Matthew 5: 38-48
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Turning and Loving- Matthew 5:28-48
Today's reading is a continuation of last week's readings about building righteous relationships that reflect God's love. This portion is about retaliation and relationships with enemies. And, it's a doozy. Let's dive right in. Jesus began talking about retaliation by talking about modes of retaliation that were permissible in a legal setting. He talked about the practice of proscribing "an eye for an eye." While an "eye for an eye" sounds harsh, according to scholars, this should actually be read as a call to have punishment be equal the crime that has been committed, not more serious. Legal retaliation should be proportional. But, like last week, Jesus wanted to get to the heart of the law, not simply the letter of it. So, he began to teach them about how to address retaliation in their every day lives. He taught them how they can respond to evil.
In the reading we heard today, there is line that is translated, "Do not resist an evildoer." Historically, translations like this have been used to justify all kinds of poor treatment, telling those on the receiving end of abuse that they are called to a life of submission, not rebellion. I read a scholar this week, Walter Wink, who has suggested a different way to read this scripture. Wink said that the word that is translated here as "resist," in Greek, "antistenai," is best understood in it's usage in descriptions of war. The word is usually used to describe responses to actions that involve violence, like an armed revolt in the face of an outside military. Because of the conations of violence, Wink suggests that a better translation for this line is "do not react violently to one who has done evil." This is a very different reading than one that tells you not to resist and evil doer. Wink thinks Jesus made this shift intentionally. He thinks Jesus was trying to teach his followers to avoid the violence that was the default in the Roman empire. He was calling on them to create a new way to live under systemic oppression.
Jesus knew that violence is often used to humiliate and assert power. He said rather than strike back at one who hits you in a way that is intended to humiliate you, force them to confront you as an equal. For example, it was socially acceptable for people of higher social standing to hit people of lower standing in order to put them back in their place. They usually did this by striking them across the right cheek with the back of their right hand. The right hand was a symbol of righteousness and proper behavior. To hit with the back of the hand was to assert that you were the person of greater power in the situation. Jesus' followers would have been familiar with this action, and may have been on the receiving end of it.
Wink said that Jesus told them, rather than hit back , to disrupt their action by making them do something unexpected. He said to turn your left cheek towards them, forcing them to hit you in a way that did not symbolically reinforce their power. Forcing them to either hit your left cheek or hit your right cheek with their closed fist disrupts the actions that reinforce their status. By forcing them to change position, you force them to reconsider their action. You force them to ask the question, is it worth hitting you if they have to do so in a way that makes them look foolish? In making them stumble, you give them a chance to make a better choice.
Jesus goes on to give more examples of power disruptions. He tackles an example of how to behave if someone is trying to humiliate you in court. Remember, Rome forced the nations they took over to pay high tribute costs in order to support the Roman war machine. Many people, especially poor people would be deeply indebted. In such an environment, wealthy creditors might be very willing to take, in a lawsuit, the last thing someone owned, even if the last thing you owned was the clothes on your back. Jesus told his followers, if this happens to you... if someone wants to sue you to take you shirt and pants, you give them your underwear, too. Force them to be embarrassed by their willingness to leave you naked and totally vulnerable. Jesus said to let the powerful know very clearly the humiliating effects of their practice. That might make them change their behavior.
Oh, and the part in this scripture about going the extra mile? Wink said that's about embarrassing the powerful, too. Roman soldiers could force anybody they encountered in the street to carry their things, but only for one mile. If they did it for longer, they could get in trouble with their superior officer. When Jesus told his followers to carry the baggage the second mile, he's encouraging them, yet again, to act in a way that confuses the ones who oppress them. In order to not get in trouble for asking the peasant to carry things for longer than required, the soldier has to ask for his things back. Wink suggests we imagine how silly it would look for a battle-hardened infantryman to have to wrestle his bags away from a peasant Jew. The lesson is: If enough people start acting unexpectedly, embarrassing the people who make demands of them, the less likely the powerful are to force them to serve. And, the more control the people regain over their own lives, all without lifting a finger in violence or anger.
