May We Feel Woe and Go and Bring Blessings

A Black History Month Sermon
A sermon based on Luke 6:17-26
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 17, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I grew up in the Bay Area and was raised a diehard San Francisco Giants fan. In the baseball era of my younger days one had to be “diehard” because the Giants did not make the playoffs for the twenty-seven years between my kindergarten graduation up to and through becoming a law partner with children. Giants fans loved their players back then, but not their luck or cold and windy days at Candlestick– and most definitely not their arch rivals the despised L.A. Dodgers. The only rivalry I have seen that comes close to the Giants-Dodgers’ rivalry is the one between Ohio State and the college that shall not be named up north. Giants fans are raised to not like anything Dodger-ee. Not even a certain hue of the color blue.

Having said all that – and being safely out of Giant’s territory– as much as I grew up admiring Willie Mays and Gaylord Perry (who played for us before he played for Cleveland), my greatest baseball hero and favorite player of all time is . . . a Dodger. Between 1947 and 1956 he led the Dodgers to six pennants, and legend has it he retired the year I was born to avoid being traded to the Giants. Although he died in 1972, this year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of this giant Dodger, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, whom most of us know as Jackie Robinson– the revered number 42. Whether we like baseball or not, Jackie Robinson is a name that Americans should know. I highly recommend the movie “42″ if you want to get more of a sense his heroic story – and, as my wife pointed out, you do not have to like baseball to like the movie “42.”

Like I said, Jack Roosevelt Robinson is my all time favorite baseball player. He was a great player by any measure of the game. He played in the way I admire most– as an infielder, with a great batting average, some pop and incredible base running skills. He was a bigger-than-life team leader, without a bigger than life ego. He energized the team previously known in Brooklyn dialect as “dem bums” leading them to those half dozen pennants I mentioned, and to the only World Series championship the Brooklyn Dodgers ever won. And Mr. Robinson did all of that well enough to garner Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, he was selected six years in a row to the All-Star team– and he is rightfully in the Hall of Fame. But if great baseball skills were all he brought to baseball, he’d just be on the stockpile of Dodgers I playfully dislike for rivalry sake– and he would not be in one of my sermons, since sports sermons, as a rule tend not to be my thing. (And lauding Dodgers as a rule is defiantly not my thing.).

Jackie Robinson, as most of us know, did so much more than play baseball well. He played with the intent to break down the immoral and god-awful barriers to Black athletes that prevailed in Major League sports in many of our lifetimes. He played for the well being of our nation. He did so as a part of the post World War II transformation toward more civil rights in America. He played leading the way in professional sports and for the nation as a whole.

Jackie Robinson was a civil rights leader who showed that when the playing field was leveled skin color did not hinder human ability. He proved what should have been obvious, that racism is –and always has been and always will be– a fraud. Breaking the color barrier in baseball was one giant step to reverse the centuries long denial of God-given rights and the full humanity of human beings based on pigmentation of skin. That is the oddest, and among the most fraudulent discriminatory determinants in the history of humankind. It is shameful and sinful.

Jackie Robinson worked with an Ohioan and Ohio Wesleyan alum, Branch Rickey, to help the nation take steps to further overcome that sin. Seeking justice and loving kindness, Branch became the first White Christian and baseball executive to courageously and successfully begin the process of leveling the playing field in baseball. Branch very intentionally scouted, sought out and asked Jackie Robinson to champion the cause of leveling the field by playing on the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Branch and Jackie (both Christians) agreed that non-violence was the proper response to all the violence they anticipated would come Jackie’s way. Jackie Robinson (#42) courageously and heroically kept that agreement. He met violence with non-violence. Very sadly a lot of violence came his way. Before he even made it to the Major Leagues he endured horrific conduct on and off the field. Once he made it to the majors, on the field he endured terrible threats, jeering, spitting and physical violence (with spikes high on the bags and bean balls thrown at his head.) Off the field hotels and restaurants denied him service, players threatened to boycott games he played in, and he was the subject of death threats. In the words of our lesson today, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was hated, reviled and defamed– and he was because of the justice work he was doing as a Christian.

Today most of us would think it is pretty straight forward justice work for a sport to include non-white people as players and let all colors of atheletes make or break it as equals – human skill against human skill. That just seems fair, but it was very ugly how many Americans in the middle of the last century lashed out at a fellow American seeking to be allowed to play a game on nothing more than a level playing field. It is sad to think about how many Christians took no action to support a brother Christian seeking justice non-violently.

