Sermon Transcript 8.27.23
So we've been talking about the will of God and I am convinced, and I hope that my words and my life convey that I believe, that God's will is revealed in the person of Jesus, the Christ, and that our call as Christians is to follow Christ. To do what Christ does. I talked briefly last week about the great privilege I was given to go to the Holy Land in 2016, to walk in these places, to hear and ponder the stories and I talked about how there are different traditions about where certain stories happened and the profound Insight I got that, when you line those all up in a map in Jerusalem, if you talk about the trial and the crucifixion and the burial… it doesn't really matter which traditional spot you pick for which, there's a point in Jerusalem that Jesus would have passed through and that area is part of a Roman Road that predates Jesus’ life… and so these stones are where Jesus walked. And my insight was that it's not about certainty. It's about faith. It's about being willing to travel the path, to make the journey. Jesus doesn't equip us all the same way. He doesn't call us to follow in the same way, but we are all called to follow - to be Christlike.
Matthew 5 is the beginning of The Sermon on the Mount. It is full of dramatic and challenging teaching. One good summary of what Jesus does in this sermon is to make it clear that we cannot do it by ourselves, and that we must rely on God's grace. That God's grace is sufficient for you, as we talked about last week - the message Paul got when he asked for a thorn in his side to be taken away. “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” Jesus takes the Old Testament law, having proclaimed that he is not there to overturn it but to fulfill it, and calls us to fulfill it not in a narrow legalistic certainty, but by relying on God's grace. He says “You have heard it said an eye for an eye…” that comes directly from Exodus 21. It's a standard that God sets that is less punitive, and less harsh than the prior standard. We might think oh an eye for an eye… that's terrible, but if the standard was “if you harm me at all I get to kill you” then an eye for an eye a an equality, a reciprocity. It is a step back and the early Hebrews were not the only ones to realize that was a good foundation for society. Predating the Exodus, the code of Hammurabi, a ruler of the Babylonian Empire had a similar phrase. You can only extract in punishment that which you were harmed, it can't be more than that. It can't escalate. An eye for an eye… yet Jesus says you have heard it said an eye for an eye but I say to you if you are angry with a brother you have sinned. Does that mean we should never, ever feel the experience the emotion of anger? Jesus clearly does numerous times, did Jesus sin? No, I'm not suggesting that Jesus did. One of the foundations of our faith is he who was without sin became flesh. What Jesus is talking about is self-righteousness and injustice. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is deeply rooted in the prophetic tradition, the very tradition he says he comes to fulfill. A couple of weeks ago we talked about Amos and the powerful phrase “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” We talked about when our religion, our purity code becomes so harsh and legalistic that we start doing harm in the name of protecting our religion instead of living out love and service. We have to discern. Now, water is lifegiving, most of us would pass within 3 days without water if not sooner, and yet too much water can also be
Deadly. When water turns to flood it becomes harmful. When Justice becomes rigid and punitive, it becomes harmful. It's no longer lifegiving but it perpetuates Injustice. We often talk about the scales of Justice. How do you picture the scales of justice? Are they even? Often that is the goal, to balance things, to be equitable - but sometimes we depict them as uneven because Justice is about weighing claims and seeing who has the greater truth on their side. If we get rigid about everything being balanced, we can perpetuate injustice. If we tip the scales, if we allow wealth or power or influence or fame to tip the scales, then we're not being just either! But it's not an absolute. It's a metaphor for a process that is supposed to lead to reconciliation. How much of our justice system focuses on punishment that never actually makes the victim whole? We do further harm, but we don't make anyone whole. Now sometimes because we are human and flawed, we do need to set boundaries. There is an aspect of punishment that is effective, but when we make that the whole of our justice system, we have lost the point it's supposed to be about: the Beloved Community. It's supposed to be about reconciliation.
