Unbind Them

April 2, 2017 – 5th Sunday in Lent
John 11.1-45

I want to tell you a story that my friend, Jane Larsen-Wigger, who is the pastor at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church told me this week—and said I could share with you.

For about 15 years now the Crescent Hill congregation has had a connection with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of farm workers in Florida who have been at the center of the Fair Food campaign. Early on in their struggle for fair working conditions, they zeroed in on Taco Bell and YUM! Brands—which brought them to Louisville on quite a few occasions. The rallying cry then was “a penny a pound!”—that’s how much they were asking for: one penny a pound more for the tomatoes that were picked in the field. YUM! Brands was the first major corporation to make that concession and committed to only buying tomatoes from farms that would pay one penny a pound more than had been the going wage for tomato picking.

Over the years the Coalition—and the Fair Food campaign—has gotten a dozen more corporations to sign on. Next on their list is Wendy’s which is headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. So, a group of farm workers were through Louisville last week on their way to Columbus, and as Crescent Hill has done many times over the years, they prepared breakfast for the farm workers.

After breakfast, Lucas—one of the long-time leaders of the group—talked to the Crescent Hill folks to catch them up on the progress toward justice that has happened over the last 15 years. Speaking in Spanish, with someone translating into English, Lucas thanked the Crescent Hill members for their hospitality over the years—pointing out the place in their Fellowship hall where he had slept on a couple of occasions! He reminded them of the rallying call of a “Penny a Pound”—and how that victory is still secure. But that’s not all. He told them tomatoes don’t have to be heaped over the tops of the buckets any more—just even with the top of the bucket is enough. And there is now shade available in the fields—shade—so people can get a break from the hot Florida sun. And they are allowed such breaks—workers no longer have to worry about being fired for taking a five-minute break during the work day. And, to make sure the workers know their rights, groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers hold sessions informing the workers of how they can be expected to be treated. And representatives of the corporation are present and hear this reminder too. When the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was formed many tomato pickers worked in conditions akin to modern slavery. Lucas said that it used to be he was told by a shift boss to find him so many hands for the next day. Now he is instructed to find so many employees.  Jane said that Lucas had been telling the group at Crescent Hill all of this in Spanish, and at this point he stopped and said in English, to make sure everyone heard what all of this progress means, he proclaimed: “We are now human beings.”

Of course, people who pick tomatoes have always been human beings but they have not always been treated as human beings. And when you’re not treated like a human being it erodes your sense of yourself as a human being. A penny more a pound, shade, breaks during the work day, being referred to as employees, experiencing the accountability of their employers to treat them in these seemingly small, yet enormously significant ways that has set them free. “We are now human beings.”

There are many communities of people in our country who have not been treated as human beings. We have been thinking particularly this Lent about African Americans who were lynched in what James Cone refers to as the lynching era between about 1880 and 1940. During that time “white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women.”[1] Lynchings were public events in which newspapers announced “the place, date and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims.”[2] White women, men and children attended the lynchings. Postcards were made and sold of “black victims with white lynchers and onlookers smiling as they struck a pose for the camera.”[3]

To torture, lynch and burn another human being, one must deny the humanity of the other. James Cone writes that African Americans “affirmed their humanity and fought back against dehumanization” on “Friday and Saturday nights at juke joints and at churches on Sunday mornings and evening week nights…Both black religion and the blues offered sources of hope that there was more to life than what one encountered daily in the white man’s world.”[4]

Part of the question we are asking this Lent and through our New Beginnings projects is: How can we be part of repairing the damage that has been done to our sisters and brothers throughout our country’s history? The legacy of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, white flight, redlining, mass incarceration, the lack of public support for public education all continue to dehumanize and diminish communities of people of color, especially poor communities of people of color.

This story of Jesus and Lazarus fascinates me. There is so much that could be said about it. What I want to notice with you this morning is the end of the story. Jesus calls Lazarus back to life with a loud shout. The one who had been dead comes out of the tomb. But he comes out like a mummy—he’s still wrapped up and bound by the fabric in which his dead body had been wrapped as part of the preparation for burial. And Jesus says to those gathered around the tomb, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

It is Jesus who brings Lazarus back to life but his full restoration and his freedom and his capacity to become a human being again requires the rest of the community. In John’s gospel, being brought to life and being set free is happening in a literal, physical way. I keep thinking about this metaphorically: that this is our work too as a community—to unbind people and let them go.

