Sermon Lesson: Zechariah 7:1-14
Sermon Text: Zechariah 7:9-10
Amadou Diallo – 22 years old – immigrant from Guinea – standing in a doorway – Bronx, New York
Sean Bell – 23 years old – prospective husband, engineer student – Brooklyn, New York
Kimani Gray – 16 years old – birthday party – Brooklyn, New York
Kendrec McDade – 19 years old – college student – Pasadena, California
Timothy Russell – 43 years old – 20-mile car chase – Cleveland, Ohio
Ervin Jefferson – 18 years old – protecting sister from hecklers – Atlanta, Georgia
Patrick Dorismond – 26 years old – father of two young girls – New York City
Ousmane Zongo – 43 years old – West African immigrant, repairer of art – New York City
Timothy Stansbury Jr. – 19 years old – rooftop – Brooklyn, New York
Orlando Barlow – 28 years old – on his knees – Las Vegas, Nevada
Aaron Campbell – 25 years old – bicycle riding – Pensacola, Florida
Steven Eugene Washington – 27 years old – autistic – Los Angeles, California
Alonzo Ashley – 29 years old – splashing water on his face from a drinking fountain – Denver, Colorado
Wendell Allen – 20 years old – 4 oz. marijuana – New Orleans, La.
Ronald Madison – 40 years old – and James Brissette – 17 years old – New Orleans, Louisiana
Travares McGill – 16 years old – security guards – Sandford, Florida
Ramarley Graham – 18 years old – bathroom of grandmother’s house – Bronx, New York
Oscar Grant – 22 years old – train platform – Oakland, California
Eric Garner – 43 years old – untaxed cigarettes – Staten Island, New York
Michael Brown – 18 years old – prospective college student – Ferguson, Missouri
Jonathan Ferrell – 24 years old – former Florida A&M football player – Charlotte, North Carolina
Tamir Rice – 12 years old – playing with a toy gun – Cleveland, Ohio
Tony Robinson – 19 years old – experiencing hallucinations at his home – Madison, Wisconsin
Eric Harris – 44 years old – selling a gun – Tulsa, Oklahoma
Philando Castile – 32 years old – sitting in car with girlfriend – St. Paul, Minnesota
This is a roll call of 26 unarmed black men who have been killed either by white police or white men who took the law into their own hands from 1997 to 2020. This is not even the tip of the iceberg. There are far too many to call out. And this list does not carry the names of the 38 Black women killed by white police or white men who took the law into their own hands—women such as Renisha McBride, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Yvette Smith, Atatiana Jefferson, Kendra James, and 32 others. The list is too long to call out. Most of these names we have never heard of. Some are all too familiar.
There has only been one conviction of a police officer of the victims on this list. The officer responsible for the death of Oscar Grant was convicted and sentenced to two years. He was released after serving 11 months. The criminal justice system determined that Oscar Grant’s life was only worth 11 months of retribution. No other officers have been convicted in any of the above murders. We dare not forget Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride. An opportunity for justice to be served was lost in the Trayvon Martin case. Justice was served in the Renisha McBride case as the man who killed her was sentenced to 17 years in prison; all because she knocked on his door and asked for help. As we reflect on the roll call and so many others who have lost their lives to the very people who are trained and charged with protecting them, we have to question whether there will ever be justice or mercy in this land for people of black and brown color. Some say that justice will never be served; others say maybe.
How long, O Lord?
As we look at our society today, we find ourselves once again repeating history: the protests of the civil rights movement, the Rodney King incident, the Eric Garner protests, the Black Lives Matter movement that emanated out of the murder of Michael Brown. History repeats itself over and over and over again. Four hundred and one (401) years of slavery, captivity, and oppression of people of African descent in this land. From being stolen from our home land, cloistered into slave ships under inhumane conditions, sold to the highest bidder; having our language stripped from us, our cultural customs taken away, our religion replaced with another religion, our families split up, our women raped by the white slave master, and our men/women hung from trees—from slavery to Jim Crow to the Black Codes to segregation to mass incarceration to modern day lynching in the streets.
It is too much, just too much, to hold and so often in the past 13 days, I have lamented. I have cried out to the Lord, “How long, O Lord, how long; how much, O Lord, how much more can your people take? It is too much, the repetitive trauma is too much, too much to think about, too much to hold; and so it spills over from my eyes and runs down my cheeks because I can’t hold the anger. I can’t hold the pain. I can’t hold the trauma any longer. When, O Lord, when will justice come?”