The hardest thing I think Jesus asks his followers to do is to love their enemies. Jesus said to pray for the ones who persecute you. He looked in the faces of his poor followers and asked them to pray for the dangerous, the cruel, and the powerful ones who oppressed him. I kinda wish I knew how they responded to this demand for perfection. I know that I'm not sure I can do it, and I'm at a point in my life where I'm much more likely to be the one taking somebody to court than to be the one being humiliated in court. This love that Jesus preached about. It sure seems like a powerful thing. Prayer does, too. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that Jesus counseled love first, then prayer, then creative resistance. Violence would not have helped. His followers were completely our numbered. They would have been slaughtered had they took up arms. Maybe love and creativity and self-assuredness were the best tools they had in the situation that they were living in.
Walter Wink thought that was why Jesus preached love and non-violence. It could create an outcome that people could live with, and might inspire an oppressor to choose mercy over power the next time, thus building the ground for broader social change. Some of the most important changes in our own country, and the world, have been rooted in similar calls to non-violent, creative responses to evil. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was committed to nonviolence in the civil rights movement because, as he began his organizing in the South, he was surrounded by violent political systems that would only respond to protestors' revolts with greater violence. According to another scholar I read this week (James Cone), while people were hurt and killed during non-violent actions during the movement, in the end, creative non-violence was the most effective tool they had in a region prone to racist violence because it disrupted the status quo without giving the oppressors an excuse to respond in violence.
Now, admittedly, creative non-violence this often comes at a great cost. Jesus knew that and warned his followers about persecution. More recently, in the 1960's, Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious as she attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis bridge in first attempt to march from Selma. Right now, as I speak, Water Protectors are peacefully and prayerfully camping in the bitter cold in South Dakota so the world will see the cruelty of energy policies that harm people and the earth on which we live. This is no easy thing that Jesus has called his followers to. I think he knew that. He said that living this way is nothing shy of perfection. But, he was speaking to people with very little power in their own communities. He was providing them with a spiritual foundation for survival and social change. These are no small things. This kind of change does not come quickly.
So, what does that mean for us, modern day followers of Jesus, who have our own struggles, but, likely more privileges than his first followers? How do we make sense of these words about creative, unflinching love? Here's a couple things I think are important for us to carry away. First, when the work of following Christ seems hard, we can know it was hard for the people who got to hang out with him every day, too. They started the work. We continue it. We are not required to finish it. Second, we need to be aware that we may be in the place of the soldier and the creditor and the judge rather than the one being persecuted. We need to pay attention when someone is holding up a light to our own unloving behavior and we need to be willing to be changed by their bravery. And, three, we really need to examine how we use whatever privilege we have, even all we have left is the clothes on our backs. We can use even that to inspire positive relationship, but only through love and prayer and creativity. It won't be perfect. Not yet anyway. But, we do it anyway. Practice makes perfect, right?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Walter Wink, Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galillee Doubleday, 1998)
Bart. D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=840
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3158
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2034
James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or A Nightmare (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001).
A Field Guide to Christian Non-violence: https://sojo.net/magazine/january-2016/field-guide-christian-nonviolence
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
This Is Intense: Matthew 5:21-37
I have heard scholars say that you can tell something about what is important to a community by paying attention to the things people in that community argue about. For example, this last week, I went to a community forum organized in response to the Klan leaving flyers in neighborhoods in Augusta and Gardiner. One of the speakers talked about ways that our national conception of race has changed as different ideas about race have become more or less important. For a long time, Irish, Italian, and French folks (all European ethnic communities that were primarily Catholic) weren't really considered to be completely white. When the Klan first became active in Maine, even though they still really hated black people, they directed most of their rage towards Catholic communities, especially French ones, and ones populated by newer European immigrants. You see, here, they were the most threatened by new immigrants with different religious beliefs than them. So, that is who they targeted. Around the same time, on the national level in our country, immigrants from Syria who wanted to become American citizens, argued, and won, in court that they should be considered white. If they were considered Asian, they would not be granted citizenship under the auspices of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion act.
