Today we commemorate the Civil Rights Movement and its March on Washington. Last Sabbath, August 24, Matt Burdette was invited to give the sermon at the Hightstown Seventh-day Adventist Church in New Jersey. This is a transcript of that sermon.
This Wednesday, August 28, is the fifty year anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement March on Washington, in which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Today thousands of people are gathering at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to not only commemorate the event, but also to remind the nation and the world that the struggle is not behind us, that Martin King’s American Dream has not been realized, that the majority of the human population is still living in what Malcolm X called the American Nightmare.
I am willing to bet that everyone in this room thinks highly of Martin Luther King, and what he and the countless other civil rights activists accomplished in this country. But I want to begin by reminding you that fifty years ago the Seventh-day Adventist church wanted nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. While people took freedom rides, and risked bodily harm by sitting in all-white restaurants, or marching in lynching states in the South, in a struggle for freedom and equality, Seventh-day Adventists continued to worship every Sabbath, continued to abstain from unclean meat and alcohol, continued to preach about the National Sunday Law and the Catholic Church and identify all the other beasts in Daniel and Revelation, continued to refer to themselves as God’s last-day remnant church; meanwhile the cafeteria at the General Conference headquarters was racially segregated, and local conferences were racially segregated. They were more committed to their belief in the separation of church and state than they were committed to the plight of the poor and oppressed.
And in case you forgot, local conferences are still racially segregated. And Adventists still continue to refer to themselves as God’s last-day remnant church, continue to preach about beasts and horns and anti-christs, continue to abstain from certain kinds of food and drink, and continue to observe the Sabbath. Meanwhile, there are more black and brown people living in poverty than there were fifty years ago. There are more black men locked into our Prison Industrial Complex today than there were enslaved in 1850—this is the New Jim Crow! Each day children fear for their lives, and many lose their lives, most recently in indiscriminate drone strikes in an endless war on terrorism, because of war criminals in the American government who serve only the interests of their corporate masters and the Military Industrial Complex. Millions of people here in the United States have to work several jobs to provide for their families because they cannot earn a living wage, and around the world people die of starvation and malnutrition. And we? We fight about whether the King James Version is more accurate than the New International Version, or whether it is acceptable for children to ride their bikes on the Sabbath.
Perhaps some of you are wondering why I am talking about politics in church, since, after all, Seventh-day Adventists strongly believe in the separation of church and state. Maybe others of you are wondering what this has to do with you, or Christian faith, or this church.
Today I am going to tell you the truth, and some of you are not going to like it or agree with it, and that is okay. This week as I was preparing for this sermon, I resolved that I would be truthful with you about something that weighs heavily on me – an ugly truth that is not easy to say and not easy to hear. But I have resolved to be truthful with you, and that’s what I am going to do. Today, you and I are in a very serious crisis. And I say this because today, if Jesus of Nazareth walked into an Adventist church, I do not think he would recognize its message as his own. I do not think Jesus would recognize us as his disciples. The things that we stand for are not the things that Jesus stood for, and the things we stand against are not the things that Jesus opposed. The message that we preach is not the message that put Jesus on the cross, and were Jesus to preach what we preach, and do what we do, and live as we live, no one would have executed him. But if our lives and our words and our actions as a community would not get Jesus crucified, then they are not going to get us crucified, and following Jesus is first and foremost about carrying a cross, and one day being nailed to that cross. Brothers and sisters, today we are in a crisis.
Two thousand years ago Jesus said that not everyone who says to him “Lord, Lord,” is his disciple, and that is as true today as it was when he said. Two thousand years ago Jesus said that there will be many false Christs, and today it is as true as it was when Jesus said it. But we tend to think that this means there will be people walking around calling themselves Jesus—and indeed, such people exist, but they are largely ignored. But what if the reason that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” is a true disciple and the reality of false Christs is that the people who claim to be followers of Jesus are just using his name, but are not following the man himself? What if the Christian faith we practice is the faith of a false Christ, of a Christ that looks nothing like the Christ of Scripture? What if the one to whom we call “Lord, Lord” is nothing like Jesus of Nazareth?
