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God's Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers:

Empathy Today and It's Significance for Being the Best Neighbors With Those in Your Neighborhood--The Hardest Person To Accept: a Reflection on Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Matthew 10:24-39

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, writes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[1] Given the current unrest surrounding Black and White people, it is clear that racism and white privilege are systemic throughout all social, political, economic and religious structures. It continues to be true that whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Humanity is engaged in a common pursuit…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But, the disparity between “the haves” and “the have nots” widens.

Racism is sin. Jesus says in Matthew 10:26, “…for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” The uncovering of the covered up, the liberation of Black people from the oppression of slavery, began with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, continued with General Ulysses Grant leading the Union Army to victory in the American Civil War and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. The uncovering of the covered up continues today with the Black Lives Matter movement and the Protests surrounding the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. Liberation, equality and full access for Black people to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness is still at issue.

Christians are for the goodness of God and bringing evil into the light. Humans need each other. Interdependently, we must work for the common good of all. In his book, Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey relates the following account of injustice and justice:

Author Henri Nouwen tells the story of a family he knew in Paraguay. The father, a doctor, spoke out against the military regime there and its human rights abuses. Local police took their revenge on him by arresting his teenage son and torturing him to death. Enraged townsfolk wanted to turn the boy’s funeral into a huge protest march, but the doctor chose another means of protest. At the funeral, the father displayed his son’s body as he had found it in the jail—naked, scarred from electric shocks and cigarette burns, and beatings. All the villagers filed past the corpse, which lay not in a coffin but on the blood-soaked mattress from the prison. It was the strongest protest imaginable, for it put injustice on grotesque display. Isn’t that what God did at Calvary? … The cross that held Jesus’ body, naked and marked with scars, exposed all the violence and injustice of this world. At once, the cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: a world of gross unfairness, a God of sacrificial love.”[2]

Justice is accomplished through sacrifice. Those who follow Jesus will be maligned and betrayed.

The power of God within each believer is a creating, redeeming and sustaining force for justice. In this regard, Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller in Neighborhood Church citing sentences from the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana “Who We Are” section on its website write, “…We believe everybody is a child of God with gifts to offer the world. But society often overlooks these gifts, seeing only labels and categories, needs, and stereotypes…We strive to focus on the many, diverse gifts of our neighbors and members, not their deficiencies.”[3] The words and actions of those who name the name of Jesus must become words and actions of antiracism and anti-privilege.

The texts in Jeremiah 20:7-13 and Matthew 10:24-39 assert that no matter how unpopular Christians become for doing justice in word and deed, we cannot resist being faithful.

In Jeremiah 20:7-13, we learn that when we do not do the right thing, we are seduced into unjust applications of the salvation message.

In Matthew 10:24-39, we learn that Jesus calls his followers to be courageous in order to continue the mission for which he was sent. That mission is to expose darkness to the light. Do not forget that Matthew’s community was a group of social misfits, outcasts, predominantly poor and feeling discounted. Yes, this community was “the least of these.” From God’s perspective, the poor and dispensable are invaluable. Jesus’ mission does not bring peace until it intersects the chaos. It is into this chaos that the church must lean. We must speak and do justice into injustice, not protecting the privilege and power of injustice. The text in Matthew is clear that persecution, family discord and the destruction of social ties are the norm. These forms of chaos beckon Christians to speak and do hope, peace, joy and love, anticipating the Second Coming of Jesus.[4]

Be reminded that the time following Jesus’ ascension until his Second Coming is the context for fulfilling the Great Commission. Christians are not to take on personal crosses of “victimization,” oppression or self-loss. We are to be witnesses of the good news of Jesus in troubling times. Yes, we are to resolve and live with conflict, in and through authentic relationship with those who are different than ourselves. Injustice claimed and transformed to justice is the visible sign of personal and social conversion to Jesus and kingdom of God principles. Empathy and listening produce words and actions of compassion.

During times of chaos, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing protests, we are the hands and feet of Jesus, bringing hope into despair, peace into discord, joy into sadness and love into hate. Christians are to be bold and “fear not” in an active way. We are to engage the unholy realities of poverty, violence, apathy, indifference, racism and classism that put people at risk. Again, citing sentences from the “Who We Are” section on the website of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller, the authors of Neighborhood Church write, “We believe that the Spirit of God is alive in all people. We welcome persons of all age, race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation. We seek to acknowledge and honor this spirit is all people by having conversations and listening for opportunities to connect and invest in the passions, interests, and gifts they have to share with the world.”[5] As we engage the injustices of our neighbors and trust God, we are freed to lament and express empathy.

I cannot ignore the injustices of racism, which are many. Neither can you. On this Third Sunday after Pentecost, we recognize the call to be antiracist. Systemic racism, perpetuated and reinforced by white privilege, is real. I admit my complicity in racism and white privilege to protect my self-interest, and doing so in the name of God. I invite you to join me in this journey of becoming more fully a child of God for the common good of all God’s children.

[1]Cited in Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 4. [2]The source of this citation is Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God (Zondervan, 1997), 185-186. [3]Krin Van Tatenhove & Rob Mueller, Neighborhood Church (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 23-24. [4]In the three paragraphs of textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Song-Mi Suzie Park, Mark Ramsey, Sonia E. Waters and Denise Thorpe in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 85-89, 89-90, 98-100 and 100-101. [5]Krin Van Tatenhove & Rob Mueller, Neighborhood Church, 24.

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