Pastor Tony's Sermon May 21, 2017

Isaiah 58: 5-10   Matthew 25: 31-46            5-21-17        Rev. Tony Clark            ACCUCC

Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? …

…“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”…

Today, in our series on “Who is Jesus to Me Now That He is Dead?” we turn away from our personal relationship with Jesus to think about our relationship to Jesus as part of a community. Although we come to Jesus with individual needs, we also come to Jesus like a classroom of chided children. We ask in a chorus of voices, “Master, when did we see You hungry and thirsty? When did we see You friendless or homeless or excluded? When did we see You without clothes? When did we see You sick or in jail? When did we see You in distress and fail to respond?” We ask these questions knowing that we will be judged not merely on the merits of our own hearts but on our corporate ability to seek justice for our neighbors.

Here at Arlington Community Church, one of our core values is justice. We sing about doing justice every week, and I preach often on it. Justice appeared as a priority out of our New Beginnings conversations, and justice is imbedded in our newly drafted vision statement, “we join together to build a just society based on the inspiration of our faith.”

However, I don’t think we all have the same understanding of justice. Some of us talk about justice in terms of the legal system, laws and judges, and courts and prison. Biblical justice is more than a system of laws and punishment; Biblical justice is about creating equal access to the basic needs of being human. Justice would remove all the little oppressions that add up, and add up, and add up over time to yoke people from having access to an abundant life. Justice would remove the pressures of hunger and housing and illness and imprisonment so that when life gives you lemons like cancer or sudden death of a loved one or mental illness you have the energy to make lemonade.

Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice; to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? When the Prophet Isaiah spoke these words “to break every yoke” some 2500 years ago, he wasn’t talking about making scrambled eggs, breaking yolks and whites. He was talking about the yokes that oxen are harnessed in, hooked together as a team that cannot separate and be free.

Isaiah said that injustice is a yoke that keeps people tied and bound in oppression, unable to experience an abundant life in God. Isaiah’s yokes of oppression were hunger, homelessness, lack of clothing. Later Jesus added to the list thirst and illness and imprisonment. These yokes of oppression, these forces of injustice are still present today, taking up time in our national debate on Food Stamps, healthcare, housing and our prison system.  

The yokes of oppression add to the already difficult things of life like death, grief, mental illness, chronic pain. The yokes of injustice-- Hunger, poverty, homelessness, lack of clothing, lack of water, illness and imprisonment, and systemic racism make those other life things harder to bear. Think about how hard it is to handle something like mental illness when compounded by hunger, poverty, or racism.  

I’d like to point out the differences between living without yokes and living under the yokes of oppression by comparing two small unincorporated villages: Kensington and North Richmond.

Kensington is bounded on the east by green space that runs much of the length of the East Bay. North Richmond is bounded on the west by the Richmond trash dump. Kensington has a bank, a grocery store, cafes, and a pub. North Richmond folks have to leave to shop, go to the bank, or get a cup of coffee. Kensington has autonomy over its fire and police services; North Richmond is under the county sheriff. In Kensington, more than 87% of houses are owner occupied, in North Richmond, 54% of the housing is rentals. Kensington has multiple streets connecting to neighboring towns; North Richmond has only a few roads in or out. Driving around North Richmond, you notice right away that the streets off the two main streets run a few blocks and then dead-end at fences or walls that cut off neighborhoods from heavy industry. North Richmond is an island cut off from surrounding Richmond by railroad tracks, fences, and the Richmond Parkway. North Richmond has much vacant land where people toss trash—couches, tires, old boats, cement chunks. There are two housing projects there with 220 units yet about half of them are vacant. In North Richmond, 32% live below the poverty line; while in Kensington it is about 3%, a magnitude of ten.

This week I ventured into North Richmond. I stopped and talked to people at Annie’s Annuals, Shields-Reid Rec Center, the North Richmond Urban Farm, and then at the North Richmond Neighborhood House, with which we have a long relationship. I talked with staff from County Supervisor John Gioia’s office. I asked “What is the difference between Kensington and North Richmond?” “What issues are you working with?” and what would they like me to tell you.

