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Established May 2009, Little Rock, AR

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A Guide to Recovery

September 24, 2017

A GUIDE TO RECOVERY 
A Sermon delivered to
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
September 24, 2017 (Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
 
Isaiah 58:1-12

58Shout out, do not hold back!
   Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
   to the house of Jacob their sins. 
2 Yet day after day they seek me
   and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
   and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
   they delight to draw near to God. 
3 ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
   Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
   and oppress all your workers. 
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
   and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
   will not make your voice heard on high. 
5 Is such the fast that I choose,
   a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
   and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
   a day acceptable to the Lord? 

6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke? 
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator* shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday. 
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
   and satisfy your needs in parched places,
   and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
   like a spring of water,
   whose waters never fail. 
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
   the restorer of streets to live in.
 
 
Isaiah 58 is a prophetic message to a society that took pride in being punctual about religion.  The prophet, speaking for God, observes that the society keeps religious holidays.  People would show up for religious services and behave with respectable piety.  Prayers were uttered.  Offerings were presented.  All the external trappings and features of religious ceremony and ritual took place. 
Despite all the prayers, hymns, and fasts, and offerings, God had not delivered what the people expected.  The praying, hymn-singing, fast-making, and sanctimonious looking and sounding people were distressed that calamities continued to threaten despite all their religious services and events.  Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice? (Isaiah 58:3)
The prophet was directed to issue the divine answer to that question by a message that was loud and clear.  The problem, according to God’s direction to the prophet, was that the society was guilty of moral and ethical fraud and hypocrisy.  The accusation of fraud and hypocrisy was not to be issued in a mild way.  It was not to be made in a covert or subtle way.  No!  The prophet was directed to be bold, loud, unrestrained, and clear.
Shout out, do not hold back!  Lift up your voice like a trumpet!  Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.  Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God… Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a closed fist.  Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.  (Is. 58:1-2, 4).
Notice that the prophet was directed to speak, boldly and clearly, about persistent inequality and oppression.  Is this not the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Is. 58:6-7)
Prophetic people tell the truth!  Rituals and ceremonies are useless in the face of oppressive realities.  Rituals and ceremonies are worthless when people are being mistreated.
 
The truth is that while state and local big shots summon us to engage in “Reflections on Progress” concerning desegregation in Little Rock, they schemed to spend millions of dollars to create new schools with state-of-the-art features in west Little Rock –where affluent white families live whose children do not attend public schools in large part.  Meanwhile, McClellan High School and Cloverdale Middle School –schools attended predominantly by children from black, brown, and lower income families – have long been considered unsafe. 
Prophetic people tell the truth that that the attendance zone for Little Rock Central High School is deliberately drawn so that white children who live in the affluent areas of Little Rock west of Interstate 430 and north of Markham Street can attend that high school in the center of Little Rock, as plainly shown by the 2017 high school attendance zone map for the Little Rock School District:  http://www.lrsd.org/sites/default/files/oldfiles/zones/2001hi.pdf
 
 
Prophetic people should declare that charter schools are not proliferating within the Little Rock School District because charter schools have a better record for educating children.  Charter schools are proliferating in the Little Rock School District – as in other urban school districts that serve black, black, and lower income children and families – because there huge financial rewards for establishing them. 
Prophetic people should declare the inconvenient truth that charter schools cherry-pick students.
Prophetic people should declare that charter schools do not provide free transportation for all children.
Prophetic people should declare that charter schools are not required to hire certified educators.
Prophetic people should declare that every time a student enrolled in public school is moved to a charter school, the public funds associated with that student shift to the charter school and its management company. 
Prophetic people should declare that charter schools are merely business ventures set up to produce profits for wealthy investors by siphoning funds, buildings, and other resources for existing public schools and placing them in the power of management companies set up by wealthy hedge fund investors. 
Making these prophetic observations is not about being negative.  Before any problem can be corrected or healed the condition causing it must be confronted and explained.  This is as true concerning moral, ethical, and social situations as it is for physical and mental diseases and injuries. 
Convenient lies are not a sign of good health.  Getting regular checkups doesn’t amount to much unless physicians tell patients the truth. 
 
