Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Years ago I attended a workshop led by Biblical Scholar Walter Wink. He focused on this morning’s section of the Sermon on the Mount. “We miss the humor,” he said, “because we don’t understand the context” (the cultural context). He insisted that this sermon would have had its hearers “rolling down the mount, overcome with laughter!”
“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 the second mile.” We tend to hear: be the proverbial doormat; let the world walk all over you. That’s what it means to be God’s people.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Wink pointed out that since only the right hand was used for public interaction, being struck on the right cheek meant that one had received a back handed slap – one Jason Byassee describes as “offensive.” “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Wink says that such a suit would be brought against the poorest of the poor – probably a laborer. A coat and cloak were the laborer’s clothes. And for some, it was their only protection against the elements. It was, by law, not legal to take the coat at night. Furthermore, if the cloak were given as well, the person being sued was left essentially naked. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Wink pointed out that this was a right of the occupying Roman forces, to demand that someone carry the soldier’s pack – but only for a mile.
Jason Byasse says that Christians “have developed elaborate strategies for avoiding these commands, impossible and offensive as they are.” These three examples would have been well known to Jesus’ hearers. They were the life-experiences of those who were perpetually oppressed. They were slapped. They were used and abused by those in authority. It appears that Jesus is asking them to be the proverbial doormat.
Wink, however, says that Jesus is suggesting something different. Turning the other cheek meant declaring oneself a person of value, of worth. There is nothing violent here. Perhaps the response will be that one is hit again. But, it would be a slap that is not dismissive, a slap that is forced to acknowledge the person. By offering one’s cloak, the victim puts the oppressor in an uncomfortable situation. The oppressor is the one in danger of sinning – for it was a sin to look on another’s nakedness. Wink says to imagine the person who had demanded the coat stammering, “No. I don’t want your cloak!” Finally, offering to carry the Roman soldier’s pack a second mile would put the soldier in an uncomfortable position. He could, if caught, be subject to military discipline for letting someone carry the pack an additional mile.
Wink suggests that all three responses empower the oppressed to claim their identity as God’s beloved. It makes me think of Martin Luther King and his commitment to non-violent demonstrations – no matter what the response might be. King was a student of Gandhi who began the approach in the modern era. Gandhi was a student of the ways of Jesus. The oppressed claimed their worth. And in claiming that worth, they found they could offer themselves to the world, seeking the world’s transformation.
Perhaps one of the primary ways people are victimized is by telling them that they have no power – NO POWER—to act, to make decisions, to affect the world in which they live. Here, in this story, Wink says Jesus told those living with oppression that they did have power – the power to live as people of worth who could challenge the perceptions of others. It was non-violent. It did not force others to change. Yet it offered the opportunity. And, it told his hearers that God cared for and about them.
It got me thinking about all those times I have felt dismissed. Were there ways I could have acted differently – not to engage in battle, but to live with an awareness that I was a beloved child of God who had something to contribute? I’m sure all of you have had the experience of being ignored or unheard – or of having ideas taken and used by others for their own advancement. I’ve run into such situations as a woman in a job that until relatively recently belonged exclusively to men. It is easy to forget that proclamation that we heard in the assurance of pardon. “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” “If God loves us, if God is for us, who can be against us?” Paul asked. The world may mistreat us, but the fundamental reality is that God loves us.
"Be perfect, therefore, as you Heavenly Father is perfect.” So ends the passage. Byasse suggests that this is the journey of the life of faith – to seek to love as God loves, “with every breath God gives us.” That love calls us to love – that is to offer God’s grace and the possibility of God’s loving transformation – even to those who oppress us.
I was going to focus solely on the passage from Leviticus today – because it is the only time that Biblical book appears in the lectionary cycle. Furthermore, we read from it only when the season of Epiphany is extended. It’s not one of those books that draws us in – unless it gets used to condemn people. That’s what it’s known for in our society! I read the entire book. There’s a reason we don’t focus on it. The cultural context doesn’t connect with ours much at all. It talks about sacrifices for sin and well-being, about clean and unclean animals, about the priesthood, and about Jewish festivals. Last year, I heard a sermon on the book that suggested we look at the book in the broadest context imaginable. So, rather than taking little verses out of context, we ask what the cultural context can teach us about the book’s intent and message. The preacher suggested that the book focuses on how to live as God’s people. It is a Holiness Code. Its intent is to give a framework for life that is connected with God. It was suggested that in the modern world we might ask how technology should be used appropriately – in our own lives. Do we sit at the dinner table and focus on the phone rather than those who are with us? Do we have time that is untethered? Do our gadgets displace God?
