From a Bishop's Desk

A series of opinion articles and essays from bishop's of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and ecumenical partners.


Black History Month: A Message

Feb 05, 2021
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ in the power of the Spirit. Amen
In his first sermon back in the “church” (synagogue, actually) where he grew up Jesus, fresh from the temptation in the wilderness, reads these words from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Following the reading of the appointed lesson for the day, Jesus gives what must certainly be included among the shortest sermons ever preached in the history of the Church: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Nine words in English. And yet, look at the reaction he gets, both positive (“All spoke well of him.”) and over-the-top negative (“…they might hurl him off the cliff,” this latter as a result of further conversation with Jesus at fellowship time after the service)! I’ll let you read the rest of the story for yourself in Luke, chapter four. As an aspiring preacher myself, I wish I could speak so powerfully and concisely that all would speak well of me. (The throwing off the cliff part I could do without.)
What was it that so moved Jesus’ hearers? Part of it was the radical proclamation, radical even when recorded in the prophet Isaiah. Part of it was the equally radical claim of Jesus that this holy promise, after centuries of waiting on the part of God’s people, had been fulfilled in their hearing, a claim only proven true in his subsequent ministry, self-giving love on the cross and radical resurrection.
February is Black History Month. Pause with me and consider thoughtfully and faithfully what this means. This month is an opportunity for us to hear again the words of Jesus in his proclamation in the synagogue. As I consider those words, I realize that the perceptions and prejudices of white people have caused and continue to cause immense harm to our African-Descent siblings. The words “White Supremacy” might be new to many, but the concept and destructive results are not; in fact, they are a daily reality in our country and throughout the world. As we have found out in this pandemic, our Black communities are hardest hit because of lack of adequate health care and resources. In our own church and congregations, our Black pastors receive the lowest compensation. Our Black churches are most vulnerable to closure as a result of the economic effects of the current situation. Clearly, if we hear the radical words of Jesus, we are confronted with our denial of the humanity of our Black siblings and their essential identity as children of God.
This leads me to the second learning from the witness of Jesus during this Black History Month: This radical announcement (I have to keep calling it “radical” because we have heard it so often, we tend to minimize or “tame” it) is not just a declaration on the part of Jesus about his mission but a co-missioning of all who call themselves by his name to be about the radical work of release from captivity and freedom from oppression, beginning within the believer’s own heart and soul! As a white person, unless I am willing to be transformed by the purifying work of the Holy Spirit, I cannot be an effective agent of that same Spirit for the transformation of a broken world. I will not be an effective disciple of Jesus called to participate with him in the work of liberation, release, freedom from oppression and healing from the blindness of prejudice and hatred. The first step in accepting this ministry of liberation, of self and others is, as Jesus says, repentance, acknowledgement that we are going in the wrong direction and then turning around.
Deep breaths, dear ones.
Intentionally, under the loving guidance of the Spirit, we must continue turning together. Black History Month provides a precious opportunity to hear the stories of Black siblings, to immerse ourselves in that experience and to continue the painful but necessary work of turning, turning together from a shameful past to a brighter future. This month provides an opportunity for all of us to be more aware, more educated, bolder and more committed to the work of justice to which we were first committed in Baptism. Make a commitment to yourself to read more about Black history and experience. Some books I have read recently that have been eye-opening are “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” by Austin Channing Brown, “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward Baptist. Get to know someone different from you and listen to their story with empathy rather than judgement.  And then tell your own in spirit of openness and connection. We continue our anti-racism work with congregations in the call process, an emphasis which we will expand. We, members of the Metropolitan New York Synod, Church together, will trust in Jesus and walk with one another to continue the necessary work Jesus proclaimed. We will follow our Black siblings of years past and our present companions who have themselves trusted and suffered and, through it all, kept faith.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim release, sight, freedom and favor.” This is our work, my dear fellow disciples; to not only pray “thy will be done” but to build that beloved community in our midst, here, in our communities and neighborhoods.
Follow Jesus.
In the sure and certain knowledge that God loves you.
And so, do I.
Yours in Christ,
Bishop Egensteiner