Minority Report

July 9, 2017

Series: July 2017

Category: Faith

Passage: Matthew 10:40-42

Speaker: Rob McClellan

There was an uncomfortable scene that occurred daily at my seminary.  In the refectory, where we ate, all the African American students would sit together around one or two tables.  It was an overwhelmingly white school, and while we mixed in classes, mealtime was largely segregated, and not just between whites and blacks.  It was uncomfortable because here we were, all Christians, all striving to devote our working lives in some form to living in the way of Jesus, Jesus who, among other things, was defined by how many different kinds of folks with whom he would eat, and we, didn’t even eat with each other.  We were the ones who were going to be sent out to teach the world about the lengths to which God would go, even unto the cross, to show how much God loved the world, and we weren’t able to go the length of a table to break bread with one another. 

Now, I’ve already said something problematic, which I trust you caught.  I said, “all the African American students sat together around one or two tables.”  You could just as easily say, “all the white students sat together around the majority of the tables,” incidentally, at the center of the refectory.  Perspective matters, and I, for one, have rarely had a minority perspective.  Some of you have, but I rarely have, and even when I have, I’ve always had the assurances that come with being of privilege–race, gender, sexual orientation, education, nationality/citizenship.  That gives one a certain power.

Power plays a big role.  I remember one time a number of us white students attended a Black Student Association meeting.  I don’t recall the occasion, but we attended in solidarity, supportive of what they were trying to do on campus.  At one point in the meeting, they discussed needing to raise money for some initiative, and they were falling short.  While they were brainstorming ideas of how to address the shortfall, my friend pulls out his wallet, says, “how much do you need?” and proceeds to hand over a wad of cash.  On the surface, it was a generous gesture, and I can vouch for this guy.  He was as generous as they come, and committed to the right causes, from my perspective.  Yet, of course, his action both helped the Black Student Association and at the same time reminded them where the real power and resources rested, and who needed to be pleased if resources were to flow.  It was a different kind of uncomfortable moment.

Here’s something else uncomfortable – today’s teaching from Jesus may not mean be you might think, a simple lesson about taking care of the needy.  Jesus avows welcoming another as if it is welcoming God God’s self, saying, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (Mt. 10:42).  It’s akin to those other familiar passages, such as when he gives a prophecy and the righteous say to him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the answer is, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:37-40). 

Undoubtedly, the way of Jesus is to care for those most in need.  It’s written all over his life.  Anybody who says otherwise is looking at a different gospel and a different Jesus.  We often, therefore, assume, that’s all these passages are about, but I point you to two important phrases that reveal another level of complexity and an important lesson not just in Jesus’ time, but in ours as well.  The phrases are “the little ones,” and “the least of these.”  What do you suppose they mean?  We often take them to mean the neediest, but in fact, as scholars tell us, those phrases likely mean the early followers of Jesus, early missionaries if you will.  Remember, Jesus’ first words here, “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me…”  He’s speaking to the disciples.  This is Jesus telling a budding minority group to be sure to take care of its own, not a majority group to take care of its own (big difference), but a minority group.

Many pastors, particularly progressive ones avoid this explanation understandably because they fear it would undermine the call for justice and care for the poor.  However, in doing so they miss the important point that we were born as a minority situated in a context of hostile majorities, and that speaks to justice on a deeper level still.  This small group of Jesus early followers, because of who they were, did not have access to the kinds of support systems others had.  The religion from which our ancestors had broken, which had a working relationship with the state, surely wasn’t going to do it for them.  The Roman government had no interest in supporting an alternative to the imperial cult.    This is why the early followers of Jesus had to develop their own networks to accomplish what was important for them:  Make sure you take care of each other, make sure each other is fed, clothed, visited, cared for, because no one else will.  Now that you’ve stepped out in faith, in this faith, your lives no longer matter as much.

