Detroit/Oakland Sermon: Another World Is Happening!
I flew in late from Detroit and man are my arms tired. (That joke sounds as bad in my head as it does in a sermon). Actually, the attempt to articulate what G-d is doing and teaching often doesn’t sound right to me. I have to ask myself on many occasions why in the world I am in a pastor. This feeling of unworthiness is only intensified by the looks I often get from the old and young alike who just can’t believe that someone so young, and let’s be real, so Black, could be a man of G-d. And then I look around me to find those other young, Black male pastors, and I start to think that this must be a fluke, not only is it exceedingly difficult to find other young Black male pastors, it’s difficult to find young Black men at all. This is not the role that society has deemed me worthy of, Black men are supposed to be in jail, hustling by selling some illegal product, or dead by my age, that’s the expectation that I’ve felt from others my entire life. But that’s not what G-d expects. No matter what I do, I know that G-d always does and always will expect my best.
I also have to confess, that sometimes when I look around me I start to think that there are some who are more worthy than others. I had this experience recently in a group discussion in Detroit on the city’s current situation. Some people, when they spoke I felt my heart stir in my chest and I wanted to clap and shout, and others, when they spoke I felt like they were off in some utopian fantasy and I wished that they would just be quiet. And then I remembered a song from my childhood, you may know it, it goes, “All G-d’s creatures got a place in the choir, some sing low, some sing higher, some sing out loud on the telephone wire, and some just clap their hands or paws or anything you got now.” It reminded me that we need every voice in order to succeed. We need those who speak with practical solutions and hard truths, we need them to remind those skeptics among us that there are alternatives to our destructive systems. But we also need those who speak with blatant optimism to remind the other optimists to get up off of their seats and work for change and not just expect it to happen. In this sermon I hope to show you how these alternatives are being used in Detroit, but also I hope to show you why it is that part of the voice we need, is the voice of the church, to be the moral compass of this country, to continue to be the change we seek in the world, and to bring about the Kin-Dom of G-d, the Beloved Community.
Yet sometimes I wonder if the church is worthy of such a task. It reminds me of a question I heard Detroit Pastor Barry Randolph ask on my trip, “Do you think you can be a Disciple of Jesus?” How many of us do? Well, if you can lie, be selfish, thickheaded, arrogant, unhelpfully competitive and runaway and hide in betrayal, then you are well on your way. The distinguishing mark is that you keep on trying. Jesus didn’t choose people because of who they said they were, he chose them because of who he knew they could be. Which brings me to the question, what in the world was I doing in Detroit?
Detroit in many ways has been given the roll of the Black man in our society. Its numbers dwindle every year; incarceration, murder rates and the drug trade negatively affect many of the lives within; and perhaps the greatest similarity is that it has been deemed by many to be worthless. But as a Christian I know that can’t be the whole story. I know that that which we try and ignore, Jesus places center stage, that which we consider to be the least worthy of consideration, Jesus considers first. I see many of these same issues in our city of Oakland. In the short time I was gone, 7 people have been murdered and schools have been closed and suspected gang members are being swept up by the dozens. It is as if we the people are expendable, as if it were the downtrodden, the struggling, that are the reason for these inequities, this lack we see in our communities. But Jesus tells us that it is the ones considered a nuisance that will create change in this world.
I saw that change being created in the city of Detroit, and I saw coming not from the ones who like to blame, but from we the people of nuisance. Once Detroit was ground zero for the Industrial Revolution, it was considered the most up and coming city in America, yet despite the fact that today it has the fastest declining population, it now the birth place of a new kind of participatory citizenship, for while it’s buildings are crumbling, instead of waiting for the city government to rebuild, the people are creating projects to rebuild themselves. While food deserts are extending, instead of waiting to be fed, people are growing their own food, making Detroit the city that has more urban gardens than any other in the country; while people are being shot and murdered, instead of waiting for the cops, people are building Peace Zones and developing neighborhood peace codes; while the youth run aimlessly, instead of waiting for youth structures to be built, they are building their own; while schools are failing, the people are creating their own community led schools; and while the unemployment rates continue to soar, people are learning to build things themselves. There’s a saying in Detroit, “There may not be any jobs, but everyone can join in on the work.”
In the scripture we heard today (Matt 20:1-16) there was a group of laborers waiting to work, what they found was a job. I’ve heard this scripture many times before and assumed with so many that Jesus was talking about the relationship with us (the workers) and G-d (the landowner). No matter what time we start our work, G-d rewards everyone who faithfully puts in the work equally. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but unfortunately Obery Hendricks points out to me how much I missed in the story. Let’s start with the denarius, the unit of money that the landowner promises to pay each worker. Hendricks points out that, “One denarius could barely feed one adult, much less a family.” While the scripture says they agreed on the terms of payment, the truth is that because there is so little work, the laborers don’t actually have a choice but to accept the terms. It is clear that the landowner owns enough that he could pay more, what is also clear is that he does not take the time to analyze the fact that so much of his wealth is based off of the lack of the very people that he employs. Hendricks writes that the landowner, “knows almost certainly they are available for hire because their own lands have been taken from them by one unjust means or another [yet] he doesn’t even consider that they may have been victimized by rich folks like him.” In the end of the scripture, when one worker points out the discrepancy of paying everyone the same, unliveable wage, the landowner does what so many bosses have done after him, he fires him and tells him that it’s his money and he can do what he wants with it. As Hendricks says, the landowner might have a G-d complex, but he does not sound like the merciful and loving Father of Jesus.
Trying to decipher exactly what Jesus is trying to do with this story can be difficult because the message is complex. We have all heard at some point the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Many times I think this should the motto of the church. But what Jesus reminds me of the opposite of this saying, Jesus is more of a, “Do as I do, not as I say,” kind of a person. What Jesus is speaking about isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, it’s the way it is. In his world there were many disenfranchised, landless workers, waiting to be paid unfair wages. When they stood up against injustice they were shut down and fired. What Jesus does with this story is show, “how the elites hid their role in the worker’s pain and desperation by blaming them for their own plight.” The church then, “Like Jesus, must help workers understand what is their fair share of the fruits of their labor, how to get it, and what—and who—stands in the way.” We must be the ones that remind the world that, “if together [we] steadfastly stand for justice by confronting the [land] owners of [our] time with boldly prophetic sensibilities, ultimately [we] will experience the justice promised by the kingdom of God.”
Isn’t that what the word demonstration really means? It’s not just about picking up a sign and going out and marching. It’s about demonstrating what this world could be. We, the church, pray every Sunday for G-d’s Kin-dom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We have an intimate understanding of what the Beloved Community is, detailed in our Lord’s Prayer. We also have a rich tradition of exorcising the demons of greed and corruption in our world and in ourselves. Another question in Detroit is, “What time is it on the clock of the world?” Well I want to tell you that the time is now, the time for the revolution of the evolution of humanity is now, it’s happening as we speak and it needs to grow or else we will not survive. And what we know about the love strategies of Jesus need to be shared with the world.
This isn’t some abstract, fantasy. Everything we believe and understand can come into being and is coming into being. As Christians we say that another world is possible, in Detroit I saw that another world is happening. Sisters and Brothers, I went to the mountaintop so I know we can do it. I saw youth there with fire in their eyes, who showed me how to transform our communities. We have to bring the neighbor back to the hood, but the first step is that we have to call out our demons of injustice by name. That’s why, right now I want us to begin this journey of transformation by calling out the demons of injustice that need to be addressed in our neighborhoods and in our cities. Let’s just start with 10 big ones, what are the names of the injustices, call them out. Amen.