We wrestled with an extremely difficult example last week, the parable of the Prodigal Son and I encouraged us, in all of Jesus Parables, to spend some time intentionally placing ourselves in the place of the different characters. See the story from the father - I think part of the reason Jesus tells this Parable is to tell us what God is like, what God's will is - and that is reconciliation. The Lost coming home. We are called to forgive even that which we consider unforgivable. We are called to repent. Usually, we approach this from the viewpoint of the prodigal. We repent. We go home. We are waiting for our Father to embrace us, beautifully and powerfully true. I had an epiphany when one day a preacher challenged me to view this parable through the lens of the older brother,,,, oh boy am I an older brother. I was convicted by my unwillingness to let go of my grief, and my grudges - even if I was right but now I'm harming myself. I'm not allowing myself to go into the party that God is inviting us all to. The older brother has a point. The younger brother has squandered things! Why is he being forgiven so easily? And yet the older brother will not forgive the father for not speaking the words he wanted to hear. The father thought the older brother knew what was the father's is the sons… but apparently that was not made plain The relationship is broken just as surely as the younger brother’s was and reconciliation between all of them is needed. We could view this through the lens of the servant or the slave Is there justice? Is that an equitable system. Are they treated fairly or unfairly? Have they been more loyal, perhaps, than the two sons and yet what's the father's is not theirs… and I talked about the mother who's invisible in the story as women so often in the Bible. Actually, it's remarkable how often women are NOT invisible in the Bible given the patriarchal culture that produced it. The number of women who are named, and the number of women who are not named but have crucial roles and stories told is remarkable. What happens if we look at the story from the lens of a character we know must be there, but who isn't named, who doesn't have voice? Can we identify with those who don't have voice in our own society? Powerful, powerful… encounter of Scripture.
I talked about Becoming Kin - a book I've been reading by Patty Krawec, a Native American who is also of Ukrainian heritage, talking about wrestling with all of her stories. Raised in different cultures and trying to find identity and becoming kin and the book is about “unforgetting the past and reimagining in the future” and it really is what I think, I hope I've been talking about - with Jesus calling us to be formed as disciples differently than our culture forms us, to become children again, even infants willing to be formed by Christ, rather than our systems of domination and control and punishment and Patty Krawec suggests that means we need to delve deeply into the stories of our history and think about how we see ourselves in those stories. Recognize that sometimes we are the persecuted or oppressed, but particularly for those of us gathered this morning, more often we are part of the Babylonian class with some power and some control. Oh we didn't do the evil thing… but we've certainly benefited from it. My own history is full of the benefits of the policy of redlining that denied African-Americans the same opportunity to own homes in the 40s 50s 60 60s 70s that my family had. That is the single greatest determinant of generational wealth in our economy and an entire swath of the community was forbidden from owning good homes - only allowed to buy homes in poor sections. That has an exponential effect on opportunity. How do we balance the scales of Justice given systemic injustice? and it's hard! It's hard to do that without doing further harm, but pretending it didn't happen doesn't lead to justice.
My faith, my life – a wandering journey, has taken a number of sharp turns. I think that may be why I love walking labyrinths so much. The intentional path to the center with turns. As often as I’ve built them and walked them - I'm still surprised every now and then by which direction I'm called to turn. I want to share a little bit about how I've wrestled with some of these big questions over my journey. I was born in 1968 so I am uh 55 now. I can hear my grandmother saying “Oh kiddo you don't know…” When she was in her 70s and I was in my 30s I complained about aches and pains and getting older and she said… oh kiddo you don't know… so I stand before you today not knowing and yet I can predict the weather with my toe all of a sudden…
But 1968 was a formative year in Western culture. All sorts of things happened - assassinations and outbreaks and most historians date the beginning of what Ireland calls the troubles to 1968. It has far more ancient origins… Protestants and Catholics had been going at each other in Ireland for centuries - but “the troubles” - the modern aspect of it - the terrorism - the IRA and the uh loyalists bombing each other's schools. Unthinkable horror against our neighbors resonated deeply in my early teens. I've told you before, my family was Lutheran and Catholic. My best friends growing up were all Catholic. We lived in a largely Catholic neighborhood. I was one of a few public school kids, Protestant kids in the neighborhood. There was another neighborhood not far over there were a couple of Catholics and a bunch of Protestants and we knew each other through the various schools and so we'd have these epic neighborhood battles and different games and I was one of the connection points - but I spent a lot of time talking with my friends about Northern Ireland, which in the news almost every night. Yet another bombing and if we had just been born in a different time and place, would we be such friends or were the divides of our faith and our family's Faith have set us as enemies? Pretty profound stuff for an early teenager and we wrestled with this.
One of my favorite bands kind of came of age of that time. They're slightly older than I am so they were the teen sensation - a band called U2 out of Belfast, Northern Ireland - made up of members that met at school with families that were Catholic and Protestant. This was the soundtrack of my and my friend's conversations about these deep issues. So many U2 songs talk about the troubles in Northern Ireland. Sunday Bloody Sunday is the date that marks the beginning in historians of calling it the troubles. 39 people were killed in a series of bombings and police backlash - one of the more recent songs talks about the license plate of a particular car that blew up and one of the interesting things is they drew from both sides’ atrocities. They weren't advocating one side or the other, they were advocating a cessation of violence a Humanity. Finding a common ground, recognizing when it was important to stand our ground and when it was more important to look at our commonalities. In the United States, we talk about red States and blue States. In Northern Ireland to this day, they talk about green and orange. Incidentally, last week…. one of Robin's best friends is a teacher in Oklahoma… four different elementary schools had bomb threats called into them! Here, today… We are repeating the patterns of threat and coercion and violence. We're not that far away from the Troubles.
