The Town and Country Bike Shop began with a rocky start. Now this bike shop was unique – as it was in the club-house that sat in my parent’s backyard. It had all kinds of parts. Bald bicycle tires. Busted tubes. Rusty chains. Worn out hand grips. And its owners were all in middle school. My friends and I were so into BMX, or bicycle motocross, that we decided to start our own bike shop. On a normal summer day, we could be found racing around the neighborhood and jumping curbs and home made dirt ramps, or sitting in a driveway with our bikes flipped upside down, handlebars and seat holding the wheels upright in the air, attempting to make a minor adjustment that would make our bike just a fraction more awesome.
Our first big project was building our own bike. Now building a single speed 20” bmx bicycle doesn’t require a lot of mechanical knowledge, but it does require some. And it required money. I had purchased an old bike frame and fork and two wheels off my college aged neighbor, but I needed more parts to make the bike work. So one person bought tires, another bought the handlebar attachment gooseneck. And then we set off to work. And they got bored with the work and they went to played and raced their bikes, and piece by piece, with a lot of head scratching and trial and error, I built the bike. And it was a hit. We all took it for a spin around the neighborhood. Everyone loved it. But the oldest one of our group, the ringleader said: ok, now we have to sell it.
I immediately responded with a “NO WAY! I don’t want to sell it. I did all the work and most of the parts are mine anyway.” But the group decided they wanted to sell the bike and split the proceeds evenly, and majority ruled. But I disagreed, so I took it and locked it in the shed with a padlock, and my friends were so angry. They wouldn’t even talk to me. I think they even tried to break the lock off the shed. Finally, I ended up taking the parts they had supplied off the bike and giving them back. The partnership dissolved, and Town and Country Bike Shop closed before it could make its first sale.
Now there were lots of shades of grey in the scenario of my first business experience, and my granddad loved that I learned about business partnerships that early. And the big question that I ask is: What is fair? What makes something fair? Now I know we can say life is not fair – just get used to it – that is the reality of the world. But in this situation, what is fair? Was it fair for me to supply the majority of the parts and all the labor and not get the majority of the funds from the sale, or even the main decision in making the sale? Or was it fair to my friends that I used their parts and then locked up the newly built bicycle in my shed? What is fair?
Today as we worship together on this Martin Luther King Jr holiday weekend, we are again reminded to look at the ideas of fairness. What is fair? What is just? What is right? Like I said earlier: the world’s not fair. We know that. But could there be the chance that we are unknowingly hindering fairness or unknowingly standing in the way of justice?
Anne and I went to see Selma at the movie theater in Bowling Green this past week. And if you haven’t seen it, I would highly recommend it, but it is a difficult, difficult movie to watch. There is nothing to make you feel good when you watch this movie – simply because of the horrific atrocities that were committed by our white brothers and sisters against our black brothers and sisters. And it is even more difficult to realize that this is recent history. The events that took place in Selma, Alabama: that happened only 50 years ago. Where are we today? How far have we come?
The prophet Amos cried out: “1 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
I think the most difficult thing for me to grasp as a religious leader is how the Good News of Jesus Christ was and is used to justify keeping people oppressed. Think of the ways that it has kept people in “their place” throughout history. Slavery. The Women’s Suffrage Movement. Segregation. Marriage Equality. Your place is here, this is God’s will, and that’s how it is. Life’s not fair, get over it.
But there’s a great mistake that is made when God’s divine will is invoked as it pertains to oppression. Our God is a God of liberation, not oppression. Our God is a God of Justice, not a God of injustice. And if we used our piety and our religious zeal to allow oppression to remain and injustice to prevail, then we, my friends, need to listen to Amos’s little sermon. Because he was talking to a people that had forgotten who they were. They became so focused on the right way to worship and the right way to offer sacrifice, and they thought that’s all that was required to be faithful. But Amos suggested otherwise. Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like and ever flowing stream.
Amos goes a little further in chapter 8, saying: 4 Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5 saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances,
6 buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’ The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”
Amos was active as a prophet during the time of the divided kingdom when Israel and Judah were separate and still maintaining power and independence….which of course, was brief. If you look at the Bible, most of the story of the Hebrew people is that of an oppressed people. And yet, in the time of their own freedom from oppression, when Israel and Judah were independent, they oppressed their own. They trampled on the poor and needy.
It is so important that we pay attention to this concept of oppression throughout scripture. The very first commandment calls the Hebrew people to remember: “I am the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” You were there. You were oppressed. This is a part of your story. This defines you. I am the God who liberated you. I brought you out…I rescued you. Remember?
In a year where racial tensions have been high once again, and there are cries of injustice from the streets in Ferguson to the streets in New York City, I think it is important to consider context. Now politics and media perspectives have divided us as a nation on this issue, but I think scripture can help us look in a new way. The story of the Hebrew people is a story of liberation from oppression. God sets them free. God is with them as they carve out their own place. This is their context: God liberated us from captivity. Now, how many years ago was that?
What about our context as American people? Does the idea of liberty come up in our history? Of course. It is the theme of the Revolutionary war. Liberation from the tyranny of oppression. No taxation without representation. These continue to create our context as Americans. We sing the National Anthem. We celebrate Independence Day. We become angry when there is just an inkling that our liberty is being taken away. And how many years ago was that war? Over 225 years. And it still has a claim on us today.
So what about our black brothers and sisters? Many whose ancestors were brought here during the slave trade? The Emancipation Proclamation came from Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Slavery has been over for 150 years. Brown vs the Board of Education happened in 1954 that was supposed to end segregation in schools, and the Civil Rights act passed in 1964. And yet, equality was not achieved and there was a call for a voting rights act. The march from Selma took place in 1965. Fifty years ago. People seeking total liberation and equality.
If the story of the Hebrew people is a people who were liberated by God in the exodus, if the story of the American people is a people who revolted to tyranny, is the Black-American story of oppression not also a story engrained in their identity as a people? Perhaps that is one reason the words of the prophets were so natural coming from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Christian story is rooted in the story of the Hebrew people. It is a story of liberation, but also a story of new life, and a new way to live. Love your enemies. Those were Jesus’ words. And could there be anything more difficult? Love your enemies, your opponents, the people who think and act differently.
Watching the movie Selma, I was reminded once again that Christianity took a lead role in the civil rights movement. I watched as clergymen who had traveled to be a part of the movement were beaten to death. White Clergy. Killed because the supported justice and equality for all people. Killed because they marched with a black minister and proclaimed the same Gospel of love, justice, and hope. The church took a lead. But yet this week I also read King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail – addressed to “my fellow clergymen” – mainliners – Methodist, Presbyterians, Episcopals, Baptist, who had called his current actions unwise and untimely. He responds: “First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
“I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth of time. I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” 
Friends. Today we are reminded that we play a role in the struggle for justice and equality within this world and especially within this nation. Our Christian nature of loving God, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbors, even our enemies, is a proactive love. Our silence in the face of injustice puts us on equal grounds with Pontius Pilate washing his hands.
The question for us as Christians – for us as a church – that we must continue to ask: Are we willing to call out the injustice that continues to exist within and beyond the topic of racial inequality in our own country, not to mention the whole world? Are we willing to stand with the oppressed? Are we willing to deal with the consequences that come with walking in the path of righteousness? Where do we stand, friends? Where will we stand? Let justice roll down like waters and righteous like and ever flowing stream. Amen.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, April 16, 1963, pg 9-10. Letter available at http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu:5801/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf
 Ibid, 11.