The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 29, 2020
Isaiah 41:1-10; Luke 1:26-45
His dream was to be a firefighter. He was eighteen years old and Marvin Anderson wanted to serve his community. But that was about to change. It began with the police asking him about an assault that had happened in this neighborhood. He told the police what he knew; that the neighborhood believed it was done by a man named John Otis Lincoln. The police however were not interested in Lincoln. They were interested in Marvin because the victim said her assailant had a white girlfriend and Marvin was the only black man they knew of with a white girlfriend. In order to get the victim to identify Marvin, the police went to his place of work and obtained a color photo from his work ID. Then they showed several pages of black and white mugshots to the victim, along with Marvin’s color picture being on every page. Then in a lineup Marvin was the only person from the mugshots to be present. He was identified, arrested, tried and convicted by an all-white jury. And even though the community continued to believe that the true assailant was John Lincoln, Marvin’s attorney refused to call Lincoln or other witnesses who could have put Lincoln at the scene of the crime. The result was that Marvin was given a two-hundred-four-year sentence. Marvin, knowing he was innocent, was caught in that eternal struggle between holding onto hope and being resigned to his fate.
Hope vs. resignation, it is one of the oldest battles that human beings face. Hope is one of the great gifts that human beings have been given. It allows people in even the darkest of moments to see some light, some possibility of escape and renewal. It allows human beings to believe that there is the possibility of life even when death is at the door. Yet resignation is also present. Resignation comes when we humans believe that there are no more open doors or windows; when there is no hope of life when death is at hand. And so, we human beings swing on a scale from hope to resignation and back again. We do so when we hear a dreadful and difficult diagnosis. We find hope when we are promised a cure and then resignation when the cure fails. We find hope when we believe that we are the one in line for a promotion, and then resignation when someone else gets promoted. We are filled with hope when we believe our athletic prowess will get us to the Olympics or allow us to turn pro, only to face resignation when we do not make the cut. The pendulum swings and on any given day we can find ourselves on one end or the other.
The people in our two stories this morning were those who had probably resigned themselves to their fates. The people being addressed by Isaiah were Jews whose entire world had crumbled under the destructive force of the mighty Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians had destroyed their nation, their capital and their Temple. The Babylonians had forced tens of thousands of Jews to walk to Babylon where they had to make new lives for themselves and the Empire appeared to be designed for eternal world domination. There was little room for hope, only resignation. Mary must have felt the same way. She had known nothing but the overarching and dominating presence of the Roman Empire. All of those who had rebelled or resisted were crushed. While there were occasional glimmers of hope, they were quickly snuffed out and resignation ruled. It would take something from heaven itself to change this…which is exactly what happened.
Each of these passages is a story of how resignation became hope. Hope arrived because of a word and a promise. For the Jews in Babylon, there was the word, the rumor, the hint that something was stirring in the East. There was a promise that God was going to judge the Babylonians. Though the power in the East is not named, everyone knew who it was. It was Cyrus the Great of Persia who was to be God’s hammer and anvil of judgement. Isaiah puts it this way. “Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength; let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment. Who has roused a victor from the east, summoned him to his service? He delivers up nations to him, and tramples kings under foot; …Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, am first, and will be with the last.” These are words to break resignation and ignite hope. The same sort of words come to Mary, and through Mary to a nation that had mostly resigned itself to a slow deterioration and demise. Gabriel puts it this way. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Both proclamations were telling the people to not be afraid and to hold on to hope because the God of the universe was still at work. Both proclamations pointed to concrete realities that would alter the course of history and the future of God’s people.
As I said a moment ago, we live on the hope-resignation scale. But what the scriptures remind us to do is to not be afraid to hope. Though there may be those moments when we must be resigned to an incurable diagnosis, or a job that will never be ours, or a career that we desired yet cannot attain, that does not mean that God is done with us. It does not mean that in the depths of resignation there is not still the light of hope shining through. I say this because we are God’s chosen and beloved. Listen again to Isaiah. “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” What this means is that whether in this life or in the next, God has plans for us; God has plans for good and not ill. God is not done with us yet. We are to hold onto hope and not be afraid.