This morning’s passage provides guidelines for a people who would be the primary occupiers of the land. They would be in charge. So these guidelines are not for the oppressed, but for those who would have power and the potential to abuse it. It calls them to be aware of the most vulnerable in their society. “You shall not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare… you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.. you shall not deal falsely, you shall not lie, you shall not defraud, you shall not steal, you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer…”
Most of our cultural context is very different from that of the Israelites. But can’t we see parallels? How do we view the laborers in our society? We could talk of migrants, of field workers. We could also talk of those who work in our fast food restaurants. Or we could think about the immigrants who are all around us – many working in jobs we might not want.
This passage, like the passage from Matthew, speaks to what it means to live a sanctified life which the Westminster Catechism describes as a life that “improves our baptism.” This passage is for those who have power – to remind them to see and value and treat fairly those whom the world might ignore (at best) or abuse.
Years ago, I used a candy bar for a sermon illustration after hearing a presentation at a Presbyterian Women’s gathering. The candy bar was a perfect illustration for the ways in which we are caught up in the world’s broken ways. A simple candy bar includes ingredients from around the world. And many of those who farm or harvest those ingredients are mistreated and grossly underpaid. A man came up to me after church and said, “I always thought of myself as poor. But now I know that I’m not – compared to how people live in other parts of the world.”
It’s easy to number ourselves among the oppressed – when we are mistreated or dismissed and when we see the great disparities in our own country, communities, and culture. Certainly, we have work to do to open the eyes of those who dismiss us and others –readily (and sometimes self-righteously). Jesus showed us the way – and it is still not easy. It calls us not to violence – but to standing tall, trusting that God values us and is with us. Yet, to live sanctified lives, to live the way of holiness, we need to see, as well, the ways in which we have power and have misused and abused that power, contributing to the invisibility and suffering of others – the poor and the strangers in our midst.
Next Sunday we walk -- we walk for those who have so little we could barely imagine their lives. We walk for those far away – and for those who live on our streets. We bring food and clothing for our neighbors. It is one way we live out the holiness code of Leviticus.
Byasse tells the story of a friend whose parents were missionaries in Brazil. She was asked how they could live among the poorest of the poor without danger of being robbed. “Simple,” she said. “You can’t own anything anyone would want to steal.” “Live simply so that others may simply live.”
Living simply is grounded, for God’s people, in the knowledge that we are beloved children. That knowledge gives us strength to encounter this world and its injustices. It gives us strength to live in ways that look out for those who are vulnerable – to economic injustice, to exploitation, to racial inequalities and prejudice, and to religious intolerance that belittles and dismisses.
"See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity,” Moses preached to the crowd standing on the verge of entering the promised land. “Choose life!” he concluded.
“Life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Scholar W. Sibley Towner says that the book of Deuteronomy, the second law, is “structured around the two ways: faithfulness and blessings versus disobedience and cursing.” He goes on to say that retributional theology is central. “If you are good, God will reward you. If you are bad, God will punish you.”
This is the way we think of God -- the great judge who metes out punishment on those who disobey God's rule. That picture of the judgmental God has been basic to the way we see the cross. The Nicene Creed, from the 4th century, states, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” The Scots Confession says, “because he was able to undergo the punishment of our transgressions and to present himself in the presence of his Father’s judgment, as in our stead, to suffer for our transgression and disobedience.” The Heidelberg Catechism goes further. “Does God permit disobedience and rebellion to go unpunished? Certainly not. God is terribly angry with the sin we are born with as well as the sins we personally commit. As a just judge, God will punish them both now and in eternity, having declared, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.’” Jesus is then proclaimed as the sacrifice that satisfies God’s thirst for judgment. The Confession of 1967 declares, “God’s love never changes. Against all who oppose him, God expresses his love in wrath. In the same love, God took on himself judgment and shameful death in Jesus Christ, to bring men to repentance and new life.”
