The Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 25, 2020
Psalm 24; Matthew 5:8
He needed a new angle to hawk his product. He knew that it was good and that the people who used it liked it. It did exactly what it was intended to do and was as good or better than the competition. But as any good businessperson knows, simply having a good product, perhaps even the best product, is not enough if people don’t buy it…if people don’t believe it’s better. So, because people like science he had his product evaluated alongside the competition. Though his product was composed of the same basic chemical ingredients, it turned out that his product had only .56% impurities. At first this did not seem to Harley to be all that big of a deal. But then, in a light bulb moment, in a once in a lifetime genius marketing revelation, it came to Harley Proctor. On the box of every bar of his product he would print, Ivory soap, 99.44% pure. And it worked. Ivory soap soon became the go to brand for millions. This morning then, I want us to hold onto Harley’s 99.44% pure idea, because that is the concept behind the word pure, in pure in spirit. Pure means to be without impurities, to be completely of one thing. So, with that in mind, the question for us becomes, what does it mean to be without impurities in our heart?
To answer this, we need to once again take a quick trip in our Way-Way-Back-Biblical Time Machine so that we are sitting on the grass with the crowd that is listening to Jesus. And when we do, we will discover two things about what the crowd is hearing when Jesus says, there is wonderful news for the pure in heart. The first thing that we would discover is that heart in Greek, is not the seat of the affections. It is not where love comes from. It is not what would be put on Valentines. Instead the heart is the seat of the will. The heart is the place in which choices and decisions are made. In other words, a person would have a wise heart, meaning they made wise choices, or a foolish heart, meaning they made foolish choices. So to have a 99.44% pure heart would mean to have a heart that makes 99.44% pure choices…more about this in a minute.
The second thing we would discover is that the instant Jesus said the words “pure heart” the minds of the people would immediately go to Psalm 24. They would go there because the concept of pure heart is integral to this Psalm and this Psalm is one with which they would have been familiar. They would have been familiar with Psalm 24 because it was used by Jewish pilgrims when they made their annual trek to the Temple in Jerusalem. Think again about the words. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and who shall stand in his Holy Place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.” These are the words that would be repeated year after year after year as pilgrims climbed the steps in the Temple, or ascended the Hill of the Lord, so they could offer their sacrifices. And not only would they know the words, they would know what the words meant. The words meant that those who came to the Temple were to have made 99.44% pure choices, or choices that aligned with the Law of Moses, or put another way the law of loving God and loving neighbor. Let me say that again, to have a pure heart is to have 99.44% of our choices reflect love of God and love of neighbor.
The wonderful news Jesus offers to those whose decisions reflect loving God and neighbor is that they get to see God. Again, to understand this we need to return to the Psalm. Let’s listen one more time. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.” For those literally ascending the steps to the Temple these words meant they were meeting God. And in meeting God, they were being loved, forgiven and empowered by God, to love God and neighbor more fully. This means the same for us. That when we approach God with pure hearts, with decisions that are 99.44% aligned with loving God and neighbor, we get to encounter God and be blessed; be blessed with the love of God, with the forgiveness of God, with the very presence of God. In a sense to go back to Pastor Bethany’s sermon from last week, we get to pull up a chair with God and live in God’s life transforming presence. This all sounds wonderful…except for one thing…how do we get these pure hearts?
I realize that having our choices reflect love of God and neighbor is not a simple thing. So how then are we to do so? My answer comes from photography. I got my first nice camera when I went into the Peace Corps. My parents thought that I ought to keep a visual record of my time in the Philippines. Back then, everything about photography was manual. You had to set your aperture. You had to set your focus. You had to choose your film speed. Today though things have changed. Almost all modern cameras have an auto mode. Everything is set for you including the focus. One of my cameras will autofocus in .02 seconds…yes that is .02 seconds. Which is wonderful until…until the camera doesn’t know what to focus on. I discovered this years ago when our former Associate Pastor, Amy Morgan and I were making the very first set of confirmation videos. We were recording down by the Rouge River Corridor and Amy was next to some trees and bushes. We did the video, but then when I went back to watch it on my computer, it was obvious that the camera was confused. It was hunting focus, meaning that one moment it would focus on Amy and the next on the bush. In and out it went.
My friends, this is the problem with trying to have pure hearts…to make decisions that are 99.44% in alignment with loving God and neighbor. We have our lives set on autofocus, meaning rather than focusing on what would loving God and loving neighbor look like in all our decisions, our heart focuses on other things. It focuses on what would make us look better. What would make us more successful. What would make us more money. What would…what would…what would. Our hearts hunt for focus and often focus on the wrong things. If we want to change this; if we want to move closer and closer to having 99.44% pure hearts, then we need to take our hearts off auto focus and put them on manual focus. We need to constantly ask this question…what does love require of me? What does loving God and neighbor require of me in each and every decision I make. If we are willing to do that, then we will be on the path toward not only having pure hearts, but of seeing God.
My challenge for you then is this, that throughout this week and in the weeks to come, as you are making decisions that matter to ask yourselves, what does love require of me? And then allow that focus to help you shed the impurities of anger, prejudice and fear and allow your heart to become closer and closer to 99.44% pure.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
October 18, 2020
Exodus 25:10-22; Matthew 5:7
There is just something about a good chair. Look at the chairs around your home. Think about what caused you to pick that chair for the space it is in. Think about the chair you like to sit in the most, what makes it so perfect? When I was in college there was one chair we all fought over to study in because it balanced a book and a bowl of ramen perfectly on the arms. Chairs are important to the design of any room. When we redid Calvin Hall we had eight different chairs that the staff all sat in to pick which one we would buy in bulk. A lot goes into picking the chairs we sit in.
Some chairs hold onto their significance long after their usefulness ends. I have been to museums and seen the chair in which the declaration of independence was written and ones in which great scientific minds thought through the problems of the time. They are just chairs, yet we stare in awe and recognize they once held the weight of the advancement of humanity, comforting the sitters through their work. Chairs and human culture go hand in hand. Every great archeological site has found the chairs that once cradled that land’s people. Every time and place have need for a chair.
These past few months I have driven everywhere with a chair in my car. I put it in the back seat at first for a specific outdoor event, but its presence has offered me many more opportunities since then. It has allowed me to stay longer than I planned in places with people I have missed, and given me a last minute excuse to stop and have a solo picnic between errands.
The simplest of chairs holds immense power. When you nervously walk into a room and there is an open chair. you suddenly feel relief. An open chair is enough of a welcome to make us feel like we belong there. When someone pulls up a chair to sit next to us, we feel wanted and worthy.
So I think that it is incredible that in God’s grand design for this ideal worship space God includes a chair. The design that God lays out for Moses is intricate to say the least. God has thought about every measurement, every material to be used, every space of the room and its function. God has been dreaming about the day this place is built. In the Holy of Holies, the place where God meets with the priest, the representative of the people, God includes a chair. The chair says to me that these meetings won’t be quick, standing huddles to check in and a quick exit back to the heavens. God wants to sit and listen and build the partnership.
In the translation we read today, this chair is called the “mercy seat.” Now when I first heard mercy I thought about a football team dominating the game so outstandingly that the losing team pleads for mercy. Mercy as a call of surrender for the game to end and for the embarrassment of defeat to stop. This is what comes to mind because this is how mercy looks to most of the world. It looks like someone on their knees, hands clasped in front of them begging for those over them to stop the harm they are causing. Mercy is then granted from the more powerful to the weak.
But this mercy seat paints a very different picture than that understanding of mercy. The ones who are thrown to their knees at the sight of this chair are the powerful. When formidable armies see the mercy seat, the lid of the ark of the covenant, they tremble. Mercy in scripture is not about the powerful graciously halting destruction. Mercy is a third team, a stronger partner, showing up to help the struggling team play the rest of the game clock.
The ark of the covenant sends the powerful running because they realize God is such a regular visitor among these people that they have a special chair for when God shows up. A chair they bring everywhere with them because the chances that God is showing up to help is good. The enemies do not grant mercy; they run away at the prospect that mercy is on the way to turn the table against them.
