Matthew Zold’s Sermon

“Giving Garlands”

Luke 4:14-21

Matthew Zold

January 24, 2016: Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. He has sent me to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of the oil of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of the mantle of a faint spirit. 

On New Year’s Day 2015, a young man named Matthew was arrested. Matthew was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder three years earlier, he was bi-polar.  As the police restrained him, his girlfriend (who allegedly was the one who called the police) appeared on the scene and stated that he needed to take his medication and be taken to the hospital. The police did not listen however, and took him into custody. Because Matthew did not receive his medication, out of fear and panic he continued to react violently and thus the police also responded violently. Video that came out in October shows Matthew being held down in a chair as he is tased in his groin, and later in his genitalia. No less than 2 hours into the year of 2015, Matthew Ajibade was found dead in his jail cell.  When I saw the video in October, I could not think for the rest of the day.  Not only did Matthew and I share the same name, but he would have been 22 years old if he were still living, just as I am 22.  Matthew was in college at the time, just I was also in college in 2015.  Neither of us were originally from the United States, Matthew was from Nigeria and I am originally from Canada.  But the thing that hit me the hardest, that was a psychological punch to the stomach, was that Matthew at the time of his arrest and death, was living in Savannah.  I started to think about what it would have been like if I went into a panic and my girlfriend tried to save me, and she failed. I started to think about my parents who I left the month earlier to move to my new job, and what their reaction would be if they got a call in the middle of the night that their son was arrested and died in custody. In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and countless others, it was easy for me to distance myself from those events, to make them abstract. But when I heard about a 22 year old man named Matthew living in Savannah who was tortured and killed in police custody, for a brief moment, I too could not breathe.  It hit too close to home. I began to ask “where is the justice in this?  Where is God’s justice in this?”

Jesus’ first ever public teaching in his ministry comes from a reading of the prophet Isaiah.  Several of the words Jesus recites in this reading allude to the ancient Hebrew practice of Jubilee, found in the book of Leviticus.  This Levitical law functions around the concept of Sabbath rest and worship, and serves as a divine spring cleaning.  During Jubilee which occurred every seven years, farmers would allow the land to go fallow for the entire year, meaning they would till the soil but not keep it. Whatever was grown in the fields was free for taking by anyone who came across it.  Any debts that were incurred would be forgiven, and slaves were released.  Every seventh Jubilee there was a massive festival called the Jubilee of Jubilees, in which if anyone was slighted in the previous six Jubilees, justice and grace was to be had in the seventh one.  Jubilee is a time of making even the playing field. One might say that it is a time of making crooked paths straight, a time of leveling the hills and raising the valleys. A time of removing obstacles.  Jubilee ensures that those who are in front don’t get too far ahead, and those who are in the back don’t get left behind. Jubilee is a divine insurance of justice.

God is not only love, God is just. It is out of God’s love that we find justice, and it is in God’s justice that we find love.  This means that God’s justice is not blind but rather biased, it’s colored, it is for those that got slighted every Jubilee and those who got left behind.  It is for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth explains God’s justice, writing “God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side alone:  against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly; against those who enjoy right and privilege and on behalf of those who are denied it and deprived of it.”[1]  Shirley Guthrie, Professor Emeritus from Columbia Theological Seminary, continues this thought writing “God’s justice (and true human justice) is openly on the side of those who are poor, weak, threatened, and excluded.  God’s (and truly human) justice gives people not what they deserve but what they needIt is justice that gives rights to those who have no rights. [God takes up the cause of the] poor and oppressed against the proud, comfortable, and secure who hold their privileged position at the expense of others.”[2]  How do we know this is true? Because God in all of God’s greatness took the form of and slipped into the skin of the person we know as Jesus, a man who in solidarity with the marginal and oppressed ate with sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes, he forgave sins, he returned sight to the blind, he exorcised demons from the possessed, and was executed and died a criminal’s death.  The very God becoming very human in Jesus Christ is a symbol and sign that God knows our human experiences, no matter how dark. When one of our family members dies before his or her time, God is angry too. When we are denied a job we were qualified for or rejected from a school we should have gotten into, God is confused too. When a friend finds out he or she has cancer, God is scared too.  When the Ajibade family found out their son and loved one is dead, God mourned and continues to mourn, too.  God in Jesus Christ experienced injustice first-hand, whether ministering to the marginal, or being persecuted himself.  But this means that God knows the importance of why injustices must be made right.  And as we know, the cross is not the final word. Even though Jesus was killed by state power, he was resurrected by heavenly power.