Move forward a little over a hundred years, and some ideas about race have changed. Irish, Italians, and French immigrants and their descendants, by virtue of being European, are considered white. And, far fewer Americans see immigrants from these communities as a threat. Interestingly, as of 2020 census, Syrians immigrants and their descendants will be able to classify themselves in a new official census category, Middle Eastern and North African, a category that is understood to be non-white. Activists within Middle Eastern and North African communities have expressed both optimism that having an official, government-level census category will help support members of this community and also trepidation, particularly from Muslim members of that community, who worry that the census data may be used to further discriminate against them. All that change, in just over a hundred years. Whole groups of people have become insiders while others are still navigating a different kind of outsider status while also dismantling unjust systems that are built on the foundational idea that the lighter skin you have, the more deserving of privilege you are. It's been more than a hundred years. Shoot, it's been more than 400 years. We're still arguing about race and ethnicity. It must mean that it is something important to our identity as a nation.
So, what's important enough for the community that produced that Gospel of Matthew that they argued about it? For this Gospel, the primary argument seems to be about how to follow Jesus and Jewish law. Specifically, it is an argument about whether or not following Jesus' means ignoring Jewish law. Significant portions of the Gospel, including the Sermon on the Mount, are dedicated to sorting out Jesus' relationship to the law. When reading the full text of the Sermon on the Mount, it seems pretty clear that the author of Matthew thought that Jesus held the law in high esteem. This author believed that he would never have asked his followers to abandon Jewish law. In last week's reading, Jesus said specifically that he believed that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. Therefore, to follow him is to strive to follow the heart of the Jewish commandments and to strive to adhere to God's word more closely than even the most devout leaders of their religious community.
Many, including Jesus himself, argue that the core of the Law is guidance about relationships, specifically relationships with God and with other people. Like, if you look at the Ten Commandments, about half of them are directions on how to demonstrate love for God and about half are directions on how to love your neighbor. In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus builds on the this understanding that relationships are at the heart of the law. As he taught his disciples, he showed them that truly living a life in accordance with the law meant that should build right relationships with one another. In this week's reading, and next week's, we'll read through several examples that Jesus pulls from the law and from his own community as actions that endanger right relationship in community. He then directs them on how to follow the heart of the law in each situation. Following the heart of the law ends up sounding a little harder than following the letter.
First, Jesus takes up the prohibition of murder. He says that the law is not only addressing murder but also about addressing the root of antagonism that leads to murder, anger. He said that if we want to really address murder, we'll address anger first. He asserts that reconciliation should be a foundational religious action. If you find yourself preparing to offer up ritual sacrifices while you still harbor anger at one of your siblings in Christ, you should go and reconcile. You can't truly fulfill your religious obligations until you've done this work. After talking about anger, Jesus goes on to discuss another next destructive force in his community: the mistreatment of women. Jesus saw that women were often mistreated because they had less power than men in social situations. To address this mistreatment, he had to speak to the ones with the power.
At this point, all of his disciples are men. He began to speak to them about a particular power they had as husbands. Remember, in parts of the law, women are lumped in as possessions over which men had control. Women who were not connected to men, either as spouses, daughters, or mothers, found survival difficult, as did women who's familial ties were abusive. Jesus understood two issues to particularly harmful to women: adultery and desertion. In both cases, the men were mis-using their privilege and putting people over whom they held power in danger. He told them how they could use their privilege for righteousness instead. He worked within the framework of their understanding and linked adultery with stealing. He said that the heart of adultery is wanting something that is not yours. Stealing is destructive. The men who followed him should therefore avoid even wanting to steal something that didn't belong to them (that's what he meant by lust). He even went so far as to say that if they couldn't corral all of their body parts into avoid wanting women to whom they did not have sexual access, they should cut that body part off. In this way, women were assured that they weren't entertainment for men, but people who's needs were considered real and important. He doesn't stop there, though. He goes on to talk about divorce.
Now, I'm sure that you know of people who have stayed far too long in unhealthy relationships because they've read this scripture on divorce and understood it to mean that they had to stay because Jesus wanted them to. Given how much concern Jesus has for oppressed people, I can't imagine that he would tell someone who was being harmed to stay with someone who was harming them. I think it is more helpful to hear these words in the context in which they were written. A colleague pointed something out that I did not know. While this is written in Greek, Jesus was referencing scripture written in Hebrew. The Hebrew word that is often translated into English as divorce more often means "deserted." For example, two places where this word are used are when Abraham leaves Hagar and their son out to die in the wilderness in the book of Genesis and when David's son Amnon throws his sister Tamar out of his room after he assaults her in the book of 2nd Samuel.
