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WEALTH, JUSTICE, SALVATION, AND REPARATIONS

August 9, 2020

View sermon:  https://youtu.be/ZL7lSAaC97I

 

WEALTH, JUSTICE, SALVATION, AND REPARATIONS

©Wendell Griffen, 2020

August 9, 2020 (10th Sunday after Pentecost)

New Millennium Church

Little Rock, Arkansas

 

 

Mark 10:23-27

23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

 

Luke 16:19-26

19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

 

Luke 19:8-10

8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

 

       When we consider them separately, Mark’s narrative about the encounter Jesus had with an unnamed wealthy man who asked what he needed to “do to inherit eternal life,” and Luke’s narrative about the allegory Jesus shared about an unnamed rich man and an impoverished, hungry, and sick man named Lazarus, and Luke’s narrative about the encounter Jesus had with the wealthy revenue commissioner from Jericho named Zacchaeus do not seem related.   But taken together, they highlight truths about wealth, justice, and salvation that faithful people should remember whenever we think and speak about reparations, including reparations sought for centuries of racial injustice in the United States and elsewhere in the world. 

 

       In these passages the plight of poor persons is contrasted with the comfort and affluence of persons who were wealthy.

 

The plight of powerless and vulnerable people is contrasted with the power and privilege of others (the unnamed “rich young ruler” in Mark 10, the unnamed “rich man” in Luke 16, and Zacchaeus in Luke 19). 

 

Yet in the passages about the rich man in Mark 10 and the rich man in Luke 16, the unnamed rich men refused to let go of their wealth to benefit their impoverished neighbors.  Of the three lessons, only the one involving Zacchaeus involved a rich person who willingly divested himself of wealth on behalf of persons who lived in poverty.  Zacchaeus pledged to give half of his wealth to the poor and pledged to pay back four times the value of anything he had obtained by fraud (dishonesty). 

 

Zacchaeus stands out because Jesus declared concerning him that “salvation has come to this house…”  (Luke 19:10).  Remember that Jesus told his disciples that it would be “hard for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” after the rich man was saddened and left him because he “had many possessions.”  When the disciples asked Jesus “Then who can be saved?” after Jesus proverbially observed that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus told them that “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 

 

Zacchaeus proved that point.  Zacchaeus was wealthy and politically connected.  However, Zacchaeus was "lost” because he was estranged from God and his neighbors due to his wealth.  The estrangement was not caused by God or the poor neighbors.  It was caused, existed, and defined the relationship Zacchaeus had with God and his neighbors until Zacchaeus decided to part with it in obedience to the love and justice of God. 

 

On the other hand, the unnamed rich man Jesus spoke about in Luke 16 who disregarded the poor, hungry, and sickened Lazarus learned too late – in the afterlife – that “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”  I suggest to you that wealth was not the “great chasm.”   The “great chasm” was the tormented man’s choice to view his personal wealth over the personhood of Lazarus.  During his lifetime the rich man was content with his wealth to the point that Lazarus didn’t count.  Lazarus didn’t matter because he was poor.  Lazarus didn’t matter because he was powerless. Lazarus didn’t matter because he was sick.  Lazarus didn’t matter because the rich man considered personal wealth and privilege more important than being a loving neighbor.  That choice created and kept in place “a great chasm” between the rich man and Lazarus.

 

In the same way that “a great chasm” separated the rich man from Lazarus and the patriarch Abraham, “a great chasm” separates people who enjoy white privilege from Black descendants of the enslaved persons whose lives and labor was seized, sold, and stolen. 

 

There is “a great chasm” because of unjustly obtained wealth, power, and privilege.

 

There is “a great chasm” defined by health, education, income, housing, employment, voting power, and other disparities that can be traced to stolen lives and labor.

 

But the “great chasm” exists because people like the rich ruler and the rich man who ignored Lazarus love wealth and privilege more than they love their unwealthy, unhealthy, and unprivileged Black, Brown, Red, and Yellow neighbors. 

