“Beyond the tribe”

Rev. Jon Greene, Deacon

Grace Episcopal Church, Radford, VA

February 3, 2019


Jeremiah 1:4-10

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

Psalm 71:1-6


May change bring hope, may hope bring love, may love bring change.


Some of you will know that Elise and I have four daughters.  There are 11 years between our oldest and youngest, so for 18 years we had a teenage girl in the house (kind of explains this—don’t you think?)

There was a pattern that played out over the years in our house. 

Elise and I would be downstairs and would hear screaming and yelling.

I would go upstairs and find two of the girls, red-faced, necks bulging in fury.

At issue was the ownership of a certain item—sometimes an item of make-up, a blouse or a necklace

—most often a pair of jeans.

One of the girls would be wearing said jeans, the other would be yelling, “Those are mine!” with the fury of the innocent victim.

“No they’re not!” would scream the other, with the righteous anger of the falsely accused.


Now, I always thought of myself as a clever and wise father, and would intervene in the situation and would offer what I felt was a brilliant solution.

Now despite my perceived cleverness and wisdom the result of my intervention was typically both girls crying hysterically in their room, my wife wondering how I could be such an idiot and me recognizing I was going to end up buy two pairs of jeans that weekend.

Inevitably I ended up asking myself, “What just happened here?”


I have a similar reaction to today’s Gospel passage. 

Jesus is in the temple reading scripture in his hometown.  The next thing you know his own people want to throw him off a cliff.  Luckily, he “passes through” the crowd.

Huh?  What just happened here?


Now the folks that select the lectionary in their Solomonic wisdom have split this passage in half.

Last week Kathy read that Jesus had taken the scroll from Isaiah and read this passage:

18 “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,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

This week he states “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

According to Matthew and Mark’s Gospel, when he said that it didn’t sit well with the good folks of Nazareth.

They claim “they took offense at him”. 

Luke, tells it differently. 

According to him “all spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words,” 

but then Jesus goes off on them.

He says you people are going to throw proverbs at me

and you’re going to ask why I’m not doing the acts of power that you heard in Capernaum.

Then he tells them that like Elijah and Elisha, who took care of foreigners while many Israelites were suffering, that he will be leaving town and going to do his works of power with others,

Maybe even Gentiles.

It’s the messianic equivalent of telling them, “I’m not doing business here in Radford, I’m going back over the river to Blacksburg.”

Fighting words.

Why did Jesus do this?  Why did he provoke the people of his home town?


We’ll never know for sure of course, but I have a theory.

I think he looked out on his own people and was disappointed.  He was disappointed that they expected him to take care of his tribe, his people first, then the rest of Israel, then the Gentiles if he had any juice left over.

He was disappointed that they were not ready to live the way of love that includes loving those that are different from us as well as those that are the same.


You see, we are wired to be tribal.  We are wired to form a group for our own protection and then build walls and fences and make weapons of iron or of words to keep the other side out.

Peter Gabriel, a songwriter from my youth and one of the founders of the art rock band Genesis wrote in a song

“How can we be in, if there is no outside?”

We see things as them or us, black or white, a or b and in response, Jesus looks at us with a wry, and disappointed, smile and says…

“All of the above.”

A researcher at Tech was recently published in an article about how we receive scandalous news about our own sports team (or our own political party).

It seems when our own team, our own party, our own tribe is accused of wrongdoing, we tend to view that news as biased, even when we believe the source of that news is credible.[1]

It’s fake news. They’re just trying to make us look bad.  It’s politically motivated.


That brings me to the topic of blackface.

I had a perfectly nice sermon to give you this morning, but then on Friday night I heard the news that our Governor, had a picture in his yearbook of two medical students, one of which may be him,—one in blackface, one in a Ku Klux Klan costume.

And, once again, I said, “What just happened here?”

Yesterday morning, my sermon was done…but I knew I had to go there, even if it makes us squirm a little, even if Kathy would wish I would shut up, even if it isn’t a nice topic.

You see the Gospel isn’t always about being nice, and we see that Jesus wasn’t particularly nice to his friends and family in Nazareth.  He was, in fact, a little snarky.


There is a wonderful article in the Washington Post yesterday about Governor Northam and blackface that I commend to you.[2]

It tells us that blackface began in the 1830’s when a performer by the name of Thomas Dartmouth Rice created a show and a character in which he darkened his face and then acted and danced like a buffoon and used an exaggerated accent and the expressions of African Americans.

Some people, mostly white, apparently thought it was funny.

Some people, I’m sure, did not.

The character he created was named, Jim Crow.  That name of course was then applied to the segregation practices that were adopted in Virginia and elsewhere after the civil war.