U2, being Irish and international rock stars - being beloved by people on all sides, actually played something of a role in the peace negotiations. They did a series of concerts leading up to the Good Friday Accords to try and build commonality and goodwill and Bono, the lead singer is quoted as saying “they would only do the concerts if the politicians didn't speak.” because they knew even in those days how tense things were. How easily a word could be twisted. He said “Making politicians not speak is like making rock stars be humble” but they pulled it off!
Fast forward to about the time I’m graduating from Seminary. U2 got in some trouble. They released an album with Apple that was pushed to everybody who had iTunes - so basically if you had anything owned Apple, you got this album free! Yay except if you didn't want it… a few months ago I was visiting homebound folks here in Fort Scott and the kids had made some blankets and we were taking them out and visiting and the lady had some big band playing off her phone and we're talking and I can't hear it real well, I'm sure she couldn't hear it real well either - but you know it's playing kind of in the background and all of a sudden I'm aware that I know one of these songs – it’s playing U2. Evidently, she'd never managed to get rid of this album from her phone… maybe she likes it… more likely it's just there because she can't figure out how to get rid of it. None of us could - fortunately, I liked it, but they got in some trouble around that album too because there's a song on it called “The Troubles” that is NOT about Northern Ireland and the Irish said, “how dare you!”
But it's just a song about trouble and it started going through my head as I was reading the parable of the prodigal son. I want to share a couple of the lyrics with you. They sing “You think it's easier to put your finger on the troubles… when the trouble is you…. and you think it's easier to know your own tricks…. well it's the hardest thing you'll ever do.” and a couple of lines later in the second bridge, they sing “God knows it's not easy…. God knows it's not easy taking on the shape of someone else's pain.”
Jesus knows our troubles.
Jesus has taken on our brokenness and leads us to redemption leads us to discipleship that rejects the ways of power and violence that causes us to recognize that our deepest sorrows ultimately are akin to a skinned knee… that God's love and grace and presence is far beyond our suffering. That darkness and death do not have the final word - but we have to be very careful with that theology. I can greatly offend people with that theology.
We cannot make light of each other's pains. What we tend to do is blow off everybody else's pain… and say mine is worthy, but you need to toughen up. Suffering - all of it seen at different levels - are like a skinned knee in the backyard, a little Band-Aid a kiss it's all better - but at the cellular level it's never all better. We live at a particular level and this level matters to God. God joins us in this life, in this suffering. This is important and yet this is not all there is. Wo we live this life to the fullest and we realize there is more, that God's Will and God's presence exist at levels beyond our comprehension, both impossibly large and small - but this life matters to God and God Is with us in it.
The Old Testament talks about that with-ness – “oh, my people,” the prophet Micah is told to say, “oh, my people. What have I done to you and wherein have I I wearied you? Testify against me!” God calls for a trial. God calls for the people to bear witness - what is it? What harm have you suffered by my hand? And Micah names places, goes through some of the stories that we've reflected on over the last several months. Gigal comes up yet again. The stories of Israel moving into the land and all their complexity and the point again isn't the feast or the festivals or the rituals - while those are important, at some level when we make it all about legalistic adherence to the rules, we lose the point and the point, the prophets say in unity, the point is to “act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God!” I believe that's what Jesus demonstrates to us: to have the power and fullness of God and the humility of humanity - being willing to humble himself even unto death. Giving us rituals that are crucially important, but empty if they aren't filled with love and mercy, and humility. Truly Christ's grace is sufficient for us. Truly Christ's grace is made perfect in our weakness. Christ is with us. We are what we are intended to be and we are equipped to become what God wills us to be. God is patient and kind and waiting for us collectively to say yes to that grace, to share righteousness, that isn't self-righteousness. Justice that isn't coercive or punitive but restorative! To be reconciled with our brothers and sisters around the globe. To become Christlike.