God is the righteous judge who demands payment for our sins, for our disobedience, for making the wrong choices. That has been fundamental to our view of God for centuries and centuries. It is so central that it permeates life even outside of the church. How many families are oriented around the idea of punishment for bad choices? We could talk about our approach to the justice system that metes out punishment for particular choices that we, as a culture, have said are unacceptable. Now, certainly, there is good reason to remove some people from society when their actions threaten others. But, we’re beginning to question the wisdom of some of the punishments that are given. Yet, even as we hear cries for a less intrusive government, there are those who are pushing stricter morality laws that will punish offenders.
Towner says that Deuteronomy is organized around the “if/then” understanding of God’s law – with God meting out punishment for those who choose to live the wrong way. Punishment becomes an accepted necessity for life. And our model is God. God “punished” Jesus in our stead, to balance the need for justice. We “play God,” setting the rules and punishing those who disobey them.
Is there another way to interpret, to hear this passage? The leaders of the Reformation spoke of God’s gift of free will. We can choose for ourselves. But, there is something odd about this choice if God is waiting – we might sense, gleefully – to punish us for the wrong choices. Yet we have these words in Deuteronomy. “If your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall perish.”
Maybe, instead of hearing that as something God will do, as a punishment God will inflict, we could think of it as a consequence of a bad choice.
When I was studying physics, I would sometimes go to my dad for help with hard problems. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him as I worked through a problem. Sometimes, I would start to do something and he would say, “Are you sure you want to do that?” I had a choice. I could continue with the process according to my wishes, or I could reconsider, and look for another way. I usually, in his presence, looked for another way – that led to the right conclusion.
Now, if I had made the wrong choice, what would have happened? I would have gotten a bad grade – rightfully so! Would that have been punishment? No. It would have been a consequence of poor logic and poor choices.
Scholar Carol Dempsey interpreted this passage from Deuteronomy a little differently. “The main theological theme in verses 15-16 is obedience…having been set free from [bondage in Egypt], having entered into covenant with God, having been entrusted with God’s law, and having survived much of the challenging journey through the wilderness, the Israelites now stand on the plain as Moses prepares to die and the people prepare to enter the promised land…For Israel, life and prosperity meant that all human activity would be under the protection of the Divine…On the contrary, death would mean that all human activity would be devoid of divine presence.”
It was their choice. They could choose to live in God’s presence, abiding by the laws that would give life. Or they could turn their backs on God’s ways – and, as a consequence, they would they would know the death that comes without God’s life-giving presence. God would be absent – not inflicting punishment.
What if we began to think of God not as the waiting, vengeful judge, but as the one who says, “I want you to choose life! I want you to make the choice that is good for you, good for your loved ones, good for the world!”? What If we began to think of God as the one who declares, “I love you. Please choose the way that lets me be in your life!”? Then, God is not the enforcer, but the encourager. “I love you. Choose what is good, what is faithful, what leads to the ways of the realm I have created for you!”
It makes me re-think our traditional interpretations of the cross. I have always been troubled by our declaration that God is love and that God’s justice demanded that God’s very own child needed to be put to death to satisfy God’s thirst for judgement. What if, instead, we began to understand that the cross is the consequence of our actions, that the cross is our responsibility, not God’s desire to have a sacrifice made in our place? Jesus didn’t die because God demanded it. Instead, Jesus’ obedience meant that he wouldn’t make worldly choices that separated him from God. The world could not accept his choice to follow God’s ways – and so, it crucified him. The world chose the way that was devoid of God’s presence. Yet, God’s answer was to enter into that rejection – and declare love, made evident in the resurrection.
The Brief Statement of Faith, which the denomination adopted in 1983 is the first statement of faith I’ve found that doesn’t focus on God as a vengeful judge. “Jesus was crucified, suffering the depths of human pain and giving his life for the sins of the world. God raised this Jesus from the dead, vindicating his sinless life, breaking the power of sin and evil, and delivering us from death to life eternal.”
Jesus gave his life for the sins of the world. Perhaps that means not that God, therefore, punished him instead of punishing all humanity, but that Jesus bore the sins by not turning his back on God’s ways and letting the sins win – at least temporarily. So the cross is not God’s abandonment or God’s judgment, but a symbol of humanity’s willingness to “live devoid of God’s presence.” The cross is not punishment but a consequence of human sin – a human creation, not a God ordained event.