There were moments when Marvin had hope that he would be declared innocent. There was the moment when John Lincoln confessed to the crime for which Marvin was convicted, offering details that only the perpetrator would know. But the trial judge refused to set Marvin free. Then when DNA testing was developed, he again had hope that he would be freed. But he was informed that the evidence containing DNA information had been destroyed. Another moment of hope came when a sample of the DNA from the kit was found, but again the judge refused to allow tests to be performed. Marvin’s pendulum was swinging from hope to despair. But then the Innocence Project came on board and forced the state to run the DNA through their convicted offender database, which revealed that the DNA matched Lincoln’s and not Marvin’s. Even then it was five years later that Marvin was finally granted a pardon, after fifteen years of his life was gone. So, what is Marvin doing now? He is the Fire Chief of the Hanover, Virginia Fire Department. Marvin never gave up. He always carried hope; hope even in the midst of impossible odds.
This is what we are called to do. We are called to be people who never lose hope, for we know that God is indeed at work in the world and in our lives. This week my challenge is for each of us to ask, “How am I holding on to hope such that I am not afraid because I believe that God is not done with me yet?”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 22, 2020
Isaiah 58:6-9; Matthew 5:14-16
It was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. Standing high in the Rockies, my brother Richard and I watched the sun setting over distant mountains while casting brilliant red and orange hues across the sky. The only problem at that point was how were we going to make it back to the parking lot in the dark. The setting for this moment was that in the summer between my two years in the Peace Corps I had come home to see Cindy and my family. As was my family’s custom, we went to Colorado to hike and backpack in the mountains. During dinner the night before Cindy and I were heading to home to Houston, I realized that I had not climbed Flat Top mountain, which was something of a family ritual. I mentioned this to Richard who said we probably had time to make the top before dark. Putting on our tennis shoes, we drove to the trail head which is at 9,500 ft and began our five-mile trek to the summit, which is at 12,300 feet. An hour and half later we made it just as the sun dipped below the horizon. Then, as we donned our down parkas against the cold for the return trip, we pulled out our flashlights, only to realize that we didn’t need them. Instead the moonlight was so bright that it not only illuminated our way above the tree line, but through the pine and fir forests through which we walked.
I have been thinking a lot about that hike this week as I pondered Jesus’ statement about us being the light of the world. It made me realize just how ubiquitous light is. We flip a switch and suddenly there is light. We walk into dark rooms that are not actually completely dark because they are illuminated by lights from clocks, phones, and cable boxes. We step outside and there are street lights, house lights and spotlights with motion sensors. I think you get my point. In some ways we are never in the dark, always being able to see where we are going. This would not have been true of those who were listening to Jesus. Light was something precious, something amazing. Inside homes, light was rare and weak. It consisted of small olive or fish oil lamps that needed constant refilling and gave off only the barest light. What this meant was that people were dependent on the sun, moon and stars for finding their way in the world. Those heavenly bodies gave protection and direction. They made life possible. It is little wonder then, that light became one of the primary human metaphors for finding one’s way, not only physically, but spiritually, morally and ethically.
We can see this metaphor at work throughout the scriptures. Darkness was a time for skullduggery and evil to thrive. It was used to describe those who had lost their way in the world…as we still use it today when we refer to someone who is always in the dark. Light, on the other hand, was used to describe a person’s ability to see clearly what ought to be done and how life ought to be lived. Though the scriptures are not dualistic, meaning that life is a contest between the forces of light and darkness, the images of light and dark were central to the Jewish and Christian understanding of life. The question this morning then becomes what does it mean for us to be the light? What does it mean for us to let our light shine before others? To answer this, I want us to take a journey of light so that we can hear what those around Jesus would have heard and understand what they would have understood.
Our journey begins with the realization that only God can bring light. We see this in the very act of creation itself when God’s first word is “Let there be light.” In the Genesis story, God encounters a chaotic, dark creation that cannot bring about life and flourishing. And so, God speaks light into being; light not being physical light because the sun and moon are later creations, but light as in the life giving reality that God imparts to creation and all that creation contains. What this means for the scriptures is that God alone can give the light of moral and ethical guidance that will lead human beings to the fullness of life. Only by living in God’s light can we find true life.
Our journey continues with God giving that light to the world. For Judaism this light comes in two ways, the first of which are the scriptures. We see this in Psalm 119, the longest of the Psalms, which is an ode to God’s Torah or Law. In it we read these words, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” There is a praise chorus of these words that my former church used to sing every Sunday before we read the scriptures. It was a reminder that it is God’s word that sheds light on the path of righteousness that we are called to traverse. The second way God gives the light is through people who interpret the scriptures, many of whom are also called the light of the world. These were rabbis who, because of their ability to interpret and teach the scriptures were referred to as the light of the world…which is a title Jesus would later claim for himself in the Gospel of John. I would guess as well that those listening to Jesus on the mountain would have agreed with that claim.
