“What matters to you as a person of faith today?” said the Rev. Martha Simmons. “Black lives matter.”
Simmons delivered her sermon, “Black Lives Matter,” at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her selected Scripture was Matthew 25:37-40.
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi began the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013 after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Florida fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Martin, Simmons said, was put on trial posthumously in the press.
Today, there are 23 Black Lives Matter chapters around the country. The organization’s motto is “A Movement, Not A Moment.”
“These are not just words behind a hashtag,” Simmons said. “It is unfortunate that it is currently necessary, and it is unfortunate that even this mantra, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ has come under fire.”
Some people have called for the mantra to change to “All Lives Matter,” Simmons said.
“I believe all lives matter, but to take the ‘black’ out is to have narrow-minded amnesia,” she said. “ ‘Black Lives Matter’ is actually rooted in the 400 years of repressive history in this country when millions were brought from foreign lands for the purposes of commerce.
“If the movement was ‘Jewish Lives Matter’ no one would dare to tell them to change the name,” Simmons said. “If your society has always treated you well — or if you are black trying to act white — you might be quick to make that change, but that silences the real cries of black folk.”
Specific pain needs a specific strategy to be relieved, she said. This movement is not meant to be divisive but to provide black people with self-encouragement, self-defense and self-preservation.
“It is a powerful antidote to the evil attacks of our enemies,” Simmons said. “When courts refuse to punish wrongdoers, it connects us to the sacred suffering of our ancestors. This is not a time to be battle weary but I am tired as hell [of fighting].”
In the text, Jesus connects with the marginalized and disinherited, she said. He shares in the suffering of the least of these.
“These words are encouraging to young black folks,” Simmons said. “Folks my age don’t need that encouragement because we have been through it before. The young folk need this mantra when they are subject to plunder, plight and peril; when they see that wrongdoers never suffer the consequences of their actions; when they are in cages, while murderous police get pensions and lifelong healthcare; when a white boy shoots up a school and all white boys are not lumped together.”
How can black lives matter, the youth ask.
“The answer is Jesus, and Matthew teaches that in three ways,” she said.
First, Christ sees what is happening and what is done to “the least of these.”
Christ, Simmons said, has eyes on those who are overlooked, and the God of history, justice and freedom is aware of what is happening to too many black folk.
Jesus is also aware of those who cause the suffering.
“The normative gaze of society flattens black lives, but the gaze of God sees black lives,” she said.
God was with them as they went through the Door of No Return, when black men were forced to enlist in the Confederate army, when they were hung as “strange fruit on Southern trees,” when Emmett Till was dismembered and drowned, and when black women are paid less than men and white women, Simmons said.
“I can understand why the hopeless will lash out,” she said. “I am tired of us being more concerned about buildings burned than lives scorched. Frederick Douglass said that what is worse than rebellion is what causes the rebellion. So don’t be shocked that people will rebel. The problem is the maltreatment that brings forth the rebellious response.”
The media is trying to change the narrative so “the comfortable will not be afflicted,” Simmons said. They ask why the black community does not deal with black-on-black crime, with poor education, with unwed pregnancies.
“The black community knows the issues,” she said. “If you are not going to help, get the hell out of the way. You can’t get out of the drug life if you can’t get to school, there are no jobs and then people say, ‘You figure it out.’ If the FBI and CIA can find the the two young men who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon in a matter of days, then why can’t they stop those who funnel guns and drugs into the ghetto?”
Some think that Black Lives Matter will fizzle, but that misses the point, Simmons said.
“Movements for justice ebb and flow, but every step toward justice matters — especially fighting structural and institutional sin,” she said. “Do you see the connection between Walmart raising salaries and the Occupy Wall Street movement? Do you see the connection with the Black Lives Matter movement and the effort to get rid of minimum and maximum sentences for nonviolent crimes?”
The second lesson in the text is that Jesus is connected to the least of these. He cares so much that humanity’s hurt is his hurt, she said.
“What is done to us is done to him, and it is irrevocable and unmistakable that he cares about the disinherited, dispossessed and just dissed,” she said. “There is a Christological conflation of the identity of the Son of God with the unwanted of the world. Jesus places the same value on others as he places on himself. All lives don’t matter until black lives matter. To be human is to have value; black lives are human lives.”
The third lesson is that Black lives matter because Christ is “willing to confront those who don’t care about the least of these,” she said. “There is penalty [for not caring]. God will separate God’s self from those who devalue the lives of the least. They will be in a fraternity of Godly abandonment. They have power but they don’t have ‘good religion.’
“My grandmother used to ask, ‘Have you got good religion?’ Bad religion is to preach diversity, but you don’t have many black, brown or Asian people here in Chautauqua. Bad religion is saving unborn babies but ignoring children living in urban inequality. Bad religion is say ‘whosoever will come, come’ and then putting them in jails to keep them out.”
For those who seek change, she said, the God of the least is working with you to make change. Those who want to make change embrace the unwanted.
“The power of the text is that it is a warning, an extension of time to love the least of these,” Simmons said. “It is time to learn that, when Black Lives Matter on earth, there will be life abundant here and in the beyond. God trusts us to get it right.”
What matters? Black Lives Matter, she said.
“Have you got good religion?” Simmons said. “Have you got good religion? Have you got good religion? Amen.”
Simmons and Jared Jacobsen led the congregation in several choruses of the hymn “Amen.”
The Rev. Ron Cole-Turner presided. The Rev. James Hubbard, an Episcopal priest and a member of the Motet Choir, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Motet Choir. The choir sang “Wait on the Lord” by Rosephanye Powell. Barbara Hois, flute, and Joe Musser, piano, performed “Flute Concerto in D Major” by Carl Reinecke as the prelude. The Samuel M. and Mary E. Hazlett Memorial Fund and the J. Everett Hall Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services.