We think that playing God means setting the rules and enforcing them. A father was worried about his daughter, so he laid down the law. He told her what he would consider acceptable – and demanded that she obey. It didn’t do much for their relationship. He took away her choice. Yet, he also knew of another father who demonstrated a different way of parenting. That father encouraged his daughter to make good choices – choices that would lead to a happier, fuller life. He helped her identify what those good choices would be. And he let her make the decision.
We tend to hear this morning’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount as threatening. “If you are angry, you are liable… If you look at another with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery…If you divorce, you have committed adultery. Do not swear.” These sections have generated laws that have been used to punish offenders. But, maybe they can be heard in a different way.
Perhaps Jesus, like Moses, is pointing his hearers toward the good choices that they can and should make so that life would flourish for all people. If we take out the threat of punishment, the idea of the looming God waiting to unleash wrath on the misdoers, and hear, instead, a loving God urging people toward that which is good, it changes how we see Jesus and how we see God. And, it changes the way we are to act in this world.
Moses – and Jesus—saw the world, the communities, in which they lived. They saw what good choices would be and what bad choices would be. They named them --- but they did not take away choice. How would the church’s role be changed if our mission were to say: “Choose what is good! And God tells us what is good, what leads to life – for all people. We know you can do it! And see where the wrong choices lead you. Are you sure you want to go there? The consequences are severe.”
As God’s people, we are the body of Christ in our world. His example is not one of coercion, but of persuasion based on and in God’s deep abiding love. The world needs to know that loving God in a world that knows too much punishing judgement.
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
I was tempted to put a picture of the Morton Salt girl on the bulletin, the girl standing under the umbrella, pouring salt out of a container. It declare, as I’m sure most of you remember, “When it rains, it pours.” I thought of the way I measure salt – over the sink – with little concern for what spills over the measuring spoon. We know salt as an inexpensive resource. Up north, we salt the roads and sidewalks to clear them of ice and snow. Each fall, communities stockpile mountains of salt in order to be ready for the coming winter. And, of course, salt is hidden in almost every prepared, packaged food.
There is a French folktale which Mark Kurlansky cited in his book Salt: A World History. The story says that a princess told her father, “I love you like salt.” He was offended by her statement. So, he banished her from the realm. Later, when he was forced to live without salt, he realized that his daughter’s statement represented deep love. Kurlansky concludes: “Salt is so common, so easy to obtain, and so inexpensive that we have forgotten that from the beginning of civilization until about 100 years ago, salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”
Kurlansky wrote about an early 20th century psychologist, Ernest Jones, who, like the French king in the folktale, could see no value in salt. Yet, he noted that throughout human history it seemed to be “invested with a significance far exceeding its natural properties – as interesting and important as these are.” He knew that Homer called salt a divine substance. Plato said it was “dear to the gods.” Kurlansky noted that the focus on salt was not limited to Greece. It was given a revered status in almost every known culture.
It has not lost its importance with the passing of centuries. In the 1920s, The Diamond Crystal Salt Company published a booklet, “One Hundred and One Uses for Diamond Crystal Salt.” Salt was needed for making ice cream freeze, getting more heat out of boiling water, removing spots on clothes, putting out grease fires, making candles dripless, killing poison ivy, treating dyspepsia, sprains, sore throats and earaches. The modern salt industry names over 14,000 uses for salt, including salting our highways and streets, and flavoring our foods.
Without salt we would die. In today’s world we often hear that there is too much salt in our diets. But, without any salt, we could not live. Salt, along with water, is necessary for cell function. It was added to the human diet when humans began cultivating crops. Meat eaters had no need since the meat contained salt. But vegetarian diets lack salt, so it needed to be added. Animals that ate only vegetation would forage for salt – and early human seekers of salt followed the animals’ trails.
So the need for salt became a driving economic force. Kurlansky wrote, “Salt became one of the first international commodities of trade; its production was one of the first industries and, inevitably, the first state monopoly…Trade routes that have remained major thoroughfares were established, alliances built, empires secured, and revolutions provoked – all for something that fills the ocean, bubbles up from springs, forms crusts in lake beds, and thickly veins a large part of the earth’s rock fairly close to the surface.” Of course, this reality was not evident until modern geology and technology made salt readily available!
