Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Love your enemies - even Joffrey.

Matthew 5:13-20, Epiphany 5 A, February 9, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Joffrey. Cercei. Tywin Lannister. The Red Woman. These are the names that Arya Stark says every night before falling asleep. If you haven’t seen or read Game of Thrones, you might think that this is the list of people that she cares about, just as we pray for those we love. For Arya, this isn’t so. Instead, this is the list of people that she intends to kill. 

In the Game of Thrones series, Arya is a young preteen girl who has seen more death and despair than anyone should ever have to. By the end of the third book and TV season, her father, mother, and one of her brothers were brutally murdered in her presence. Many others that she loves have suffered at the hands of her enemies. So it is no wonder that she has vengeance on her mind. 

We have seen similar events of such intense violence. In the Bible, Cain couldn’t stand the fact that God preferred Abel, so he killed his brother. King Saul felt disgraced that the people preferred young David, so he repeatedly attempted to murder him. Saul of Tarsus truly believed that Jesus’ followers were so out of line that he brought them to the authorities to be stoned to death.

Throughout history, people have resorted to intense violence. When King Henry VIII didn’t receive an heir from his wife, he disposed her by divorce or beheading. Joseph Stalin in his Great Purge executed hundreds of thousands of his own communist party so that he would never face opposition. White supremacists were so afraid of the message of racial equality that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of that they killed him.

In our modern day, we cannot escape violence. Michael Dunn, a white man living in Florida killed the black teenager Jordan Davis just because he was playing loud music. In Ukraine, protests against the government have turned violent in the past few days; Thursday alone almost 70 died. Even in our own backyard, Kristen Smith abducted her half-sister’s baby and then abandoned the child outside a gas station in West Branch.

Jesus tells us in today’s gospel that none of this is acceptable. Instead of hating our enemies, we are to love them. He does not mean that we need to become emotionally attached to our enemies in the way that we are with our families. Instead, we are to respond with kindness. 

When brought to court with a debt to pay, we should pay double. If someone insults us, we are not to respond in kind. Instead, we can stand firm without resorting to retaliation. Ultimately, all of Jesus’ guidance in this passage - from turning the other cheek to handing over a coat to walking another mile - is all about nonviolent responses. 

For most of us, the violence that we fear - or inflict - is not physical violence. Some of the hardest violence to recover from is emotional, verbal, and written violence. We often hear about how terrible kids can be toward each other, yet adults can be just as destructive. We are no better than our enemies. 

Frederick Buechner writes about our modern tendency to throw curses instead of punches. He writes, 
"It would be pleasant to think it's because we're more civilized nowadays, but maybe it's only because we're less honest, open, brave. We tend to avoid fiery outbursts for fear of what they may touch off both in ourselves and the ones we burst out at. We smolder instead. If people hurt us or cheat us or stand for things we abominate, we're less apt to bear arms against them than to bear grudges. We stay out of their way. When we declare war, it is mostly submarine warfare, and since our attacks are beneath the surface, it may be years before we know fully the damage we have either given or sustained.

"Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.

"You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they're tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they're vulnerable. You see where they're scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You're still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It's possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can't, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough."

Loving our enemies by showing them kindness is a tall order. Somedays it may seem impossible. Violence can only create more violence. So, when you are hurt, stand up for yourself nonviolently and turn the other cheek. When you owe your enemy a debt, repay her plus more. When your enemy requires you to work for him, go out of your way to do a bit more. You may be amazed at how your enemy will respond to your kindness. 

Like and unlike Arya, the young girl from Game of Thrones, please do name your enemies every night. But instead of listing their names with the intent to destroy, pray for them. Pray that God might work through them so that they can be a blessing instead of a curse. Pray that you might find a way to be kind to them. Maybe - just maybe - God can help you to repair your relationship with your enemy. May it indeed be so. Amen.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Salt and Light

Matthew 5:13-20, Epiphany 5 A, February 9, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Listen to this story: “A king had three daughters. He wondered how much they loved him. The one said that she loved him more than all the gold in the world. The king was impressed. The second daughter said she loved her father more than all the silver in the world. That pleased him, too.

“The youngest said, ‘I love you more than salt.’ He was disappointed. The castle cook overheard the conversation and decided to do something in defense of the youngest girl. The next day she left out all the salt in the king's food. The food was tasteless. Then he knew what his daughter was saying to him. She loved him so much that without him, like salt in food, nothing was good.” http://www.sermonsuite.com/freebk.php?i=788018570&key=bbOBs4rzanqh4zqr

We can appreciate the value of gold and silver, but like this king, I wonder if we don’t value salt enough. When Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, he means that we are of great value. In our modern context, I am not sure that we are fully aware of what Jesus meant. On every table at every restaurant and at almost every kitchen table in every home, there is a shaker of salt and a shaker of black pepper. Grocery stores are full of table salt, kosher salt, and even rock salt. No matter in what form we would like to purchase salt, we can find it at a reasonable price.