Next, the scriptures make clear that not only are there rabbis and teachers like Jesus who are the light, but that all of God’s people are to be the light. At least four times in Isaiah, the prophet says this to the people that they have been given as a light to the nations. Isaiah 49 puts it this way, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In other words, the people are to be the living light by which other nations can see what it is that God desires of humanity. They are to be the light, the example of God’s way in the world so that others might have light and life.
Finally, the scriptures describe what it looks like to be the light of the world. This is at the heart of Isaiah 58. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;” What it means to be the light then is to walk in God’s way of righteousness.
Thus when Jesus says to the people on that mountainside that they are the light of the world; that they are to give light to the whole house; that they are to let their light so shine; that their good works are to be seen, they understood. They understood that God had filled them with the light of Torah and righteousness and life and that they were to demonstrate this to the nations so that all people might find their way into God’s salvation.
This my friends is what we are called to be and to do as well. We are to be the light of the world. We are to be those whose works are not hidden but are made known to the world so people can see what light looks like and to give glory to God. Granted, in a few more verses Jesus is going to say that when we give our offerings we are to do so quietly, such that our right hand does not know what our left hand is doing. The difference is that our works are not to draw attention to ourselves, “Look at me! Look at me!”, but those good works are instead intended to be demonstrations of the light that God has brought into the world through the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. They are intended to be demonstrations of God’s righteousness such that others will want to walk in the light as well. I understand that some of you may feel that this call to be light is a burden. We might ask, “How can I be an example to the world?” My response would be this. I hope that you see this call to be light, not as a burden but as wonderful news. It is wonderful news first because you do not have to shine your light alone. You are part of a light shining community that shines light in ways great and small. That shines light for all people regardless of their gender, skin color, ability, language, income level or sexual orientation. Second, it is wonderful news because your acts do not have to be acts that make the papers or the local news. They can be as simple as thanking the person putting out produce or the person who cleans the shopping carts at the grocery. All of these are acts of light.
This sermon closes out our series on the wonderful news that are found in the beatitudes. Our hope is that you have found some wonderful news for yourself during these difficult times. My challenge to you then for this week is to ask yourself, “How is my light shining into the world in such a way that people give glory to God and want to become light as well?”
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
November 15, 2020
Psalm 112; Matthew 5:13
Low key my squad is so salty about the tea I spilled. They are throwing shade, no cap. But I know I pass the vibe check. They all want to be this mood, period.
If you have no idea what I just said there is a good chance you are over 30, it’s also possible that I, an over 30 someone, used all that slang incorrectly. Every generation comes up with their own lingo. We used to have groovy or chill. Some of you use to say wassup or peace. Actually any group of people that have something in common that is central to their identity have terms or gestures that will be special to just their group.
Slang words help us know who is “one of us” and who is not. It creates a sense of belonging. When I was in marching band in high school the trumpet section would yell “ANTILOG” at each other in the parking lot before and after school and chant it before big performances. No one else in the band ever knew what it meant. Significant others tried to get them to spill the truth. When I was drum major I tried to convince them I was a leader of all the sections and so technically a member of the trumpet section and should know what ANTILOG meant. NO ONE ELSE EVER KNEW, except the trumpet section. A few years after graduation I asked someone and they laughed and said “Oh, it never actually meant anything,” but I think that was just a line and I will never know the truth because I am an outsider.
Most of the lingo and gestures in a community develop naturally and for no particular reason, however others come about on purpose to fill a need the community has.
When early Christians were being persecuted and killed for their faith, they had to come up with an insider code that would distinguish who was safe to talk to about their faith and who was not.
They came up with the ichthys. We have probably all seen the ichthys. The stick fish people now put on the back of their cars or on jewelry. The fish is made up of two arched lines. If a christian met someone on the road and they wanted to test if they were safe or not they would casually draw an arch in the sand. If the other person was also a Christian they would draw another arch to make the ichthys, the fish. This would let both parties know it was safe to talk about house church meetings. If the other person was not a Christian then the person who drew the arch would go undetected because they were only idly playing in the sand as they talked.