So, we have to step out of our modern perceptions of salt, that it is prevalent and, at times, a problem, in order to understand how it was Jesus understood salt.
Kurlansky wrote that until modern times salt was the primary way that food was preserved. (It might still be the primary way except that we have hidden the salt in our foods.) Salt is a preservative, so it has a “broad metaphorical importance…because we associate it with longevity and permanence.” I learned from Kurlansky’s book that salt is the symbol of God’s covenant with Israel. I didn’t know that – but Jesus would have! The Torah states that God’s covenant with Israel is a “covenant of salt forever, before the Lord.” I learned that on the Sabbath bread is dipped in salt. Again, I didn’t know – but Jesus did. The bread is a symbol of food, a gift from God. Dipping it in the salt preserves it – it keeps the agreement between God and the people.
The Roman Catholic tradition associates salt with longevity and permanence, but also with truth and wisdom. The Roman Catholic Church gives holy water and holy salt – the salt of wisdom.
So, bread and salt are “a blessing and its preservation.” Jewish people brought bread and salt to new homes. The British dispensed with the bread, but brought salt. The Welsh put a plate with bread and salt on coffins.
“You are the salt of the earth.” I hear, through modern ears, not much, only an archaic statement that doesn’t connect much with my world. But with a deeper knowledge of the past, it is possible to hear new things in this statement, as we consider what salt meant to Jesus –and, in spite of its prevalence, what salt means to human existence today.
Jesus would have known that salt was a necessity. “You are the salt of the earth” might be a way of saying that the world has need of our presence, of our faithful living, of our work for the ways of God’s realm to be made visible (to be given light). Jesus also knew the traditions that associated salt with God’s preserving presence. In a world that too often, throughout human history, chooses ways of destruction and death, we are to work for the preservation of life – not just individual lives, not narrow interpretations that give importance to some but not others – but life in families, communities, nations, and the world.
Too often, today, we hear talk about “preserving our little piece of the world.” That piece might be protecting our views (and perhaps enforcing them on others. I read an article that said there is danger, in our country of Sharia law---religious law. However, the danger is not from Muslims but from segments of Christianity that want to enforce their way of life, their understanding of righteousness on the larger society.). We hear talk about protecting our homes, our communities, and our nation from the strangers who are threats.
But, let’s be clear, that’s not God’s vision. God’s vision looks at the world and sees what needs to happen for life to flourish for all people. The prophet Isaiah railed against the faith practices that were self-centered. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers…Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 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?”
I read a fascinating article by “Christian Week” columnist Erik Parker. He noted the declining mainline churches and suggested that they were in decline because people generally felt OK about the world. He looked back to the 50s when churches were full. “But why were they full?” he asked. “Because people were better Christians back then? Or was it that the world had just come through two world wars and the Great Depression? Was it that society had collectively stood at the brink and glimpsed our collective demise for 5 years straight before the first good news for the allies on D-Day?
Church was a place where hope was found, where grief, anxiety, struggle, pain, and fear could be handed over to something bigger than ourselves. Churches proclaimed that there was something more powerful than huge armies marching over nation after nation, than governments who were sending millions of husbands and sons to war, than the threat of oppression and even extinction.
Churches didn’t have to do anything special other than be communities that proclaimed the Good News as they had been for nearly 2000 years.”
He suggested that we need to become, again, focused on the core things that matter – the core things – the salt that the world needs us to be.
“We will need to be communities of refuge because people will have fewer and fewer safe spaces.
We will need to be communities of resistance in a world that is demanding division, conflict, and violence.
We will need to be communities of hope because we cannot just go back to sleep and pretend the government will have our backs while we spend our time mindlessly consuming stuff and entertainment.
We will need to be proclaimers of the gospel.”
Parker said that we don’t have to be Nickelodeon to entertain. We don’t have to develop slick programs. We need to be salt –engaged in the basic preservation of God’s ways in the midst of a world that knows too much hate, and fear, and division, and violence, and injustice, and prejudice, and war. We are the salt of the earth – those who know that God’s love and concern is from everlasting to everlasting and as particular as the day, as the moment in which we find ourselves. We are salt. We flavor the world with God’s grace and love. We preserve, not our own selfish circles, but all those things the give life to God’s justice and mercy.