When Jesus says that we are the light of the world, he is also implying our value as Christians. Do we ever consider how important light is? In our homes, we can turn on lights with just a push of a button or a flip of a switch. It doesn’t cost us much to light our homes. We even can get solar powered lights for outside that use no electricity. Even in our small towns of Le Claire and Princeton, we have some streetlights that help us see in the dark. We need not live without light unless we want to do so.

In Jesus’ time, salt and light were rarer yet just as necessary for life. Back then, just as it is now, salt was used in many ways. They needed salt to preserve food and to season it. Salt was so important that it was used like currency in the first century.

They even used salt to keep fires going. They did not have coal, nor did they have much wood, so they needed to use blocks of salt to increase the heat of the fire. Eventually, like coal and wood, the salt block would burn down and become useless. Then, they would throw the ashy remainder in the street. Salt was a critical part of society in the first century, a rare and valued commodity.

Light also was not as available. When the sun went down, people could not light the world like we do today. Without electricity and light bulbs, people in Jesus’ time needed to use oil lamps and other small sources of fire to light the world at night. Light was never taken for granted.

We may take light and salt for granted, but we should never take our own value for granted. Yet, so often we do. The following story shows how a young child values his father, even when the father didn’t feel like it.

“In the faint light of the attic, an old man, tall and stooped, bent his great frame and made his way to a stack of boxes that sat near one of the little half-windows. Brushing aside a wisp of cobwebs, he tilted the top box toward the light and began to carefully lift out one old photograph album after another. Eyes once bright but now dim searched longingly for the source that had drawn him here…

“Setting aside one of the dusty albums, he pulled from the box what appeared to be a journal from his grown son's childhood. He could not recall ever having seen it before, or that his son had ever kept a journal. Shaking his white head, he wondered to himself, ‘Why did Elizabeth always save the children's old junk?’

“Opening the yellowed pages, he glanced over a short reading, and his lips curved in an unconscious smile… It was the voice of the little boy who had grown up far too fast in this very house, and whose voice had grown fainter and fainter over the years. In the utter silence of the attic, the words of a guileless six-year-old worked their magic and carried the old man back to a time almost totally forgotten…

“Reminded that he had kept a daily journal of his business activities over the years, he closed his son's journal and turned to leave, having forgotten the cherished photo that originally triggered his search. Hunched over to keep from bumping his head on the rafters, the old man stepped to the wooden stairway and made his descent, then headed down a carpeted stairway that led to the den.

“Opening a glass cabinet door, he reached in and pulled out an old business journal. Turning, he sat down at his desk and placed the two journals beside each other. His was leather-bound and engraved neatly with his name in gold, while his son's was tattered and the name "Jimmy" had been nearly scuffed from its surface…

“As he opened his journal, the old man's eyes fell upon an inscription that stood out because it was so brief in comparison to other days. In his own neat handwriting were these words: Wasted the whole day fishing with Jimmy. Didn't catch a thing.

“With a deep sigh and a shaking hand, he took Jimmy's journal and found the boy's entry for the same day, June 4. Large scrawling letters, pressed deeply into the paper, read: Went fishing with my Dad. Best day of my life.”

Jesus tells us that we are of great value. We are the salt of the earth. We are the light of the world. He doesn’t stop there, though. He encourages us to share ourselves with others. Instead of hiding an oil lamp under a bushel basket, we can put on the top of a stand so that it lights up the whole room. 

Instead of hiding ourselves inside our homes or even our sanctuary, we can spread the love of God to our neighbors, our community, and to those we love. With the internet, we can spread God’s love throughout the world!

Remember, you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are more important than gold or silver. You cannot be replaced. You are valuable, and you have something to share with others. Go out and brighten someone’s day! Amen.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Case from God

Micah 6:1-8, Epiphany 4 A, February 2, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Atticus Finch vs. Racism
The book and subsequent movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, have become classics. This coming-of-age story has influenced generations of children as they also come of age. At some point, all children learn of terrible evils and how they can live in this world despite them.

The courtroom scene in that book and movie is a classic. The narrator Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, is the lawyer for a black man named Tom Robinson who is charged with raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Because of the rampant racism during the thirties, Atticus knows that he will loose the case. However, he chooses to represent Tom Robinson because he wants to teach his daughter Scout about justice.

