Based on Luke 4:18-19
Jesus’ homecoming to Nazareth is fraught with danger. He has been having success in Capernaum, with people following his teaching and preaching. Now he returns to his home synagogue. Along with the other men, he dutifully takes his turn at reading the scriptures and commenting on the meaning. We are invited by Luke to closely examine who this Jesus is, what is the focus of his ministry, and learn of the response to Jesus.
The passage Jesus chose to read explained that the Messiah was God’s special servant and would bring to fruition the hopes of the poor, the oppressed and the imprisoned. The same Messiah Christ would bring amnesty, liberation and restoration to God’s people. The shock of Jesus’ words occurs at the end of his interpretation of the scriptures. He proclaims:
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The time of God is now, today. The time of God’s reign is today. Changes for the poor, for those who are wronged, those who are persecuted, those who are oppressed, will happen today. Today God is fulfilling all the promises of a just and joyful Kingdom of God. The people resent Jesus because he has taken this bold word beyond them to Capernaum. He has not remained in Nazareth and extended God’s favors there. Jesus, by his very nature, always had a ministry with outsiders.
Martin Luther King, Jr. told this story: “Some years ago a novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested story plots for future stories. The most underscored one was this, ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.’”
This is the great problem of humankind, and of us United Methodists across the globe. We have inherited a big house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together—black and white, easterners and westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu, a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interests who, because we can never live without each other, must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other.
We United Methodists are getting our house in order today. We come to say out loud that our denomination has always been blessed by the presence of faithful, strong African- American members. Generations of black Methodists have stayed in this denomination, even when they were excluded by the institution of slavery, the systemic roots of racism, the separation through the creation of the Central Jurisdiction, and the continuing struggles for civil rights. Black Methodists have been a proud remnant of our church since there was a Methodist Church. Black leaders have been active in preaching and pastoring since there was a Methodist Church in the United States.
For all those faithful and courageous black Methodists who stayed in an inhospitable, racist, abusive church, we say thanks be to God for you! Those of us in the white majority confess that we have sinned against you and against God who made us all into one family. We have excluded you from our sanctuaries, our schools and colleges, our public domain, our neighborhoods, our homes, our hearts. For that we are truly sorry. We confess our sins and ask in humility that God move us toward repentance and the place of reconciliation and forgiveness.
In my adopted state of North Carolina, we have the footprints of Henry Evans to remind us of our common history and common faith. Mr. Henry Evans finished his apprenticeship and left southeastern Virginia in the year 1775. He was a cobbler by trade, African American by birth, and Methodist by denomination. He was traveling to Charleston, S.C., for a new start. When he got to Fayetteville, N.C., he was astounded by the lack of spiritual nurture of the slaves and free blacks like himself. He could not proceed to Charleston until he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mr. Evans’ compelling preaching was soon attracting crowds, so much that the local city officials banned him from preaching there.
Still, under conviction that he must preach, being a good Methodist, he moved the meetings to the wooded sand hills. Flameless beds of coals were spread in pits. Then whole hogs were slowly cooked for those who could slip away at night for the preaching meeting. Word got out, and the white folks began to search for their location to break up the disturbance of the preaching meetings.
On one of those searches the white men came upon a clearing, freshly “tromped down.” What they discovered was a hastily abandoned pit with a whole hog, fully cooked, that was hardly touched. The white vigilante searchers tried the meat because it smelled so good. It was wonderfully delicious. Whether it was the barbecue or the dramatic change in the lives of the slaves, the white citizens of Fayetteville soon had a change of heart.
A church was built for Mr. Evans in Fayetteville. Years later a retirement home was built for this cobbler and lay preacher. He brought Methodism and barbecue to Fayetteville on his way to Charleston. He never made it to Charleston. I am told that the Presbyterians named one of their churches in this general area “Barbeque Presbyterian.” So far as I know, North Carolina United Methodists have yet to elevate our taste for pork to such a high praise! (NC BBQ Flavored by Time, Bob Garner, 1997, RR Donnelly, P. 5).