I submit to you today that this is in fact the case. There are many Christianities available to us today, many Christs offered to us today, but just as there is only one Jesus, there is only one Christianity that is faithful to him. We must return to the basics of the faith if we are find our way. But we must also ask how we got here.
None of us can escape our life experiences. Who you are, whether a male or a female, black or brown or white, rich or poor, American or Egyptian, will shape the way you live, and the way that you understand life. And most importantly, who you are in this world is going to shape how you understand the message of Jesus. Two centuries ago in this country, when white slave masters worshipped Jesus, it is simply not possible that their faith was the same faith as that of the black slaves who also worshipped a God named Jesus. When the slave masters heard that the apostle Paul said that in Christ there is no slave or free, they understood that this meant that the fact that they owned other human beings made no difference spiritually; and when the slaves heard that in Christ there is no slave or free, they understood that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt and freed Jesus from death would not leave them in chains forever, that the crucified and risen Jesus hated their slavery as much as they did. Who they were in the world shaped their understanding of the world, of the Bible, of Jesus. It was that way yesterday, and it is no different today.
Each of us must understand who we are and where we come from if we are to be able to truthfully and critically examine our faith.
I was born here in New Jersey. Like so many before me, I am the brown-skinned son of a white father and a black mother. I am the descendent of both slaves and slave masters, the son of lynchers and the lynched, of the colonizers and the colonized, of capital and labor. I am the son of Africa and the son of Europe.
My mother was born in Haiti. She was born with a French name, a reminder that her ancestors were once kidnapped from Africa and sold to French criminals, forced to forget their native languages and learn the language of their so-called civilized captors, and given new names so that they would also forget that there was a time when they were once free. But my mother did not stay in Haiti. Like many of you here today, she discovered that the place of her birth was a place devastated by its colonial masters, that the only way to find a better life would be to travel to the land of colonizers, where the wealth had accumulated. So she had to leave her home and travel north, first to Canada and then to the United States, and learn the language of the other colonizers and slavers, English.
My father was born a citizen of this country, as were his parents before him and their parents before them. My name is Burdette, and the people who bear that name first came to this country of their own free will from England. They lived in Virginia and West Virginia. Because their skin was white, they were allowed to own property, to purchase guns to protect themselves, to travel wherever they pleased without fear of random violence, to own slaves, to attend whichever schools they desired, to vote for people who would represent their interests. My father speaks the language of his ancestors, and bears their name. He never had to leave the country of his birth in order to find a living wage. Because of the countless rights afforded to him, while these very same rights were denied to so many others, my father was able to work hard and advance himself, and eventually own his own business. Though not without his own hard work, yet also not without the many privileges afforded to white men in this society, my dad does not fear that he will not have a next meal, or not be able to pay for fuel in his car, or pay the next bill.
I was born into that family. This is where I come from, and I cannot get away from it, and it has shaped how I see the world, and how I understand what it means to be a Christian. Of course it is more than that.
I was also born into this church, this very congregation. It was in this building, just down those stairs, that I learned about Jesus. This church has always been somewhat diverse. There have always been black and white and Hispanic people—indeed, today there are more black and brown people than anything else. But to my knowledge, there has never been a black or Hispanic pastor. And while there are not too many pictures, the few images of Jesus that are in this church are images of a white-skinned, blue-eyed Jesus who looks more like King Henry II than a Palestinian Jew who was executed by the Roman empire. Nor was it any different with the illustrations in the children’s booklets and children’s Bibles. And it wasn’t just that Jesus in those pictures had white skin, light brown hair, and blue eyes. It was that the story of Jesus that those pictures told was the story of the White Jesus, the European Jesus of the European colonizers and slave masters. And let me be clear: it is not just about who the pastor is, or what the pictures of Jesus on the walls look like. The problem is in the faith itself.
In this world there are the powerful and the powerless, the rich and the rest of us, the oppressors and the oppressed, the free and the slaves, and each of us must ultimately choose whose cause we will support. And what we choose is going to determine what it means for us to be Christian. The question is this: is the faith that we practice the faith of the rich or the faith of the poor? Is it the faith of the slave masters or the slaves? Do we worship the God that the colonizers worship, or do we pray to the God of the colonized? Do we worship the God that the people on Wall Street worship, or do we worship the God of the underpaid workers? Do I worship the God of my father’s ancestors, of the God of my mother’s?