And there are literal, physical ways in which we can be part of this work of unbinding and setting free. Reading with elementary age children who need the support of caring adults to be able to read at grade level and be successful in school and in life. Befriending people in our neighborhood who need the support and friendship of others and in whose lives we learn more about our own. Supporting first generation college students who encounter numerous challenges to being successful in school simply because they are the first in their family to go to college. And for those of us who are white, continuing to do our work to understand our complicity and to do our part to dismantle systemic racism.

And I suspect that when we are part of a community that is unbinding and setting others free, we will find that as others are set free, our own humanity is restored and we, too, are unbound and set free.

Lucas said, “We are now human beings.” I think those who employ tomato pickers and those who buy the tomatoes are also more human now because they no longer treat other human beings as less than human.

* * * * *

[1] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 31.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 12.



March 26, 2017 – 4th Sunday in Lent
John 9.1-41

(This sermon begins with a back and forth conversation as the scripture is read.)

Ann: This story in John’s gospel is about being blind and being able to see. The story functions on a physical level of literally being blind and literally being able to see. It also functions on a metaphorical and spiritual level of being able to see or being blind to what is true.

Act One: Jesus Heals a Man Who Was Blind from Birth

Katherine: As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

Ann: Hold on! Hold on! I really dislike this verse! The idea that God made the man be born blind so that Jesus could heal him and God could be glorified. I do not like this at all—as if God would plan suffering for us so that good could come out of it. I do believe God can redeem suffering but I don’t believe that it’s God’s plan or desire for us to suffer. Suffering is a part of life but not because God picks us out to inflict it upon us.

You know what I just learned this week from biblical schools Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring (who is not, actually boring)? In verse 3, in Greek, there is no “he was born blind so that.” It’s a bad English translation. In a more literal translation, the verse would read, “Jesus answered ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned…but God’s works might be revealed in him.” The sense of the Greek sentence is that the presence of the man who is blind provides an occasion to do something about it and as Jesus heals the man, God is glorified.[i] It has nothing to do with God intending for the man to be blind.

Okay. Go ahead.

Katherine: [Jesus continues]We must work the works of [the One] who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When [Jesus] had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then [the man] went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

Ann: Isn’t this what we want to know too? How? Show me some evidence and I’ll decide if it’s for real. We’ve all got our own set of criteria for what is real and what is true and we want information so we can make a judgment based on that criteria. What throws us off kilter and what we often resist is letting ourselves and our understanding be transformed by something we don’t (yet) understand—in this story that is the power and glory of God.[ii]

Katherine: 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

Ann: Act Two: The Religious Leaders Investigate the Healing

Katherine: 13 They brought to the [religious leaders] the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”

Ann: The religious expectation was that a truly religious person did not work on the Sabbath—that included not healing someone. You could do that the next day. The man was not going to die of blindness in the interim hours.

Katherine: But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

Ann: People who observed Jesus had different expectations. One expectation: If Jesus is Messiah, he would obey the law and not work on the Sabbath. Another expectation: If Jesus is Messiah, he can heal people. Expectations of how it’s supposed to be can keep us from seeing what is true.

Katherine: 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

18 The [religious leaders] did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the [religious leaders…for they] had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus[c] to be the Messiah[d] would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

Ann: This word “know”—“one thing I do know” the man says—shows up multiple times in the rest of the story. It comes from a Greek word that means to have sight (that is, physical seeing) but it is also connected to comprehension (that is, mental and spiritual seeing).

And the Greek word here for “see” is a word that suggests to see something physical, with spiritual results (that is, perception or comprehension).

What the man says, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see,” is both a literal statement and a metaphorical declaration.

Katherine: 26 They said to [the man], “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Ann: Here again is a clash of expectations about what can possibly be true. What is obvious to one person who has encountered Jesus is completely opaque to another. Who can see and who can know are hard to comprehend from different vantage points. Our preconception of the truth can blind us from seeing what is true.

My sister told me about a class she took on marriage years ago. The biggest take-away, that we both remember all these years later, was recognizing “What is obvious to me is obvious to me.”

Act Three: Jesus and the Man Meet Up Again; Who Can See and Who is Blind?

Katherine: 35 Jesus heard that they had driven [the man] out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of [Humanity]?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the [religious leaders] near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Ann: The Word of God
All: Thanks be to God.

In chapter two of James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone reflects on the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, who he describes as “widely regarded as America’s most influential theologian in the twentieth century…with wide influence in the secular political world.”[iii] Niebuhr was born in 1892 and was a pastor and a professor of ethics and theology between 1915 and 1960. Cone says Niebuhr wrote and spoke about the sufferings of African Americans and the evils of racism but “he failed to connect the cross and its most vivid reenactment in his time”[iv]—that is, lynching.