Salt, from today’s verse, is insider lingo. It was something the followers of Jesus could say to one another and they would instantly know what was meant. It was a coded term that held more meaning the more you were on the inside. One of the geniuses of using the word salt is that it is a common mineral and universal. Just about every culture has learned the value of salt. It can be found all over the earth so it is actually a very clever term for Jesus to introduce to his disciples. Salt has all kinds of importance. It is valuable in Jesus’ time, it preserves, it makes our roads safe now, it exfoliates, it was used in pottery, tanning, dying cloth, and soap. But the use I want us to focus on is it’s usefulness on food.
Salt is key to a good dish. I learned this from every cooking show ever made. They are always talking about salt usage. The tasters complain when something isn’t salted enough, but as we know too much of a good thing is also trouble. Too much salt ruins a meal, and our blood pressure and cholesterol. The chefs that can master salt are always the ones who win the competitions.
Salt has a unique characteristic as a seasoning, it has its own flavor profile but it also brings out the flavor of whatever it is put on. If we put salt in water we would say it tastes salty. Or if too much salt is used on a dish it is too salty. But when used correctly the saltiness subsides and the other flavors shine alongside salt. Salt is unique. It’s its own individual flavor, but is best when it is in union with other flavors.
Now this can be counter intuitive. We assume if I am letting your flavor shine then it must mean my flavor is diminished. But as I was writing this sermon I was snacking on Cheez-Its and I could easily taste the salt and the cheese at the same time. They complement each other. When salt is added to a dish it somehow brings out the flavors that are there while also being its own flavor entirely.
Salt goes with just about everything too. Some flavors, like mint and citrus, don’t go together so well, but salt is able to complement a wide variety of flavors when used in the right proportion. I’ve seen people put salt on watermelon, but I still think the salt and chocolate pairing is the height of partnerships. Salt adds value to a dish and brings out the best in the flavors it is in union with.
You are the salt of the earth, Jesus says. He is claiming the characteristics of the mineral salt for us. We are meant to be unique. We are meant to have our own relationship with God and our own personality, our own spiritual expression. AND we are supposed to be in union with others to bring out their uniqueness. We are there to add value to the spaces and conversations we find ourselves in, as partners.
To become the best partners, the best salt we can be, we need two things to happen: 1) to take care of our own flavor, and 2) to add value with our presence.
The first one, take care of our own flavor means to know who you are and stop worrying about other people’s flavor. We are given a unique flavor profile in life - our personalities, how we express ourselves outwardly, our sexuality, our race, our gender, our inabilities, our strengths. These, and more, are what make us uniquely us. These things come together to make individual human beings. Beings that each bear the image of God.
Too many times we fall into the trap of being someone the world wants us to be instead of just being ourselves. We have all at sometime felt the pressure to change ourselves to meet an expectation. Maybe we wore a style of clothes or did our hair in a way that was not at all flattering to us, but because everyone else was in those styles we forced ourselves into that same standard. By ignoring our true style, our unique flavor profile, we do damage to the image of God we hold by not being true to who WE were created to be.
This not only hurts ourselves, it hurts the people around us. Because when we think it is so important to be this way, we negate the value of all the other ways of being because we are saying this way is better. This way is worth endless effort to squeeze ourselves into it. In order to justify our efforts, to meet the norm expectations, we unknowingly, or sometimes actively, bully others to fit in too. Because if I’m doing all this work to fit in, I am going to make you feel guilty for not working just as hard as me. And we have all had this guttural reaction seeing someone who isn’t as clean as we keep ourselves, or isn’t actively trying not to be awkward in public, or isn’t keeping their voice down. We think “Eh, what is their problem?” but in reality they might be more authentic to their flavor than we are being to ours, and we’re just jealous that we put so much effort suppressing ourselves into a standard that...we don’t really like.
Now I give you the clothing example because it’s easy to laugh at the shared experience of wearing something unflattering, but this is a serious issue. People are dying trying to fit our cultural standards because not everyone can be the same. And when the world screams at you that you need to FIT IN and you inherently don’t, the only way out seems to be at the bottom of a bottle of pills or to kick the chair out from under you.