Blessed ---O Lord, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12
Some of you may remember the Paul Simon song, “Blessed.” It begins, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit.” The verse ends with the question, “O Lord, why have you forsaken me?”
It is an interesting juxtaposition. “Blessed” – and –“Forsaken.” One would think that being blessed would mean knowing that you are not forsaken. Yet, in our world, when we speak of the “meek of the earth”, do we not think of those whom the world has chosen to forget or ignore or disparage? The meek are those forsaken by the world.
One pastor wrote of visiting parishioners and seeing these Beatitudes adorning their houses. They are poetic. But what do they mean? If we really listen to them, they are disturbing. Who wants to be meek in our world? It sounds like a command to be the world’s doormat – to let others walk all over you! The other attributes are a little more palatable, but they don’t sound like the path to a happy life! Yet, happy is one translation of the Greek word generally translated as “blessed.”
Ronald Allen pointed out that neither translation helps if we do not consider the context. Karoline Lewis wrote that each gospel paints the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in a unique way – a way that points to what matters to the gospel writer. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus began with an exorcism, telling us that he would be a boundary crosser. In Luke’s gospel Jesus began his ministry at home, in Nazareth, by speaking in the synagogue. His message so disturbed his hearers that they tried to kill him by pushing him off a cliff. Luke tells us that Jesus’ ministry would always reach out to those that insiders thought were beyond God’s concern. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ ministry began with turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. He demonstrated God’s abundance.
Here, in Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry with teaching his disciples. Lewis says, “They have to know who they are in order to be able to hear the rest of what Jesus has to say about what he needs them to be." And, disciples are those who learn. (It is a reminder that growing in the faith is a life-long endeavor. Children may learn the basics, but adults have to re-encounter, re-consider, and re-learn the gospel for the world in which we live, with all its challenges!) Allen adds that Matthew’s gospel focuses on the “coming realm when all things will take place according to God’s purposes of love and justice.” Being blessed, being happy, therefore, means knowing that you are “included in that coming realm.”
I quoted Paul Simon’s song. It takes one of the attributes listed in this familiar passage. But, we can’t hear the word meek by itself. All these attributes are inter-related. Charles James Cook says they “build on one another. Those who are meek, meaning humble, are more likely to to hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they remain open to continued knowledge of God. If we approach the Beatitudes in this way, we see they invite us into a way of being in the world that leads to particular practices.”
Bruce Epperly’s blog says, “The Biblical tradition is always counter-cultural in spirit. It agitates the comfortable, whether conservative or progressive, by challenging our lifestyles and assumptions. And, conversely, as the saying goes, it also comforts the agitated, those at the margins of life, those with their backs against the way, or struggling with debilitating issues.”
Counter-cultural. That's a hard message to hear. We’re so accustomed, in this country, to having a Christian faith that is all entangled with our culture. I think there is a “brand” of Christianity that is uniquely American. It is called the “prosperity gospel.” It tells us that those who are good get rewarded with wealth, health and success. Where are the meek? Where are the poor in spirit? What is the understanding of righteousness?
Epperly reflected on this powerful passage from the prophet Micah that asked, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” And the prophet answered his own question, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Epperly noted that even generosity can be problematic and spiritually destructive “if it is grounded in widening the gap between rich and poor, violent economic and societal structures and a sense of entitlement.” I had just read that when I heard an episode of “Fresh Air” on NPR. Terry Gross had a New York Times journalist, Evan Osnos, as a guest. He had written an article titled, “Survival of the Richest.” The article looked a a growing trend of the Silicon Valley elite who are fearful of the future. They are worried about the political climate, economy, the environment, the possibility of all-out nuclear war, pandemics or civil unrest. In response they are stockpiling weapons and food. Someone has turned an empty underground nuclear silo into luxury apartments that sell for three million dollars. Others are buying property on remote islands. One has had his eyesight surgically corrected because he’s afraid that contact lenses and glasses won’t be readily available – and that those who can’t see well will be victimized. They’re afraid of class warfare as artificial intelligence takes jobs away from people.
Max Levchin, a co-founder of Pay Pal, has criticized this growing trend among his peers. He asks those who are seeking their own safety and security, “How much have you donated to the local homeless shelter? How much have you tried to address the underlying causes of these problems? Are you investing in the American project? Epperly says, "Humility (meekness) is a requirement of an interdependent universe."
