Sermon of Jan 21, 2018 St John’s Episcopal Church
Gospel: Mark 1:14-20, NRSV
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
This passage is a narrative of calling as Jesus goes place to place calling out to everyone “the time has come” and to some of the locals “follow me.” When was the last time you waited on a call? You just sat and watched your phone, checking for missed calls again and again? Today, it seems like that’s all I’m doing, getting calls or calling someone… I’ve even caught myself calling one of my sons in their room on their cell phone… have you been there? Instead of yelling or heaven forbid going to the room, I phone them.
Anyone remember life before cell phones? Before even pagers? When I was a kid we had, I think it was, an enormous brown 1975 Ford LTD. My dad’s car. We kids just roamed the neighborhood like a pack of hyenas, no iPhones, no GPS, no Google Maps. If my dad wanted me home he would go out and honk the horn on that Ford LTD a few times to call me. And pity me if I didn’t make it home in under 15 minutes. I knew that horn. I left what I was doing, so sorry fellas, I’m out, I’m called, and I gotta go. And I get a little bit of the same feeling here in Mark chapter 1 when Jesus says “follow me” and people drop what they’re doing “so sorry fellas, I’m out, I’m called, and I gotta go.”
It reminds me also an East African proverb we learned a long time ago, “To be called is to be sent.” The wisdom being the recognition that if someone with authority or purpose calls for you, it’s with the intent to send you, to use you, to give you something to do. Jesus seems to be calling with the intent to send.
I’d like to chat about Mark’s Gospel for just a moment, because over the years of preaching, it’s sort of become, if not my favorite, one Gospel that I immensely enjoy reading and preaching out of… this Gospel is a masterpiece of sorts. Mark begins, unlike other Gospels with their birth narratives and cosmic returns to the beginning of all things, with a simple statement… here begins the good news.
This good news is bound up in calling and proclaiming: 1) first with John the Baptizer, the voice crying in the wilderness, 2) then in the voice of God at the baptism of Jesus, 3) with Jesus himself who takes up the role of proclaimer as soon as John is arrested and silenced, and 4) eventually in the sending of the disciples to proclaim the message by chapter 3. Mark’s Gospel is an action story, robust with message, meaning, miracles and often a cyclical return to themes and words. Jesus says follow me many times and by the third chapter he appoints twelve apostles to be sent out to proclaim his message.
When my father would honk that horn, he wanted me for something, he was calling me for a reason… it’s dinner time or I had chores to do, or it was simply late and time to be at home. As my father called me for a reason, Jesus called followers for a reason, and we share a similar call, today. We hear it many different ways and we are called in many different situations, but being called is being sent. We who answer to call to enter the kingdom of God accept a call to ministry, as Jesus told them by the water that day “to fish for people.” A focus on the work of God, a call of ministry to the humanity around us. We may not all fish, but we share this call to be aware of the people around us, and follow the lead of Jesus.
We Are All Called
We’re not called to something burdensome, but to shared work and joy of ministry. In a section of our Book of Common Prayer called An Outline of the Faith, we find some the same kind of language wisely used to speak of our calling. I invite you to look into this Outline of the Faith, it begins on page 845, and we’ll be reading at page 855 under the heading, The Ministry.
Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?
A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.
Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
Who are the ministers of the church? Who is called? We are all called! Does is surprise you that our ministry is described before the work of a bishop, priest or deacon? The very next question goes deeper… we represent Jesus, in his steps and voice, we bear witness, do the work of reconciliation, and share life together in the church, according to our gifts. No cookie cutter, pre-fab, “only my skills are needed or your gifts desired” but we all come together in our diversity to do ministry. We are each called as we are and fit into the work of Christ. On the next page we find the duty of all Christians: to follow.
Q. What is the duty of all Christians?
A. The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.
The Apostle Paul uses some of the same language of reconciliation when speaking his ministry and ours, but I’ve always enjoyed the way he described this calling and sending to the church in Ephesus, when he says:
“But God, rich in mercy and loving us so much, brought us to life in Christ, even when we were dead in our sins. It is through this grace that we have been saved. God raised us up and, in union with Christ Jesus, gave us a place in the heavenly realm, to display in ages to come how immense are the resources of God’s grace and kindness in Christ Jesus. And it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and even that is not of yourselves, but the gift of God. Nor is it a reward for anything that you’ve done, so nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do the good things God created us to do from the beginning.”
