Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 15)
Sunday, July 11, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Photo is of Fred Hampton speaking at a rally in Chicago’s Grant Park in September 1969. Credit: Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Watch sermon here: (TLC Worship Service 07/11/2021)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

To begin this morning, I invite you with me one thousand miles west to a Chicago apartment building. It’s about 4:00 a.m. on a quiet Wednesday morning. In the apartment’s bedroom, a young 21-year-old man is sleeping with his pregnant girlfriend who is just four weeks away from giving birth to their first son.

The night before, the young man had been at a church teaching a course on political education. The young man was a recognized leader in his community – he helped create a free medical clinic and breakfast program for children in Chicago. He also had organized a truce and cease-fire among Chicago’s gangs and had formed what he called a “Rainbow Coalition” bringing together a cross-racial group of low-income whites, Latinos, and Blacks to help poor citizens in need.

In those early morning hours, while he and his girlfriend slept, 14 armed Chicago Police Officers crept through the building to his apartment building. At 4:45 a.m., on Wednesday, December 4, 1969, the police burst through the door and started shooting.  In total, they would fire 99 shots – spraying the apartment with gunfire.  When the assassination squad found that their target had only been wounded after an initial hail of gunfire, the police fired two shots into the young man’s head and said, “He good and dead now.”

This was no case of mistaken identity. This was an intentional assassination of civil rights activist Fred Hampton. For two years, Fred Hampton had been on the FBI’s “Agitator Index.” As part of the FBI’s “COINTEL” (Counterintelligence) program, the FBI kept such a list of American citizens they believed threatened the status quo. What drew the FBI’s attention was Fred Hampton’s popularity.  He had organized for a racially integrated swimming pool in his Chicago neighborhood; he had recruited 500 people to join the NAACP, he had risen to the highest levels of the Black Panther Party – and he had done all this by the time he was 21-years-old.

As his popularity grew, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover feared Fred Hampton’s rise as the coming of the next “Black Messiah.” In response, the FBI intentionally provoked violence between Fred Hampton’s Black Panther Party and other rivals. Senate investigators in the early 1970s’ revealed the FBI actively encouraged violence between the Panthers and other radical groups.

If you have an image of the Black Panthers as militant and violent, you might question how much of that the FBI wanted you to believe, to intentionally create the perception that the Black Panther party was violent.

For example, in 1969, the same year of Fred Hampton’s assassination, an FBI agent in San Francisco filed a report that the Black Panther Party there was primarily running a breakfast program for children. Hoover responded, however, that the agent’s career prospects depended on his supplying evidence to support Hoover’s view, and thus the view he wanted to the public to share, that the Black Panther Party was: “A violence-prone organization seeking to overthrow the Government by revolutionary means.”

To thwart Fred Hampton’s rise the FBI cut a deal with a car thief to infiltrate Fred Hampton’s inner circle. The FBI promised a two-time car thief that his charges would be dropped, and he would be paid a monthly stipend, to spy on Fred Hampton. It was that man who slipped a sleeping drug into Fred Hampton’s drink so that he wouldn’t be able to respond when the police came killing.

In the aftermath of the assassination, 5,000 people attended 21-year-old Fred Hampton’s funeral. One can only imagine the countless loss to this country, and to the cause of both racial justice and racial harmony, caused by this assassination. It is deaths like Fred Hampton, gunned down in his own bed; and the death of Breonna Taylor, gunned down in a similar fashion in her own bed; that fuel suspicion among Black people at the sincerity and depth of racial understanding among armed police.

Because he was an effective community leader and prophet calling for racial and class justice, Fred Hampton was targeted by the FBI. Because he was perceived as a threat to the social order, and to the status and comfort of white people, Fred Hampton was assassinated by the United States Government. Because he spoke truth to power, Fred Hampton was killed.

Why do I tell this story today? Two reasons: First, to build a more just and equitable future, we have to be honest about our past. The story of Fred Hampton is American history that shapes our present. We need to root out and confess the sin of racial hierarchy in this country in all of its many manifestations.

And second, I tell this story, because the story is the gospel reading this morning [Mark 6:14-29].  John the Baptist spoke truth to power, and that upset the powers that be. Because John spoke truth to power he was assassinated.