In scripture, mercy is when a strong partner shows up to help. It is an act of partnership. It requires both parties to pull up a chair and sit together in the struggle. Because of this, mercy does not promise the problem will go away, or that the partnership means there will never be bad days. What it does is promise to be on our side during the fight. It is God pulling up a chair to be on our side.
It is God coming to earth to be on our side. It is Jesus dying on a cross to forever seat himself on our side.
Mercy is not something an oppressor can give us, it is the gift of a partner committed to taking a seat on our side through it all.
I saw a video this week of parents who redid their son’s bedroom as a gift. Friday, they sent him to stay with grandparents for the weekend and they got to work. This boy was obsessed with John Deere tractors so they had a whole design around the green and yellow logo and shelves on the walls for all his tractor collectables. The parents worked around the clock to have it ready for him by the time he came home.
When the big reveal happened they set up a camera to catch his reaction. The boy walks in, and for a moment joy spreads across his face, then he realizes he didn’t get to be a part of the transformation. His eyes fill with tears and he sniffs, “I didn’t get to help paint.”
The parents thought they would save him from the mess of redesigning. They would do all the hard sleepless work and he would be able to enjoy the final product. The boy however felt cheated out of the process. He didn’t get to help paint.
Mercy is a partnership. God could redesign the world while we are away for the weekend, but then we won’t get to help paint. God wants us to be a part of the process of mercy. Even the messy, hard, hurtful moments, God wants us to be included in the transformation. That is why mercy requires a chair. Mercy takes time. It takes time to build someone up who is feeling weak. It takes time to listen to their story and surround them with enough love for them to begin feeling strong again. It takes time sitting side by side as partners for mercy to transform someone.
And just as God pulls up a chair to sit on our side, we are also asked to be the ones pulling up a mercy chair alongside someone else in need. Mercy is meant to flow to us and through us. This beatitude says blessed are those who are merciful because they will receive mercy. It seems like an odd barter.
But what Jesus is affirming is that mercy is best when it is in motion. We can get our fill of mercy and be satisfied, but when we pull up a chair next to someone and offer them mercy then our giving is replenished with more mercy.
Here’s a modern parable for this concept: Let’s say at age 18 you got a choice. You could get a bank account with 1 million dollars in it or a bank account that could only hold a maximum of 100 dollars but every time you spent the 100 another hundred was deposited. We, of course, are choosing the one that will be replenished as we spend. We can never call ourselves millionaires, but we are going to be well taken care of. And we can care for others.
Mercy is a bank account that gets replenished every time we pull up a chair and offer mercy to others. When we sit with someone and listen to their struggle, God sits and listens to us. When we encourage one another through the hard times, God encourages us. When we walk in partnership with others lending our strength and surrounding them in love, God does the same for us.
Let’s take a moment to think about the chairs God is asking us to sit in. Who among our partners, which of our relationships need an infusion of our strength? Where can we pour out some mercy and make room for more of God’s mercy in our lives?
he Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
October 11, 2020
Jeremiah 22:1-5; Matthew 5:6
In February this church sent me to Kenya to meet with our mission partners and learn about their lives, and the mission projects we were working on together. While I was there a friend of mine sent a video to me of one of their pastors who just happened to also be in Kenya at the same time. He had made a short video about a “God moment” he had in the county.
In the video, he explains that his morning reading from scripture was God telling the Israelites not to worry about where their food would come from and that God would provide manna for them to eat. As he read the passage he sensed God asking him to trust that God would provide food for him that day. So he decided to not worry about buying food, he would wait for God to provide.
As his day progresses he gets hungrier and hungrier until he is slumped over on a bench hungry and exhausted. As he sits there he recounts that someone came up to him, and offered him a bag of chips. God had provided!
Now I understand what this person’s intentions were but the white privilege of the video hit me very hard especially because at the time I was living in the same context he was doing this “food experiment” in.
The first issue is the audacity that he would think this one day would teach him about depending on God for food. Instead of testing God, he could have found someone to visit in Kenya that could tell their story about what it was like to trust that God would provide food for them.
The second issue, actually the minute he said he was going to try to go hungry in Kenya, I laughed out loud because I have never been fed so much food in my life. Kenyans take hospitality so seriously. If you are white and in Kenya it is obvious you are a visitor and thus in need of hospitality. Every single place we went to we were given at least a bottle of water and a piece of fruit. Most places had prepared a full celebratory meal for us of meat and veggies and fruit and rice and dessert. When I say every place, I mean every place! If we were in one house then went next door to the next one they would offer us more water and more food. And we always ate it because we did not want to show favorites, and the fruit is the best in the world there. The idea that a Kenyan would let a visitor be anything except bursting full is ridiculous. For two and a half weeks I was constantly full and was getting sores in my mouth from all the beautiful pineapple they kept gifting to me. I have never been more taken care of when it comes to thirst and hunger.
These two impulses, thirst and hunger, are wired inside of us and every living thing. They are early warning signs that the intricate creation that is our bodies need something. Plants thirst and we can see them slump over and shrivel as they conserve the water that is left in them. Plants reach for the sun to gain access to their food source. We know animals are more dangerous when they are hungry, and even well-fed lions can be docile.
When God’s creation has pangs of hunger and thirst, those become the most important urges to have satisfied. Studies have shown that kids who go the whole weekend with little to no food do not perform as well in school on Monday as they do on Wednesday after two days of school meals. This is because when our bodies hunger and thirst all other non-essential functions begin to shut down to conserve energy. We go into survival mode. Our ability to think weakens and our capacity for handling stress diminishes. This is such a phenomenon in our culture we even have created a new word, hangry when your hunger makes it harder to choose kindness and anger takes over.
Hunger and thirst are pains that come from inside of us, telling us we need something to survive. The things we hunger and thirst for are so vital to our survival that everything else can wait so we can focus on meeting the need and living another day.
We don’t start out knowing how to express our needs or how to get food and water for ourselves. Babies have no clue how to find and prepare food and water nor do they truly understand the pains they are feeling. When a baby is hungry or thirsty they scream and throw tantrums until those who are tasked to take care of them come to help.
Children can ask for food and water a little better but they do not fully understand the cause of their hunger and thirst. They suddenly become very hungry or very thirsty. They often need someone else who is more mature to take the lead and notice how they are acting and ask “do you need a snack?” This outside input teaches kids how to notice what their body is telling them. As they grow up they become better at knowing what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty and can begin to meet those needs for themselves.
This understanding improves into adulthood where we are so in tune with the feeling of hunger and thirst they can sense the littlest signal that there is an imbalance. We can feel our mouths getting dry and seek out water before we get into a danger zone. When our heads get light or tiredness sets in, we consider whether some food could help fix the problem.
Now just about 100% of us have the privilege of food in our homes and clean water in our taps. So when we are hungry or thirsty it is simply a matter of hours before that need is met. But there are many in the world that for them those early signals of hunger and thirst mean a deadly clock has started ticking. They understand this scripture better than we ever will, but even we can appreciate what Jesus is telling us about righteousness.
Righteousness is one of those words we need to understand as Christians because it is all over scripture. It is used over 407 times in the Bible, so we don’t want to skim past it. The process of learning what a word means can take a few different paths. One way is by following the progression of that word backward through time to its origin. In reverse, we see how the word evolved, and all the different meanings it has collected and carried back into our time. Another important thing to consider is how people used the word at the moment it was written, or how the person who spoke it would have understood the meaning.
For example, the greeting “hi” is so ubiquitous in our language today we say it without even thinking about what it means. But, when I was in Minnesota a few years ago, I got in trouble using “hi” in the way we do here in Michigan. Here “hi” is less of an official greeting and more of an acknowledgment of someone. We say hi to strangers as we pass by simply to be polite. In Minnesota however, it means “I would like to have a full conversation with you.” They are so nice there, at least the people I met, they were thrilled to stop what they were doing and talk simply with the initiation of “hi.” When all I meant was I am not a rude person and will acknowledge I see you. Words can mean very different things in different parts of the world.
“Hi” also has an origin we can trace. “Hi” is derived from the longer word “hello” which is only 150 years old. In the late 1800’s it was exclusively used when one was surprised or trying to get someone’s attention. It gained popularity when telephones were invented as the appropriate way to greet someone on the phone. Which was, at the time, a surprising interaction. “Hello” grew out of the word “hail” which held a meaning of wishing wholeness or health on the person because Hail (h a i l) was derived from the word Hale (h a l e) which is also the root for the word “health.” SO we can see how words evolve and relate to one another to add deeper meaning when we take the time to understand them.