Ephesians 2:4-10, The Inclusive Bible
We are God’s work of art. I don’t know about you, but I can look around, go to work, read the news, talk to people, see all the things happening in the world, and I can get a little depressed at the dysfunction, discord and deep needs around me. I can get both depressed and a bit overwhelmed. But the calling changes things. The calling reminds me who I am. Remembering the call refocuses me back on the good, the good God has intended and the good of which we are capable and the good needed by the world around us. The calling comes through to each of us to move us fully into this kingdom, this movement, of God’s grace, God’s love and God’s kindness. And the calling sends us, rejuvenated and made more whole, to share these blessings with an often hurting, bruised world.
Not everyone goes fishing… the disciples we find in the scriptures who are answering the call range from vocations like fishing to tax collecting, a physician like Luke, or a religious leader like Paul, benefactors like Theophilus and Phoebe, and church leaders like Prisca and Aquila… men and women of varied means and backgrounds who answered the call according to their many gifts and abilities.
I would love to be a kid again and hear that horn honking in the distance, hurriedly gathering up my Star Wars action figures and toys and saying my goodbyes to friends to head home. I hope that today I can hear every challenge to goodness as a call, each challenge to justice and fairness as a call, every cry of pain and plea for mercy as a calling to be the work of art God has made me to be. The call is there. Today. We are called and we are sent.
I pray that we as a people, as a church, take this calling to heart and cast our nets of love, kindness and healing among the people of the world, in all our variety and diversity of our gifts and our backgrounds. I that pray we answer the call to do the good works God has intended for us as a way of life. Let nothing distract us or sidetrack us or divert us from the call to make goodness our trade, justice our vocation and God’s love our pattern of life.
I will end with a prayer from the Apostle Paul for that church in Ephesus, from Ephesians chapter 3, a prayer for you and I as well, again from The Inclusive Bible:
“I pray that God, out of the riches of divine glory, will strengthen you inwardly with power through the working of the Spirit. May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, so that you, being rooted and grounded in love, will be able to grasp fully the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love and, with all God’s holy ones, experience this love that surpasses all understanding, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. To God – whose power now at work in us can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine – to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, world without end! Amen.”
Good morning! I wanted to drop the transcript of my sermon from a few weeks ago here for you, if you’re curious. This is the transcript of the sermon, not an academic paper, so I’m not footnoting sources. If you are intrigued or think I got something messed up, please dig in and enjoy the exercise!
Third Sunday After Epiphany, January 22, 2017
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood Parish
Good evening. I come before you in the name of the God of Promises, the God of Plans and the God Who Works in events and times in ways we may or may see.
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
You know that prologue, don’t you? Yes, Shakespeare’s introduction to the death-marked love of Romeo and Juliet. Oh, there are and have been and will be love stories innumerable, but Shakespeare knew how to weave a good story, didn’t he? Their love is all the more tragic and memorable these hundreds of years later in part because of their families enduring, destructive hatred. Two households.
But why do I begin my sermon with a passage from Shakespeare? Yes, we as Episcopalians are part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, but there’s got to be better justification than just some English-centrism on my part… it’s because of that Gospel passage we read in Matthew 4. You might think I’m going to preach about fishing for people, but we’ll save that for another day. That’s the easy sermon; I want to talk about John’s imprisonment.
Let’s hear that passage again from Matthew 4…
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 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.”
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.
22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
When I saw this passage as the Gospel for today I immediately asked myself, “Who imprisoned John? It seems I recall it was Herod, but which Herod?” There are several Herods active in the New Testament times and stories, and I decided to dig in and be reminded who was this Herod who imprisoned John.
The first Herod we meet in the Gospels is Herod the Great. You remember him, he ordered the death of the innocent children of Bethlehem, recorded in Matthew 2, in response to his fear that a King had been born to rival his throne. Matthew is our only surviving account of this mass murder. The Jewish historian Josephus does not mention it, but he gives us enough of Herod the Great’s story to know that this is completely in line with his character and cruelty. His murders include, by Josephus’ account, three of his own sons, a mother-in-law and his second wife. Wow.