With the definition of desertion in mind, it seems more true to the spirit of Jesus' intent to read this passage as a call to men to not abandon their wives, leaving them in desperate circumstances. It seems like a fair reading to me to see this as Jesus reminding the more powerful people in the relationship that it was their responsibility to do right by the women they married. If women were abandoned, it was very difficult for them to survive. Once again, Jesus reminded the men who followed him to remember than their actions affected people over whom they had power. To bring this point home, Jesus follows this teaching against desertion with a call to trustworthiness, first in their familial relationships, but also in the wider community. He said that when his followers say yes, they should mean yes. And, when they say no, they should mean no. Say what you mean, and do what you say you are going to do. This is how you build trust. This is how you build right relationship.
This week, with this text in mind, I want to leave you with a final question to think about: If we were going to look at the issues that might be affecting our own community's ability to be in right relationship, be that in church, in town, in the nation, in the world, what might be the things that Jesus talks to us about? Jesus talked to his disciples about anger, mistreatment of women, and trustworthiness. What might he talk to us about? And how can we learn to follow God's commands more intensely in those areas of relationship? Each generation of the church is called to address what matters most at that time. What matters most in ours?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Thanks to Dr. James Cook, who spoke of changing ideas about immigration and whiteness in US culture, and the Rev. Michelle Torigian, who shared her research about divorce and desertion in the Hebrew Bible.
Information about changes in census categories:
Karen Georgia Thompson: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_february_12_2017
Bart. D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3157
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033
During the month of February, we have been celebrating music that has been important in African American church traditions. On this Sunday, the choir sang "O Brother Man," written by white abolitionist poet and Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier. For more information on Whittier go to:http://www.hymnary.org/person/Burleigh_HT
‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Salt and Light- Matthew 5:13-20
If you wanted to pull one part of Matthew out and hold it up as Jesus' mission statement for the rest of this Gospel, you would be wise to consider the portion of the story referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Beginning in the first verses of chapter 5 (last week's reading) and going through chapter 7, this sermon is Jesus' attempt to teach his mission to his first disciples. Last week, we heard the blessing statements- blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven; blessed are the peacemakers, for the will be called children of God- statements that helped Jesus to articulate his understanding of the broadness and richness of God's mercy. Jesus made clear that those who mourn, who are dis-spirited, and who are low in society's social order will be seen and tended to by God. More than that, they will be a part of Jesus' mission in the world. Jesus also affirmed that aligning oneself with God's purposes by being merciful, earnest, and by building peace is more important that participating in the manipulative, power-hungry, and violent structures of the empire. And, Jesus warned his followers that persecution and conflict would likely come. He said that when you hold yourself up to God's standards instead of Rome's, you are bound to attract some unpleasant attention. When you show your neighbors that a different kind of life is possible, you're bound to threaten those most invested in the status quo. Knowing that persecution will come, today's reading from Matthew is the part where Jesus tells his followers to stay on God's course, even when it is a struggle. Because these disciples have a role to play in this mission. They are the salt and the light. There can't be new life without them.
While Jesus draws heavily from his Jewish tradition in all four Gospels, in Matthew, his connection to his ethnic and religious traditions are particularly pronounced. The two primary metaphors he uses for discipleship were common to Jewish understandings of the relationship between God and humanity. In the book of Leviticus, salt, used both to add flavor to food and to preserve it, was required to be a part of the grain offerings people brought to temple. In the book of Numbers, the promises and sacrifices that people make to God are called a "covenant of salt." Salt, present in good food, tears, ocean water, and the earth, was part of everyday life. It was also vital to the well-being of humanity. We need salt in order to be healthy. In Jesus' estimation, the potential for discipleship was as deeply imbedded inside even the most common human as salt was in the seas that surrounded them. What that means for us is that our discipleship should be so ingrained in our being and our actions that were we to deny it, we would become as unrecognizable as salt that doesn't taste salty anymore.