70% of transgender teens in our country have seriously thought about killing themselves this year. This is because our culture, and truthfully, our religion, has declared their identity an abomination. They hear the message that their flavor is unwanted. In truth, the Bible says nothing against transgender individuals and in fact the first convert to Christianity is a eunuch (the time period’s only understanding of a gender non conforming person). I heard a theologian say “God created transgender people for the same reason God created grapes and wheat. So that humans can participate in the act of creation.” We take the raw materials and make something else. We take grapes and make wine, we take wheat and make bread, we take a human born in a male body and create a beautiful woman.
This past week was transgender awareness week so I wanted to highlight the severity of what happens when we do not take care of our own flavor and spend more time worrying about others. 350 transgender people were murdered this year (that we know of), some of them burned alive, the youngest was 15. We are so concerned about what the right “flavors” are, we are so concerned about making people fit the standard, that whole communities of people are suffering. We are to test our teachings and actions against the fruits of the Spirit. Looking at what kind of fruit is produced by a biblical interpretation, if we do this with our ideas about gender, it is safe to say the fruit being handed to our transgender siblings in rotten.
We need to be salt. The cultural standards are not what God wants for us. We have to look inside and find that image of God and pull it out and respect the image that others are discovering. We need to understand our own selves, our own flavor, our personality, our sexualtiy, our inabilities, our gender... the things that make us who we are as image bearers of God. The things that will never change no matter how badly we want to fit into that norm. Know your flavor so you can add value to the places God puts you.
This second part of being salt is to add value. This is what salt does when it is used in the right proportion. We can become too much and overpower other flavors with our uniqueness. We can be too little and disappear in the array of the other flavors. This balance is a constant adjustment depending on what is happening around us. However, no matter what space we find ourselves in, our job is to be salt, to add value.
When we do the work to know our individual flavor strengths we become better value adders.
Some spaces will be like the Cheez-Its. We can meet the others in the room equally and enjoy the partnership of two great flavors. We all have those friends with whom conversation always flows smoothly, or the co-worker with whom you brainstorm and brilliance always surfaces. It's natural and balanced.
Some spaces are going to be teaming with other flavors and our job will be to not overpower the voices of the others. I am someone who has ideas. I was that kid in school who always raised my hand. But I have learned this is not always the best scenario. Often if I keep my hand down, someone else will have a similar idea and then we can riff off of one another to synergize something even better. I have to hold back my flavor for a time to get a sense of the other flavors and voices in the space with me. This way I find the flavors who want to work together.
Some spaces will be bland with not much going on and we will get to be the champion and save the day. I read a study recently that most people enjoy being talked to on the bus. I know, I know this sounds wrong. What the researchers did is they asked people waiting at a bus stop if they would be willing to start a conversation with someone when they got on. The ones who agreed then got on the bus and went into action. At the end of the exchange the person who started the conversation gave the unknowing conversationalist a paper explaining what had just happened. This paper asked both parties to check in with researchers by email and answer a questionnaire. The conversation starter always felt nervous and awkward. They worried the person was going to be mad they were interrupting their commute. The person to whom they were talking was overwhelmingly relieved and had a positive reaction to the conversation. Many of them said they were happy to have the change in pace and human interaction. There will be times we get to take the lead and let our flavor shine.
And taking the time to care about our own flavors will help us know how to find the balance in whatever space we are adding value in.
We are the salt of the earth. We have a unique flavor that we need to cherish. This means ignoring the standards the world wants to force upon us and making sure we aren’t reinforcing the standards that are antiquated and dangerous. We have the ability to bring out the flavors around us. Either by our equal participation, reserved observation, or active presence, we are to bring flavor, increasing value to every space we find ourselves in.
So when I see you in the parking lot and yell “SALT,” we will know what the lingo means now because we belong to a special group called Christians, and we are the salt of the earth.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 8, 2020
Ecclesiastes 7:15-18; Matthew 5:10-12
It might have been better if I had just kept my mouth shut. Things had been going really well during my internship year at First Church Houston. I was learning a great deal and there was talk of me returning after seminary graduation as an Associate Pastor. This would have been wonderful because all of my family lived in Houston, and to be honest, the church paid its associate pastors well and even gave them loans to buy homes. All in all it would have been wonderful. But then I opened my mouth. I was part of a meeting of staff. A new janitorial company that had been hired to take over cleaning the church. The plan outlined by the company representative was that the day before they were to take over, the existing staff who were employees of the church would be told that they must sign up with the new company or be let go. The representative said that this way the church would probably not lose any of its employees. At that point I asked if that was fair…telling employees either sign up or be without a job. The representative said it was an acceptable business practice. I asked again if it was ethical. The response this time came from the senior pastor who informed me that this decision was none of my business and to keep my mouth shut. And though the church was fair and even generous to me for the rest of my tenure, it became clear from that moment on that I would have no future at First Church.