I question why there is so much injustice that rings so loudly in our ears and shines so brightly as to blind our very eyes. We can just look around Mott Haven, our neighborhood in the Bronx. We see all kinds of justice issues. Food injustice: people in Mott Haven are hungry, and many have no food to eat. We see educational injustice: in the Mott Haven community, only 47 percent of our children graduate from high school and only 22 percent of those are prepared to go on to college or some type of vocational training. The unjust health disparities have exacerbated the impact of COVID-19 on our community; our people are dying. Residents in Mott Haven experience a lower quality of health care than folks who live on the Upper West Side, or Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or Westchester/Yonkers, leaving them vulnerable to chronic disease and death. And the most prominent injustice is the wealth inequity that has consumed and ravaged the hearts and souls of the people who have given up hope. When we examine statistics, we find that the rich get richer, but the poor get prison. The poor people of Mott Haven comprise the second largest population of those imprisoned in New York from the borough of the Bronx. “How much more, O Lord, can your people bear?”
What does Scripture say about injustice?
So, we are plagued with issues of injustice. How do we as a church deal with such issues? What is our responsibility? What does God have to say to us today in the twenty-first century about such concerns as these? I think that Scripture is clear on how God views injustice. There is much confusion in the world of Christendom regarding the clarity of Scripture on certain issues; but I believe this is not one of them. God has repeatedly told us what he requires of us in terms of just action.
Our message this morning comes to us from the Prophet Zechariah. Zechariah we know was one of the minor prophets who preached 18 years after the return of the captives from Babylon. He was a young friend and colleague of Haggai and together they stirred up the Jews that were in Judah and Jerusalem, to encourage them to revive and rebuild the work of the temple. Zechariah was a prophet of visions and oracles—he received instruction from heaven to give to the people of God. In our Scripture lesson, two men, Sharezer and Regem-melech, are sent to ask of the Lord if they should continue their yearly fast. Every year, the Jews would keep certain fasts. This year, upon their return from captivity and as the temple was being rebuilt, they wanted to know if they should continue with the fasts and they were asking especially about the fast of the fifth month. The Law only called for one fast on the Day of Atonement in the seventh month; but the Jews had added a fast in the fifth month to commemorate the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies. Isn’t it amazing how we always think we can improve on what God has already set in order? The people inquired as to whether they had to continue to consecrate themselves and pray and mourn as they had done all during the time that the temple lay in ruins. They had given up food, they had given up things of pleasure, they had refrained from sin, they had done all these things for 70 years; but what they had not done was give themselves to the LORD.
The Bible says, “Then the word of the LORD Almighty came to me.” As a prophet of the LORD, Zechariah was charged with speaking the oracles of God. This means that he spoke what God gave him to speak, not what he decided he should speak or what the people might want to hear. The mark of a true prophet is that he/she speaks the oracles of God no matter who likes it or who doesn’t like it. The mark of a true prophet is that he/she speaks from an understanding of the righteousness of God and the falleness of mankind. The mark of a true prophet is speaking truth to power and knowing that God has our back.
Speak out with a prophetic voice
There is no way so many black and brown men and women should have lost their lives at the hands of any policeman or policewoman in this nation. Church, we too are called to speak with a prophetic voice; to speak out for justice for all peoples; but more so we are called to speak out for justice for those who are the oppressed and the lost. Poor people of color living in conditions that are breeding grounds for police militarization and abuse are those we are called to speak out for justice and to speak the mercy of God. In every one of the cases I presented, the people were poor, oppressed, and most often forced into some way of living that was substandard at best. We are called to give voice to the injustices we see and know are being perpetuated against all people.
God told Zechariah to speak to everyone in the land, to all the people who had the same mindset; lay people and priests were to hear the same Word of the Lord. Through the prophet, God rebuked and rejected the fasts the people had performed. God essentially tells the people that the fasts they kept for those 70 years were not acceptable to him because the people were not fasting for him, but for themselves. They had fasted, but their fasts were not undertaken for the glory of God, but for their own sorrows and their own grief. Their fasting was mere formality and void of any real hunger and thirst for the LORD and his righteousness. They were warned that they should have heeded the words of the prophets, and their fasting and praying should have been for the grace to live holy and just lives before God and others.
Just as God was displeased with the ritualistic fasting of the people of Israel, I believe he is displeased with the dormancy of the church today. The fasting and praying of the Israelites was of no avail. There were no miracles, signs, and wonders being performed when the people prayed and fasted. There will be no justice for black men and women who lose their lives at the hands of a racist society that perpetuates the thinking that the life of a black man or woman is of no value; there will be no justice until the white evangelical church that supports the mantra “Make America Great Again” repents and stands in solidarity with its Black sisters and brothers in Christ and declares that “Black Lives Matter.” Until this faction of the church becomes active, persistent in calling for justice, pushing hard for policy change and using their white privilege to bring about real transformation, there will be no justice for black men and women. I believe that our just God is not pleased with such complacency.