“Humility is a requirement of an interdependent universe.” Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn (for the world God intends). Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are those who are merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
The best of the United States project is based on this interdependence, upon a recognition that our lives are bound up together – and when we work for the well-being of the least of our neighbors, we work for the well-being of all. It is a worthy endeavor, one that can claim our hearts and minds.
Yet, even the religious Israelites had to acknowledge that their national life often fell short of who God created and called them to be. And so it is with us. As God’s beloved, blessed, called disciples, we are to seek the fullness of God’s realm which transcends all political and national boundaries in this world. We are to seek the life that flows from dependence on God, not from things or wealth or even national power. We are to seek the life that connects us, as well, with others – with all others.
And living with that broader vision is not easy. I heard a political commentator note that in our own country people are living in bubbles that prevent them from hearing those with whom we disagree. He said, “We are going to have to look beyond our own spheres and begin to hear the concerns of those with whom we disagree.” Blessed are the ones who know their dependence – on God, and on the well-being of the whole of human society and the earth itself. These beatitudes reflect interdependence and reliance on God.
Theologian Marcia Riggs said that the political agenda Jesus gave us is “organized around the pursuit of righteousness by those who are able – at potential risk to their own lives—for the sake of a world in which the un-valued (including they themselves when they are persecuted) are at last fully valued as human beings.” She brings me back to the Paul Simon song. “Why have you forsaken me,” he asked. These beatitudes, and Jesus’ life, tell us that living God’s way is not easy. Even for Jesus it led to death. He cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet, it was not God who had forsaken him. The world forsook him. It rejected the message that he brought. It rejected God’s realm and the values it embodies and proclaims. The world turned and turns its back on God’s invitation to the blessed life – the blessed life of dependence and interdependence, the blessed life of humility and compassion that sees not just the self, but those who are vulnerable and hurting.
The resurrection tells us that God had not forsaken Jesus. Therefore, we may trust that living dependent on God and interdependent with others and the creation itself is possible. Where the world sees weakness, we find God’s never-forsaking presence.
I Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
“And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Is that not a familiar passage? And, an intimidating one? “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
We hear this as the norm for being full-fledged disciples. “Follow me and you will fish for people” (or to use the older language, “you will be fishers of men.”) We think, then, of the stories of Peter who found the courage, after the resurrection, to stand before the multitudes and tell about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. According to the Acts of the Apostles, after Peter’s first speech (sermon), 3000 were added to the community of faith.
“I will make you fish for people.” Churches often focus on ways to “bring the people in.” They look for the bait, for the hook, that will attract people to their doors. We look at educational programs and fellowship opportunities. Some churches have coffee shops. Others have gyms and fitness programs. A church in Pittsburgh had a bowling alley. (There may be others, but that’s the only one I know.) Even our church buildings are used as “bait.” Churches have operated on the assumption that “If we build it, they will come.” There was an entire generation of pastors who were trained to have building programs because such programs generated excitement as people could see what their giving created.
Honestly, this is a passive way of heeding Jesus’ call to “fish for people.” It is focused on getting people in our doors. Maybe that’s because the idea of fully following Peter’s example is so intimidating. Do we want to drop everything and venture out into the world? Who among us would want to go out into the streets and deliver the message to thousands? Not that there aren’t those who pursue such a calling. But, frequently their success is marked by financial gain – for themselves. And the message seems to lose its connection with the message of Jesus’ life.
I looked up some of the “call” stories in the gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels, that is the three that are closely related, tell of this calling of Peter, Andrew, James and John, the fishermen. They all relate that Jesus told them that from now on they would be “catching people.” In Luke’s gospel, Simon (Peter) already had a relationship with Jesus that began in the synagogue. He had seen Jesus heal someone there. Then he invited him into his home where Jesus continued to heal. Later, Jesus sought him out as he was fishing – and extended the call. In John’s gospel, there is no mention of fishing. Simon’s brother, Andrew, heard John the Baptist identify Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” Andrew then told Simon. The call to discipleship is extended with Jesus’ invitation to “Come and see,” or to “Follow me.”
