A Sermon For
Howard United Church of Christ
Nashville, Tennessee

"Back to the Future"

By Rev. Diane Ford Jones

The scripture reading in Matthew 16:13-24 says, that Jesus asked his disciple, Simon, “Who do you think I am?”  

If we use our sanctified imagination, it seems that before Simon responded to Jesus’ question, he may have needed first to recall what had happened before it was asked.  I imagine that Simon had to remember all of the things that he had either seen Jesus do, or Jesus of Nazareth entered the scene.  

Not only that, Simon also had to remember his own story in relation to the one who was asking, “Who do you think I am?” before he could give him an informed answer.  It was Simon’s past experience with Jesus that provided a clue as to where he stood in relation to Jesus at that moment, and as to where Jesus stood in relation to the world.  Without looking back, Simon could not fully know where he stood on any important issue – let alone one that demanded a divinely ordered response to a Jesus imparted question. But after a moment, Simon blurted out his response…. In a youthful paraphrase, he told Jesus the equivalent of “You’re the Man! You’re God’s Presence on earth with a capital ‘P’ – the Messiah!”

And Jesus affirmed Simon’s response, saying in effect: “Go ahead, my good brotha’! You understand that God has sent me.  Yes, I am the Messiah.  And because you know that about me I’m going to change your name.  From now on you will be called Peter.”

Then Jesus says, “Check this out.  Now that you know who I am, I’m going let you in on a couple of things I think you should know.  One is what my being the Messiah really means.  And the other is who YOU are for real, and what that’s all about.”

“It’s going down like this,” says Jesus. “Until I return, you’re going to be the cornerstone, of a rockin’ church.  It will tell other people who I am, Whose I am, and what God is all about after I’m murdered by the Romans….”

“Murdered by the Romans!” Peter thought to himself in disbelief.

The conversation shifts in tone....

“Now you know that ain’t even right, JC,” says Peter.  “Come on, man, stop playing! That’s not gonna happen to you!”

In that very instant, it likely became clear to Jesus that Peter doubted that Jesus would suffer an imminent violent death.  After all, Peter had just watched Jesus heal a woman’s daughter who was afflicted with evil spirits; he had witnessed Jesus heal the blind, lame, and mute who visited him on a mountainside; and Peter had seen Jesus feed the multitude with just a few fishes and loaves.  The people Jesus healed worshiped him!  Peter saw each person healed marvel at the power of God that Jesus had displayed! Yet, Peter had not fully come to know the price that Jesus was paying to heal those who suffered…the price he paid to perform the miracles that delivered them.  Peter only knew of Jesus the deliverer.  Now, for the first time, Peter heard Jesus forecast the deliverance of those who suffered through Jesus’ own voluntary suffering, death, and resurrection.    

The fact was, that each time Peter saw Jesus’ power to heal he’d also witnessed Jesus’ suffering. Jesus was burdened with the sins of those he’d made whole.  But Peter preferred not to remember this part of the action that Jesus’ performance involved.  And he was probably not eager to lend himself to one day following Jesus’ example to suffer at the hands of religious leaders without question.  At that moment, this disciple was unprepared to make himself completely vulnerable.  

Peter had not seriously considered facing the prospect of his own persecution or death for Jesus’ sake. Nor did Peter seem to believe that he, too, could be victorious in any endeavor – no matter how much persecution or suffering it involved – if he’d just allow himself to be completely led by God, and God alone, like Jesus did.

You see, the man whom Jesus had just assigned to represent the church, which, in turn, would symbolize Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for centuries to come for countless others, at that moment had failed to see the full picture. With that, Jesus stepped in with-a-quickness. He put the evil spirit that made Brother Peter doubt his forecast in check.  After that Jesus proceeded to follow God’s Salvation Plan right down to last prophetic detail.  And unwittingly or not, Peter was a witness to, and participant in that Salvation Plan.
Simon Peter had seen Jesus make a way out of no way. In so doing Jesus not only deepened everyone’s sense of community, he also deepened their communion with God.  It was Jesus’ role as a suffering servant that made salvation possible.  And it was this role which would inform Simon Peter of not just who he was and Whose he was, but also why he existed in the first place.