The lynching era is considered to be 1880 to 1940 during which time “white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus…Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists…In both cases, the purpose was to stroke terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.”[v]

Niebuhr had a big platform to speak to ordinary Christians and politicians alike and instead of using his voice for justice for African Americans, he joined Southern moderates who called for “gradualism, patience, and prudence”[vi] during a time when blacks were being lynched. What kept Niebuhr from advocating for justice for African Americans? What kept him from seeing? “How could anyone be a great theologian and not engage America’s greatest moral issue?”[vii] Cone asks. “It was easy for Niebuhr to walk around in his own shoes, as a white man, and view the world from that vantage point, but it takes a whole lot of empathic effort” says Cone, “to step into [the shoes] of black people and see the world through the eyes of African Americans.”[viii]

As we talked about this chapter in our book study this week I got to wondering what helps any of us step into the shoes of a person whose life experience is different from our own? Niebuhr himself talks about the powerful self-interest that we all serve (many times unconsciously) and how hard it is to “feel the pain of others as vividly”[ix] as we do our own. What enables us to feel the pain, learn the story, find a truth that is not our own, to see with different eyes?

I grew up going to public schools with a fairly significant racially diverse student body. In elementary school, my group of friends (the group that got invited to my birthday parties) included African American girls and a Native American girl. The high school I attended was 60% African American students and other students of color and 40% white students.

When I went across town and enrolled in an evangelical Christian college where the overwhelming number of students were white from white suburbs or small towns. I realized that growing up in a different environment from many of my college classmates made me see the world in ways that were different from many of them.

I wonder about your life. Has there been a person or an event who opened your eyes to see something you’d never seen before about a person of a different race than your own?

Martha and I stayed in the home recently of one of my friends from seminary and his wife. They are both African American. Their home is filled with art that depicts African Americans. As I walked around their home I was conscious that the art work I was seeing was not a representation of me. And it made me more aware of how often a white face and body is normative and what that does to the well-being of children and adults whose faces and bodies are all shades of brown and what that does to the well-being of people when they don’t see themselves represented in images of beauty or power or leadership or creativity or achievement. And what it does to the well-being of children and adults who are white who unconsciously (and not so unconsciously) absorb the lie that white people are smarter, more beautiful, more skilled, more accomplished than brown people.

What has God put in your way that opened your eyes to your own bias? Who has God brought into your life who has helped you see a deeper truth about people who are different from you?

Let us take a minute to remember and then, in your own heart and mind, to give thanks to God for the gift you have received.

* * * * *

[i] M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 318.

[ii] Ibid., 312-313.

[iii] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 32.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid., 31.

[vi] Ibid., 39.

[vii] Ibid., 52.

[viii] Ibid., 41.

[ix] Ibid., 40.

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

March 5, 2017 – 1st Sunday in Lent
Matthew 4.1-11

Since January we’ve been jumping around a bit in the gospel of Matthew. We heard the story of Jesus’ baptism and how he called people to follow him. Then for several weeks we heard part of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. Now we drop back to the story that comes immediately after Jesus’ baptism and before he begins to call disciples to join him in ministry.

You remember, Jesus goes out to the wilderness to meet his cousin John who is at the Jordan River calling people to repent and be baptized. Jesus is baptized and as when he emerges from the river, a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It’s a declaration for everyone to hear. It’s an announcement of Jesus’ identity.

In the very next verse, which is chapter 4, verse 1, the Spirit leads Jesus to be tested. Where Jesus’ baptism was a declaration of his identity, this story is one of testing Jesus’ identity. In the wilderness, Jesus meets up with the devil, which the NRSV also describes as “the tempter” or Satan. Now, lest you start conjuring up a guy with red horns and a long tail, “Satan” in the New Testament represents all that opposes the will of God. Satan is not necessarily a specific being but “all those who obstruct and resist what God intends for human life.”[i] In Greek, the word we translate “devil” is from a word that describes one who “attacks, misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, or slanders.”[ii] It is clear the devil wants to “mislead Jesus about the meaning” of being the beloved Son of God and seeks to distract Jesus from the “purposes of God.”[iii]

One scholar says the overarching temptation Jesus faces in this story is to go for power.[iv] The self-serving aggrandizing kind of power that wants to crush everything in its way. The kind of power that wants to be something it is not. Another person writing about this story says the primary temptation is “to be someone other than who God calls us to be.”[v]

This Lent we are inviting everyone to read James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree to accompany our journey through this season as we get ready to enter the mystery of Easter. There is still time to sign up for a small group to talk about the book with others. You can find the meeting dates and locations in the bulletin plus a sign up sheet.