The church has failed to respond to each of the murders I have mentioned. Only one police officer has had a conviction charged against him and only served 11 months of a 2-year sentence. Where was the outcry from the church? Organizations such as National Action Network, the NAACP, and several other secular organizations are organizing and strategizing while the church is stagnant. I don’t discount the fact that there are individual pastors who are involved in activism on some level, but God calls the church universal to rise up and speak justice and mercy. Scripture tells us that God requires that we love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly before our God. This requires action on the part of the preacher, action on the part of lay leaders, and action on the part of every believer. We can no longer sit still and talk about how terrible things are and how awful are the pictures we have seen from Minneapolis, Tennessee, and Georgia. Our land is in crisis and this is a clarion call to the church. My question is whether or not we will heed the call. We must understand that injustice anywhere is truly a threat to justice everywhere.
After God spoke to the people of Jerusalem about their faulty rituals, he spoke again through Zechariah and told them exactly what he required of them as people of God. And these are the things that God continues to require of his church today in the twenty-first century. God says we are to execute or administer true justice, and show mercy and compassion, every man to his brother. Well, before we can do that, we need to know what justice, mercy, and compassion mean from God’s perspective. Justice is rooted in the very nature of who God is. God is impartial; he does not favor one over another. God rewards good and does not allow sin to go unpunished. God does not take bribes and he does not pervert justice in any manner. So what is justice? Justice is the quality of being fair, unbiased, righteous, equitable, and morally right. Justice is the principle of making sure that like cases are treated the same way; that the distribution of benefits and burdens are equal among the people. The church universal has a long history dating back to the times of the prophets of being those who spoke justice and truth to the powers. But the church today seems to have lost that power and voice in speaking justice, mercy, and truth to those in places of authority.
The church seems to have lost its power to speak with force and diligence in matters that target the lives of oppressed and marginalized persons. The church seems to have lost its prophetic voice to issue a call to action and to demand justice for the families and communities of those whose lives were snuffed out unjustly. If we are to be true disciples of Jesus Christ and if we are to follow him radically in mission, we cannot afford to be afraid to speak out against those tough issues that “might offend” certain groups at the expense of other groups of people who are are being decimated and harmed. God is calling his church to speak with a prophetic voice and to speak and do what is just and right.
What it means to “love mercy”
The next thing Zechariah spoke to the people was that they were to show mercy and compassion to everyone. Mercy is also rooted in the very nature of who God is. Mercy has to do with the loving-kindness of God. This God doesn’t give us what we deserve; he gives us what we need—that’s mercy. In the wake of the recent events of Minneapolis, Tennessee, Georgia, and police brutality against an elderly man in Buffalo, college students in Atlanta, and our very own church member Ashley here in the Bronx, I would propose that it might be difficult for those of us affected by these murders and incidents of brutality to be merciful. In certain communities, no one had to pay attention to Eric Garner, Michael Brown, or Jonathan Ferrell. In certain communities, their deaths did not resonate with significance. In certain communities, no one would confront the preacher and ask why she did not respond to the death of these young men.
And yet in other communities, Eric, Michael, Jonathan, Breonna, George, Tamir, Sandra, and Renisha’s deaths are a touchstone, a cause for prayer and lament and righteous anger and faithful expectation. These distinct reactions are a raw reminder that our communities of faith remain largely segregated. Though we worship the same God, the contexts within which we seek God’s face are radically different. In such a divided context, what does it look like to show mercy to your neighbor? What does it look like to be one church even as we are profoundly divided? It might look like seeking the face of the just God, who is more than able to deliver us from such transgressions.
Because God is the just Judge, we can turn to him for mercy for our shortcomings and we can count on him to deliver a sound verdict that is wrapped in his loving kindness toward us. The greatest demonstration of his mercy towards us was the death of his Son on the cross for our sin. He used his discretionary power as Judge to pardon our sins and hang them all onto his Son Jesus Christ who knew no sin. Understanding how God views justice and mercy, it is then possible for the people of God to be compassionate. It is the perfect work of God that we should enter in with deep feelings of suffering and sorrow for one another at this time. Yes, we should even lament and cry with one another over the senseless loss of lives in such a horrific and unthinkable manner. It is the perfect work of Christ that allows us to enter into those deep feelings and pain with a desire to help to alleviate the burdens of our brothers and sisters. That is what God calls compassion. That is the way of Jesus. Jesus calls his disciples, you and I, to love in spite of—to demonstrate Jesus in spite of and to show loving kindness in the face of travesty.