Let me make this more difficult.
No matter how you understand the things that Jesus said and did, the one thing you cannot avoid is the fact that the religious leadership, the Roman authorities, and an angry mob saw Jesus as enough of a threat to hand him over to Pontius Pilate to be crucified. This means that Jesus was executed as a political rebel. If they simply thought Jesus was a blasphemer, they would have stoned him, and the Roman government would not have wanted anything to do with his death. The simple fact that Jesus was crucified already tells us a great deal about him. His message frightened the people in power. His message was understood to have far-reaching political implications, and the only way for them to deal with him was to nail him to a cross. The people in power understood that every day that Jesus was alive was a day that their power was in danger. Every word that Jesus spoke was bad news for them. And so they crucified him. And his silence in death brought them comfort. His death was good news for them.
But God raised him up, and for the people and the powers and causes that benefitted from Jesus’ death, his risen life was and is still today very, very bad news. Yes, the gospel that God raised Jesus from the dead is good news, but make no mistake about it: it is bad news for anyone who would benefit from killing Jesus. But who were they, the people who benefitted from Jesus’ death?
Let us return to our Scripture for today:
“He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’”
If the good news of Jesus was for the poor, then Jesus was bad news for those who kept the poor in poverty. If the good news of Jesus was good news for the captives, then Jesus was bad news for those who unjustly benefit from keeping people imprisoned. If the good news of Jesus was for those blinded by misinformation and propaganda, by lying politicians, then Jesus was bad news for those who benefit from keeping people in the dark with their lies. If the good news of Jesus was for the oppressed, then Jesus was bad news for any and every oppressor.
So they killed him. But God raised him from the dead. And brothers and sisters, this Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever is still good news for the poor, for the prisoners, for the blind, for the oppressed. And that means that this Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever is still bad news for the rich, for the prison industrial complex, for corrupt politicians, for any and every oppressor.
So you who call yourselves disciples of Jesus: is the fact that you are alive good news for the poor? Is the fact that you are alive bad news for the rich? You who call yourselves Christians, who is your life good news for? Who is your life bad news for? You who preach the gospel, does your gospel bring comfort to people on Wall Street, or does it bring comfort to invisible factory workers, and immigrants who are being denied their wages? You who bear the name of Jesus, is your life good news for those who benefit from oppression, or does your life bring freedom to the oppressed?
This is a Seventh-day Adventist church, and for too long the Adventist church has been good news to the wrong people. We as a people have for too long been obsessed with our own private spiritual lives, ignoring the suffering all around us. We have been more concerned with pork than with poverty, more concerned with pork than with prisons. We are more worried about beasts that will come in the future than we have been about the beasts all around us, who are trampling the very ones for whom Christ died. We obsess over what we put in our stomachs, meanwhile people all over the world have nothing to eat. We talk about angels and demons and cosmic conflict, meanwhile every day people lose body parts or family or their own lives in unjust wars. We wait for Jesus to take us out of this world; meanwhile Jesus is among the poor, the oppressed, the wretched of the earth.
As I said, fifty years ago this Wednesday we commemorate the March on Washington, and we remember a man who died while he followed Jesus, and that man was no Seventh-day Adventist. Fifty years later, will we repent? Will we choose to follow a Jesus who might get us killed, or will we follow a Jesus who is a comfort to killers and thieves? Brothers and sisters, we have no choice but to choose. Either we follow Jesus of Nazareth or we don’t. My prayer for you, for myself, for our church, is that those of us who bear Jesus’ name will learn to follow him, and that fifty years from now another generation will be able to look back on us today and say, “Thank God for them.”
The transcript of this sermon was originally published on the blog Interlocutors: A Theological Dialogue (the blog Matt Burdette shares with Shane Akerman and Yi Shen Ma). Matt Burdette is a graduate of La Sierra University and doing doctoral work in theology at the University of Aberdeen. He grew up attending the Hightstown Seventh-day Adventist Church.