Admittedly, in some ways, the truth John the Baptist spoke doesn’t seem like such a huge deal today: Herod’s brother and sister-in-law had divorced, and after the divorce Herod married his ex-sister-in-law. Divorce at the time carried more of a social stigma than it does today. But in addition to divorce, maybe John knew details about that whole situation we don’t – maybe Herod and his sister-in-law turned wife committed adultery prior to their marriage – maybe they deceived Herod’s brother?

What’s interesting, is that Herod wasn’t bothered by John’s judgment. Mark records that even though Herod had arrested John, Herod also liked to listen to John and actually protected him. Maybe as a King and politician, Herod knew that criticism came along with the job. Maybe he had grown a thick skin and wasn’t bothered by opposition.  Or, maybe he was just simply impressed that someone actually spoke the truth to him, rather than fawning over him like others would have done, simply telling Herod what he wanted to hear.

But then came Herod’s birthday party … was it a lap dance, a pole dance, a strip tease that Herod’s niece / turned step-daughter danced?  We don’t know for sure, but what we do know, is that Herod was so intoxicated, so lustful, so aroused at the dancing of his niece / turned step-daughter, that he promised her anything – up to half his kingdom! Prompted by her mother, the girl asked for the assassination of her mother’s political rival. She asked for the death of the one who challenged the status quo. She asked for the killing of the one who spoke the inconvenient and painful truth.

And in that moment King Herod had a choice: he could honor his own Word and execute John the Baptist, or he could honor God’s Word and go back on his own.  In 1969, there were those in the FBI and Chicago Police who knew of the plot against Fred Hampton who might have admired him, liked him, and were opposed to the killing – who knew that a government shouldn’t kill one of its own citizens And yet, they did nothing to stop the killing. They did nothing because they knew they would face consequences. When confronted with a choice, like Herod, they saved their own skin, power-saves and defends itself – often at the death of the innocent.

The stories of Fred Hampton and John the Baptist point to the truth: when truth is spoken to power, power will respond. In response, the stories invite us today, as disciples of Jesus Christ, to a choice we must make: will we have the courage to both receive God’s word when truth is spoken to us, AND will we have the courage of John the Baptist to speak God’s word?

Will we receive God’s Word with an open heart? Will we receive God’s Word as it speaks against our sin – challenging us in our comforts and status quo? Or, ultimately like Herod, will we receive that Word as long as it doesn’t call us to make a difficult choice, put ourselves on the line, and choose between God and our loved ones?

And, having received God’s Word of judgment against our sin, will we trust the prophetic word of life we’ve been given to speak? In faith, will we speak God’s Word as it confronts sin in those around us? Along with Amos in our first reading, who spoke to kings and priests not as a professional prophet, but as a herdsman and forester, will we trust the word given to us to speak?  Will we trust the life found in the word – even in the midst of consequences?

Ultimately, the choice to live in God’s Word rests on faith – faith defined as trusting in God’s Word. Trusting that God speaks life and healing in places of sin and death. The choice to both receive and speak God’s Word, is the choice of faith to trust that God’s Word of life is more powerful than the FBI, the King Herod, any political power, and any other word spoken in the world.

Faith is trust to know that even when the powers of this world have succeeded in snuffing out the very life of God’s son, in his death on the cross … that apparent defeat on the cross is just the gateway to life. Faith trusts the defeat of the cross gives way to the empty tomb, the ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the work of salvation rolls on.

Faith trusts that even as God speaks a word of judgment against sin, God also speaks a Gospel Word of life in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

That Gospel word is proclaimed in Ephesians [1:3-14] this morning:

  • Vs 5 – “God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”
  • Vs 7 – “In Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”
  • Vs 11 – “In Christ we have an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.”

Yes, God’s prophetic Word speaks against our sin … but that Word is spoken hand-in-hand with the Gospel promises that God has destined us as adoption, and through the forgiveness of our sins, we have an inheritance of the kingdom of God.

May the Holy Spirit grant you the faith to live in, and trust, God’s word! In faith, may you have the courage to hear God’s Word in your life, and to speak God’s Word to those around you.  Alive in faith, may you live, and die, and live again in Christ sustained by God’s Word forever.

Thanks be to God.