 

The “great chasm” exists because people practiced land theft, chattel slavery, wage theft, and bigotry against the enslaved people so they could become “rich.” 

 

The evidence of this “great chasm” confronts us now the same way it confronted this society and world in past generations because people in our time refuse to heed the lessons about Jesus and the rich ruler, the rich man and Lazarus, and Jesus and Zacchaeus.

 

“Then who can be saved?”  The disciples put that question to Jesus in Mark 10 after the rich man who had “many possessions” sadly left Jesus after Jesus told him to sell what he had, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him.  Jesus told them that “for mortals” salvation from addiction to wealth “is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

 

Zacchaeus is God’s proof that “the great chasm” does not have to become our curse.  People, societies, and the world can be “saved” from the disparities associated with racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and centuries of government sanctioned and religion sacralized bigotry, discrimination, and other violations of God’s love and justice.  I repeat, we can be saved!

 

How?

 

First, white people need to admit they hold unjust advantages due to centuries of white supremacy and white privilege.  It is not credible for white people to say they love people of color yet pretend they do not have and enjoy these undeserved advantages.  Nikole Hannah Jones wrote the truth about this in the June 28, 2020 issue of the New York Times Magazine in the following words.

 

… [W] wealth is not something people create solely by themselves; it is accumulated across generations.

 

While unchecked discrimination still plays a significant role in shunting opportunities for [B]lack Americans, it is [W]hite Americans’ centuries-long economic head start that most effectively maintains racial caste today.  As soon as laws began to ban racial discrimination against [B]lack Americans, [W]hite Americans created so-called race-neutral means of maintaining political and economic power.  For example, soon after the 15th Amendment [ratified in 1870] granted black men the right to vote, white politicians in many states, understanding that recently freed Black Americans were impoverished, implemented poll taxes.  In other words, [W]hite Americans have long known that in a country where [B]lack people have been kept disproportionately poor and prevented from building wealth, rules and policies involving money can be nearly as effective for maintaining the color line as legal segregation.  You do not have to have laws forcing segregated housing and schools if [W]hite Americans, using their generational wealth and higher incomes, can simply buy their way into expensive enclaves with exclusive public schools that are out of the price range of most [B]lack Americans.

 

In January 1865, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, providing for the distribution of hundreds of thousands of acres of former Confederate land issued in 40-acre tracts to newly freed people along coastal South Carolina and Georgia.  But just four months later, in April, Lincoln was assassinated.  Andrew Johnson, the racist, pro-Southern vice president who took over, immediately reneged upon the promise of 40 acres, overturning Sherman’s order.  Most [W]hite Americans felt that [B]lack Americans should be grateful for their freedom, that the Civil War had absolved any debt.  The government confiscated the land from the few formerly enslaved families who had started to eke out a life away from the white whip and gave it back to the traitors.  And with that, the only real effort this nation ever made to compensate [B]lack Americans for 250 years of chattel slavery ended.

 

Freed people, during and after slavery, tried again and again to compel the government to provide restitution for slavery, to provide at the very least a pension for those who spent their entire lives working for no pay.  They filed lawsuits.  They organized to lobby politicians.  And every effort failed.  To this day, the only Americans who have ever received government restitution for slavery were white enslavers in Washington, D.C. who were compensated for their loss of human property [the District of Columbian Emancipated Compensation Act of 1862].

 

In 1881, Frederick Douglass, surveying the utter privation in which the federal government left the formerly enslaved, wrote:  “When the Hebrews were emancipated, they were told to take spoil from the Egyptians [see, Exodus 12:35-36].  When the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living.  But not so when our slaves were emancipated.  They were sent away empty-handed, without money, without friends and without a foot of land on which they could live and make a living.  Old and young, sick and well, were turned loose to the naked sky, naked to their enemies.