You see, Jesus was inviting Peter to look back in order that he might have a firm basis from which to discern what his future would be.  Jesus was inviting Peter, then, to go back into the future.

This Biblical story suggests that we can ask, this morning, “What does it mean to be the church of Jesus Christ?”  It means the same thing now that it’s always meant… to live in the world like Jesus lived in the world.  It’s not necessarily to do all of the things that he did here, but rather, for us to live as he LIVED while he lived here!  If we are his and we are an authentic part of his church we, too, must serve the poor and powerless as he did.   

Additionally, in order for us to derive the full meaning for this text all of us who are in Howard United Church of Christ today can take this opportunity to recall how Jesus walked with this church through its humble beginnings.  We can also note what is occurring in this church’s life at present.  And we can begin to examine what this text suggests, not just for Howard, but for all genuinely Christian churches that are discerning their ministry in the future.  

Every church ultimately will have to look back and address Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”

To look “back” is not only to review, but also to take inventory, to both recall and reassess.  To look “back” is to locate ourselves in the greater scheme of things… and perhaps, to unveil hidden truths.

When we look back today, what might we say about the forbearers of Howard Congregational Church and Jesus Christ?   Surly they heard Jesus asking them the same questions: “What are others saying?” and “Who do you say that I am?”  They, too, witnessed Jesus perform miracles that delivered them unto God and freedom.  They knew that freedom – even the freedom to worship in peace – did not come cheaply.

But, bolstered by their faith in God and their companionship with Jesus Christ, they persisted, with the aid of the American Missionary Association of the Congregational Denomination, in forming Howard U.C.C. at a time when, for example, courts could relegate Black orphan children to forced labor camps… at a time when freedman were forbidden to own or rent land though slavery had been abolished by the U.S. Constitution’s 13th amendment…, at a time when second class citizenship was the norm for people of African decent, and at a time when “strange fruit” often hung from trees.

Who would Howard church’s forbearers say that Jesus was?  They would say he was the Son of God the Messiah!  In the wake of chattel slavery, they would say that through him all things are possible. Only trust in him and a determination to act as he acted in the world kept them singing the old Negro spiritual, “I’ve known rivers…My soul has grown deep like the rivers….” Each of our forbearers in Howard Church said, “The blood of the lamb has been shed for me!” “Though I walk through the valley of death I shall fear no evil for Thou art with me!”; and, “Those who believe in Him shall never perish”!

But that’s not the only question this text invites us at Howard Church to answer.  Another is “What is Jesus’ call today to the leadership and congregants of Howard U.C.C.?”

Jesus rebuked Peter for suggesting to him, that God-centered spiritual leadership, and a faithful congregational response to it, might somehow insulate a person or a church from society-inflicted suffering.  They most certainly do not do that, as Jesus’ own servant life clearly reveals!

Most of us have selective memories. We retain what we want to recall about what Jesus said and conveniently forget the rest.  Have you ever done that?  I know that I have….
But for us, there’s no getting around this one.  Peter told Jesus “You want to suffer but you can’t.”  And Jesus responded, “I will and I must!” Furthermore, Jesus implied to Peter, “And so will you.”  His words to Peter were harsh, “Get behind me Satan!  You are more focused on the comforts of the world than on doing God’s will in the world.”  

Today Jesus’ rebuke may have sounded something like this:  “Peter, you’re tied up in denial because you are focusing so hard on your own survival.  I want to move you past your fears to focus on what God is calling you to be and to do!  I want to help you speak truth to power…to respond to the needs of the needy…to seek peace with justice in an unjust and violent world…. to be a bridge-maker and torchbearer for the marginalized, poor, and oppressed!  Right now Peter you’re standing, frozen, like a deer caught in the oncoming headlights.  You’re, suspended between your past and the future wondering how on earth you will find the courage to do what you are being instructed to do.”  