The resurrection was a grand act of resisting the man made evils in our world and aims to remind us that no matter what darkness overcomes our lives and the lives of all God’s children, God will always have the final word.  James Cone, who teaches systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, writes about Dr. Martin Luther King’s understanding of resisting evil in his book God of the Oppressed. Cone writes “King was right about the redemptive character of the suffering that arises out of resistance to evil.  When one resists evil, suffering is an inevitable consequence of that resistance.  To avoid suffering is to avoid resistance, and that leaves evil unchallenged.  King challenged the power structures of evil.  That was why he was killed.  King’s suffering, and that of freedom fighters around the world, is redemptive when, like Jesus’ cross, it inspires us to resist evil, knowing that suffering is the consequence.  To resist evil is to participate in God’s redemption of the world.”[3]

Justice, is the act of resisting evil. It is the act of looking face first into the Hells that God’s children face each and every day and says that these horrible acts cannot abide in God’s just love, whether they are refugees from Syria looking for a place to rest their heads, homeless veterans suffering from PTSD and can’t find the help they need, children and families forced to drink contaminated water around the world and in our own country, and families mourning the loss of their sons and daughters killed unfairly before their time.  Living out God’s justice means that we act on behalf of God’s love for all people, and we cannot stand by as other humans created in the image of God are having that image stripped from them.  We will not turn a blind eye because an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.  Justice ultimately brings hope.  It gives a voice to the voiceless. It gives opportunities to the unprivileged.  It gives a garland instead of ashes.  The prophet Micah stated that we as people of God are meant to do three things: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.  It is something we do.

Giving garlands is something we as Christians do and never stop doing. But these acts of justice can be found even on the small scale, it can be found in love.  This small scale model reminds me of a story told by Dr. Rodger Nishioka, the Benton Family professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary.  Scott is a 17 year old rising junior in high school when he moves from Michigan down to Louisville, Kentucky. Scott’s mom Anna found out her husband was having an affair so they arranged a hasty divorce, Anna found a job in Louisville, and Scott moves with her.  Scott left behind a girlfriend whom he loved, he was supposed to start on the varsity basketball team after working his way up through junior varsity, he was on the youth council in his presbytery.  He was mad. He was angry at his dad for his actions, angry at his mom for moving so far away, angry at God for all of this happening.  There were conversations from Anna that Scott was borderline depressed.  During a session meeting there was a prayer concern raised for Scott’s well-being. Janet, a short elderly woman, about the size of Mrs. Bunny Ludtke, said that she would pray for Scott.  She didn’t know what he looked like because he would always sneak out during the benediction, so that next Sunday he was pointed out to Janet. So when the benediction was pronounced Scott darted quickly but Janet darted quicker. She caught him in the narthex and backed him up against the wall and said “Scotty! My name is Janet I’m an elder here, boy you are handsome, I wanted to say I’m praying for you every day and I love you and I’m glad you’re here.” She hugged his waist – remember she’s very short and Scott was tall, about 6’6” – and Scott says “Thanks lady” and walks off. The next week as the benediction is pronounced Scott darts out again but goes a different route, but Janet catches him again! She backs him up against the wall and says “Scotty! Do you remember me? My name is Janet and I’m an elder here. Boy you are handsome. I wanted to say I love you and I’m glad you’re here and I’m praying for you every day.” Once again Scott says “Thanks lady” and walks off.  Scott got better at this running away game. But because he always went to church with his mom he would have to wait until she would get done, so he would just sit in his car. So if Janet missed him, she would walk out to the car and knock on the window and say “Scotty get out of the car so I can hug you!” He would unfold his massive frame as she would hug his waist, her cheek flat against his belt buckle, saying “I’m praying for you every day, I love you, I think you’re handsome, I’m glad you’re here.”  A year later Scott and Anna were driving home from church and Scott realized he never got his hug from the weird old lady. Janet was in the hospital with three blood clots in her left leg. Scott asked his mom if he could go see her. So they turn around and go to the hospital to see Janet. Scott darts down the hall and there he sees little old Janet hooked up in her hospital bed. She says “Scotty! I just finished praying for you. What are you doing here…did you come to see me?” Rodger Nishioka finishes telling the story in this way.  “Then this handsome young man shoves this gorgeous lady over on her bed and he sits down, and he takes his basketball sized arm wingspan and he wraps them around her head and he rests his chin on top of her head of beautiful grey hair. He whispers ‘how you doin miss Janet?’ And she begins to cry. And she said ‘Oh sweetheart, I’m a little afraid. I haven’t been in a hospital since I birthed my babies years ago. Doctors don’t know what’s going on, and I’m a little afraid.’ Scott said ‘Oh ma’am you’re gonna be OK.’ Janet said ‘honey that’s sweet but I’m not so sure.’ And Scott said ‘Oh no ma’am you’re gonna be OK.’ And Janet said ‘that’s sweet but…’ And Scott said ‘No ma’am, you’re gonna be OK I know it.’ And Janet said ‘Sweetheart how do you know that?’ And Scott said ‘You’re gonna be OK because I’ve been praying for you for every day for almost a year.’ Janet said ‘but I’ve been praying for you, why have you been praying for me?’ And Scott said ‘Don’t you see ma’am? Because you are saving my life.’ His mom burst out into tears because she knew at that moment that her son was going to live.”[4]  Brothers and sisters, just as Christ was filled with the Spirit sending good news to the oppressed, may we too do the same thing. May we, in the footsteps of Lord and savior, comfort those who are mourning, mend the brokenhearted, give hope to the hopeless. Hope and justice are not passive, they are active.  May we do hope and justice this day and every day.  May we participate in God’s redemption of the world. Amen.



[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956). 386.

[2] Shirley C. Guthrie Jr., Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994). 107-108.

[3] James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997). xviii

[4] “One Adult Making a Difference for Youth” Youtube. Accessed January 19, 2016.

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