At the Rec Center, I met Aaron, who serves on the North Richmond Municipal Advisory Council, and Troy, the manager of the Rec Center. Aaron said that the biggest problem he sees is poor education. The kids are, on average, two years behind grade level, and lose more than three months’ ability during summer. In the summer, Aaron and Troy run a day camp program that partners with schools to provide swimming, playing sports, and going on field trips, as well as education so they don’t slip so far behind. Troy and Aaron proudly showed me a newly painted mural that an artist designed with the kids, and they talked about the fresh produce program run by the Food Bank, which we support. They also told me about an incident three years ago in which 100 cops blocked all the streets in and out of North Richmond and did a gang and drug raid. While kids were playing in the Rec Center field, the cops shot tear gas canisters into the house across the street, and then the gun shots began; they rushed the kids inside. That, I commented, is one thing that is very different from Kensington.

My next stop was at North Richmond Urban Farm. It is a few years into developing empty county land that was an informal dump site. The layout for urban farming includes orchards, vegetable plots, a farm stand, a café and a kitchen to cook and serve foods they grow. They have spent the last few years clearing the trash and turning the ground into useable soil.

Doria, the director of the site, told me that she believes that everywhere there are people who have struggles and problems. All of us got something, don’t we? Pain, grief, mental illness, low self-esteem, diabetes, hearing loss, stroke, heart disease, cancer, in-grown toenails. However, said Doria, when there are also the pressures of poverty and hunger, it makes people more of who they are. Someone in chronic pain or grief when compounded by hunger or poverty become grumpy, angry, exhausted. Poverty, hunger, high incarceration rates and lack of access to health care in themselves are products of years of racism, segregated housing, and poor education. Doria said that some in those situations seek solace from the pressures in drugs and alcohol, which then add their own pressures.

Doria’s words were the best description of the yokes of oppression that I had ever heard. The yokes of oppression are the pressures that make the struggles with mental illness, grief, pain, physical disease more pronounced.  On the flip side, a great definition of privilege is to have the access to systems that makes those life things easier to handle.

Doria also commented that affluence is its own yoke; by holding onto a view that people who live in poverty are lazy, stupid, or lacking in motivation is something of a yoke of judgement that does not free us to see the beauty and resilience of human life within those places. We are yoked into believing that if they only worked as hard as we did they could climb out of their situation, without recognizing that we are as yoked into our systems of oppression as they are.

The yokes of injustice tie people together like yokes tie a team of oxen together. As well, doing justice is also a team effort.  Justice is a societal moral value; making sure there is equal access to services in order to reduce the overall pressure or oppressions is not something that any of us can do alone.

Doing this kind of justice is not simple. The yokes of oppression in North Richmond were forged by a history of racism that enshrined policies of segregation, concentrated housing in an undesirable flood plain near heavy industry and traffic, limited access in and out of the area, and offered poor education to a population of migrants fleeing the Jim Crow south. North Richmond became an island, a desert island with few internal resources, locked in a vicious cycle of violence that kept people in and encouragedothers to stay out.

What would it take to equalize their access to food, housing, education, jobs, and a way out of poverty? What would reduce the rate of incarceration, the desperate need for escape through drugs and alcohol, and the lack of educational achievement? Whatever it would take to break their yokes of oppression, that is doing justice.

Yet, as Troy, at the Rec Center reminded me, we could do much work there. He said that our affluence is not something to be ashamed of; it is a blessing, a blessing from God. It is something that can be used to bring so much good to areas like North Richmond in breaking the yokes of oppression.

Jesus said that when we come into God’s kingdom, when we are judged us as a community of faith, we will be surprised that we found Jesus wherever we broke the yokes of oppression.  As we join with others to build a just society based on the inspiration of our faith, may we use our access and privilege to break the cycles of hunger, poverty, racism, segregated housing, lack of health care and poor education that keep people from experiencing God’s abundant life. Amen.