The light, too, was a common religious metaphor in Jesus' community. In Psalm 119, God's word is described as a lamp unto one's feet and a light to one's path. Jesus does something a little different with the light metaphor. He shifts the location from outside of the person to inside of the person. In this passage, God's light is not external to humanity, leading the way for us to follow. Instead, God's light, our discipleship, has become embedded in our being. In accepting our part in Jesus' mission, we become the flame, the very light of God. The disciples can light up the very world. Even at the outset of his ministry in the book of Matthew, Jesus seems aware that, due to persecution and oppression from temporal powers, his disciples will be tempted to hide their discipleship away, as though they are hiding a lamp under a heavy bushel basket. He tells them that they can't succumb to that fearful temptation because light is utterly necessary for new growth in the world. They are God's light now. Through their faith and their service, they will help God's new life grow.
Throughout the month of February, we are going to being singing and hearing songs rooted in African American church traditions. One of the great gifts that these musical traditions have given the broader Christian community is that they are powerful examples of people upholding God's light in dangerous and death-dealing circumstances. These songs often became sources of inspiration, musical pilot lights, for communities that needed to be sustained as they fought for their very lives under racist systems that denied their humanity and their belovedness by God. According to scholar, activist, and professor Bernice Johnson Reagon, sacred music became a tool for African-Americans to establish a space where their lives, needs, and concerns mattered. This music helped to connect them to one another and also give voice to concerns specific to their lives as African-Americans. In a nation that sought to deny them a basic identity as a human, sacred music helped African-Americans take back some space in which to begin building new life. One song we're going to sing today, "This Little Light of Mine," became a particularly important song for Civil Right activists. This song became at once a call to commitment to the fight for equality, and also a source of comfort in dangerous times.
When Fannie Lou Hamer, one of the most powerful leaders of the movement in Mississippi, needed a song to demonstrate her commitment to equality and call all Americans to the cause, she chose "This Little Light of Mine." She sang it boldly at the 1964 Democratic National Convention when she challenged the white Mississippi Democrats who chose to send an all-white delegation to the convention. During mass meetings, the community organizing meetings African-Americans held, unfriendly white sheriffs would often show up to intimidate black citizens. They would take pictures and write down names. The people attending the meetings knew that the sheriff could share that information with their employers, costing them their livelihoods, or, worse yet, share it with people who would threaten their lives. According to Dr. Reagon, one of the ways that the citizens would take the space back would be to sing. This Little Light of Mine, a common and simple song with a deep meaning, was often one of the songs people would sing. Young and old alike could participate. Hearkening back to this verse in Matthew, reminding them of their calling to be God's light in this world, the song would bring them together and help them remain brave. Across the Jim Crow South, in protest marches and crowded jail cells, people would sing "This Little Light of Mine" and they would continue to shine God's light of love and justice in the world.
Now, this song was not written by a black person. It was written by a white man named Harry Dixon Loes. And, it is was never, and still isn't, only sung in predominantly black churches. But, I learned one reason why this song became so important to African-American churches, particularly during the time when churches were the sanctuaries in which the Civil Rights movement was crafted. I mentioned Bernice Johnson Reagon earlier. She helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as a student in segregated Georgia. She is a singer, composer, and historian, as well. I've been fortunate to hear her live a couple different times. This week, I watched part of an interview she gave several years ago. In that interview, she spoke of the power of the "I" songs, especially during the Civil Rights movement. She said that it really mattered to the people who gathered in solidarity to sing a song where they stated their individual commitment to the cause for which they sang. Within African-American communities, when they sang out the words, "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine!," it became a declaration of intent and commitment. I am going to let this light shine. I am going to offer my energy, my well-being, and maybe my life to this movement. I am not going to hide my light in order to get by under the status quo. I am God's light. I am called to shine in the world. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine.