When it comes to the word righteousness, Jesus uses the Greek word dikaios (dik'-ah-yos) which would have been understood to refer to someone being correct or by implication innocent. If someone was dikaios, they were a righteous person to the point that if someone said they were guilty, everyone who knew them would know that was a lie because at their core they always acted and spoke correctly. But Jesus’ understanding of righteousness was fuller than simply being a good person. He knew the history of this word, especially the way God had used the word in scripture.
The word dikaios is a word that describes a person who does dike (dee-kay) which is right or just or self-evident. Dike was a term used by the justice system of the time to mean the correct verdict. Whether the court declared someone guilty or innocent people would say it was dike, the right, or self-evident verdict. It also could be applied to the sentence that was given. The sentence of life in prison could be dike, the right sentence for the crime. When dike is translated into English we use the word justice most often. The right, self-evident, and correct verdict and sentence.
But we can go deeper, dike comes from a Hebrew word tsedeq (tz-eh-dik). Tsedeq in English is translated as righteousness or Justice. The contextual usage of this word in scripture will help us understand what this word meant to the second temple Jewish community, aka what it meant to Jesus.
In Levitical law, it is used to denote fairness. When selling goods you have fair scales, tsedeq scales. When you negotiate with a neighbor you are supposed to be tsedeq, fair. In Deuteronomy, it is a legal term for a judge making tsedeq decisions, just verdicts, and sentences. We can see the link to the Greek evolution here. Job constantly asks God what is right and just, tsedeq, and calls God out for things he sees as not tsedeq. Psalms exclusively use the word to describe God, God is the one who is truly and always tsedeq. The prophets call God’s people back to their original purpose to be tsedeq people. Since God is perfectly tsedeq and humanity is made in God’s image and tasked with enacting God’s will in this world the people are supposed to be righteous, to do justice, to be tsedeq.
People who put aside their own bias and passions and want to seek first that which is right and fair and correct in God’s eyes. Tsedeq is our God-given purpose.
That is how Jesus would have understood righteousness. It is not just about being good innocent people, it is a purpose given to us by God and our responsibility to make it happen. It is such a part of who we are created to be we yearn for it the way we yearn for food and water. It is just as essential to our survival. All other functions fade away as we search for righteousness. For correct verdict and sentence, for fair transactions.
Just like with hunger and thirst, we have to learn how to notice our pains for righteousness and learn how to get that need met.
When we are just starting, our pain for righteousness will cause us to scream and throw tantrums like babies needing food and water. At first, we have no clue how to get righteousness. We just know we need it. We rely on others, those who have the power to get what we need, to offer us righteousness. We have seen people in our world in this stage of development. They know something is not righteous; they can feel it from within. Something is not fair or correct according to God, so they riot and loot and cause destruction. These are the tantrums of people feeling a new yearning from within them and not yet able to satisfy the need. Every moment their need for righteousness is not met by those who are supposed to be taking care of them, their screams get louder.
Eventually, we get to a stage where we can feel our yearning for righteousness, and instead of tantrums, we can express what we need to those who can help us. Riots become protests. Screams become phone calls to those in power. But we are still immature and only take action when we are very hungry. We don’t always anticipate the need for a snack. When something unjust happens, our pain quickly intensifies and we are again seeking a way to satisfy our inward yearning.
Eventually, we are mature enough to feel the small pains before the overwhelming hunger. We notice microaggressions when people say things like “you people.” We notice the tone in jokes. We can wonder why an industry hires mostly men, or why a disease is killing more of one community than another. The hunger and thirst for righteousness is so fine-tuned the slightest pain can call us into action. We organize for our community to experience righteousness. We say something when witnessing unrighteousness. We run for office and take on leadership roles in the systems that need to operate with more righteousness.
We are all somewhere in this development of understanding our God-given yearning for righteousness. This beatitude gives us the encouragement we need to continue developing and fine-tuning our sense of righteousness and our ability to meet the need because those who hunger and thirst will be satisfied. Those who yearn for righteousness as they yearn for food and water will be satisfied. They will be nourished to the point of being full. Be assured, God is making a world where righteousness is handed out like water and fruit in Kenya. It will be given at every stop we make. Every person we meet will offer us more righteousness. We will be satisfied.
It hurts now, I know. But there is wonderful news for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 4,, 2020
Numbers 12:1-9; Matthew 5:5
It was about as cliché a Junior High school moment as one could imagine. It occurred sometime during the first week of school when I was walking down a hallway with a couple of my friends. Some older students were walking quickly past us when one of them clapped one of my friends on the back and said, “Welcome to Fondren.” The upperclassmen and his friends then continued their way laughing hysterically. It was at that moment that I noticed the piece of paper taped to my friend’s back. It read, “Please Kick me.” That incident always comes to my mind when I read this beatitude, blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. It does so because my image of “the meek” has always been those who walk around with a sign on their back reading, “kick me.” The meek are those who let people walk all over them. The meek are those who cower in the corner. All of which has begged the question for me, how can the meek inherit the earth when we know that it is the powerful who rule the earth; the powerful who control the earth; and the powerful who oppress the meek? That being the case, what then are we to do with this beatitude? The answer is that we are to see it through the eyes of a first century Galilean Jew…then we will not only understand it, but we will find the wonderful news in this beatitude.
To discover the full meaning and the wonderful news of this beatitude I don’t want us to begin with the meek, but with “inherit the earth.” I would guess that for most of us this would be a strange concept. After all, how can someone inherit the earth? For a first century Galilean Jew however, inheriting the earth would be one of the great themes of their faith. So, let’s unpack it. First the earth is God’s, or as the Psalmist writes, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof…” meaning creation belongs to God and God can do with the earth as God desires. Second, God has children, meaning the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which would include those Galilean Jews in Jesus’ audience. Third, just as an earthly parent can give an inheritance to his or her children God can do the same. God can therefore give the earth as an inheritance to God’s children so that those children can rule and reign over it in order that the creation become a place of blessing for all nations; a place of peace, justice and love. There is one catch, however. And this has to do with the children. You see, first century Galilean Jews would not believe that all Jews would inherit. Those listening to Jesus would believe that only the righteous, meaning those who loved God and neighbor, showed kindness and did justice would inherit. It is with that in mind then that we return to the “meek.”
The Greek word we translate as “meek” never meant anything resembling the concept of walking around with a “kick me” sign on the back. The meaning of meek consisted of two integrated concepts. The first concept is humility. To be meek meant to be humble in the sense that a person acknowledges that they are not capable of knowing how to be righteous, of knowing how to love God and neighbor. Thus, a meek person is one who knows their limitations. The second concept is a word picture. It is the picture of a horse who has been trained to follow the lead of the rider; of a horse who goes exactly where the rider takes it. To be meek then, in Jewish circles meant to be someone who is humble enough that they know they cannot become righteous on their own, and so allows God to guide them. What the beatitude actually says then is, those who are willing to be humble enough to allow God to guide them into the way of loving God and neighbor will inherit this creation for the purpose of ruling and reigning over it, so that it can become a place of peace, justice and love. This my friends is wonderful news.
One of the great gifts we are given this morning is that we have an opportunity to see exactly what being meek looks like. We see it as this table (the communion table). We see it here because this is the culmination of Jesus living the meek life. In other words, Jesus was humble enough to allow God to guide him throughout his life. Jesus was humble enough to allow God to guide him to eat with sinners and tax collectors; to heal Jews and Gentiles; to welcome strangers; to forgive sinners; to feed the hungry and ultimately to go to the cross; to give up his life as the act of ultimate love in order that others might find the strength to become meek as well. What Jesus’ death on the cross did was to allow the life giving, sin forgiving power of God’s infinite love to be poured out on all creation so that people of all nations, languages, skin colors, sexual orientations and abilities might become children of God who inherit the task of recreating the creation we inherit. This is wonderful news for us and for the world.
My challenge to you on this day is this, that as you take the bread and cup, ask yourselves, “How am I being meek?” How am I being humble enough to allow God to guide and direct what I think, say and do? How am I allowing God to guide me into righteousness?”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 27, 2020
Psalm 51:1-12; Matthew 5:4
His relationship with his daughter was broken and he was desperate to fix it. The “he” is Misha, a character on the new Netflix drama, “Away.” The show is about the first group of astronauts to travel to Mars. It has become one of Cindy’s and my favorite shows, in part because each of the characters is so human, with great back stories. Misha’s humanness comes from his broken relationship with his daughter. Misha had been Russia’s most famous astronaut, but when his wife, the mother of his daughter died, the daughter asked Misha to stay home with her. He promised he would, but soon realized he was not able to be a good father. So breaking his promise, he sent his daughter to relatives to be raised, and he returned to space. Now he hurtles toward Mars, unsure if he will live or die, he asks his daughter for forgiveness. Her response is chilling. She cannot forgive him because she does not know how. In some ways, I think that King David, the writer of the 51st Psalm, might be wondering the same thing about God.
Psalm 51, according to scholars, is King David’s plea for forgiveness from God following the great Bathsheba incident. As a reminder, the great Bathsheba incident was that series of events where we witness King David break half of the commandments. He coveted Bathsheba. He committed adultery. He lied about their relationship. He stole her from her husband, and ultimately had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, murdered. For a short time, David thought he had gotten away with it - that no one, including God was any the wiser. But then David was confronted by the prophet Nathan, and his crimes were exposed. David understood that his relationship with this God that had protected him and made him king was broken. In desperation he cried out, “Have mercy on me, O God…blot out my transgression. For I know my transgression and my sin is ever before me.” David deeply desires forgiveness and so in the process, like Misha, he mourns over his sin.
If you are like me, my first impression of this morning’s beatitude is that it refers to mourning over the loss of someone we love. What I discovered in my research is that this is not the case. The Greek word for “to mourn” is used almost exclusively, not for mourning the death of a loved one, but for mourning over sins; mourning over broken relationships. It is the mourning that we do when we know that we have harmed someone by saying something that cuts deep or by doing something that diminishes the other. It is the mourning we do when we have failed to do what we know to be right and that failure breaks relationships or causes harm to another. It is the mourning we do when we know we have broken God’s heart; when we have fallen way short of God’s expectations for us. Perhaps none of you have ever done such things. Perhaps none of you have ever mourned in this way, desiring forgiveness in order to restore a relationship that has been broken, to bring healing into the life of another or to reenter a loving relationship with God. But if you have, you know Misha’s pain. You know David’s pain. But as Jesus teaches this morning, if you have, there is wonderful news for you.
There is wonderful news for you because in Jesus there is comfort to be had. What we need to understand about this “comfort” is that it is not Jesus simply telling us that everything is fine, and we don’t have to worry about what we have done. Sort of like a parent patting a child on the head after they have done something wrong and saying, “Don’t worry it doesn’t matter. It will be alright.” Instead the word implies Jesus coming alongside us, filling us with the power to acknowledge what we have done wrong and giving us the courage to do the hard work to restore the relationship. This kind of comfort matters because our human tendency is to want reconciliation and healing without having do the hard work of making what is broken whole again or restoring what was lost. Only doing the hard work of confession makes restoration possible. And it is Jesus who brings us this ability. It is Jesus who brings us this comfort, so that we can do the hard work of rebuilding trust and live.
I have to say that at this moment, I considered ending my sermon here, with some great illustration of restored relationships, but I believe God wants me to say something else; to say something about the fact that when Jesus speaks of wonderful news for those who mourn their sins, his audience would understand that he is speaking not just about personal sin and brokenness, but about societal sin and brokenness. For you see, God’s people were to be a holy people, living out lives of justice and righteousness in which all people prospered. And when they didn’t, the prophets called them out in God’s name. When the nation mistreated the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and the alien, they broke the heart of God. They broke themselves as a nation, as a holy people. It was in those moments that the prophets called upon the people to mourn: to mourn when they would not release their Hebrew slaves; to mourn when they made their servants work on the Sabbath; to mourn when they crushed the poor. The prophets do so because they know that only through mourning can the nation and its relationship with God be healed.
My friends, I believe that this where we are in our nation today. We are in a moment when the nation is broken; in a moment when the prophets would be calling us to mourn; to mourn our original national sin, if we are ever to be healed. What is that original sin? It is slavery. It is that uniquely American institution that not only treated people as property but led to the institutionalizing of racism in our nation. Some of you may find it curious that I began with slavery and not with racism. I do so because slavery preceded racism. Racism was the result of enslavers having to justify their treatment of those of African descent as animals, as property to be bought and sold. Slavery and its resulting racist ideas permanently marked from the beginning, as Ibrahim Kendi writes, people of color as being less than those whose skin is white. It was slavery and its racist results that led to Jim Crow, to the Klan, to lynching, to discrimination in education, housing and medical care. It was slavery and its racist results that led to movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, that created stereotypes of black men and women that exist to this day. I realize that even as I say this, many of you will argue with me that we are in a post-racial society in which racism, and especially structural racism, no longer exists. What I would like to do then is to invite you into an experiment that was run several years ago. I invite you to close your eyes…then imagine a drug addict. I don’t know what you imagined, but 98% of those in the study envisioned a drug user as a person with black skin. If you did, please realize that there are five times as many white drug users as there are black drug users. Also realize that black drug users are sent to prison at ten-times the rate of white drug users, that while black drug users make up 12% of all drug users they are 59% of all drug users in state prisons. The average sentence for a black drug user is the same as a sentence for a white violent offender. It is slavery and its racist results that keep this nation broken. And until those of us who are white are willing to mourn this history…we as a nation will never heal. But if we are willing, there is wonderful news.
There is wonderful news that if we are willing to mourn, then we will be comforted. If we are willing to mourn, then Jesus will come along side of us and help us confess, repent and do the hard work necessary to begin healing our broken nation. And so that is my challenge on this day, to invite all of us into mourning, not only for our personal sins, but for our nation’s original sin, trusting that there is wonderful news because Jesus will indeed come along side us, giving us the courage to do what we need to do to heal our relationships and our nation.
The Rev.Bethany Peerbolte
September 20, 2020
1 Peter 5:1-11; Matthew 5:3
For a few years I worked in an elementary school with kids in first grade. One of my responsibilities was to monitor the kids on the playground. Most days it was just standing there talking to the other adults. Some days kids would ask us to play. And some days it would be like the day I am going to tell you about.
This day took place after three very rainy days, which means the kids had had indoor recess three days in a row. If you know anything about indoor recess you probably just gasped. Indoor recess is a poor substitute for running around outside. It does very little to help the kids decompress and expel energy. So, after three days of being inside, this day was the first time they were able to run around outside.
Chaos does not begin to describe the scene on that playground. When the memory pops into my head all I see are blurs of colors shooting past me as the kids flew by running at full speed.
From the center of this pandemonium came a scream. All recess monitors become very skilled at distinguishing between a scream of play or joy and a scream of distress. This was distress. Kids are also good at knowing the difference. The flashes of color stopped in their tracks and I could follow the eyeline of the kids to the one who was in need of help.
When I got to the source of the scream, I saw a boy hanging from the play structure bridge by the drawstring in his pants. The relief that he was physically okay and the sight of him parallel to the ground with this hyper cinched waist band made me smirk a little, but I pulled myself together to go help.
First, I scooped him up in my arms to relieve the pressure of the string. I asked him if he was okay and generally kept some small talk going while I got my bearings on what was happening. What I could pull together is that he was running around the slippery play structure, slipped, and slid between the baseboards of the bridge and the hand holds. The drawstring in his pants was perfectly pinched between two bridge boards.
While I was getting info, other adults had shown up and we realized the drawstring was not only pinched in the baseboards but now wedged under a bolt. When the kid was dangling it had also gotten twisted around a few times. It was a mess.
The easiest way to free the kid would have been to take his pants off, but since every other kid on the playground was watching, we decided that wasn’t a great choice. We tried to untangle the string, pull harder, and bounce the bridge to get it unpinched. We tried everything. We decided the draw string needed to go and an adult went to get some scissors.
While we waited, we kept chatting with the kid to keep him calm. Other students came over to tell him jokes. We even got a magic trick shown to us! Finally, the adult came back with the scissors and we cut the drawstring to free him from the bridge.
When I was able to put the student down, he looked at the rope still tied to the bridge and looked at us and said “Thank goodness I had that rope!”
I looked at him confused and said, “But the rope is what got you caught.”
He relied, “Yeah, but if it hadn’t gotten caught, I would have hit the ground.”
Amazing perspective. If only we could see the world through the eyes of children. This might seem like an odd story to bring up while talking about the poor in spirit, but that verse was so short I thought we needed a little narrative example to latch onto as we talked today.
This story popped into my head as I was reading through different translations of this verse. Looking at different translations is my “day one” practice. It helps me better understand the scripture through the eyes of a variety of translators.
Translation is not as straightforward as we would like it to be sometimes. When a person or organization sits down to do a new translation they have to decide what takes precedent. Maybe the most important decision to be made before a single word is translated is if they will translate word for word or the general message. You honestly cannot have both. Often there is not an English word that equals exactly what the original language was saying. This verse actually is a great example of that. The word we read as “poor” in the English is much more nuanced in the Greek. The Greek carries with it the idea of poor but hopeful, or on the way up out of poor, or poor in one sense but rich in another. Just saying poor really does not cut it in English. So, we lose some meaning when we commit too much to word for word translation.
The other major way translators can choose to do a translation is general meaning of scripture. These translators will read a whole sentence or paragraphs and study it to understand what the original author wanted the original audience to get out of it. Then they ask, “How would I convey that same idea to someone today in my language.” The Message Bible is an example of this kind of translation. Matthew 5: verse 3 reads very differently in The Message Bible. It says, “Blessed are those who are at the end of their rope.” Now you can see why I thought of my friend hanging from his drawstring. When we translate this way, though we do lose some detail, things that don’t seem to impact the meaning get lost. So, when we read scripture it's good for us to have a balance of word for word translations and general meaning.
Balance is key.
Whether Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” or “Blessed are those who are at the end of their rope,” these are not places we really want to rush to be. In fact, all the beatitudes are not exactly places we want to be, even if they are places where God blesses us. I don’t care how many blessings are given to those who mourn, I don’t want to be there. If there are blessings at the end of my rope, great, but I’m not hoping to be there any time soon.
What the beatitudes do for us, is reassure us that when we were there, or when we are there again, we know of God’s presence and blessing. Like Pastor John said last week, these are pieces of good news for the parts of life we aren’t particularly thrilled to be in.
Blessed are those who are at the end of their rope.
I think it is fairly safe to say we have reached an end of a rope at some point this year. The pandemic, the election, the protests, losing a loved one, whether it is a family member or friend or beloved public figure. This year has put butter on all our ropes and we are slipping further and further down toward the end.
The beatitudes help us see like that child on the playground. Thank goodness for the rope. The rope that keeps us from hitting the ground. The rope gives us time to scream out, and for help to find us. At the end of the rope is God waiting to hold us until we can be untangled or cut free.
I’ve heard people say: “I just stayed bed today,” “the only thing I did was eat and sleep,” or “I cry too much lately.” These are end of the rope statements; however, they are framed by a worldly understanding of what being at the end of a rope means. Not how God sees it. The words “just” or “the only thing” or “too much” imply judgment on ourselves. That judgment is based in the assumption that we aren’t meeting our productivity quota. The world lies to us and tells us that being productive is the most important and worth-giving thing we can do. We need to be productive with every minute. It's why we check our emails at red lights, our brains think, “I have 45 seconds. How can I fill it to be productive.” This mindset forces us to fight against rest. Rest is not valued as productive enough. And yet we need it to survive.
If we looked at those end of rope statements through the lens of this beatitude they would sound more like: “I was at the end of my rope and was blessed to stay in bed today. I was at the end of my rope and was blessed to focus on nourishment and rest. I was at the end of my rope and was blessed to release my emotions with tears.”
This beatitude begs us to not see rest as a bad thing, it does not take away from your value. Surrendering is not the same as giving up.
Let me say that again…surrendering is NOT the same as giving up. If that student had kept squirming and fighting the drawstring, it would have gotten tighter and he would have been in a much more dangerous situation. His willingness to just lay in my arms was the most helpful thing he could have done for himself.
When we degrade ourselves for resting, we never get a true rest. “I should be (blank),” kills the healing power of rest. It negates all the blessings at the end of our rope. It’s like expecting Jell-O to congeal without putting it in the refrigerator. You can’t rest while thinking about the “shoulds.”
When it is time to rest, truly rest (and I’m sorry to inform those of us who want to plan and schedule everything, you can’t always schedule the rest) there will be days when too much was thrown at you and you slip down to the end of your rope suddenly. You may need to surrender to dangling at the end of the rope at a very inconvenient time. If you fight it, you will become more tangled.
Rest comes when we open ourselves up to being thankful for the rope. Thankful for the push towards the blessings that wait for us there. Thankful for a moment to be in the arms of God and have that be the only thing keeping us from hitting the ground.
Of course, we will need to get back to being productive at some point. Having a purpose is important to well-being too. Balance is key. Being hyper focused on the individual daily tasks will wear us thin. And resting from the challenges of life will leave us empty. We need to live with a balance. And know that God is just as proud of us and just as present with us in both places. When we have it all together and when we are at the end of our rope.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 13, 2020
Isaiah 30:13-19; Matthew 5:1-12
She was lucky to be alive. She had lived with cardiomyopathy, a disease that was hardening the muscle of her heart, impairing its function, for years and it had been getting progressively worse. It made it more and more difficult for her to function in any meaningful way. Then one day her heart stopped. She collapsed to the floor of her kitchen. Fortunately, her daughter was home, found her, called 911 and then proceeded to perform CPR. The paramedics arrived in less than three minutes, revived her and took her to the ER. She was in intensive care for a couple of weeks, then rehab and finally home. She was grateful to be alive. But then the bills began to arrive. They totaled more than one-hundred-thousand dollars, and my friend and her husband had no insurance. Her husband worked as a motorcycle mechanic at a small shop that offered no benefits. My friend could not work because of her heart condition. They had no way to pay. A short time later she called me in tears. I wondered what else could have happened. I asked her what was wrong. Her response stunned me. “John,” she said, “There is nothing wrong. My bills have all been forgiven.” It turns out that the hospital’s foundation had decided to pay her bills and those of her doctors. She saw it as a miracle. I saw it as wonderful news.
Wonderful news. Have any of you ever had wonderful news? And by that I don’t just mean good news; good news that we got into the school we expected to get in to. Or good news that our stock portfolios have increased. Or good news that I got the promotion I was expecting. No, when I say wonderful news, I mean the kind of news you were not expecting at all in the midst of difficult times? Over the years people have shared wonderful news stories with me. Wonderful news that seemed to come out of nowhere and out of impossible situations. And what I have discovered is that the level of wonderfulness of wonderful news is always in direct proportion to the difficulty of the circumstances out of which it arises. The gift of wonderful news is that it can sustain, empower and inspire us in tough times. And so this morning we will look at two stories in scripture that are about wonderful news. So, let’s get started.
The first story concerns the nation of Judah, of the Jewish people about seven-hundred years before the birth of Christ. Judah was a small, independent nation. Under King Hezekiah, it had done its best to be faithful to God in difficult circumstances. But now the nation faced assimilation or possible annihilation. Sweeping across their part of the world was the army of the neo-Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians, led by their king Sennacherib, were destroying every nation they encountered, and Judah was next. In desperation, Judah made a mutual defense pact with Egypt, even though the great prophet Isaiah warned them not to. The warning had been appropriate because prior to the Assyrian arrival, Egypt backed out of the pact. Judah was all alone. But then there came wonderful news from Isaiah. God spoke to the prophet and told him to deliver these words. “Truly, O people in Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem, you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you.” And God did answer them. Before the Assyrians could take Judah, they withdrew because of conflict at home. Those words and God’s actions were wonderful news for the people of Judah.
The second story is a more familiar one, but one whose wonderful news is not quite so obvious. Let’s set the scene. Jesus is preaching in Galilee, a portion of Roman occupied Judea that is facing an existential threat to its very existence. It is fact the same threat Judah had faced; assimilation which meant religious and cultural annihilation. The people of Galilee, who were proudly Jewish, were facing assimilation at the hands of Greco-Roman culture. There was daily pressure to abandon the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and adopt Greco-Roman customs and religion in order to survive. All around them the cultural outposts of this foreign culture were growing. In addition, the Romans and their Jewish allies were scooping up the best land and forcing the people to work as day laborers subject to the whims of the wealthy. And every attempt to right these wrongs with rebellion had been brutally put down. Into this difficult moment came Jesus declaring that the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God was at hand. In his teaching, his healing, his exorcisms the people saw the words of Isaiah coming alive, “Truly, O people in Zion, inhabitants of Jerusalem, you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you.” God had heard their cries. Jesus was the answer. The Kingdom was arriving. This was wonderful news.
That being the case, the question becomes for us, what do we do with these rather odd opening words from Jesus’ mountain-side teaching. What do we do with these words about the people being blessed in the midst of their pain and fear; in the midst of their struggle? I say this because by telling his audience that they are blessed, when they mourn, when they are spiritually dry and especially when they are being oppressed, appears to be trivializing the predicament of the Galilean people. Some interpreters have argued that Jesus was telling the crowd that sometime in the future all would be well…but the Greek is clear that Jesus is speaking in present tense. The people are blessed now. Others interpreters, especially more recent ones, have, by translating blessed as happy, argued that Jesus was telling the crowd something akin to don’t worry, be happy; again almost trivializing their struggle by saying, don’t worry about how badly your life stinks at the moment, just be happy. And while that may fit our cultures desire for trivializing the pain others feel, it doesn’t fit with the world transforming work that Jesus was about. So, what are we to do with these beatitudes?
What I would suggest is that we follow the lead of Biblical scholar N.T. Wright, when he translates the Greek word markarious, not as blessed, but as “wonderful news” as in, “because of Jesus there is wonderful news for…” Wright does this because he believes that in Jesus there is wonderful news for all people…and especially for those facing tough times. Listen again to the beatitudes with this translation….
Because of Jesus there is wonderful news for the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Because of Jesus there is wonderful news for those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Because of Jesus there is wonderful news for the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Because of Jesus there is wonderful news for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Because of Jesus there is wonderful news for the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Because of Jesus there is wonderful news for the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Because of Jesus there is wonderful news for the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Because of Jesus there is wonderful news for those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Because of Jesus there is wonderful news for you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
My friends, what I am trying to say is that the beatitudes are not about some pie-in-the-sky future. They are not some happy-sappy attitudes we are supposed to have when our lives are in turmoil. They are descriptions of what is happening in the radical inbreaking of God’s kingdom into the world through the presence and power of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, there is wonderful news for those who hurt. There is wonderful news for those who struggle. There is wonderful news in and through Jesus Christ. Where this is leading us, is that over the next two and half months we will be looking at the wonderful news in these beatitudes as we examine them one at a time.
My challenge for you on this day then is this, to remember a moment in your life or in the life of someone you know, that was transformed by wonderful news. Then give thanks to God for that wonderful news, and allow it to give you hope during this week.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 6, 2020
Ecclesiastes 3:16-17; Romans 14:1-13
The rules were clear, and it was also clear that he had violated every one of them. Before the beginning of every presbytery meeting, meaning the meeting of local Presbyterian churches, the moderator goes through the rules in order that all the commissioners know what is and is not appropriate during discussion and debate. The basic rules are 1) that the commissioner addresses the moderator and not the assembly, 2) speaks for or against the motion being discussed and 3) makes no personal attacks. People are usually respectful of these rules, but this person decided they did not apply to him. First, he turned his back on the moderator and addressed the assembly. Second, he did not speak for or against the motion. Third, he attacked the makers of the motion. He made it clear that whoever had written this motion had done so for nefarious reasons, that they were being dishonest and that they were no good, low-down varmints…ok so those are my words characterizing his attack. Over the years I have reflected on that attack and it dawned on me this week that this individual had had a sudden recurrence of one of humanity’s most prevalent viruses…and that is, judgementalitis.
Yes, that’s right. He had a recurrence of judgementalitis. What is judgementalitis you might ask? It is the unstoppable desire to judge and despise others. There is no blood test for this virus. You can’t stick a swab up the nose or draw some blood. It is a virus that one can diagnose by its primary symptom. Though we may think we know the primary symptom, I want us all to be clear on what that symptom is and is not. I will begin with what is not the primary symptom. The primary symptom is not disagreement. People can disagree with one another without being judgmental. People see the world in different ways through different lenses and so they can disagree about any number of things. In fact, one of the great beliefs of our Reformed tradition is that people of good will can legitimately disagree. So, what is the primary symptom of judgementalitis? The primary symptom is, in the Apostle Paul’s words in verses three and ten, “despising” the other; meaning making a judgement about another that the other is less than nothing. What I mean by this is that a disagreement becomes not about the issues but about the character of the other. We decide that another individual is less than nothing, which is the Greek definition of the word translated despise, meaning that individual is not worthy of love, care or compassion. These declarations of less than nothingness can be based on everything from a person’s political beliefs, to their religious affiliation, to the color of their skin, to the language they speak, to the nation in which they were born, who they love, how they dress, the level of their education or to any other attribute which we don’t like.
It might be nice to pretend that judgementalitis is a recent virus, but it is not. I say this because it infected the church at Rome. We can see this clearly when Paul spends most of this part of his letter telling the people not to judge. Though he speaks in general terms about not judging and not despising one other, he mentions two topics over which people are judging one another. The first has to do with eating meat. Some Christians only ate vegetables, and some ate meat. The disagreement in this case is not about which is better for you physically, but which is better for you spiritually. What I mean by this is that since most of the meat Romans ate would have been sacrificed to the gods, some Christians believed that by eating meat, they were being unfaithful to Jesus. Others said meat was meat and it didn’t matter. Unfortunately, this disagreement led each side to despise the other; to see the other as less than nothing. The other issue had to do with when people worshipped. Some people said you worship on one day and others on another day. Again, these disagreements led to each side despising the other…and if we read between the lines, led to the church being torn apart, for that is what judgementalitis does, it tears apart churches, families, communities and nations.
I don’t know if you have noticed, but there has been a sudden nationwide outbreak of judgementalitis. We have become a nation in which those on the “other side” are not simply people with whom we disagree but are people whom we can despise. To see this all we need to do is listen to much of the political advertising and discourse that is tearing this nation apart. It is not about policy but about the person. And it is helping to spread judgementalitis to more and more people. I say this because it has infected me. I find myself thinking and saying things that I know are judgmental. And with each passing day it is harder and harder and harder to disagree and not despise. Maybe this is not your story, but if it is, the question becomes, is there a cure? Is there a surefire vaccine to inoculate us from this virus? Unfortunately, the answer is no, there is not. However, there is something we can take in order to lessen the symptoms. And that is the bread and the cup at the table of Christ.
I say that taking the bread and cup help to diminish the symptom of judgementalitis because when we eat and drink at this table, we are reminded that Christ died for all of humanity. Jesus gave his life for Donald Trump and Joe Biden, for Gary Peters and John James, for red states and blue states, for Democrats and Republicans, for socialists and free marketers, for people of all languages, religions, races, sexual orientations, economic levels and abilities…for all of us. And in so doing Jesus declared that none of us is to be despised, none of us are less than nothing, but that we are all loved. We are all one family, with one parent, God above, who is the Lord of all.
My challenge for you this morning then, is, as you come to the table, to envision those whom you have despised and see them standing at the table next to you; see them receiving God’s love and mercy, even as we receive it. Then, watch for the symptoms and as they arise, and come back here, to the table, again and again and again.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 30, 2020
Exodus 20:1-17; Romans 13:8-14
He could hear the noise all the way down the hallway and he knew who was making it. The principal had hoped that this new teacher would do the trick and that she could handle “that class.” You know “that class.” Every year in a school there is “that class” of kids who cannot be controlled and who become famous for being unruly. And this, “that class” had driven their previous teacher into resigning. In great frustration the principal got up from his desk and made his way to the classroom. Using his principal voice, he gained control and then took the teacher out into the hallway. Even though it was her first day of teaching, ever, he expected her to do better and to bring order out of this chaos, otherwise the students would never learn anything. The next day, there was no chaos in that class. There was only order, for the woman who would become my mother had gotten the message and made sure that her class would no longer be “that class.” Order versus chaos, the story of the universe…the story of the Bible.
I say that order versus chaos is the story of the Bible because from the opening verses of the scriptures until the final few chapters of Revelation, this book (the Bible) tells the story of God’s desire for and work toward order over chaos. We see God bringing order out of chaos in Genesis chapter one, when God calms the angry chaos of the waters. We see it in Revelation when God forms a symmetrical heaven on earth city where all the chaos of the world is kept outside of its gates. And what we need to note about this desire and work of God for order is not done because God has a control complex, but because order allows life to flourish. Chaos on the other hand brings nothing but destruction and death. Unfortunately for the world, we human beings almost always seem to choose chaos over order…meaning we choose war over peace, violence of reconciliation, abuse over love, discrimination over equality and injustice over justice. We choose things that might for an instant bring order, but they fail to create an environment where real human flourishing can take place. We offer illusions of order, rather than the order God desires.
The fascinating thing about God is that God never gives up this desire to create an orderly creation in which all persons can flourish. We see this desire for order in God’s choosing a people to be a light to the world in order to demonstrate what human flourishing looks like, that could show the world what human flourishing looked like. Knowing full well that the Hebrews were no more inclined to order than any other people, God gave them the Torah, the Law, which was intended to order their lives in such a way that every member of their community could reach their full potential and that the community itself would be, in Biblical terms, a blessed community. We can see this orderliness in our Old Testament Lesson this morning which was the Ten Commandments. These commandments, just to be clear, are only a small portion of God’s Law, but they can give us a sense of how God’s order was to safeguard all persons and insure their flourishing.
This vision of God as a God of order and of the Law was central to the Jewish identity, but not so to the identity of the early Gentile church. The church in Rome, as a largely a Gentile church, was composed of those who had spent their lives worshipping the gods of Rome and understanding order, not as intended for the flourishing of all people, but as the power of the sword; the power of the rich and powerful citizens and their allies to crush the vast majority of human beings in the Empire beneath their boot. It was called the Pax Romana, meaning the Peace of Rome, but it was peace and flourishing only for those at the top of the heap. The question for Paul then was how could he help the Roman Christians understand what this God of order and not chaos desired of them? How could he help them become a community of order and not chaos without giving in to the brutality of the Empire? This would not be easy…and yet Paul was able to do this with a single word, love.
Paul begins this short section with these words, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Paul can tell his Roman readers that love fulfills the Law, not because it takes the place of the law, but because when human beings love one another, meaning when human beings look to the wellbeing of others as much as or more than to their own wellbeing, when human beings work to insure justice and resist injustice, when human beings offer forgiveness rather than seeking revenge…all of which are outgrowths of love, then there is true order. There is human flourishing. We can see how Paul connects the dots between order and chaos when he writes, “let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” The word “honorably” in this text can be better translated as “in order,” as in decently and in order. Meaning to live not in the chaos of lives that tear down individuals and communities, but as if we are clothed in Jesus Christ, and live in love.
So what about us? How are we to live out this love? One way to do this is to step out and love our neighbors that we have not met, that we do not know, that are different from us. And one way for us to do this as a congregation is to live into our commitment to be a Matthew 25 Congregation. For those of you who watched my Wednesday update, I let you know that after two months of prayer, discussion and discernment, the session had agreed to have us become a Matthew 25 congregation. Matthew 25 is a movement within the PCUSA, our denomination that asks congregations to engage in one or more of the following demonstrations of love as part of their work; building congregational vitality, eradicating systemic poverty or dismantling structural racism. Each of these is an expression of love of neighbor. So what does this look like exactly? I really don’t know. But in my Wednesday video update I said that I would answer a question, which was, what does being a Matthew 25 congregation require of us? I did so because many of you have expressed concerns that by becoming a Matthew 25 church, we might be obligating ourselves to do all sorts of outrageous things. If this is what you thought, then you are correct. We are called to do all sorts of outrageous things because we are called to love. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to choose order over chaos in that we are to love in such a way that all human beings have an opportunity to flourish.
You may say to me, “But John, we have always tried to do this.” And that is true. I believe that to the best of our understanding of the world we have indeed tried to do this. But what Paul reminds us is that loving in this way; loving such that God’s justice is made real in the world, isn’t an option. It is a debt we owe the world. I say this because Paul begins this ode to love with these words, “Owe no one anything, except to love.” What this means is that sacrificial love for all human beings is the debt we owe to God for God’s infinite love for us in Jesus Christ. God loved us enough to become one of us, die for us, forgive us and continue to be for us. The debt we owe is to be a community that works toward a flourishing world for all people through working toward eradicating systemic poverty, dismantling structural racism and building a vibrant community. In these ways we show forth the love of God for all human beings.
My challenge to each of you for this coming week is to pray about and consider which of these areas might be of interest to you as a way of showing love. I do so because the Diversity, Inclusion and Justice Committee of our church will be proposing that the session create workgroups to address each of these areas of loving our neighbor and I want each of us to be ready to participate in those groups. So pray, discern and seek God’s leading as together we begin to repay our debt of love to God by loving others.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
August 23, 2020
1 Samuel 8:4-18; Romans 13:1-7
Before I read these verses, I want to build some contexts around the scripture. Oftentimes when we look at scripture we've heard before or we have heard used in a very specific way, we have a hard time hearing it in a new way. I want to free us up from some of those previous interactions so that we can truly hear it for today.
I want you to think for a second who you would trust more when making a purchase, a sales person or a friend. If a salesperson came to your door with a product trying to get you to buy it, there would be some added filters you would use as you listen to their sales pitch. There would probably be some skepticism as you listened because you knew they were receiving benefits from selling the product. You would probably ask lots of questions too to make sure they had good intentions. But if a friend came to you with a product that they loved, the filters of skepticism and questioning would probably fall away. This is because we already trust our friends to give us good information and know they want the best for us. Our friends are also not receiving any benefits from selling to us.
This is a problem that arose on the social media site Instagram. There were content creators who had accounts that were followed by hundreds of thousands of people. Their followers trusted these internet celebrities and logged in just to see what they were saying about issues. Companies saw these accounts and started to pay the content creators to promote their products. When the product was promoted people bought in hordes because they thought the recommendation was coming from a friend when in fact the person was being paid to sell the product; they were receiving a benefit to make the endorsement. Instagram eventually stepped in and made a rule that if a content creator was promoting a product because they were being paid, they had to be honest in their post about the benefits they were receiving. This does not mean the product placement stopped but it did mean that consumers had an honest experience with the product and could make a decision based on the reality of the quid pro quo.
This is similar to what Paul is doing in this text today. Paul is a friend talking about something he values and believes we should value too, but he is not outside of receiving benefits from the thing he's promoting. Paul is a Roman citizen. Now there were two ways to become a Roman citizen at this time. One way was to be born within the empire of Rome. The other way to become a Roman citizen was to buy your citizenship. This was an expensive endeavor but ultimately worth the price. ONLY Roman citizens could own land or make contracts with other citizens. If somebody robbed a citizen, they had the right to sue, they had the right to defend themselves in court if they were accused of something, and they could request that Caesar hear their case first hand. Only Roman citizens could run for civil or public office, they had special immunities from taxes and legal obligations. Citizens could not be tortured or whipped, they could not receive the death penalty unless they were guilty of treason and most important of all, they were the only ones who could vote. I should say here, women were allowed to be Roman citizens but were exempt from many of these benefits of citizenship. But Paul as a roman citizen and a man was given all these things. When we hear Paul endorse the Roman government, we need to remember he speaks from a place of privilege. There were many more who could not afford citizenship and thus did not benefit from the Roman system of government.
One might wonder why Paul would participate is such an unjust system. Well, Paul does not think government or being a citizen is a bad thing or something to revoke. If you became a Roman citizen you were required to put aside the sense of the individual and focus on the good of the community. This ideal gave Paul hope that Christianity and Roman rule could coexist.