Harry Hoosier and Richard Allen set the bar for great preaching. Both slaves and free slaves were attracted to the Methodist movement. The gospel was preached to blacks and whites, rich and poor, slave or free. Blacks were licensed to preach to other black people and whites as well, a group being named Sons of Thunder.
In 1844, the Methodist Church, North and South, split over slavery. After the Civil War, black preachers were finally ordained. At the 1920 General Conference, the first black bishop, Robert E. Jones, was elected. In 1939, when the Methodist Church was reunited, 350,000 black members were separated by the structure of the Central Jurisdiction. Why in the world would black Methodists have stayed in such a racist church and system?
The Methodist Church both reflected its culture and struggled to transcend it. At the 1944 General Conference Thelma Stevens, a young woman from Mississippi, stood and spoke in support of a request that committees of the church meet in places where African Americans could be hosted as well as whites.
During the debate on the floor of General Conference, a male member of the conference ridiculed Ms. Stevens, saying, “We provide suitable and adequate entertainment but not along the lines the sister indicated. We can’t, and you move us too fast.” The General Minutes reflect that delegates of General Conference laughed during his remarks and rejected the proposal of Thelma Stevens. She would live to see her idea adopted by many agencies in the church, including the General Conference.
Forty years ago, on Easter 1964, Bishop Charles Golden and Bishop James Mathews were turned away from worship and entrance to the Galloway Methodist Church in Jackson, Miss. This congregation, as part of its ongoing reconciliation, will be receiving a senior pastor from South Africa this next year. As for racial segregation, the church was most silent where it was the largest, in the South, my birthplace and home.
My growing up years reflect the total separation of blacks and whites in every aspect of life. In my small town of Winter Garden, Fla., there was a Colored Quarters on the edge of the city limits. I grew up in a segregated society. As a teacher and a deep woman of faith, my grandmother who raised me “crossed over” that color line when she took me with her to the ghetto to visit in the homes of her friends, and where she taught illiterate adults how to read. I always knew that it wasn’t right that black and white people lived so separately.
I have painful memories as a child of accompanying adults to city auditoriums where discussions were held about integrating the public schools in my area. I also served as the one youth member of the Official Board of my home church. We had a called meeting for the adults to plan what would happen if black people came to worship in our church. I was the only person present who voted against the new policy.
I never knew the Central Jurisdiction existed until I was in college and became a religion major and studied Wesleyan history. Our worlds in the South were totally separate and totally unequal and unfair.
Finally, our United Methodist Church overcame our embarrassment over separating African Americans from the rest of the church by abolishing the Central Jurisdiction and merging with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. 36 years later, are we really one church, or are we still painfully divided by the color line?
Bishop James Thomas has said that black people in the United Methodist Church can teach the lesson, “How Not to Hate.” Bishop Thomas has embodied by his witness and leadership the strength of character that explains why black Methodists chose to stay. Our church is full of generations of members who represent black pride, black identity, black history and black culture. Can we not see and celebrate these remarkable gifts in our midst! Jesus is rejected by his own hometown synagogue because he has dared to go outside, to another place, to a place where there are Gentiles as well as Jews, to share his public ministry.
We gather to celebrate the undaunted courage of a proud remnant in our church, a people who have bestowed a legacy of deep faith, exceptional leadership, inspired preaching and worship, prophetic witness, advocacy for social justice, innovators and educators, generations of African-American families who stayed and led this church. Today we claim we all belong to the same church, the same Lord, the same baptism, the same United Methodist Church.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the purpose of the church: “The church should be an audiovisual of God’s reconciling and unifying purpose in Christ. God saw our brokenness and sought to extricate us from it—all of us—to bring us back to our intended condition of relatedness. God sent Jesus who would fling out his arms on the cross as if to embrace us.” Thanks be to those, in generations past and even now, who have stayed and led God’s people. It is we, the United Methodist Church, that have been embraced! Amen!