 

Just after the federal government decided that [B]lack people were undeserving of restitution, it began bestowing millions of acres in the West to [W]hite Americans under the Homestead Act, while also enticing [W]hite foreigners to immigrate with the offer of free land.  From 1868 to 1934, the federal government gave away 246 million acres in 160-acre tracts, nearly 10 percent of all the land in the nation, to 1.5 million [W]hite families, native-born and foreign… [S]ome 46 million American adults today, nearly 20 percent of all American adults, descend from those homesteaders.

 

 

The federal government turned its back on its financial obligation to four million newly liberated people, and then it left them without protection as well, as [W]hite rule was reinstated across the South starting in the 1880s.   Federal troops pulled out of the South, and [W]hite Southerners overthrew biracial governance using violence, coups and election fraud.

 

The campaigns of [W]hite terror that marked the period after Reconstruction, known as Redemption, once again guaranteed an exploitable, dependent labor force for the white South.  Most [B]lack Southerners had no desire to work on the same forced-labor camps where then had just been enslaved.  But [W]hite Southerners passed state laws that made it a crime if they didn’t sign labor contracts with [W]hite landowners or changed employers without permission or sold cotton after sunset, and then as punishment for these “crimes,” [B]lack people were forcibly leased out to companies and individuals.  Through sharecropping and convict leasing, [B]lack people were compelled back into quasi slavery.   This arrangement ensured that once-devasted towns like Greenwood, Miss. Were again able to call themselves the cotton capitals of the world, and companies like United States Steel secured a steady supply of unfree black laborers who could be worked to death, in what Douglass A. Blackmon, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, calls “slavery by another name.”

 

Yet [B]lack Americans persisted, and despite the odds, some managed to acquire land, start businesses and build schools for their children. 

But it was the most prosperous [B]lack people and communities that elicited the most vicious response.  Lynchings (sic), massacres and generalized racial terrorism were regularly deployed against [B]lack people who had bought land, opened schools, built thriving communities, tried to organize sharecroppers’ unions or opened their own businesses, depriving white owners of economic monopolies and the opportunity to cheat [B]lack buyers. 

 

At least 6,500 [B]lack people were lynched from the end of the Civil War to 1950 an average of nearly two a week for nine decades.  Nearly five [B]lack people, on average, have been killed a week by law enforcement since 2015. 

 

…[B]lack farms were stolen, shops burned to the ground.  Entire prosperous [B]lack neighborhoods and communities were razed by [W]hite mobs from Florida to North Carolina to Atlanta to Arkansas.  One of the most infamous of these, and yet still widely unknown among [W]hite Americans, occurred in Tulsa, Okla., when gangs of [W]hite men, armed with guns supplied by public officials destroyed a [B]lack district so successful that it was known as Black Wall Street.  They burned more than 1,200 homes and businesses, including a department store, a library and a hospital, and killed hundreds who it is believed were buried in mass graves.  In 2001, a commission on the massacre recommended that the state pay financial restitution for the victims, but the State Legislature refused.  And this is the place that in the midst of weeks of protests crying out for [B]lack lives to matter, Donald Trump, nearly 100 years later, chose to restart his campaign rallies.

As part of the New Deal programs, the federal government created redlining maps, marking neighborhoods where [B]lack people lived in red ink to denote that they were uninsurable.  As a result, 98 percent of the loans the Federal Housing Administration insured from 1934 to 1962 went to [W]hite Americans, locking nearly all [B]lack Americans out of the government program credited with building the modern (white) middle class.

In other words, while [B]lack Americans were being systematically, generationally deprived of the ability to build wealth, while also being robbed of the little they had managed to gain, [W]hite Americans were not only free to earn money and accumulate wealth with exclusive access to the best jobs, best schools, best credit terms, but they were also getting substantial government help in doing so.