How do we take our understandings of justice, mercy, and compassion and make them practical? The Bible says, “And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart” (Zechariah 7:10). God does something interesting here. First, he commands positive acts of love and now he forbids every act that is not a loving act. So while we are called to do justice, show mercy and compassion, we are also called to abstain from oppressing those who are the marginalized of society. We are also called to abstain from oppressing our enemy.
I walk the streets of Mott Haven and I see and I hear the oppressed. I see the elderly men and women who are struggling with the powers of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and sometimes must wait an inordinate amount of time to have heat in the winter or something fixed in their apartment. I see and I hear the children of incarcerated parents, who are crying on the inside and are relegated to a place of silence for their tears. I see and I hear the poor who are struggling day by day. I see and hear of the parents on the block who have no money to buy food for their children. I see and I hear the sound of the voices of young black and brown boys and men who talk loud and talk much, and deep inside, they live in fear every day. Fear of being the next Amadou Diallo. Fear of being the next Ramarley Graham. Fear of being the next Michael Brown. These are the injustices of our community. These are the issues that God is speaking to his church and particularly to Mott Haven in these days.
Our people live in fear because we the church have not heeded the call to justice and mercy and have not stood up for them nor stood beside them. We have not prayed rightly, we have not marched fiercely, we have not rallied on the steps of city hall, and we have not joined forces with our ecumenical partners to say enough is enough! The church too is guilty of the injustices against our communities and against young African American and Latino men. We are guilty of the injustices because we have been quiet as one by one they were shot down like meat for the slaughter. The church too is guilty because we have not called for nor insisted on a full investigation of these murders.
Justice: a witness of faith
The cry for justice for all persons is part of the witness of faith. Our Christian gospel calls us to directly confront racial and ethnic prejudice in all of its various forms. Our Christian faith and our human morality implore us to see the world through the eyes of the broken and battered on the side of the road. This takes work on all our parts, more for some than others. The question is will we take a stand for what is just, or will we continue to see the situations and circumstances around us through blinded eyes? Will we bury our heads in the sand and fail to be our brother’s keeper? Will we continue along the road of not understanding and not really caring about our sisters and brothers in Christ who are the oppressed, the imprisoned, the captive, the broken hearted, and those whose eyes of love have been blinded by the sin of racism?
I wonder if we understand that the gospel—the good news—is given not just for those of us inside of the walls of the church, but it is given also for those who will never enter the doors of the church. It is given for all who are bound by the “systems” of our society that tell them they are not good enough and will never get out of their current situations. The gospel is given for those men and women who have lost their jobs and have no viable source of income; for those who are in the midst of turmoil and confusion and have been impacted by COVID-19; and for those suffering from the trauma of watching yet another black man cut down and dying in the street. Zechariah brought the Word of the Lord that says we are to show mercy and compassion, every man to his brother and sister, and we are to execute true justice.
Though we lament, yet we do hope. We are a people of hope. As we made our journey from our Motherland of Africa to the shores of a land we knew nothing of, we held onto the hope that we would survive the journey. As we experienced the horror of slavery in both the North and the South, we held onto the hope that one day we would be released from bondage. As we experienced the days of the Black Code Laws, we held onto the hope that one day we would truly be able to live and earn a living wage as free people. As we experienced the days of Jim Crow laws, we held onto the hope that one day we would be free to live, attend school, and work in a desegregated nation.
As we lived in the days of the Civil Rights movement and gave up the lives of our children, our young and our old, we held onto the hope that the time had finally come for all men to be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. And as we live in these times of continued racial injustice, turmoil, and the unlawful murder of our men and women, we hold onto the hope that God will hear our lament. We hold onto the hope that as we cry out for justice, the church will show true mercy and compassion, every man to his brother and sister, for therein lies hope. When the church speaks righteousness and truth to power, therein lies the hope of the Kingdom yet to come. Therein lies the hope of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. Therein lies the hope of the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. Therein lies the hope of the day when people will be united by the Spirit within instead of the color without. Therein lies the hope of a resurrection of a new day for the people of God everywhere created in his image and likeness. My challenge to you is to think long and pray hard for God to reveal to you what you must do in your own little world and what we as the church of Jesus Christ must do to fulfill this mandate. This is a call to justice and mercy for the church today.
Rev. Dr. Patricia A. Sealy
Rev. Dr. Patricia A. Sealy is pastor of Mott Haven Reformed Church in Bronx, New York.