We say to be colorblind. Well, you know colorblind is fine. No, not colorblind exactly, but God brings all of the different groups together, and in a moment I’ll be mentioning, here at The Moody Church, our diversity. And what He does is He says, “You not only tolerate each other, but you love each other and you celebrate your differences rather than denying them, but Jesus brings them all together in one body. And that’s what the body of Jesus Christ is all about. (applause) Yeah, you can clap if you want. (applause) Every once in a while I need to be reminded that you are out there, you know. (laughter) African American pastors do that very, very well, and we can learn from them.
Now I want us to look at this text and to see how powerful this unity is. You’ll notice that the Apostle Paul says that we are one body. That’s what it says in verse 15 – one body through the cross. “And he came and preached peace to you who were afar off, and peace to those who were near, for through Him you have access by one spirit.”
I need to tell you that when we are talking about the kind of unity that Paul is speaking about here, it isn’t that we’re unified around certain ideas. Ideas don’t have the power to be able to bring about genuine unity. You can work toward them, but ideas don’t change the human heart. Paul is talking here about an idea, namely the blood of Christ, the actual power of God, which comes to us, of course, in ideas, but the actual power of God to bring about inner transformation. And so he says, “You know, Jews may think that they are superior to the Gentiles or vice versa, but each of you has access by one Spirit to the Father.” And he goes on to say that we are part of the household of God, which means we are one body. We are one family. We are fellow citizens. We belong in one country, and we are one temple.
Verse 19: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens (speaking of course to the Gentiles), but you are fellow citizens (same citizenship) with the saints and the members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (I love this – verse 22) In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
Do you realize what God’s agenda is? God’s agenda is that there be diverse races and ethnicities that are all members of His one temple that are being built together as a habitation of God through the Spirit.
I’m so happy to say… First of all, let me say that obviously any church that practices racism is a denial of God’s agenda, and really a blot on God’s program. (applause) It is hypocritical for a church to raise up Christ with one hand, and practice racism with the other. God’s agenda is much bigger. You know, of course, it hasn’t always been this way at The Moody Church. And I’m very sad to have to report, in case you didn’t know, that African Americans were not allowed into the membership here at The Moody Church until 1962. Some of them attended. Some of them are still with us today, but that indeed was a blot on the body of Christ. Thank God that today we have diversity on our pastoral staff, and we all love each other, don’t we, Larry? I told Larry this morning that I loved him. (applause) And today you are worshiping with people from more than 70 different countries of origin (applause), which means that we have different races, we have different ethnicities. And some of you may feel that today we are talking about the blacks and the whites, and we are leaving you out. No, I’m not. I’m just simply saying that the occasion for the message was the kind of riots that we have seen, but like some of my Texas friends used to say, “Y’all are welcome, and y’all are honored here at The Moody Church.” Alright? (applause)
I hope that Moody Church is a safe place for people with different backgrounds, and now we’re not only talking racially and ethnically, but also different kinds of backgrounds, to find a place of acceptance and help and welcome, which goes back actually to the days of D.L. Moody. In his school in Massachusetts, the first school that he began, there were 18 different ethnicities in the graduation class. He was ahead of his time in seeing God’s greater vision.
Now I want to say also that we’ve emphasized already that sameness is not what we are about. Oneness, as Tony Evans says, is different than sameness, so we are all different but we celebrate our differences rather then deny them because there is a stronger power that brings us together.
Let me give you some steps that I think all of us should follow in terms of taking steps toward one another. One is to listen. You know, if you have never listened to somebody of a different culture, of a different background, and of a different race, you don’t understand his or her issues. One of the things I have tried to do is to listen to people who are different from me so that we understand their context. I could give examples of how just listening changes the whole gestalt. There’s a good German word I haven’t used in about 20 years, but it’s appropriate here. The whole context is changed by listening.
Do you remember that old story? I don’t know whether it happened but it might have, where a man was on a bus with four children who were misbehaving, and everybody was upset that these kids were acting so badly. And then he said, “I apologize for the way in which they are acting, but I want you to know that their mother died last week, so they are full of fear, and they are full of anger because of all that has happened.” Immediately everybody said, “Oh, now we understand. Now we begin to tolerate. Now we begin to look at this situation very differently.” Understanding people’s experiences and listening, without feeling the need to justify your own point of view, is really life changing. Take somebody out for lunch who is of a different race or ethnicity. Get to know them.
Tony Evans says that we must meet on the level of authentic exchange. Authentic oneness is an outgrowth of shared lives and not simply a cross-cultural experience here or there. Authentic oneness! And by the way, this past week I read Tony Evans’ book and it is entitled Embracing Oneness. I learned an awful lot.