 

Like the “rich ruler” in Mark 10 and the unnamed “rich man” in Luke 16 were more interested in their wealth than anything done to or suffered by their poor neighbors, our society has been more interested in white wealth and privilege than what has been done to and suffered by its African-American neighbors.  Sadly, church folks – meaning the people to whom Jesus spoke and who profess to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior – have often been responsible for the harms and injuries that African-Americans have suffered and continue to suffer.

 

Well Reverend, the title of your sermon is Wealth, Justice, Salvation, and Reparations.  How does this fit the notion of salvation?  Remember what young protesters are shouting in the streets? “No Justice, No Peace!”  No justice, no salvation. 

 

It doesn’t matter how many times people come down the aisle and give their hands to preachers.  We don’t know whether the rich man was a church member.  We don’t know if he was a member of the vestry, a Deacon, or Trustee.  We don’t know whether he had given a huge offering to the Capital Campaign, or whether he had pews in the congregation with his family name engraved on them. 

 

We know, rather, that Abraham said the formerly rich man, “Child remember that in your lifetime you had good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things.” 

 

Here’s the Griffen re-mix.

 

“In your lifetime you had FHA loans without the handicap of red-lining.”

“In your lifetime you did not have to worry about being discriminated in finding and keeping work because of your whiteness.”

 

“In your, nobody complained about affirmative action when white people were given land to white homesteaders.”

 

“In your lifetime you had good things, and you did nothing to remedy the plight of God’s Lazarus-like black children who had evil things. And you acted as if you were entitled to all the good things and God’s black children be damned.”

 

“Child remember that a great chasm has been fixed but the chasm was there throughout your lifetime, but your privilege blinded you from seeing it, and from seeing the plight of God’s Lazarus-like black children of God.”

 

Beloved, our society cannot be “saved” from racial injustice while white children of God with generations of unjust benefits due to white privilege hold onto those benefits and refuse to make reparations to black children of God who have suffered generations of unjust detriments due to systemic racism.  Remember what happened to the rich man and Lazarus.  Remember “Child remember …”

 

Our society can be “saved,” from the “great chasm” produced by systemic racism.  But it requires people showing up in the name of God like Jesus and confronting it with the “great chasm.”  It requires us obeying the example of Jesus with the rich young rule and Zacchaeus.”

 

Our duty as followers of Jesus is to call our society to remember this piercing lesson from Jesus and fix “the great chasm” for generations of the “evil things” black children of God have suffered while “good things” were unjustly bestowed on white children of God.  Our society is to call attention to the “great chasm” and the systemic racism responsible for it before it is “everlasting too late,” as the elders of my youth would say.

 

Oh God, these are not easy lessons to hear.

 

They are not easy to hear because they have been long ignored.

 

They have been in our Bibles all our lives, yet we have not heeded them.

 

So, the great chasm we read about in Luke 16 and the sadness of the rich young ruler we read about in Luke 10 are not addressed, and the joy we read about in Zacchaeus in Luke 19 are not experienced.

 

We confess our blindness.

 

We confess our willful refusal to see the chasm between the “good things” white children of God enjoy as right and the “evil things” black children of God suffer because of systemic racism.

 

Help us to be people like Jesus.

 

Help us to see ourselves.  Help us to see what we don’t want to see.

 

Help us to see and hear your Spirit teaching us what we don’t want to know.

 

Help us to call attention to the “great chasm” caused by undeserved advantages of white privilege and systemic racism.

 

Help us to see ourselves.  Help us to hear your call to do justice and bridge the great chasm.

 

Help us to call attention to the moral and ethical imperative to follow the example of Zacchaeus.

 

Help us to do justice and know the peace of salvation from the great chasm of systemic racism and white privilege.

 

This is our prayer in the name of Jesus, who refused to allow us to remain blind and numb to the truth that the great chasm requires that those with undeserved privilege and wealth do justice by making reparations so that our society can be “saved” from systemic racism and the great chasm of white privilege and the many disparities associated with it.  Amen.