I want to share another story from my lifetime that I'm sure you're familiar with. It has shaped the world which we live. In 1984, Bishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work seeking to challenge and reconcile the apartheid state in South Africa. He had become one of the global faces of the movement trying to reject the violence of both sides and find common ground while still standing up to the Injustice and inequality. Finding ways to do that in the name of Jesus Christ, in the name of the people of South Africa - black and white. That Nobel Prize was built upon and eventually, other Nobel prizes were awarded for the redemptive work of the time in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, who went from prison to president by helping reign in one of the organizations that had sometimes caused atrocities and pointed them to a path of reconciliation and goodwill, and President DeKlerk, the last white president of South Africa who humbled himself. Who saw the Injustice and found ways to change the system that he was the president of, to make space for Mandela and his ANC, to move to free elections, to move towards a truly integrated society, to undo the injustice of the past - and it was not easy! It's never easy “taking on the shape of someone else's pain.” but South Africa really set a benchmark. They were intentional about it. They established a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. It was about telling the stories. Seeking justice, acknowledging the harm that had been done - naming it, getting victim and perpetrator at the table and seeking reconciliation and forgiveness - not merely punishment. Seeking Justice and restoration economically, socially emotionally, and physically - that work is never finished. We are not able to do it by ourselves but God's grace is sufficient. One of the most powerful sermons I've ever heard was Bishop Tutu talking about God's grace being sufficient to empower his work, to let him love even his enemies, even those who sought to kill him, even in these days! Eventually, Bishop Tutu and president DeKlerk became friends they're seen here at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in 2013. It is possible, in this lifetime, to find justice and reconciliation. It is possible because of God's grace! So let's look again at the Sermon on the Mount - on this snippet we're focusing on today. Jesus says to his disciples, says to the crowds that are gathered, some very challenging things. “You have heard it said, do not murder but I say to you do not be angry” He talks about adultery and divorce, he sets an impossibly high standard and we are prone to want to let ourselves off the hook. Walter Wink spent a lot of time with this passage as he was on the fringes of the work in South Africa and one of the most powerful books I've ever read red is his Violence and Non-violence in South Africa. Where he traced the work of Bishop Desmond Tutu and others to try and find reconciliation and hope. Wink is a brilliant theologian. He's perhaps best known for a series of books on “The Powers” - engaging the powers, unmasking the powers, when the powers fall - what happens when we succeed in changing systems. How do we make sure the system just doesn't become a new version of inequality? Unmasking the powers which really has a lot to do with what it happens when the trouble is us, when we own part of it or benefit from part of it. When we're unwilling to make the changes in our lives that would create the conditions for freedom and equality in other people's lives. When we find excuses. When we engage in that power… It's incredibly powerful stuff and he bases a lot of his theology on this passage from Matthew 5 and he does a deep dive into it and he understands what Jesus is saying and who he's saying it to. As I share Wink's insight with you what I'm putting on the screen is a magnificent depiction of the Sermon on the Mount. It is by Nathaniel Mokgosi, from Johannesburg South Africa in 1980. He did a series of these woodcuts and now Mokgosi knows that Jesus has not yet been crucified when the Sermon on the Mount happens but he depicts in the Come Ye Blessed, Jesus is already bearing the wounds. Jesus Is with us in the suffering of life and he depicts in this image, the poor, the hungry, those who seek righteousness, those who mourn, those who seek peace. Wink points out that most of the crowds Jesus is talking to have no social standing. They have no power. They're not Roman citizens or temple elites - they can't change the system. They are very often the ostracized, the abused, the oppressed. Those desperate enough to seek a prophet in the wilderness! It is important for us, as relatively privileged people, to hear what Jesus is saying. What do you think when you're told to turn the other cheek?
Russell Moore, formerly of the Southern Baptist Convention, long a power player in Republican politics and conservative Evangelical politics, recently wrote a treatise saying he has become concerned because he's talked to so many pastors and he's just talking about his own denomination, Southern Baptists, that when they preach the literal words of Jesus they're told that they're sharing liberal propaganda. They're told that it can't work anymore. Well maybe that's what Jesus said but it doesn't work now, it’s weak. and Moore is concerned about the future of the Church, of the congregations, that no longer have ears to hear what Jesus is saying Jesus is seen as too challenging - sometimes turn the other cheek. No, that's weak, wimpy! We have to stand up for ourselves, stand our ground! The people Jesus is talking to face certain death if they aggressively stand their ground. Jesus says to turn the other cheek… I want to want you to visualize for a moment… he specifically says your right cheek. In first-century culture the left hand is unclean, and the right hand is dominant. The left hand is not to be used in social interaction. So, if you are stuck on your right cheek… that means you were backhanded. You weren't punched, you were backhanded. You were put in your place. You have been told that you are less than human, you are not a citizen, you do not have rights. If you turn the other cheek to them… you have asserted your humanity. You have not responded in kind. You have not been aggressive. You have not given them an excuse… but their only response now is to treat you as an equal. If they want to lower the boom on you, they're going to have to punch you or use their left hand or in some way violate the social norms themselves. You have asserted your humanity. It's not pleasant, but you have stood up for yourself =- but you've stood up yourself without repeating the violence of the system.