But it was in fact Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, who ruled a quarter of his late father’s kingdom, who imprisoned John the Baptizer in Matthew 4. We get more of that story in Matthew 14, the story of both John’s imprisonment and his death. You see John had publicly chastised Herod Antipas for taking Herodias, his brother’s wife, as his wife; that got John put in prison. But later when the daughter of Herodias, Herod’s new wife, so enchanted him with a seductive dance, he promised her any wish would be fulfilled. At her mother’s prompting she requested John’s head on a platter. Wow. By the way, it is also this Herod Antipas who participates in the trial of Jesus as recorded in Luke’s Gospel.
Shakespeare is not the only one who can tell a wild story. This is all in the background of our Gospel passage. I got more curious… the story of Jesus and the story of the Herods seem so intertwined and mingled. Where then did this Herod the Great and his son Antipas come from? So I dug some more. Herod the Great was of Idumean and Edomite descent. That makes him a local boy. His dynasty replaced a Hasmonean Dynasty, one with far more Greek in influence and flavor, with his own having a bit of local flavor. The Edomite people had mostly converted to Judaism during the Hasmonean reign.
Digging this deep got me thinking of a famous Edomite, Doeg. Do you recall his story in the chronicle of 1 Samuel? He was a sworn enemy of David, who would be King, into whose royal line Jesus would later be born. Doeg was such a thorn in David’s side that Psalm 52 is specifically written in response to Doeg’s deceit against him. This is Herod the Great’s family line through the Edomites. And now here is Jesus, and his cousin John, hunted by Herod the Great and later facing Herod Antipas in trials and imprisonment and death. The royal line of David and, the royal line of Herod. Maybe not exactly the same, but “Two households, both alike in dignity / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Cool, huh?
We seem to be caught in a larger story than just another day in Judea and Galilee. Herod Antipas had a son, Herod Agrippa, whose death is recorded in Acts 12. Herod Agrippa’s son, Agrippa II would be the last of the Herodian Dynasty.
The history and story of these two families has intrigued me, for sure. But what stands out for me as well is the other story… the story in the background on what God is doing. Back in our passage when these two family lines collide again and John is imprisoned, Jesus returns to Galilee and begins his ministry, teaching and calling those people to God. Matthew tells us that this move is in direct response to what had been said generations before by Isaiah, “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 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.”
Let’s read that reference from Isaiah 9…
“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.”
This is one of Matthew’s specialties… naming the many things written to foreshadow Christ. His Gospel is full of such references and connections.
I suppose that even while studying and tracing the family of Herod the Great for this sermon, I’m still no where near grasping all the intrigue. There are many rulers in that Herodian dynasty, male and female by the way, that we haven’t named and whose stories we don’t know or speak much of today. But this line of David, this other King, the Christ who is called Jesus, his story we know. His story we tell and tell and tell again. Because unlike so many of Shakespeare’s masterfully written works and plays, there’s Light at the end of this King’s story.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Shakespeare, and most often his tragedies are my favorites: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus. But when we return to real life, to the stage on which we make our play, I’m so glad that God is working. I’m so glad that God is making light to shine. I’m so glad that God makes promises and is faithful to see them happen.
May we not forget, in the face of any danger, threat or fear, whatever nations or families or powers rage, that we like Christ continue in the work to which God has called us, and we stand in the story of God. Amen.
I love Jesus Christ, and I have some pretty definite reasons why I love him, as a person, as a religious figure, as a image of God relating to humanity. Yes, I was raised as a Christian, but that’s not the reason I’m a Christian, today. I’m a follower of Jesus Christ because he:
1) doesn’t feel the need to judge me before loving and living life with me,
2) isn’t afraid to challenge me and move me forcibly from my apathy, and
3) invites me to live my life in a Way that has proven rich and worthy of my time and effort.
This is not a post about why my religion is betters than yours, why my faith is deeper than yours, or why you should consider being more like me in any way at all. I just had a deep need this week to talk about how much I love and respect the man, Jesus Christ. And I’m going to explain these three reasons by sharing some stories from his life and teachings.
He doesn’t feel the need to judge me before loving me! Man, that’s just how Jesus liked to roll when walking the dusty roads of earth! He didn’t need to start with condemnation. Has that been your experience in churches? Have preachers needed to condemn you and then try to change you? Sometimes we approach sharing Good News in a burn it down and rebuild it mindset toward people, but that’s not the Way of Jesus. I’m sorry if you’ve had that kind of experience in church, we just don’t always get things right as human beings. Check out Jesus silencing an angry crowd in John 8:1-11. He didn’t need to condemn someone caught in the act! Jesus in John 4:1-42 doesn’t need to condemn a person who has messed up marriages and even worships in a different religion than his. What? Yup. Now wrap all that up with some sermonizing from Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5. Judging: we don’t. We shouldn’t. And if we are, we’re doing our Christianity wrong. Jesus has a special way of drawing me to himself and to Christianity because he doesn’t need to start by condemning everyone else and shaming their experience and effort, or mine.
