Sermon from June 7, 2020
*You can viewthe video of this sermon on YouTube, which includes the footage from Jay Yoder.
My friend, Jay Yoder, has worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams and has a great deal of experience accompanying people who are in danger and documenting instances of state violence, both in the United States and abroad. This week Jay has been supporting Black organizers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and reports that “The violence by the militarized forces using urban warfare tactics in Pittsburgh is unlike anything I have seen . . . We have received support in pepper spray recovery from Palestine, support in tear gas recovery from Brazil, and support in caring for activists’ emotional health from Indigenous People’s activists in Canada.”
And Jay did not just witness this violence, they experienced it first-hand. One thing Jay often does as support for protests is to make a record of police badge numbers so that if officers are later filmed harming someone those officers can be identified. Here’s what happened when Jay recorded badge numbers at the protest in Pittsburgh:
That was pepper spray. Jay’s hands were burning with pain from the spray all night.
I watch this video and I just don’t understand why. Why did that man spray Jay with a toxic chemical? What threat were they posing? I realize that it’s a sign of my white privilege to be so shocked by this sort of unprovoked police violence. But this video from Jay re-ignited in me the feelings I had when I heard about George Floyd’s death: anger, fear, grief, frustration, and confusion.
With all of this playing in my head and heart as background, there was one phrase from today’s reading from Acts that really stood out to me: “much annoyed.”
The priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees were “much annoyed” with Peter and John. So they arrested them.
The Pittsburgh police were apparently also much annoyed, because they arrested Jay:
This scene was not unique to Pittsburgh—that’s just where I happen to have video from. You’ve likely seen images of militarized police from across the country. In Kansas City there were over 230 protesters arrested last week.
We don’t know what all of those arrests looked like, and we don’t know exactly how Peter and John’s arrest went down. But if Jesus’ experience with first century law enforcement is any indication, we can assume it wasn’t a particularly friendly encounter.
Arrest, forcible detainment, is a violent response that seems wholly disproportionate to someone trying to get to their car, or to someone trying to speak truth to a crowd.
Peter and John’s great offense was “teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead.” Peter’s speech, which we skipped over in the reading this morning, includes some pretty harsh condemnations for both the leaders who were responsible for Jesus’ death and the people who were complicit with it.
I mean, that really is annoying. To be accused of murder.
And it really is annoying when what is supposed to be a calm and orderly day at the temple turns into a mass gathering where someone other than an authorized temple official is teaching the people. Where someone is encouraging people to question the status quo.
Yes, people with authority tend to get annoyed when someone questions their authority. In this story, the authority figures are “the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees.” As I began to study the scripture, I realize that I knew about the priests. And I knew the Sadducees were an upper-class Jewish sect. But I had no idea who the “captain of the temple” was.
Turns out that the captain was in charge of the various units of guards. They were, essentially, in charge of the temple police. It was the captain’s job to maintain order in the temple courts. And these two men, Peter and John, who were drawing a crowd and teaching the people–they were a clear threat to that order. Annoying.
It was an dangerous system in First Century Jerusalem, and it is a dangerous system in the United States today–when a select group of people is given a mandate to “maintain order” and also given the tools and training and permission to use violence to do it.
This word, “annoyed” stuck out to me in the reading because that seems the only possible provocation for my friend Jay’s pepper spraying and arrest. Jay wasn’t threatening physical violence. They weren’t breaking a law. They weren’t even making snarky, insulting comments. They were just . . . annoying people who happened to have pepper spray and flash grenades and batons and guns.
Of course, though, it’s more than being annoyed. Actually, various versions of the Bible translate this word in different ways. The temple authorities were either “much annoyed” or “greatly disturbed” or “grieved” or “upset” or “indignant.” They weren’t happy, to be sure. But it was more than just not liking the tone of Peter’s voice. The message of Jesus—while he lived on earth and then as presented by his followers after his ascension—was greatly disturbing, deeply upsetting to the dominant power structure.
If we take Jesus’ teachings seriously, it disrupts not just our personal belief systems, but also our comfortable social hierarchies, our economic structures, our so-called “justice” systems.
Peter and John’s little rally in the temple courts was annoying. But it was more than that.
And these protests. I don’t mean the white supremacists lighting fires and smashing windows or the possibly well-meaning but clueless white people flipping off cops. But the black-led, Black Lives Matter protests are presenting a message in-line with the teachings of Jesus. A message as disruptive as the message of Jesus. Because they are not merely asking for a change in people’s personal beliefs. It’s not enough for white people to have black friends and agree that yes, we think racism is bad.
After Eric Garner, after Michael Brown, after Sandra Bland, after Tamir Rice, after Alton Sterling, after George Floyd. After decades of black men having a greater chance of going to jail than going to college. After continuing job discrimination and housing discrimination. It’s not enough to just say we like black people. There are systems, entrenched social and economic and political systems, that need to be changed. It’s more than adjusting a few people’s personal beliefs.
And boy is it annoying when people say that. Especially when they say it to a large crowd that seems to be listening.
I hope we are listening. I pray we are listening.
If you have been listening, you may be feeling discouraged right now. Because the more you listen, the more you realize that the sin of racism in this country goes back to its founding—to the genocide committed against indigenous people and through chattel slavery of African people, through Jim Crow laws and lynchings, Japanese internment camps, and modern day immigration policy. Racism infests our education practices, economic policies, criminal justice systems, and entertainment industry.
It’s a lot. That may be the phrase that has gone through my mind—and heart—the most in the past several days: It’s a lot.
So I want to take us back. I started with the arrest of Paul and John at the end of this morning’s scripture reading. Now I want to end with the healing that happens at the beginning of the reading.
The man is lame. He was born without working legs. He doesn’t know what life would be like with a whole, healthy body. And he is brought to the temple gate—the “Beautiful Gate”–to beg. He relies on the kindness of friends to lay him at the gate each day. And he relies on the kindness of strangers to give him a little money each day so he can survive.
All this man asks of Peter and John—all he expects–is a few coins. But instead of dropping a little something in the man’s lap as they walk past, Peter and John stop. And—I think this is really important—they look intently at him. Then they ask the man to look at them.
“I have no silver or gold,” says Peter, “but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”
That day in the temple courts probably seemed just like every other day—but that day, the man born lame received more, so much more, than the few coins he needed to feed himself. That day, the man was seen and he was healed.
I need these reminders–that healing is possible. I know that our culture’s healing from racism won’t happen in one miraculous moment. But I need to be reminded that it can happen. That God is still at work in this world—God is still using God’s people for healing in this world.
I need to be reminded of the miraculous possibilities that exist when we look at each other intently, when we are willing to say, “what I have I give you.”