The practice of blackface entertainers continued well into the 20th century, with Vaudevillians such as Al Jolson making a fortune portraying wide-eyed and dopey characters with black faces and exaggerated lips.

So the black face that Governor Northam portrayed can be traced back to a practice that was making fun of enslaved people and bore the same name as the odious forms of segregation that we as a people practiced well into the last century.

While probably intended to be funny, it is offensive.  It is racist.  It is unacceptable

today, in 1830 and in 1984. 

The fact that we accepted this practice as a society, is what I would consider a societal sin which we need to redeem.

In 1984, some, maybe most, white folks, would have thought it was funny…

Today, I hope fewer find it funny, but I’m afraid some still will.


This is not about condemning a man.

I, sure as shootin’, don’t want to go back and examine all the things that I said and did in my teens and twenties.   I did plenty of things that were stupid and I wish I hadn’t done.

While I never dressed in blackface or as a KKK member.  Would I have if someone asked me to?  I don’t think so, but can I be sure?

Would I have thought it was funny if a couple had come dressed like that…maybe…if I’m honest, I might have laughed at it, nervously and probably seeing it as crossing the line, but laughing nonetheless.


As Bishop Curry would challenge us what we need to do is to look at the past, understand the truth and learn from it so that we can create a future that redeems the mistakes, the sins, of the past.

So what now?  What do we do when our leaders disappoint us?  What do we do we do when we find out they have behaved inappropriately in the past?  Can we apply today’s standards to what happened years ago?

Anyone that portrays this as an easy answer is mistaken, in my mind.

Does an act committed as a joke 35 years ago, negate all the good an individual has done before or after?

Can a person that has done something so inappropriate, so insensitive, then be the leader of the people that he or she has offended?


Michael Curry, last week, suggested that, when we face such difficult decisions, ask ourselves which of the options look like love?

In my mind, that doesn’t make the decision easy…should we fall on the side of forgiveness for the offender (and what, exactly, does forgiveness look like) or should we fall on the side of the oppressed?

This will always be tough and will always require a detailed examination of the facts and, then, most importantly, prayer, where we truly listen for the voice of God, to determine, in fact, what is the way of love.


I have my own opinions on this situation, but they don’t really matter and have no place in the pulpit.

What I will share for you is a challenge I’m giving myself and ask you to consider…

The challenge is how does the answer change if Governor Northam were with the other tribe?

If you are a Democrat, how would you feel about the situation if the Governor had beliefs that you disagreed with and, perhaps, you found him unlikeable?

If you are a Republican, how would you feel if the Governor was someone you liked and had beliefs that aligned with yours?

What is your response when a black man is killed by a white police officer?  How would you respond if the roles were reversed?

What is your response when a young white woman is killed by an undocumented immigrant driving under the influence?  What if, instead, it’s the white woman that kills the immigrant while driving impaired?

Now, most of us, myself included, convince ourselves that we are logical, even-handed and fair in such matters. 

The truth, however, is that we find it very easy to see the best in our tribe and see the worst in the other.  Go take a look at opinion polls, go take a look at the Virginia Tech research I mentioned.

We see our leaders, and far too often, each other, in categories. Democrat, Republican, independent, liberal, conservative, Tea Party, socialist, black, white, LGBTQ, straight, Brexit, Remain, transgender, cisgender, Radford, Blacksburg, Grace parishioner, from the diocese, male, female, American, or illegal alien. 

You name it…we are really good and dividing up humanity into us and them and most often we can find a way to see just about anyone as different from us,

But that’s not the way God sees us. 

In God’s eyes we are all beloved Children.

And that’s why I think Jesus looked out at the congregation at Nazareth and got snarky.  Because they were seeing division, while he was preaching unity.

So as you consider the situation with Governor Northam, with other elected officials, with our community, state and nation.  With our world…with all of God’s creation…invite Jesus into our congregation, our state, our nation and our hearts to help us see beyond our tribe.


Please pray with me…

Lord Jesus, teach us to see beyond ourselves and our tribes to live your way of love. 

Break our hearts of stone and let us see unity where today we see division,

Let us see God’s children where today we see tribes.

Let us see love, where today we see hate

Bless this gathering, the City of Radford, the Commonwealth of Virginia, the United States, this world and all of your creation for in the end, we all belong to you.

In your name we pray…



“[1]Study draws connections between sports fandom and political tribalism,” VT News, January 30, 2019, https://vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2019/01/sports_fandom_study.html , retrieved February 2, 2019.

[2] “Northam’s ugly yearbook photo and the racist origins of blackface;” Washington Post; February 2, 2019; https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/02/02/northams-ugly-yearbook-photo-racist-origins-blackface/?utm_term=.ad478b47b55d retrieved February 2, 2019.