Over the years I have occasionally wondered if perhaps I should have listened to the writer of Ecclesiastes and been a Goldilocks. We all remember Goldilocks, right? She was the girl who was guilty of breaking and entering and didn’t like things that were too hot or too cold, too hard or too soft. In other words, she was the kind of person who lived life in the middle of the road…not making life too hard or too soft; too hot or too cold. These are the kinds of people the writer of Ecclesiastes encourages us all to be; those who are not too righteous or too wise, but at the same time are not too wicked or too foolish. They are those who take hold of both good and bad in order to go along to get along, keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. And why would this be a good way to live? It would be good because systems punish those who are either too good or too bad. When I say systems, I mean everything from families to schools to businesses to churches to societies. All these systems are in some way dysfunctional…some more and some less. And all these systems live with a bell curve of behavior. Everyone is supposed to live in the middle being somewhat good and somewhat bad. What happens to those who live on the far ends of the bell curve? Whether it be on the good or the bad end, they are punished. They are unacceptable outliers.
I realize that this might seem odd. We understand why those on the bad end get punished, but why would those on the good end be persecuted as well? The answer is that those who are “too good” are those who ask uncomfortable questions and point out uncomfortable truths. They are those who try to hold the system accountable to what it is supposed to be. They are those who ask why the system is not living up to its own supposed norms, and then acts to bring the system into alignment. Systems do not like this kind of person because it upsets the moral equilibrium of the middle of the bell curve. I know this to be true, not because of my time in Houston, but because of stories that many of you have told me of your own situations. I have heard stories of people being harassed, persecuted or fired because they have stood up for a co-worker, or reminded people of the rules, or reported wrong doing, or because they refused to engage in behavior and activities they believed to be morally wrong. In each of these cases it would have been easier to be a Goldilocks and simply follow the middle way. But, for better or worse, you all chose the way of Jesus, the way of righteousness and not the way of Goldilocks. You chose the way of the beatitude.
The idea of choosing the way of righteousness rather than the way of Goldilocks is at the heart of this beatitude. “There is wonderful news for those who are persecuted for righteousness sake…and…when people revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account.” In other words, there is wonderful news for those who are willing to be “too good.” There is wonderful news for those who are willing to stand up like the prophets did. To be clear, righteousness in this context is not about being a perfectly legalistic religious person. Being righteous is about being like the prophets; being those who speak up and act up for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the powerless, the marginalized and the forgotten. It means speaking up and acting up when we see others doing harm and violating rules intended to protect the vulnerable or even the system itself from harm. And it means to do these things even in the face of reprisal and persecution. This was the example set by Jesus who spoke truth to power and rocked the system. This was what the prophets did when they confronted kings, queens and priests in order to protect God’s people. This is what God’s people have done across history. It is what the church is called to be and to do. Unfortunately, far too often, we in the church have chosen the way of Goldilocks, rather than the way of righteousness.
One of the most powerful indictments of the church following the way of Goldilocks versus the way of righteousness can be found in the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, penned by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King had come to Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 to help lead non-violent actions intended to help bring about an end to segregation and unequal treatment of Birmingham’s black citizens. In the process he was jailed and while in jail read an open letter from white clergy criticizing his presence and his actions. Here is a small part of his response. “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the…the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection…” Just as Jesus did, King reminded people of faith that they, that we, are called to the way of righteousness and not the way of Goldilocks.
What then is the wonderful news if being righteous gets us into trouble? The wonderful news is that we get to be citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. “There is wonderful news for those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Once again as a reminder, the kingdom of heaven is not a place in the afterlife, meaning we only get into heaven if we are the righteous. The Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus uses it, describes the new world, the new community, the new creation in which all people find their value and worth; in which all people share in the bounty of God’s creation; in which all people come to know that they are loved by the God who made them. This is so because those who follow the way of righteousness help to create this new world. They become those who help to reshape systems so that they more closely mirror heaven here on earth. They get to become part of something amazing that will outlast the systems of which they are a part. This is the wonderful news into which we are invited.