Give your cloak if you are sued for your cloak give them your undergarments too! What? Give them more than they're asking for? That's ridiculous, Jesus!… We have to hear it in the first century. In the first century, there is a taboo on nudity. Now we have something of a taboo on nudity in our culture, sometimes at least, but the shame and the sin is on the one who is naked in our society. How many cartoons, they become aware that they're not wearing pants and they try to cover up. It's comedy. We're not affected by it - they have the shame. But in the first century, that's exactly reversed. Think for example the story of Noah. After the flood and the rainbow, they get back to land, first thing Noah does is grow some grapes, make wine, and get drunk. His sons noticed that and two sons backed up carrying a blanket to cover his nudity without looking - because the shame is on the viewer in that culture! I can't quite get my head around that, but the shame was on the viewer. So Jesus is telling those who have no power, if they are dragged into court they are sued for their cloak – that is, the very last thing they have… say okay! and stand there in the suit you were born in and now the shame is on the system. The one suing you is taking the last stitch of clothing this person has - you've reversed the shame again You have stood up for your humanity but you haven't responded in kind, you haven't been violent or greedy. The last one is “walk a second mile.” Roman legionnaires’ gear was heavy. We have documents from Roman Legions with strict ethics codes. You could use the local population to carry your gear, but only for a mile - because if you oppress them too much, too hard they're going to revolt. So, don't put too much on them - you can use them as pack mules but only for a mile, then you take your gear back.
So… I have no rights. I have no power. A Roman legionnaire has dumped his gear on me. We've walked the mile… now he needs his gear back or he's going to get in trouble. “Oh, no, I'll keep
Going. No bother at all!” You've turned the tables on him again. Now can you envision the Roman legionaire… panicking? “No I need this back… please…” You've humiliated him. You’ve gotten him in trouble. Jesus is being quite subversive. Jesus knows they can't stand up to the Roman army and the temple elites - but they can assert their humanity. They can break out of the roles the domination system forces on them. Reading Scripture requires discernment, to the rich young man, Jesus says “Go, sell everything you own…” but that's not a standard for everyone at all times. To those who have nothing he says assert your humanity, to both he says my grace is sufficient for you. My grace is sufficient for you.
Let us recognize when we have power when we have received benefits from Injustice and yield it. Let us recognize when we have been dealt with unfairly and assert our humanity and call for true justice - but not in kind. Not merely to get even. Not merely to come out on top, but that we might let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a living stream.” Jesus says to his audience in Matthew 5 “Be perfect as my father is perfect.” It's a wonderful verse to reflect on. It could also be translated “holy as my father is holy” or “compassionate as my father is compassionate” the Greek word means all of those things and reflecting on those different lenses is helpful but perfect stands out to me being a Wesleyan theologian because Wesley got in a lot of trouble because he asserted that we could become perfect in this lifetime. He called it Christian Perfection he didn't mean that we would have no flaws. He certainly didn't mean we could become self-righteous about it. In fact, he wrote If you ever meet somebody who claims he has attained what I'm saying is possible, they're full of themselves and they have not yet attained it because if you attain it you are going to live with a love and humility that won't proclaim your own glory and success - that will be quiet about it and build others up. Wesley wrote “by Perfection, I mean the humble gentle patient love of God and man ruling all the tempers, words. and actions, the whole heart and the whole life. It is love excluding sin. Love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul.” That's what it is to be entirely sanctified and Wesley believed that was possible for us in this life - not through our own efforts but because God's grace is sufficient and if we believe in God's grace and God's love and God's power then God can do what God says. It's not about escaping this life, even as we proclaim there is something more. It requires discernment, requires wrestling with the stories of scripture, not looking for simple answers and certainly not looking for answers we can impose on others, but to recognize it's the hardest thing we'll ever do - to learn our own tricks to recognize that very often the trouble is us… and when we have that Insight, then we can say with boldness “thy will be done on Earth and as it is in heaven.” That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen!