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.