The challenge then for us is to ask ourselves this question: Where am I on the bell curve? Am I in the middle as a Goldilocks, or am I on the edges of the curve, striving for righteousness that I might help create a new world, a new heaven on earth?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 1, 2020
Isaiah 55:6-13; Matthew 5:9
One of the gifts of living in Manila when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer was that I was able to meet volunteers from around the world who would come to the islands to warm up and relax after their two years of service. I was able to meet volunteers from places like Korea, Afghanistan and Nepal. The one volunteer I have been thinking about all week as I prepared this sermon was the one from Nepal. He had been an engineering major in college (structural engineering to be specific) and his job in the Peace Corps was to help communities build bridges across vast, deep valleys. It was fascinating to hear him talk about first having to learn how the Nepalese built their own bridges, then figuring out slightly better ways to build them, and then convincing people to adopt his new strategies. In the end, he was able to build several bridges. The benefit of these bridges, he said, was not simply that it shortened and made safer people’s routes from one place to another, but that it benefited people on both sides of the valley. It made commerce easier. It made communication easier. And in the end, everyone flourished…my words.
What I would like us all to do this morning is to hold this visual in our minds (the visual of the bridges this volunteer helped to build) as a metaphor for what it means to be a peacemaker. To be a peacemaker is to build bridges across great divides, whether they be political, economic, racial, or any other kind, so that in the end both sides are joined together and flourish together. I say this because of the word, peace. In Greek the word is “irenie” and in Hebrew, “shalom,” and they both mean more than a cessation of hostilities. They mean flourishing. They mean to enjoy the flourishing that God desires for creation. Irenie and Shalom can be seen in the Isaiah text where the prophet speaks of the earth bringing forth seed to the sower and bread to the eater...” And this flourishing of seed and bread is not intended just for God’s people but for all the nations that shall be led to them, as noted in Isaiah 55:4-5. Another way to translate this beatitude then is that there is wonderful news for Shalomers, those who build bridges and create flourishing for all.
While this all sounds wonderful, being Shalomers and building bridges across great divides so that people can flourish together is dangerous work. In fact, I would argue that this is the most dangerous of all the beatitudes. It was the most dangerous for Jesus because most of the people in Galilee, in Jerusalem and in Rome had no desire to build bridges. Instead, they wanted to burn them. I say this because Galilee was a hotbed of revolution and rebellion. The people there were known as troublemakers who regularly revolted against their overlords and killed their oppressors. This led to repression from the powers of the day, leading to ever increasing levels of distrust, hatred and anger. One of the outcomes of this cycle of violence was that anyone who tried to build bridges was seen as an appeaser, an enemy, as someone who must die. This meant that Jesus’ words in this beatitude about being a peacemaker were tantamount to a declaration of surrender to the oppressors. Perhaps this is why the next beatitude, which we will examine next week, speaks of being persecuted.
Unfortunately, this beatitude has not become any less dangerous across time. I say this because of the moment in which we live. As we draw closer and closer to this election, the divide between red and blue, between Trump and Biden supporters, between maskers and anti-maskers, friends and family members has been growing deeper and wider and becoming more and more violent. There have been plots to kidnap and kill politicians, whether it is our governor or the ricin poisoned letters to the White House. There have been acts of violence in which protestors have been shot by militia members or shots fired into cars with Trump stickers. There have been attacks on those not wearing masks as well those asking people to wear them. This has been amplified by the rhetoric coming from political parties that implies that their opponents are everything from radical socialists bent on destroying our nation, to fascist dictatorial wannabes who desire to oppress anyone who is not white and rich. To suggest then that what we ought to do is to build bridges is seen as capitulation to the other side. Yet, if we want to experience the wonderful news of being God’s children, then we need to begin construction of those bridges as soon as possible that we might all flourish, rather than all fail.
The wonderful news for shalomers who build peace, who build bridges, is that they become the children of God. And what is a child of God? It is someone who is about the work of their parent; meaning they are about the work of God which is building bridges across all valleys of race, wealth, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, nationality or anything else that divides humanity. It is doing, in other words, the hard work of listening, learning and loving, doing the hard work of the cross, doing the hard work of this communion table. For, my friends, this is the work God has been about from the beginning to time, to bring together as one humanity all of those whom God has created in God’s own image.
My challenge for all of us over the next few days, weeks, months and years is that we see ourselves as shalomers so that we can be the children of God, and we do so by asking ourselves this question, “How am I building bridges for Christ in order that all might flourish?”