Righteousness in Complex Times

I have attempted to convert my sermon notes from yesterday into a sermon.

By means of explanation, this sermon is part of a series our church is doing on the beatitudes, or the sermon where Jesus lists different groups of people who are blessed, although their lives are hard. We are using an accompanying children’s book called “The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights,” and the image that goes along with “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” is the image of a row of Black soldiers in blue, with the reminder that God was with the soldiers as they fought and died for freedom.

Scripture: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. -Matthew 5:6

Before I begin, I want to apologize. This sermon was shaped by my drive back from a congregational consultation in Atascadero earlier this week. During the drive, I listened to two soundtracks back to back: Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Assassins by Stephen Sondheim. Jesus Christ Superstar got me thinking about how, according to some interpretations, Judas betrayed Jesus because he was trying to force Jesus’ hand, so that Jesus would have to claim his identity as liberator of his people. And Assassins had me thinking about how John Wilkes Booth believed God was on his side when he killed Abraham Lincoln. And so did John Brown—the song we’ve been singing in verses this morning, “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord,” that song was based on the original song: “John Brown’s body lies a moulderin’ in the grave, John Brown’s body lies a moulderin’ in the grave, John Brown’s body lies a moulderin’ in the grave, his truth is marching on.” John Brown’s insurrection with escaped slaves

That made for some complicated theological reflection. So let us enter into an attitude of prayer before the sermon.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us.

Melt us, mold us, fill us, use us.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us.

[looking up at the image]

Those soldiers were FREEDOM FIGHTERS.

Except the ones forced by others to fight.

And the ones forced by financial desperation to fight.

And the ones who fought just ‘cuz they like fighting.

But that war, the civil war, was just…

…unless no war is just.

After all, we follow a savior who said when a man hits you, turn the other cheek, and blessed are the peacemakers…

…and blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

What’s righteous if not fighting to end slavery?


Those of us who are pacifists look back on Martin Luther King’s nonviolent civil rights movement as the gold standard of activism, and we’re a little bit squeamish about the Black Panthers armed resistence, even if we agree with what they were protesting against.

And yet, when the Little Rock Nine integrated that high school, they did so flanked by members of the US military protecting them against the violent crowds surrounding them on all sides. When Dr. King was asked if this was a conflict for him as a pacifist, he said, “No. I’m not an anarchist…. I believe in a well-regulated military and police.”


All of this puts me in mind of one of my favorite theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was known to argue that at best you can’t hope to do good in this modern world so much as minimize the harm you do—to choose the least of the evil options before you. Those of us in this congregation concerned about slavery conditions abroad for the clothes we wear and the conditions of the workers at WalMart so that we can have products at prices we can actually afford know this quandary well.

And, because Reinhold Niebuhr believed communism to be a greater evil than capitalism, he supported the Vietnam War, encouraging Lyndon Johnson to stay in, at the same time Dr. King was crying out, “We’re killing our own—this is an unjust war.”


Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…


I’ve spent this week wondering what it means to be righteous, particularly as our city faces such a crisis of violence. As many of you know, our city council adopted a proposal this week to spend $250,000 to bring in police commissioner Bill Bratton as a consultant for the year. Commissioner Bratton is particularly famous for the “stop and frisk” strategy that allows police to stop anyone who looks like a potential criminal and frisk them. At the city council meeting on Tuesday, a large contingent of clergy from Oakland Communities Organizing, one of the largest faith-based organizations in this city, came out to say that they were tired of children dying in their communities and they would support anything that would stem the violence, including bringing in Commissioner Bratton. Black, White, Latino clergy spoke about the need to stop the blood in our streets. And then the Honorable Keith Muhammad of the Nation of Islam stood up to say that the harassment and dehumanization of young men of color would only increase the violence. And our own sister Nichola Torbett with Seminary of the Street, who has preached from this pulpit, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying that the hiring of Commissioner Bratton was the worst thing that could happen to this city because it would further damage the already broken trust between the community and the Oakland Police Department.

Bishop Bob Jackson, who has a halfway house for people striving to overcome addiction, and runs youth programs to give hope to east Oakland youth who have no hope; and the Honorable Keith Muhammad, whose life has been dedicated to lifting up and preserving the dignity of his, of our, community; both standing for righteousness, and both standing on opposite sides of the debate.


So I find myself asking what righteousness looked like in Jesus’ time. When Jesus spoke of righteousness, he was speaking to Judas and Simon the Zealot and all of the warriors ready to overthrow the oppressive Roman regime that had been crushing their people for too long. And he was speaking to the Pharisees and Saducees, who believed that Israel’s struggle had to do with drifting away from God and from God’s tenets, who were building up a movement of piety for the sake of their people. And he was speaking to people struggling simply to put food on their tables and care for their families in a bad situation. All seekers for righteousness across the spectrum, much like today.


This is hard stuff. There are not easy answers. It is not 100% clear what righteousness looks like. It’s enough to make us afraid to do anything, because anything we do will fall short of the glory of God. But neither is paralysis righteousness. So how do we avoid paralysis?


Several of us heard Rita Nakashima Brock speak on Martin Luther King Day about the work she’s doing at the Soul Repair Center, working with veterans. I think part of our answer may lie with the model Rita offers. As many of you know, Rita is an activist for peace—she marched against Vietnam, and she marched against Iraq both the first and second times. She also had a soldier for a father. Her mother married a US soldier and moved with Rita to the US when Rita was about three. So Rita knows the struggles and burdens that a soldier bears. She also believes to her core that our country’s comfort with violence and war is what leads us to willingly send our sons and daughters to kill and die for us even at such a severe cost to their wellbeing that 18 veterans per day are committing suicide as a result of the moral injury they have accrued during their service. She meets the immediate need of people, and she simultaneously says, “Hey—there’s another way of being in the world. There’s another way we as a nation can live.” The way Rita is living it out, righteousness looks a lot like healing for ALL.


This quenching our thirst and hunger for righteousness may remain murky, but the good news is this: Jesus did not think we were idiots. He believed in us to navigate this complex issue and succeed in building up the realm of God. I’m put in mind of my teaching pastor when I was a student minister, Dwight Bailey, a big teddy bear of a man who would say, “Welcome to the Disciples, where bringing your whole heart does not mean checking your brain at the door.” We are given the gift of pause as we seek righteousness, to ask a few questions in the midst of our actions:

-Who is being helped?

-Who is being harmed?

-What future am I creating with these actions?


As we move into the final verse of our theme song, I want us to think on Julia Ward Howe, the author. She was an active abolitionist and a funder of John Brown’s violent effort to end slavery. In the middle of the night one night she woke up with a vision of the lyrics for this song. When she woke up the next morning she couldn’t remember a word but had written them down in the night without even remembering it—six stanzas. And as she tended the wounded and saw the dead on the battlefields, she came to believe there must be a better way than bloody battle. She became a pacifist, she founded Mother’s Day and tried to establish it on July 4th so that people begin to associate being an American with not sending our sons off to die. She became an activist for women’s rights, believing that women voting might lead to more humane governmental policies and candidates. At every phase in her life, she hungered and thirsted for righteousness: abolitionist, pacifist, feminist.

Let us sing this song remembering that if we truly hunger and thirst for righteousness, it will not always look exactly the same in every moment—it will probably involve us changing. And as the beatitude promises, we will be filled.

Let us sing, remembering the words of Abraham Lincoln, when he was assured by clergy that God was on his side, saying, “that is what Robert E Lee’s clergy are telling him. I would rather concern myself with us being on God’s side.”

Let us strive to be on God’s side, and let us be open to being changed by God in that process.

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