The second step that we can do is involvement. Become involved in under resourced communities, no matter what their ethnicity. Become involved in the lives of those. You know, God took the initiative and He became involved in our lives. And the Apostle Paul would say based on Philippians 2 that just as Jesus was willing to become involved in our challenges, in the very same way, those of us who may be in the positions of privilege or positions of responsibility should be the ones taking the initiative. Find a ministry in your area. Of course, here in Chicago we think of By the Hand Club for Kids. How many of you, in one way or another have been involved with that wonderful ministry? Would you raise your hands please? Alright! Many of you, but not enough of you!
You see, we need to prove in our own hearts and bless God through our own sensitivity to what is happening around us, and to become involved with the marginalized, the neglected.
Some of you may want to become involved politically, and in one way or another advance your own convictions and your own desires, but all of us should be convinced that we have a responsibility to our communities. And I would like to think that a church like Moody Church would be a witness to this community, and hopefully beyond this community to Chicago, that this is how Christians can do ministry together despite the differences of opinion and the different backgrounds, and represent the unity that God is interested in.
Now in the Bible, and this becomes very important, what we must do is to keep before us God’s vision of what it’s going to be like in heaven. God says this in the book of Revelation, and in a moment we’re going to be seeing exactly what God has to say. John says, “I saw into heaven,” and he says, “I saw all these different diverse people.” And the reason that he noticed their diversity was because they still have the same characteristics ethnically and racially. And that is God’s vision for a multi-ethnic, multi-racial bride.
I’ve asked that these two verses be put on the screens so that we can read them together with all of our diversity and rejoice in the fact that we are going to have different people with us in glory. Let’s read the verses together now, everyone reading and rejoicing.
“And they sang a new song saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nations, and you have made them a kingdom and priest to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’”
Let’s celebrate together, shall we? (applause)
In Revelation 5, you see the bride of Christ worshipping. If we read the rest of the verses, they say they all fall down and they worship the Lamb. Jesus is worshipped in heaven, and you need to remind your Jehovah’s Witness friends of that. He is worshiped in heaven. But what is the church doing in Revelation 19? Well, I’ll tell you what they are doing. They are at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
Have you every thought of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb – a marvelous occasion when all the bride of Christ is going to be present? What do you think is on the menu? What are we going to eat? Well, if you know, you come and tell me later because I don’t have a clue what we are going to eat, but I do know what we are going to drink. Isn’t that wonderful? The drink has already been ordered. It’s going to be there.
When Jesus was on earth with the disciples and He gave them what we call communion, and said, “Take eat. This is My body, which was broken for you. This cup is the cup of the New Covenant in my blood.” He did say this to them. He said, “I will not drink the fruit of the vine with you until I drink it anew with you in My Father’s kingdom.”
New wine is going to be served at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. It’s going to be the kind of wine that Jesus created. As in John 2 where he’s at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, it is going to be the best wine. And it’s going to be served. And Jesus is reminding us that when we participate at the Lord’s Table, we are remembering the past, but we are not remembering an absent Christ. I fear that many Christians do that. They think it’s like somebody died and now we’re remembering them. No, Jesus died and ascended into heaven in body, but Jesus is right here. That’s why it’s called communion. Communion means fellowship, so we do remember the past – the body that was broken, the blood that was shed for us. We do remember the past, but we also participate in fellowship with Christ right now, and we remember Him until He comes. We anticipate the future when someday we will sit down with Him, and there will be people from every tongue, and every nation and every tribe and every color, and together we will worship. And we will today through communion anticipate that day of unity, of joy and celebration.
I hoped that this message today would end with celebrating all that God is doing and us being involved in His ministry no matter where He leads us and calls us because we are interested, first of all, in God’s only agenda, which is reconciliation.
Now some of you perhaps have never savingly believed on Jesus. Here at The Moody Church when you participate in communion, you’re allowed to judge your own heart. You make your own decision. But it is for those who know Christ as Savior, who are walking with Him, and in fellowship with Him. That’s why Paul says, “Examine your heart.”
Could we today examine our hearts specifically about the sin of racism, the feeling of superiority, the feeling of hostility? Can we confess that and then rejoice with all of our brothers and sisters in the unity of Jesus and the anticipation of even greater unity in heaven?
Father, we pray that You might make us an honest people. May we be willing to look down deep into our hearts and say, “Father, whatever is there that is displeasing, help us to have the attitude of Jesus who came to us as sinners, not so much to judge us, but to save us, to redeem us, and to teach us that in Your sight, we are all equal, all in need, and all invited. In Jesus’ name we ask, Amen. Amen.