Anna Carter Florence says that metaphors “are supposed to spark our imaginations, not chain them fast. So it would be a mistake to push the ‘fishing for people’ metaphor too far, letting our evangelistic fancies take off into the ether (‘What bait shall we use this time?! What are your youth biting on?!). We don’t hook and land unwitting congregants, and we don’t cast our nets (either right or left!) in order to haul in another unsuspecting catch – obviously. I doubt Jesus had any such thing in mind when he called out to Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee.”
We always run into trouble when models are made the norm, when we begin to think that we have to fit into a particular mold in order to be faithful. That is, perhaps, what happened in Corinth. Divisions arose in that early Christian community. They arose as groups pointed to particular individuals as the models for the way faith was to be lived or embraced. “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or (even) “I belong to Christ.”
Alan Gregory, reflecting on the First Corinthian passage, wrote, “Christian unity cannot be commanded; it must proceed from our ‘discerning the body,’ acknowledging that Jesus has bound us to himself. That body is recognizable to others insofar as Christians are ‘united in the same mind…and purpose.’ Doctrinal orthodoxy is not the issue here, still less a uniformity of speech and behavior. Later in his letter Paul will affirm…the diversity of gifts and ministries.”
Another scholar, Timothy Sedgwick, suggested that the divisions arose when self-interest prevailed. I was reminded of my work with a community organizing group. They suggested that people would come together as you invited them to explore their “self-interest.” Their hope was that once those areas of self-interest were identified, common concerns would bring people together. My congregation named a “self-interest” that divided them from the community around the church. Instead of pursuing a safer neighborhood, they looked at the issue of parking around the church – demanding that residents give up street parking so that church attendees wouldn’t have to walk from the parking lot. (It still makes me crazy! Especially since they were already known for towing away vehicles in the parking lot – that they barely used!) Self-interest causes division because it sees the world, faith, and church life through a narrow lens of what matters. It does not discern the Body of Christ which is broad and diverse.
Greg Garret, in his reflections on the call story, says that we should see this not as a story of “leaving their nets” as much as a story of finding the call to commit to something larger than themselves – or to borrow Sedgwick’s terminology – something larger than mere self-interest. And, when we look beyond ourselves, we begin to see that there are many models of faithfulness. People are called in many ways to different ministries. Next Sunday, we will install our elders. Part of the installation service is a wonderful litany drawn from First Corinthians. “There are different gifts; but it is the same Spirit who gives them. There are different ways of serving God; but it is the same Lord who is served. God works through each person in a unique way, but it is God’s purpose that is accomplished. To each is given a gift of the Spirit to be used for the common good. Together we are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.”
That brings me back to the “fishers of people” metaphor. When that is accepted as the metaphor it chains us. And when we are chained by one metaphor we are hampered. Sometimes we lift up various people who seem to embody this “call” in ways that are out of reach for many of us. In so doing, we miss our own call. Perhaps the misuse of this metaphor led to one of the sins of the modern church – that of “hiring professional Christians” (clergy), who were expected to do the church’s ministry for the congregations. They were to be the ones who baited the hooks and fished for people, bringing them into the church. How many churches became known by the name of a particular pastor? How many churches are still organized around a personality? We still see the problem evident in Corinth. “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas.”
Anna Carter Florence said that in this call story Jesus began not with what he knew, or even with what he did best. He began with what the fishermen did best. He called them to take their talents and use them in a new way – a way that gave life to God’s realm that was at hand. She says it is a call to adapt what we’re already good at doing so that we can participate in the work of God’s transforming presence.
One of the great inaugural speech lines was from John F. Kennedy. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That was a call to citizens to give of themselves, which meant giving time, talent, energy, and a commitment, to build a better world. It was not a call to do one thing. It was a call to find ways of building up the country – in neighborhoods, communities, and around the world.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the call to the fishermen is what preceded it. The gospel writer tells us that Jesus came to Capernaum to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah had said: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” Jesus began his ministry proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The emphasis is not on the people, but on the good news that God’s realm was coming in a new way. The fishermen were among those who responded with joy – taking their talents to work for this light dawning.
We know when we are blessed by those who share their talents -- blessed both in the community of faith, but also in the wider world. We are blessed by those who cook and clean, those who serve on boards, those who are passionate about mission beyond our walls. We are blessed by those who work for a better world – through research, medicine, teaching, social work, and through faithful living and giving that demonstrates the values of God’s realm. There is no one model to follow. There are many. And God’s call begins with who we are, with what we know. Listen!