Yet, he isn’t afraid to challenge me! Not needing to judge me doesn’t mean that Jesus won’t transform me. Just like with the woman in John 8, Jesus tells me to get my act together and do better. Jesus did sometimes have some pretty scathing words for people, but have you noticed that they tended to be for the religious professionals, as in Matthew 23:1-36? That’s right, when Jesus did take people task, it was the religious leaders. Jesus does not like religion that depends on fakery, form over substance or that neglects the essential core of religion: justice, mercy and faith. As a pastor and a life-long theology student, I need to take this heart. Being non-judgmental does not mean being less concerned about doctrine and life or having fewer personal convictions. Jesus challenges and provokes and moves us with a message of intrinsic value and worth, belief in ourselves and what we can actually be in this world. We are made to be light and flavor for the world around us! He said that in Matthew 5:13-16, and he modeled it in his daily life and ministry. Flavoring the world and lighting the path for our neighbor is our purpose, and he isn’t shy about pointing out what a tragic loss it is for us to lose that sense of purpose.
Speaking of purpose, the Way of Jesus is my constant guide and meaning. I’m so glad to have the formation of Jesus in my life, to teach me my true worth and the worth of others, and then to send me into a life of action and support for this world, God’s beloved world. That’s Gospel; it’s the Good News. Jesus came into our lives to remind us of something. He’s reminding us that God has not left, finished the work in and with us, or ever given up hope that we would rise above self-destruction and change the world. Think for a moment on one of the ways that Jesus announced his work, “The kingdom of God is near,” as in Mark 1:9-15. A simple statement that says so much: 1) God is near, 2) the sovereignty of God is active, 3) we are invited to citizenship in God’s kingdom, and 4) hope is not limited to the reach and efficacy of human kingdoms. We have a calling, an identify, and a hope. Think about the way that Jesus famously summarized the Law and Prophets, or put religion in a nutshell in the famous passage of Matthew 22:34-40: “Love God, and love others as you love yourself.” Encapsulated in this brief summary is the love of God, the love people and the love of self. I have been guilty of often paraphrasing this teaching as two loves, love God and love others, but it’s really three. I am free, invited and needed to love myself as basis for empathically loving and caring for others. We are connected, bound up and whole in the love of God. The love of God is the foundation upon which we build life, and that love as the mortar between every stone and person. This is the Way of Jesus.
This morning, finishing up this blog post and trying to start my day with a big bottle of water (I tend not to hydrate enough), I’m recommitting myself to opportunities to live my daily prayer: let me love, let me learn, let me serve. All that I’ve learned of Jesus over the years can be expressed in these three values: love, growth and service. May the world be enriched for our time within it, and may God be made glad as we give ourselves to the Way of Jesus. May my actions and words support my own value, yours, and the worth of God’s beautiful world.
So Christmas week got a bit busy and I didn’t get a fourth blog out for the introduction to Jesus from Mark’s Gospel. I hope you all had a beautiful holiday with friends and family and I’m praying that you have an amazing new year! Today, I’d like to combine that missed week with the text we used this past Sunday at Church in Bethesda, because they are linked in a special way.
Mark doesn’t give us the dramatic birth narrative or any youthful Jesus at all. He begins with the prophetic voice of Isaiah and then the contemporary voice of John the Baptizer telling the people to pay attention, “The One is coming.” And the One who is coming is all about Good News.
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”– 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:1-8
Jesus is the awaited good news. Jesus is the intersection of the vast narrative of God with humanity in a special way, the fullest way, and he comes to us with Spirit. It’s a brief yet exciting introduction in my humble opinion.
And then the One arrives to be baptized by John and we finally have a bit of good narrative drama… the sky is torn wide open and that previously mentioned Spirit falls on Jesus as a dove and the voice of God proclaims, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-13
And so we meet Jesus, the very image and presence of God’s love and favor. In Mark’s Gospel we find the beginning of the story with Jesus rooted in the prophetic story of God and fueled by love and favor. God is pleased and announcing love. It must have been an amazing time for Jesus. I believe it was also formative for Jesus as love and favor become the core of his ministry and message.
