Genuine Equality Was and Remains God’s Intent – January 17

A sermon based on Genesis 1:26-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 17, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott

This is the weekend our nation has set aside to remember, celebrate and lift up the great American, pastor, theologian and civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The 92nd anniversary of his birth was Friday, but officially we honor his birthday tomorrow. Since we are still in a pandemic the annual MLK community breakfast is being held on-line and you can find the link at Kenyon’s website or MVNU’s website. And this evening at 6pm, for the first time ever, there’s also an event sponsored by the city of Mount Vernon that asks the question “‘Who is my neighbor?’ while considering faith community responses to race issues.” The mayor is hosting this in a webinar fashion with a panel of three members of the local clergy, Father Mark Hammond, Pastor Gavin Cole and myself. If you want to check it out it will stream live at a link you can find in your bulletin and at the City’s website. I am told it will also be recorded and posted online to catch later if you miss it today. “Race issues” is the theme.

In 1967 Rev. Dr. King pointed out that with the end of legal segregation, race issues in America would amount to struggles for genuine equality. He said “It is not merely a struggle for decency now, it is not merely a struggle to get rid of the brutality . . . It is now a struggle for genuine equality on all levels, and this will be a much more difficult struggle.” 1. More than half a century later the difficult struggle for genuine equality continues.

We are not supposed to give sermons at the webinar, but genuine equality has long, long been a theological issue – it’s a major theme in our Scriptures, so a sermon here this morning on the topic is more than apt. As we heard in our lesson, the Bible starts off with a crystal-clear statement of equality and the value of all humans at the very highest possible level. We are told every single human being, male and female is equally made in the very image of God and in Genesis 2 we are also told all of humanity is equally brought to life with God’s very own breath. The Psalmist later affirms this– as we heard in our invocation– God made all humans just “a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”

Despite all of humanity being goodly and Godly made, time and again in the Bible and in history genuine equality is not provided to every such image of God . . . to all who are filled with the very breath of God. All those crowned with glory and honor and treated as such in heaven are not treated with the glory and honor they deserve on earth. In fact, equality seems to be the oldest relationship issue in the Bible. Cain and Abel struggle with it. Abraham, Sarah and Hagar struggle with it. Isaac and Ishmael struggle with it. Jacob and Esau struggle with it. Joseph and all his brothers struggle with it. Moses and Pharaoh struggle with it.

The list goes on and on and on – and well beyond the Old Testament of course. In the New Testament Rome’s elite treat non-elites with inequality. Jews and Samaritans and others struggle with it too, as do early Jesus followers and Gentiles. Because of this Jesus centers his ministry around it. His supreme command is to love neighbor as yourself (notice the genuine equality in that self and others are loved equally). Jesus’ most famous command, do to others as you want done to yourself is also a plea for genuine equality. And he does not just talk about it. Jesus treats as equal neighbors who are cultural enemies like Romans, Syrophoenicians, Canaanites, and Samaritans.
Jesus tells the famous Good Samaritan story depicting a cultural enemy Samaritan as the hero. It is a Samaritan who shows us what genuine equality looks like. He shows us everyone is our neighbor as he tends to a cultural enemy Jewish victim just as he would tend to a Samaritan–and the Jewish victim accepts the Samaritan help just as he would accept a Jewish neighbor’s help.

The answer to “who is my neighbor?” in Jesus’ teachings and actions and his call to us, is everyone. Everyone is our neighbor. Jesus commands love of enemy. Jesus claims Christ is in the least amongst us and how we treat them is how we treat Christ. No matter how a culture sees someone Jesus sees them as genuinely equal and genuinely due love– love equal to that we’d give to Christ. We are to honor the image of God on earth in each person. No exceptions.

After Jesus’ ascension, and after Pentecost sees the birth of the church, genuine equality continues to be a central theme in early Christianity. In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles we learn that God commanded Peter to call no one profane or unclean. We learn that God sent Phillip to catch up to and baptize into the church a foreign Black man (the Ethiopian Eunuch). In the early church everyone is treated as images of the one God. As the Apostle Paul puts it in Galatians “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Those words are likely the oldest Christian creed, a creed of genuine equality.
In Jesus’ movement and early Christianity, the first order of business becomes loving everyone equally with no strings attached. Everyone is our neighbor. How we treat everyone is how we treat the image of God on earth. That’s how serious genuine equality is and what it is supposed to look like– it was the faith community’s primary response in Biblical times.

And it’s not supposed to be frozen in Biblical times. In the later 13th and early 14th centuries Meister Eckhart was preaching this stuff in the so-called dark ages. In one sermon he noted that Jesus taught us to pray to OUR father not MY father and we ask for OUR daily bread and OUR forgiveness, not MY daily bread and MY forgiveness. Meister Eckert and Jesus point is that with God as our father brothers and sister all are we, and we must take that to heart and treat all equally. Genuinely.

As far as our local community is concerned, (faith communities’ response to racial issues), we can find the answer in the holy words on the quilts up on these sanctuary walls. Those words are found in Micah 6 and Micah tells us they are all that God requires of us. Our only responsibility as people of God is to seek justice and love kindness as we walk humbly with our God. Justice means providing that which is due. What is due is well being. Kindness means being kind, good to others– it means providing well-being. With respect to race issues, this all adds up to affirmatively acting toward genuine equality at, as Dr. King puts it, ALL levels.

And it is not sufficient to just look around and see if it’s there for people with our color of skin. We must look around in our community and ask around and dig around and find out if genuine equality is there for every person who lives here, visits here, or just drives through here. We are to seek it and get it to our neighbors, as we want it, as we have it– AND as we would want to make sure the image of God (Christ in them) has it! If we see, hear or uncover that there is not genuine equality being felt and experienced then we as faith community must do for others what we’d do for ourselves– Fix it. We must consider those being treated as less than (the least among us) as Jesus himself and get them justice, that which is due – which is well being. The well-being that is due is owed by us, and it is not only access to physical necessities like food and shelter but also access to safety and respect in public and at home regardless of the color of our skin.

The area we live in recently showed how this is done. The Dan Emmett Music Festival with that name was an unsafe and disrespectful public event that was deeply offensive to many neighbors who lived here and who visited and who passed on through (or chose not to because of it). The festival’s new name and brand is a huge step toward genuine equality at that community event. All our neighbors can now attend our public music festival safely and with respect and without offense. That change was God in action in humanity seeking justice and loving kindness. It treats that public event as if God’s images will attend and be welcome fully.

May our greater community continue to actively look for the lack of genuine equality being experienced by all our neighbors and may we do for others what we’d do for ourselves– Fix it. May we always consider those being treated as less than (the least among us) as Jesus himself and get them justice, that which is due, which is well being. May we do our part to end the struggle for genuine equality! AMEN

1. King, Martin Luther,