At that moment, Peter indeed was shifting his way of being in the world.  He was beginning to understand that God, who had accompanied him in the past through his presence in the Messiah, would never forsake him, no matter how unbearable the challenges that lay before him.  But he was still uneasy.  
Peter was just beginning to realize that the purpose for which he was created to be in this world might lead him through ever more turbulent waters.  But he also glimpsed the fact that God who called him through Jesus, and who sustains all things through Jesus, is eternal.  His Messiah’s call to suffering therefore was both all encompassing and everlasting.   Peter sensed that he had the freedom to respond in faith and follow Jesus to the end, or he could take a more comfortable route and become a spiritually impotent disciple, a disciple in name only.

Today’s religious leaders and churches are facing the same decision now that Peter faced then. Some churches today sit in the nexus between their past and their future.  The so-called chosen ones are too often frozen in hesitation.  Still, they sense in their hearts that they are being summoned by God today to be co-creators with God of a new way of being church in the world.

In some respects the more things change the more they remain the same. As in the days of old, the church of today has an opportunity to move past the pathetic response of religious leaders that seek to disempower its ability to lift the burdens of those who are marginalized and oppressed!

Today, the church has an opportunity to say “I will not be complicit in, or support in any form or fashion, our nation’s myths that seek to equate the loss of human life with heroism.”

Today the church can say, “I will not equate Christian faith with triumphant drum beating nationalism!”

Today the church can say, “I will not accept our country’s pursuing and squandering global resources in support of our National imperialism!  Nor will I equate good citizenship with the practice of corporate and private greed at the expense of those who suffer for the lack of basic necessities!”

Today, on the occasion of its 130th anniversary, this church is poised to recommit itself to follow Jesus’ example, and even face persecution, if need be, in the pursuit of peace with justice.  It can say to all of its naysayers, “Get behind me Satan! We’re on the move now! Neither hell nor high water’s gonna stop us…  The Prince of Peace is our deliverer! The God of salvation is our sustainer! The Rock of Ages is our anchor! and on this solid rock we will stand! All else around is sinking sand!”  Howard U.C.C. can say today, “Our journey through this moment in history has been paved by all of those who preceded us!  The future does not frighten us!  We’re marching on to glory!!”   

Finally today, and into the future, if it follows Jesus faithfully, the church will seek to be a reconciler between the marginalized global oppressed and their global oppressors.  It will do this by engaging in constructive dialogue and negotiations with both groups, and by participating in non-violent actions to relieve each of their sufferings.

Now I can hear some folks already saying, “What are you talking about, preacher?”  We have our hands full addressing legitimate justice concerns right here in our own back yards!” Katrina survivors are our kin.  Our educational system is under siege and our schools are grossly inept. Our people are warehoused in jails – in droves. Our sisters and brothers are dying of HIV/AIDS at alarming rates and our children are having babies before they are prepared to be parents. Our people are plagued by politicians who try to exploit us. And our faithful are fighting over who is worthy of what.  Some are oppressing and vilifying our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gendered members as if they have forgotten what oppression is like and how they got over!  We’ve got Clarence in the courthouse, Condi in the big house and that means the vast majority of us are in the outhouse!  So WHY the blankety-blank should we stop to think about answering Jesus’ question to Peter and our foreparents, by involving ourselves in stuff that’s happening to other people somewhere else that ain’t none of our business?!?!

And the answer is simply this:  It is our business! God is the God and creator of ALL people and God is Love.  Love is constant. It doesn’t change.  Activities change.  Circumstances change. But God and God’s love are universal and constant.  Mark 12:28-31, the simplest of all Gospels, puts it this way:  Jesus’ answer to the scribe who asks, “What is the greatest commandment?” is this:  “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.”   Later in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus amplified his response by addressing the question “Who is my neighbor?”  And his response made it clear that, for Christians, the neighbor is anyone who is oppressed and in need – no mater where they may be.  This holds true for persons of all nationalities and faiths.  This nation’s moral concerns are intertwined with the moral concerns of other nations for the well-being of the world’s poor, marginalized and oppressed!
For example, there are evil barriers here in America that affect Israel/Palestine. Some even originate here.

One is the fact that the U.S. currently is headed by the son of an oil baron family and is driving hard toward America’s establishment as an oil based empire. Another American barrier to world peace is that, in order to fulfill its ambitions for empire, the United States is using Israel as its military proxy. An additional American barrier to world peace is the emergence here, in America, of American Zionism.  