Robert Michael Franklin, former President of Morehouse College wrote, “This book will upset your equilibrium in all the best ways, inviting you to think, challenging you to act.”

In the introduction to the book, James Cone says, “I write [this book] in order to start a conversation so we can explore the many ways to heal the deep wounds lynching has inflicted upon us…I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.”[vi]

As I was reading about where the word we translate “devil” comes from—that it means one who “attacks, misleads, deceives, diverts, discredits, or slanders”[vii] I thought about how lynching and the culture that supported lynching, including Christian culture, is of the devil. It misleads, attacks, slanders, and lies about the belovedness of African Americans and about the purposes of God.

Just like history has downplayed the brutality and torture of slavery and ignored the financial exploitation of black bodies that drove the economic engine of our country, we have also minimized the terror of lynching. I think because it is so horrific. For white people, how can we face ourselves as descendants of this legacy? James Cone writes, “Black people know something about terror [and terrorism—connecting with our collective current fear of terrorism—] because we have been dealing with legal and extralegal white terror for several centuries. Nothing was more terrifying than the lynching tree.”[viii]

One of the connections James Cone makes between the lynching tree and the cross is that in the first century, “crucifixion was the particular form of execution reserved by the Roman Empire for insurrectionists and rebels.” It was used by the Empire to keep people in their place. “It was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame—one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings.”[ix] Just like lynching.

For many Black Christians, “just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.”[x] Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, says the spiritual. Nobody knows my sorrow but Jesus.

Many of us—especially mainline Protestants—are a little bit queasy talking about Jesus’ death on the cross. We prefer to talk about the life of Jesus rather than his death. But for people who are experiencing, or have experienced great suffering, there can be a deep solace in knowing that Jesus experienced suffering too—and that God was with Jesus in his suffering and so too is God with those who suffer.

Now suffering is complicated in the Christian tradition. Throughout our history, people have been told to stay in their suffering because God will reward them, or that suffering is a spiritual practice. People have sometimes viewed the suffering of others as what God intends or what they deserve. And all of that has led only to more suffering. Suffering for the sake of suffering is not a good thing and I don’t believe it is what God intends. But the hard reality is that life comes with suffering. The experience of being human includes suffering. It doesn’t come equally; some get more of it than others. Some suffering is random—like cancer or a miscarriage—and some suffering arises because of the brokenness and sin of people—like racism and bullying.

When Mark, Katherine, Phillip and I were talking about our Lent preaching series and James Cone’s book, Phillip noted that in our current Presbyterian hymnal there is no section for the cross in the topical index. In the African American Heritage hymnal there are three sections of hymns about the cross in the topical index: the cross of Jesus, the cross of the believer, and the cross and salvation. Now the Glory to God hymnal does have hymns about the cross but they’re not categorized in the same way as in the African American Heritage hymnal. That doesn’t prove anything but it does perhaps recognize that the cross has different meanings and significance to different communities of people depending on our experiences of the world.

James Cone, in a conversation with Bill Moyers, said, “The cross is victory out of defeat…And the lynching tree is transcendent of defeat. And that’s why the cross and the lynching tree belong together…Christians can’t understand what’s going on at the cross until they see it through the image of a lynching tree.”[xi]

I know that doesn’t wrap it up or explain it all. It probably leaves you with more questions—and even some anxiety and discomfort. There’s more to say about this and we have more weeks in Lent to ponder the cross through the image of the lynching tree—and we have more weeks in Lent to open ourselves to be changed to become more of the people God has created us—all of us—to be and to continuing aligning our lives with the purposes of God.

* * * * *

[i] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 37.

[ii] Robert A. Bryant, “Exegetical Perspective: Matthew 4.1-11,” Feasting on the Word, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), Year A, Vol 2, 47.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Douglas John Hall, “Theological Perspective: Matthew 4.1-11,” Feasting on the Word, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), Year A, Vol 2, 44.

[v] Long, 37.

[vi] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011, xix.

[vii] Robert A. Bryant, “Exegetical Perspective: Matthew 4.1-11,” Feasting on the Word, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) Year A, Vol 2, 47.

[viii] Cone, xix.

[ix] Ibid., 1-2.

[x] Ibid., 22.

[xi] http://billmoyers.com/content/james-cone-on-the-cross-and-the-lynching-tree/
accessed 4 March 2017.