When I heard Dr. Reagon share this understanding of the song, I came away with a much greater appreciation for it. What a gift it is to hear these words as confirmation of a commitment to God's justice and love! I think this understanding of the song is a great gift that African-American church traditions have given the broader church. Know that when we sing, "I'm going to let it shine," each of us can really mean that we will let our own life be recommitted to Christ's mission of love and justice. I know that right now is a time when we especially need people committed to being God's light in a contentious world. We need people ready to preserve and heighten the divine flavor of creation. We need salt and light, and fortunately, Scripture reminds us that we can be the salt and light. So, sing today to remind yourself of your commitment to loving God and loving your neighbor. Sing to day to remind yourself of your saltiness. Sing today to remind yourself of your light. And, keep letting that light shine.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the follower resources while writing this sermon:
Bill Moyers' interview with Bernice Johnson Reagon- http://billmoyers.com/2013/05/03/moyers-moment-1991-bernice-johnson-reagon-on-this-little-light-of-mine/
Some history about "This Little Light of Mine":
Amy Oden: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1901
Barbara Lundblad: http://www.onscripture.com/too-much-salt-or-not-enough-what-jesus-says-about-americans-and-their-super-bowl
Information on Fannie Lou Hamer: http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fannie-lou-hamer
Our Sermon for January 29, 2016: What Is Required and Who is Blessed? Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12
What is Required and Who is Blessed? Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12
On Friday, I noticed something as I refreshed the list of comments from people I follow on Twitter. I kept seeing people share comments from an account called The St. Louis Manifest. So many people were sharing things from this account that I had to see what they were talking about. I learned that the USS St. Louis was a cruise-liner on which more than 900 Jews attempted to escape Nazi Germany in 1939. Many had secured visas for Cuba, the ship's first destination. For some, the ultimate goal was to go to the US. In my research, I learned that once the ship arrived in Cuba, the Cuban government decided to cancel most of the visas. After several days of fruitless negotiation, the people realized that Cuban was not going to let them off the ship. The captian went on to the US port of Miami, hoping that the US would take these refugees. The US also said no. Officals refused to allow the 937 people into the United States because, in part, they were afraid that there might be spies hidden among the refugees. The government said that they just couldn't take the risk to national security. With little other choice, the captain turned and began the trip back to Europe.
While the people on the ship were eventually welcomed to Belgium, Holland, France, and the UK, as the Nazis swept across Europe, they once again found themselves in danger. By the end of the war, 254 of the original 937 passengers were murdered by the Nazis. Remember those comments I was reading on Twitter? They were the names of the people who had died. Each comment was a variation of the following:
My name is Fritz Zweigenthal. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in France.
My name is Regina Blumenstein. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz.
My name is Walter Velman. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Golleschau.
My name is Irmgard Köppel. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz.
The story of the USS St. Louis is particularly disheartening because it was an occasion where it seems like it would have been so simple to save more that 900 people from the horrors of the Holocaust with relative ease, but we chose not to. As a nation, we were afraid, and allowed our fear and our anti-Semitism to overcome our compassion. In fact, throughout the majority of the war, even after our government had ample evidence that the Nazis were committing mass murder in their so-called "work camps," our government would not allow more immigration, repeatedly citing, as though it were true, that refugees are dangerous. They might be spies. It took a Treasury Department report, written in 1944, calling out the cruelty of ignoring the plight of Jews across Europe to change our official stance on immigration during the war and allow more people to find refuge here during the war. By that point, millions of Jews, Romani, LGBT, Jehovah's Witnesses, and people with physical and developmental differences had been murdered. At the end of the war, despite all the shouting about refugees and spies, barely a handful of immigrants to this country would ever actually be accused.
The names from the St. Louis Manifest scrolled across my memory the news announced on late Friday afternoon that that once again, refugees from a dangerous warzone, this time in the Middle East instead of Europe, are being forbidden from finding safety in our country. Once again, we are hearing the rationale that refugees are dangerous and that there might be spies hidden among them. Once again, people are being turned away right on the border of safety, though this time it is in airports across the world, and not a cruise ship in Florida. We, people of faith, find ourselves looking at a humanitarian crisis in Syria, a crisis that has only been eclipsed in recent history by the refugee crisis of World War II, and we are being told to be afraid of the refugees instead of the people who are harming them. As I remember the St. Louis and think of our modern-day refugees, I don't think fear is what we are being called to. I think we are being called to mercy.