This is why so many good white people today miss the meaning of the Black Lives Matter movement.  You can think what you want about it.  You can think what you want about anything, but don’t miss the meaning.  Often one hears in retort, “All lives matter.”  Of course all lives matter, but the point the movement is making is that the world is set up to affirm in ways formal and informal, that certain lives matter—are protected, supported, given opportunities and access that others are not.  While in theory all lives matter, in practice, as the data reveals, all lives don’t matter equally. 

I read an upsetting study this past year.  It came out of professors from the NYU’s Stern School of Business and Wharton at Penn.  They sent emails to 6,500 professors from 259 American universities.  The emails came from a number of fictional prospective students expressing interest in each professor’s Ph.D. program.  The emails were identical, except for one detail, the sender’s name.  They took names that had been vetted and determined to be stereotypically linked to different gender and ethnic groups:  Meredith Roberts (white/Euro-American female), Lamar Washington (African American male), Juanita Martinez (Hispanic female), Raj Sing (Indian male), Chang Huang (Chinese male) and so on.  Here’s what they found:  professors were more responsive to white male students than to female, black, Hispanic, Indian or Chinese students in almost every discipline and across all types of universities.  We found the most severe bias in disciplines paying higher faculty salaries and at private universities…business showed the most bias, with 87 percent of white males receiving a response compared with just 62 percent of all females and minorities combined.

We have come to expect that bias, but the authors noted some surprises as well.  For example, fictional black students reaching out to black professors did not reduce the bias against them.  The only exception there was Chinese students writing to Chinese faculty, though Chinese students were the most discriminated-against group in the study.   When a minority, or disempowered group, seems to be looking out for its own, they are just doing what Jesus told his first followers to do, and thus majority groups need not be so threatened by it; they are addressing real wrongs.

 Jesus’ words for his followers to take care of the least of these, the little ones, is about caring for the most in need, because it recognizes the inherent disadvantage certain groups have.  Neither Jesus’ words, nor these examples are meant to promote white guilt for those of us who are white, or white and male, and we are not a white only congregation, certainly not even a male majority one.  These words, like all of Jesus’ words, are meant to invite us into liberation, freedom from sin, from harming others made in God’s image, intentionally or unknowingly.  For those who are minorities, Jesus’ words are a sign of divine solidarity and promise in the face of a frightening existence.  For those of us who are in the majority, Jesus’ words are, like the words of his Older Testament prophet predecessors, meant to remind us that we, too, were once slaves, exiles, refugees.  This is not about political correctness; this is about faithfulness to the gospel and the biblical witness.  That Psalm we read earlier in the service, crying out, “How long, O LORD, Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1).  These words come from just such a people who feel as though their lives don’t matter even to God, because that’s what the evidence seems to say to them.  It is a minority report, and God, we confess/profess, hears it.

In a way, maybe in a strange way, each of these stories is about what it’s like to be left behind.  In the Psalm, the people feel left behind by God.  They have lost their homeland and their way.  These stories of Matthew were gathered by those who were left behind by Jesus, who was crucified.  Yes, they believed he was resurrected, but they still had to carry on in the midst of hostile territory and rulers.  Jesus’ words were a challenge to them about the lengths they would need to go to take care of one another if they were to thrive as a people.  They are a reminder to us all.

Twenty year old Hector Zuniga, from Mission Texas, was sad when he learned his local Blockbuster Video was closing down this past April.  I didn’t know any were still open.  You see Hector lives with autism, and since he was 13 one of his joys in life has been to go to Blockbuster and rent his favorite videos, the same ones over and over again—Veggie Tales, Elmo, Rugrats—he always returned to the same ones throughout the years.  Sometimes he’d rent two copies of the same video—it was the whole experience he loved, so you see it was no small thing when that store announced it was closing. So Hector’s father did what a loving father does for his “little one;” he built him a mini Blockbuster in their house, shelving just like the store, complete with all his son’s favorite videos.  The nonverbal Hector may have remained speechless, but not quiet, as he clapped for joy when he walked in and saw what his parents had done.

 These are the lengths people go for one another when when the world around is stacked against them.  They are the lengths God goes for us.  Let us honor it, and never forget it.  Amen.