 
The hard truth we must confront is that this community, state, and nation are guilty of moral and ethical fraud and hypocrisy concerning public education and inequality despite all the ceremonies, hand-shaking, back slapping, tours of Little Rock Central High, presentations of plaques and other formal declarations have occurred during the past sixty years.  Politicians, education officials, business owners, and other influential people carry on the rituals and profess devotion to equality, but it has been a sham.   Prophetic people must make that condemnation in messages that are bold, loud, and clear.
We must insist that people remember that the charter school movement got its big boost in 1998 when President William Jefferson Clinton - the person chosen to deliver the keynote address for the 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversary commemorations for the desegregation of Little Rock Central – signed federal legislation aimed at creating more charter schools.  During the October 22, 1998 White House signing ceremony, President Clinton made the following comment:  
"When I took office in 1993, there was only one charter school actually operating in America… This legislation puts us well on our way to creating 3,000 charter schools by the year 2000."  (http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/stories/1998/10/22/charter.schools/
 
Federal funding for charter schools increased under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  During the last year of the George W. Bush presidency (2008), the federal budget for charter schools was $208 million.  During the last year of the Obama presidency (2016), the federal budget for charter schools was $333.2 million, an increase of $125.2 million.  
That money was not available to make improvements to existing public schools.  It did not go to give computers to traditional public school students.  It did not help students attending traditional public schools in Little Rock or elsewhere in the United States.  It was targeted for charter schools.
Earlier this year the Arkansas General Assembly, with active urging from Education Commissioner Johnny Key and assent (if not advocacy) from Governor Asa Hutchinson, passed Act 542 of 2017.  Act 542 allows property (including buildings) of public schools in districts that have been taken over by the state to be leased to charter school organizations.  Here is a link to that law: http://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2017/2017R/Acts/Act542.pdf
 
This means that charter school organizations are now authorized by state law to operate from public school buildings that have been designated as "under-utilized."
Now remember that LRSD Superintendent Michael Poore announced months ago that he has decided to close Franklin Elementary School, Wilson Elementary School, Woodruff Preschool, and Hamilton Learning Academy Early Childhood.  Each of those schools served children from black, brown, and lower-income families.
It is not enough, however, for prophetic people to draw attention to social inequality and oppression in public education.  The guide to recovery must also include directions for healing.  If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  The LORD will guide you continuously, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong… [Y]ou shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.  (Is. 58:9b-10, 12b). 
The key to our healing will also involve doing right by people who have been marginalized and forced to endure oppression.  That means focusing on children whose families have been historically under-served and dis-served. 
Instead of new schools in the north and west areas of Little Rock where white parents have chosen to live and send their children to private schools to avoid being around black, brown, and poor children, money should be spent replacing and improving schools in central and southwest Little Rock where   black, brown, and poor children live. 
Instead of closing schools, shutting down academic enrichment programs, and shifting teachers from schools in central and southwest Little Rock, more resources and the best teachers go to those schools.
 
Funds for public education should not be diverted to create a new charter school on the campus of Arkansas Baptist College – the only black Baptist liberal arts college west of the Mississippi River.  Let’s be honest.  That charter school isn’t required to hire certified teachers.  Most of the instruction is to occur online.  The biggest feature advertised about that school is a sixth grade football program, not proven teaching and learning strategies related to literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, and the performing and visual arts. 
Correcting racial equality in public education will not happen by creating new pipelines for football coaches to exploit.  The problems of racial inequality require that we not be content with having prayer meetings and Bible studies, songfests, revivals, and worship spectacles featuring exciting preaching and choir exhibitions. 
Righteousness is always about justice, not religious ceremonies.  Righteousness is about caring for those who are being mistreated, not about catering to those who privileged. Righteousness requires that we tell the truth in ways that cause people to see who is profiting from injustice, and then do something about it. 
It isn’t enough to attend religious gatherings.  It isn’t enough to have prayer meetings.  It isn’t enough to quote Scriptures. Righteousness requires that prophetic people challenge our society to roll up our sleeves and get to work dismantling systems of privilege and oppression.  God calls us to this work.  God will give us strength for this work.  God will bless our faithfulness in doing this work.  And our society will be healed as we go about this work. 
 
 
Amen.
 
©Wendell Griffen, 2017