So, during the trial Atticus skillfully shows the court that Mayella’s severe bruises were caused by a left-handed man, but Tom Robinson’s left hand is lame. Through examinations, Atticus brings out the truth that Mayella wanted Tom Robinson, but he refused her advances. So, Mayella used her white privilege to charge Tom Robinson with rape. Indeed, Atticus shrewdly discovers that it was Mayella’s father who beat her.

Yet, despite Atticus’ hard work and excellent execution, the court finds Tom Robinson guilty. There was nothing that Atticus could have done to change his client’s charges. This was a hard lesson for Scout to learn: in that age the evil of racism could not be overpowered by sound judgment and kind souls.

God vs. Israel
Evil like racism has been around for centuries. Sometimes sound judgment and kind souls can make a difference. In fact, that is exactly what God asks of the people of Israel in our first lesson. In Micah chapter 6, we hear of a very different courtroom scene. This figurative one does not take place within a building; instead, it is set outside where the whole world can hear. There is a judge ready to hear the case that God, the plaintiff, sets before him. The people of Israel are the defendants. The mountains and hills form the gallery. Instead of revealing the entire trial, the author only gives one statement for each party.

As the scene begins, the judge addresses the Lord for all to hear, saying, “Lord, now is your time to speak your peace. Tell all of us what you have to say. Your message will resound around the earth, through the mountains and in the valleys.”

Then the judge turns to the defendants’ table and addresses them, saying, “Listen, people of this earth, to what your Lord has to say. Even as the Lord’s voice will ring throughout creation, so also will it ring in your ears. The Lord has an argument to pick with you, the Lord’s people of Israel.”

Finished with his opening speech, the judge turns back to the plaintiff’s table. He gives the Lord the floor to speak to the assembly.

Instead of addressing the judge or the jury, the Lord then turns to His people sitting behind the defendants’ table. Addressing them, He says, “O my people, what have I done to you? How could I possibly have exhausted you? I do not understand. Over and over again, I have saved you from terrible misfortune. I delivered you from slavery in Egypt, freeing you from hard labor and cruel punishment. I gave you leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to guide you to the land that I promised to you.

“O my people, do you not remember how King Balak of Moab had schemed to have Balaam curse all of you before you even entered this land? I stopped Balaam from cursing you. I opened the mouth of his donkey so he could understand his folly. Balaam blessed you because I intervened. Then I gave you the land that I promised.

“By now you should know the saving acts of the Lord.”

With that, the Lord finished his statement and returned to his seat. The judge gestured that it was the people’s turn to respond. The defendants’ representative rose and responded,

“What do you want from us? How can we approach you, bowing down before your presence? Do you want a burnt offering? Maybe our finest fatted calves? Or would you like thousands of rams, or all of the oil we can muster? What about my firstborn son, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? What is enough for you? Can we ever make amends?”

The judge does not need time to decide his verdict. He declares, “The Lord has already told you – did you not listen? You know what is good in the Lord’s eyes. All that the Lord requests for your sentence is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Seek out ways to stand up for one another; always share kindness with friends, foes, and strangers; and enjoy a simply fulfilling relationship with your God. That is enough.”

There, the scene ends. The Lord showed that He felt justified in his actions. After saving the people of Israel time and time again, the Lord could not understand why the people complained so much. The people responded by suggesting outrageous sacrifices, including their firstborn. Clearly, the people did not understand the purpose of the rituals in their tradition. Then, the judge described for all what the Lord really wanted, not empty rituals but a sound relationship.

What does the Lord require of you?
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God. I wonder if the people of Israel thought that they were off the hook with this one. Or did they realize what a huge expectation this is? Each of these expectations individually requires a lot of effort. All three together is an enormous undertaking.

First, to do justice, in Hebrew mishpat, means to follow God’s law. Inherent in God’s justice is caring for those who are least among us, the ones who once were widows, orphans, and foreign visitors. Now, that category also includes those living in poverty and the young and old who cannot care for themselves.

Next, to love kindness means to appreciate God’s love, in Hebrew chesed. After receiving God’s loving kindness, we are to share this exact loving kindness to everyone. This can also be described as compassion, empathy, and benevolence. We can share God’s love with others.

Finally, we are to “walk humbly with our God.” This one is harder to define. Although humility is certainly an important part of our relationship with God, this phrase may also mean to be peaceful, modest, or meaningful. The Lord expects us to fully participate in the life of the church so that what we offer is never meaningless.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout and Atticus Finch show us how evil racism can be. In Micah, the prophet shows us that God has already overcome the worst evil in our world. The least we can do in response is to care for the least among us as an expression of God’s love in response to all that God has already done. Amen.