Now, mercy is not easy. The world is a dangerous place, or, at least all the danger in the world is shown to us over, and over again on TV and through our computers. But, this week, I watched a video of the Rev. William Barber, a preacher and activist based out of North Carolina. Rev. Barber reminded me that this isn't the only time in history that we as a nation, we as a whole world, have lived in fear. This is not the first time that we have had to collectively discern what it means to live out what he called a morally defensible agenda in regards to how we treat our neighbors. The prophet Micah lived in a dangerous world and so did Jesus. And, I bet their words can give us some guidance about how we are supposed to be treating our neighbors.
First, let us turn to Micah. The prophet Micah was active during an exceptionally dangerous period in history, when Israel was facing devastation at the hands of the Assyrian Empire. Micah was trying to help people figure out how to reorient their priorities to God's priorities in order to survive such terror. In this part of scripture, the first thing Micah did was to remind people what God really wanted from them. Some wondered if God required wealth and tributes from the people, just as powerful emperors required from the people. But, Micah said God and humanity's relationship wasn't based in that kind of quid pro quo power dynamic. No, God and humanity's relationship was about something greater.
Micah asked the people to remember how they usually interacted with God. Notice a theme in the actions he reminds them about? God rescued them from the dangers of Egypt. God brought them out of slavery. God gave them leaders who took them somewhere safe and bountiful, somewhere where their community could flourish. Every one of these actions is rooted in life, liberation, and abundance. Micah talked about what God did in order to make a claim about what God thinks is good. Apparently, God thinks liberation and safety and abundance are good. And, these good things are what God wants for God's people. Now, this new life doesn't come without expectations on behalf of the receivers. Humanity and God have an agreement after all, a covenant. God's part of that covenant is to bring humanity into life and liberation. Micah said that humanity's part of that covenant is to pass that life and liberation forward, acting as agents of God's mercy in this world. Micah calls on God's people to remember that they were once were once shown justice and mercy and kindness. That memory should humble people into action, extending that Divine justice and mercy even farther out into the world. Micah said that fear of evil isn't what should be driving your actions. Thanksgiving is what should be driving your actions. Living out your thanks in justice and mercy is the best way to resist evil.
You know that Jesus also wanted to help his disciples live in a time of terror and fear, disciples who, we should note, were from Syria. He had to help his followers survive the violence of Rome. The very first thing he taught his followers in Matthew was how God would sustain them. That's what blessedness means here: being sustained. Being blessed is being aware that they were being sustained through the difficulties of life. Setting out his moral agenda for the rest of his ministry in the book of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples that God would pay particular attention to those who mourn, to those who are in the lowest social caste, and to those who are disheartened. In the midst of an empire that loved to make people afraid, Jesus upheld kindness as central to a life of faith. He said that sincerity and mercy helps us see God. He said that we all rejoin God's family when we build peace. He said the persecution is not a sign that you are evil and deserve punishment. It is a sign that you are threatening the status quo.
I think both Jesus and Micah recognized that fear can tempt us away from God's calling to mercy and kindness. But, it seems to me that both of them thought love can be stronger than fear. Seventy years ago, when their government wouldn't help a boat full of refugees, a group of American Jews didn't let fear of spies prevent them from doing the right thing. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee put up enough money, what would be millions of dollars today, to help resettle the Jewish refugees of the St. Louis in countries that would take them in. Their generosity helped to save many of the people on the ship (though not everyone). As Rev. Barber reminded me this week, now is our time to stand up as the JDC stood up before us. We can push through the fear, into the compassion to which we are called. We are already supporting immigrant and the stranger through our participation with the Basic Essentials Pantry in Augusta, a ministry that serves many immigrants and refugees in our own county. I bet that there's more ways that we can pay God's justice and mercy forward right here in our community. We don't have to be guided by fear. We can be guided by grace. May we find a way to pay our sustaining blessings forward even when our own world seems upside down.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Rev. William Barber: http://www.breachrepairers.org/
For more information on the USS St. Louis please go to:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.