Jackie Robinson’s justice actions and non-violence efforts were in line with Jesus’ primary teachings. They epitomized the writings on the quilts that hang on the walls of this sanctuary (“Seeking justice.” “Loving Kindness.” “Walking humbly with God.”). His Christian conduct was exemplary and his story is quite relevant to our Lectionary lesson.– or more aptly our Lectionary lesson is relevant to the Jackie Robinson story. While Matthew has Jesus give a sermon with beatitudes on a mountain top, Luke has Jesus give his version of the sermon standing– as we heard– “on a level place . . .” Jesus intentionally placed himself and his followers on equal ground with a huge crowd representing the world. Humans from far and wide were there with Christ on what is clearly meant to be understood as a leveling ground. Jesus and his disciples (his followers) stand with people of numerous faiths, nationalities and races on equal ground.
What a beautiful picture, there on that level place no one was literally seen at a higher or lower, all were at an equal level–just as Christ has always considered everyone, everywhere. And in that place where all humans were seen on level ground Jesus first turned to the pressing medical and mental health needs of everyone in the crowd – regardless of their income, faith, nationality or race they were all tended to. This is Jesus providing the love of God that the Bible repeatedly calls steadfast and enduring. There are no conditions to the care Jesus provides.

And see, Jesus knows he will not always be around to serve as the human form that brings people to level places and provide unconditional love. He knows that there needs to be others who serve as human forms that multiply in number, survive generation to generation, and go to the ends of the earth providing for needs beyond the cures he handed out that day. So Jesus looks directly at the disciples, his first followers, and tells them those who are poor or in sorrow or are reviled will be blessed by God. That is, they will have God’s attention– that’s the beatitudes part. (“Beatitudes” means blessings.).

But unlike the Beatitude sermon in Matthew, in the Gospel of Luke Jesus’ beatitudes sermon also point out that when his followers are not poor or not in sorrow or not reviled they will have woe. “Woe” in the context of Jesus sermon on the level ground means discomfort, or unhappiness or even pain of sorts. Woe is disquieting. And notably each of the beatitudes Jesus lists in Luke is matched by a corresponding woe. Basically Jesus can be heard to teach that those who suffer the lack of basic needs; and lack of respect have God’s attention– AND that those with well being, those of us with needs fulfilled and respect will be uncomfortable –have woe– until all have well being.

Why do those with well being have woe? Because the God spark within us agitates us to be uncomfortable while any human being is without basic needs and respect. No one can truly have well being, until all have well being. Woe to us until all have well being. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, put it like this:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

The affect to us indirectly part can be heard as the woes Jesus references in our lesson. The woe part comes to us to get the attention of God within us to provide blessings to those in need and those reviled. Simply put, it’s our job to work to bring us all to a level playing field, (like Jesus), and we are not to be satisfied until it is level for everyone. Woe motivates us to go and make it SO.

Jackie Robinson’s story shows us all of this, in a secular non-fiction story that took place not so long AGO. God’s attention has long been on Black Americans who have been and still are deprived a level playing field in virtually every aspect of the culture. The civil rights movement have never sought more than a level playing field. Jackie Robinson sought the simple justice of equal access for Black Americans to the rights White Americans enjoy– rights God endowed to everyone equally. The denial of access to those rights got God’s attention– always has God’s attention.

Even today the injustice of the denials to Black Americans in history vibrates uncomfortably in our being– woe to us as a people for their existence in slavery and Jim Crow. We can feel that woe for the past even now. And woe is still coming at us for the denials and the reviling that continues on in any and all forms of racism, personal and systemic. We cannot escape the woe of racism until everyone Red, Yellow, Black and White has well being. That woe and its positive influences are God’s blessing to those without well being.

In the middle of the 20th Century Jackie Robinson heroically brought about attention, brought blessings, to those who’s needs were denied and those being reviled for seeking them. Great steps were made. Woe served to make those blessings so. We still have a long way to go. Racism exists. Well being of all has not yet been achieved. The field is not yet level. Woe calls us to do our part to level it. We are to seek justice and make it come about! We are to love kindness and make it come about! We are to make it come about humbly with non-violent love – God– so that no one’s lack of well being is caused by us in those efforts.

I mentioned already that many Americans lashed out at Jackie Robinson trying to play a game on a level playing field. I mentioned too that many Americans took no action to support Jackie Robinson. What I did not mention yet is the good news that many Americans supported Jackie Robinson. The African American community developed many allies who were agitated out of complacency. Woe was felt by fans, league executives, managers, coaches and players who provided the blessing of standing with Jackie to help level the playing field with him.

One legendary story has it that when Jackie Robinson was being harassed with racist taunts at a Red’s game in Ohio a very popular ball player from Kentucky, Peewee Reese, the shortstop and captain of the Dodgers was uncomfortable enough by the racism (woe overcame him) in the Red’s stadium that he walked over to Jackie Robinson. And there on the infield for all to see Peewee put his arm around Jackie’s shoulder and stood side-by-side with him was an equal on a level place. That image is represents what Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickie set out to achieve on all ball fields for all ball players. That image also represents what Jesus’ Way and his message on the level place in Luke is about.
Those without enough and without respect always get God’s attention. This includes the God spark within us feeling woe until we are so uncomfortable we make blessed efforts to provide enough for all and respect for all– to create level places in all walks of life. Wherever we feel that woe, we are meant to bring the blessings of justice and kindness in humble walks with God. When we feel that woe may we go and bring blessings.