When Paul talks it is as a friend, but he is also a salesman who will continue to receive benefits if we buy into the system he promotes. We need to activate our skepticism and question the sales pitch. What Paul is talking about in Romans 13 is a message that was heard by two different types of people, citizens and non-citizens. We need to do the work of both sets of ears when we listen. We need to listen and hear what a citizen would hear, and listen to hear what a non-citizen would hear. So let’s put on one of each of those ears and let us listen to Paul.
(read Romans 13: 1-7)
When we have these two types of people, these two different ears listening, we can hear how they would interpret this message very differently.
To the citizen, this all sounds great. They would be nodding their heads, yes, only criminals go to jail, only those who do wrong receive punishment. Paying taxes helps us all. The government is indeed ordained by God and obeying government is like obeying God. They hear Paul and feel proud of their system.
For the noncitizens, this is troubling. They realize Paul is trying to sell them on something that gives him great benefit. They have questions and skepticism. If those who do wrong get punished, why aren’t they allowed to accuse those who wrong them? If the government rightly wields God’s wrath, why are Roman citizens who murder noncitizens not tried for their crimes? If taxes should be paid, why do Roman citizens get tax breaks? They personally know people who have been innocent yet still received a punishment. They have been taken advantage of by citizens and had no way to seek justice. They ask, God has ordained this? The system’s benefits are not trickling down to them and I’ll bet they are not so keen to obey as Paul requests.
But they don’t get mad at Paul because they also know he is a friend of theirs. Someone who uses his Roman status to help. They can hear in these last few verses their truth. Respect those who are due respect, and honor those who are due honor. The system is not perfect, and there are aspects that need amending. They hear Paul calling other Christians to use their privilege as Roman citizens to work and vote in a way that might help everyone one day receive the benefits. If there is a place that does not deserve respect, work to make it better. If there is a leader who does not deserve honor, use the vote to elect one that does. The citizens who stuck around to listen with both ears heard Paul’s full message.
Unfortunately, many Christians only listen as a citizen and have used these verses to justify all kinds of horrific systems. Some of the articles I read this week made me so mad I wanted to rip this page out of every Bible I owned. The thing that saved my collection is that I do believe Paul is right, I just don’t think Christians have heard him with both ears. We have listened as citizens, benefactors of the system, but not as outsiders. We hear these words, nod along in agreement and walk away before he gets to the part about giving respect and honor only when it is due. We miss that the system is not yet perfect and that we need to work to make it better for everyone in the community.
Paul sees how useful government can be. Because the Roman government exists, and he just so happened to be born on Roman soil, Paul lives an easier life. Not an easy life by any means, but it is easier as a citizen verses a noncitizen. What Paul does with that privilege is advocate for those benefits to be extended to more and more people. Paul affirms that government in and of itself is not innately bad, it is actually ordained by God. And we are called to work with the system God ordains to do the work of blessing the whole community.
In youth group, when we learn about commandments and God’s law, we play a game called, “The game with no rules.” We break out into groups of four and each group is given a standard deck of cards. Each player gets 5 cards and is told the object of the game is to play all five cards. As for the rules, each player secretly thinks of a rule for how the cards need to be played. They do not tell anyone else what their rule is. Then they begin. As you can imagine the game is pretty slow. Every time someone tries to play a card that does not meet your rule you have to yell, “no!” and the play continues to the next player.
It's frustrating, maybe some people get a couple cards played but I have yet to see anyone win this game, it goes on and on and on with no one making much progress, and everyone yelling, “no!” at one another. When we don’t know the rules, we have no idea how to play and have no chance of winning the game.
Laws help us know what is allowable. They free us up to do the things that are allowed, otherwise we live in fear that our next move will get us in trouble. God’s law tells us no killing, no lying, respect your parents. We know how to function as God’s people, and what is expected of us. God approves of governments because it is there to create and enforce the laws. Laws that free us up to live without fear of making a wrong move or being punished unjustly. God wants us to be free to live. The only way to be free is to know what is allowable in the community, otherwise we are stalemated and constantly yelling, “No!” at each other. We will never get anything done unless the rules are clear.
After the card games have stalled and everyone is frustrated, I tell the players to reveal their rules and try to play the game. This inevitably reveals that some of the rules are unfair. Here are some of my favorites rules I’ve has kids make up:
When these unjust rules exist, I let the students vote. We gather all the rules on a white board and vote for our top four favorite rules. Of course, they still vote for rules that benefit them, they have the citizen ear listening, but they also realize that rules that are fair to others will also be fair to them, the noncitizen ear. Then we play our game with the new rules and everyone has a much better time.
This kind of synergy is what God wants for us and what Israel learns in our first reading today. Israel has been making their own laws and enforcing them for a while. As they interact with other nations, they realize everyone else has a king. They start to think a king would be so much easier. They wouldn’t have to argue at committee meetings, decisions would be made so much quicker if one person had to make them all, and they would be able to send that one person off to meet with other nations instead of having to send a group of leaders. Israel thinks a king sounds awesome.
God however is not convinced. God has given them a good system – ordained a government that has brought them through hard times and kept them safe. God has enjoyed watching them work together, live together, and obey together. Sure, they have had disagreements. It’s gotten sticky a couple of times, but in the long run they are doing so well. When they ask God for a king, God is offended. Why not work within the system in existence? God is okay with them making changes but God does not want them to give up their power to one person. God knows humans are flawed and how power can corrupt. Finding one good king is a feat but finding a line of people who will make good decisions, fair, humble, wise decisions. God does not want Israel to open itself up to the disappointment and failure a king can cause.
The system God gives Israel, the one Paul advocated for, is one where the people work together, where people have the power. For Israel, Paul knows, and we also know, this kind of system has issues, but it’s issues are no excuse to stop participating in it. It is God ordained. We are God ordained to make it work.
When Israel wanted out of the system God said, “NO.” Paul is trying to get Christians to stop turning away from the system, because Paul knows together their power can make it better. They can use their immunity to torture and impose the death penalty, to speak truth loudly and hold the system accountable, something Paul does a lot in his lifetime. Paul is known to speak truth that Rome did not appreciate, but their own rules protected him from the consequences. Paul is able to use his status as a Roman citizen to say things and point things out that the noncitizens would be killed for saying. He uses his voice to amplify their experience.
Paul knows the power of the Christian vote within Rome. If every Christian used their vote to make the system a little more just, they could move the massively unjust Roman system one step towards looking like the kingdom of God.
The reason God wants power to stay with the largest group of people is because it is the best way for the Spirit to move. Presbyterian polity is set up around this belief.
In the Presbyterian tradition we believe the Spirit works best in groups. It’s fine if one person feels called to something, but we like it better when groups of people are inspired to the same cause. It shows that the Spirit is clearly pointing the community in a direction, not just one outlier. My favorite example of how we let the Spirit move among groups for decision making is at the highest level of our Presbyterian governing, at our national general assembly. At GA, the national church discusses and votes on denominational issues. It is where we decided to allow the ordination of women and affirmed same sex marriage. Every presbytery sends commissioners to GA, representatives who vote on these motions.
Any commissioner who is sent to GA has the freedom to vote their conscience. This means if they left home thinking they would vote one way on something, they can change their mind at any point. No one is allowed to tell them they need to vote this way or that way. They are not delegates who cast a vote on behalf of others. They can vote however the Spirit leads them in that moment. The reasoning behind this is so as the debate on the floor is heard, they can have an open heart and open mind to what each voice is saying, and vote the way they believe God wants them to.
This may be the piece Christians forget the most. We need to let the Spirit enter our decision making. We need to pray about the choices we make. We need to remain open to the movement of God’s Spirit even if it means changing completely from one vote to the next.
We have been ordained by God to choose the course of our government. This is what early Christians missed when they just criticized Rome and neglected to participate in the government. Paul is urging them to see that the system actually allows them to do God’s work of uplifting the downtrodden. Christians listen with both ears, one as a citizen who receives the benefits of the system, and as a noncitizen. With our power we can demand all rules are transparent and not kept secret so we can assess if they are fair for everyone playing the game. Paul is begging us to be committed to participating in the system even though it is flawed. It would be easier to let someone else make the choices for us. But the Spirit needs all of us to do her work. So…. let’s start now and pray today and every day that we make and keep making a system that is due all our honor and respect.