American Zionism is a Christian fundamentalist theology that counts America’s administrative leadership among its proponents. This theology promotes warfare, spearheaded by Israel, against the world’s Muslim nations in the belief that such conflict is a precondition to the second coming of Jesus Christ.

American Zionism also predicts global war, or Armageddon, at the end of which nonbelievers in its theology, including Jews who decline to convert to its version of Christianity, will suffer God’s condemnation. Following that it predicts the advent of a new Garden of Eden.

And there is yet another barrier to world peace that prevents global wholeness and community.  That is the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. It uses the grievances of an oppressed Palestinian people to pursue its own global religio-political interests. Islamic fundamentalism opposes American imperialism and resents Israel’s role as a seemingly willing instrument of American aggression. Meanwhile, the Palestinian people are suffering.  

According to Professor Jonathan Scott, author of the recent article published in a new e-magazine on African American political thought titled, The Niggerization of Palestine, “the Israeli military occupation of Palestine, is the longest colonial occupation in modern history – and one that is impossible without the $8 billion in unconditional U.S. aid that flows annually to Israel. The occupation costs Israel $12 billion per year and would become immediately insupportable were the massive U.S. aid package suspended for even a month or two.”  

Did you know that eighty percent of all U.S. foreign aid goes to Israel?

“The underlying issue,” says Scott, “as is always the case with Palestine, is how Americans might respond politically if they came to know that a significant portion of their tax dollars is funding the most brutal system of racial oppression the world has seen since American Jim Crow and apartheid in South Africa.”  Scott goes on to say, “The Israel Lobby works with this same assumption, evidenced by their vicious attacks on anybody who dares call the Israeli occupation racist….”

Folks, I traveled to the Mideast this summer.  I’ve seen with my own eyes how the wall segregates the Palestinian people from their own land and into small West Bank ghettos that are more depleted than those on the south side of Chicago.  Israelis, on the other hand, live in confiscated Palestinian homes on streets paved with milk and honey that are more reminiscent of Beverley Hills.    

I’m not suggesting that Israel should not exist or that it should not be safe from harm.  But efforts to keep Israel safe must not negate God’s command, to Israel, to Palestine, and to us, to love rather than hate.

It is critical for us gathered here today to well-remember that the triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism that Dr. King spoke against are alive and well, locally and globally, and to continue his struggle against them. To date, American dissent against the Israeli occupation has tended to avoid making mention of the obvious “niggerization” currently occurring in Palestine.  Often discussion of Israel (as an imperialist power in aggressive pursuit of regional military and economic domination), by American churches that oppose this civil and human rights atrocity, is condemned.

Such churches are unfairly labeled terrorist sympathizers by overzealous Zionists.  Native Americans and Black folk in America have seen this sort of horror motion picture show time and again! And we would all take a huge step away from God’s will for us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves if we simply chose to ignore what’s unfolding before our eyes!

As it moves into the future, Howard U.C.C. will live out its mission in a time of unmatched turmoil spawned by a Global Empire that thirsts to dominate the world’s people and resources for its own exclusive benefit. Its demonic ambition sits on a platform of sand that has no peace with justice foundation.  

And the church of peace, justice, love and mercy that Jesus embodies will have to confront, nonviolently, venom-spewing religious fundamentalist extremists.  Some of them may live right next door. Others of them may live elsewhere.  

The thing for us who are here today to remember is that all people are God’s people, and all people are our neighbors in God’s global house!

In this world, God’s people seek to address the needs of the oppressed.  We seek to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  Now and in the future we will be the ones that are lifting our voices saying, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again!”, and “Glory Halleluiah, His truth is marching on!”  Look for us in the thick of things.  We’ll be the ones waiving banners and singing, “We Shall Overcome” with joy in our hearts!  May Howard United Church of Christ be in the thick of things with the rest, for Jesus’ sake!  May it be there Christ -called, responsive, loving, long suffering and triumphant!  Be in the forefront with Jesus church! Be in the forefront with Jesus!

Blessings on you and peace be with you now and always. Amen!