Yesterday we turned back to Luke’s Gospel for a passage that is often described as the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry. We know from the Gospel accounts that he has already been traveling and preaching, but it’s a special time in Nazareth when he sits in the synagogue and again we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, which Jesus claims as his own. He truly is inaugurating something special…
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. Luke 4:14-22
God’s love and favor expressed at his baptism seems to become the core of what Jesus sees as his ministry, and he announces just that very favor in the synagogue of Nazareth. Again, there is the Spirit upon Jesus that now speaks through him to announce good news: favor for the poor, liberty for prisoners, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and a time of God’s favor. He sets his ministry firmly in the soil of God’s raging favor, rich love and grace for the least expecting, least powerful, most disenfranchised and often the least deserving.
He doesn’t announce a new reign of greater power for the powerful. He doesn’t promise greater glories for those in authority. He doesn’t come with reward for the faithful, but instead he offers hope to the hopeless and favor to those without merit. The weak and without power, the blind and captured ones, find sight and liberty. The guilty ones, the prisoners who have been captured in their own culpability, find freedom.
Jesus brings favor to those most needing it, not to those most deserving it. This is a fundamentally important aspect of his ministry and purpose that we must not lose. We must hold to the Jesus who brings God’s favor to all the unsuspecting and unexpected. This truly qualifies as good news.
So, what will your 2015 be like? Have you made plans? Have you laid out goals for the year? Do you understand that you are not trying to attain God’s favor, but you already have it? Have you breathed deep the love and favor of God to fill your lungs with vital life and readiness? Can you stop for a moment and imagine the sky torn asunder and the Spirit wrapping you in a warm embrace while God whispers, “I love you. You are amazing and I’m so happy you are mine.”
Go into the new year daring to stand in that embrace. Go into 2015 believing in the favor and the love of God. If you need to see, if you need to be freed, this is the what the favor does. If you struggle against a poverty of body, mind or soul, this is what the favor comes to help you with. Jesus is the image of favor offered, not favor earned. Claim it, for it is yours.
“You don’t have to change
for God to love you.”
Anthony de Mello SJ
Matthew 5:43-45, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
A lot of incivility comes from our habit of dividing ourselves one from another. Our ego demands it of us. Often our ego demands we read scripture in such a way that we see ourselves separate from others, and therefore better, more correct, more deserving, more “right.” We just seem to enjoy our “us” having a “them.” We want a bad guy to revile, and then we learn to enjoy the reviling.
Who doesn’t enjoy cursing an enemy? Who doesn’t hesitate to defame an enemy? Who doesn’t leap at an opportunity to discredit or even distort the words of those who distort, defame and accuse them? Answer: People trying to follow the teaching of Christ, it seems.
Jesus calls us to love the haters. Jesus calls us to pray for those who would hurt us. It seems like Jesus might not understand what an enemy is… or maybe Jesus simply doesn’t expect us to have enemies. Because that’s the ultimate extension of this teaching, that I do not view anyone as an enemy. Instead I treat all people with peace, dignity and respect… even love. Wow.
This is cycle-breaking stuff here, if we live it. This teaching breaks the cycle of incivility as those who defame and attack us are not faced with a reciprocating hatred and attack. In our systems of winning and dominating, this sounds like acquiescence and defeat. When we focus on conflict and retaliation this feels like losing. When we focus on peace, on love and integrating others into our prayers, it becomes liberty and victory.
There’s very little chance I will wake tomorrow in a world filled with people who all think like me and who all like me. But I can wake without enemies. I can face a world tomorrow that is filled with opportunities and relationships instead of arguments and verbal skirmishes at our points of dissimilarity.
Let’s meditate on walking today and waking tomorrow with fewer enemies, because we have brought them to our hearts in prayer and made a place for even the most vile acting and speaking of those who are not like us, and who do not like us. Can we at least begin to have fewer enemies if not none? Are we ready to pray some truly difficult prayers, for the blessing of our enemies?
Matthew 15:10 & 11, “Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into your mouth does not defile you, but what comes out of your mouth, that is what defiles you.'”
Quick definition: Civility “polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior”
Let’s begin by stating the obvious: Civility is a term that we don’t find in our scriptures, though it is a good old term. This month-long exercise is not about forcefully inserting civility into the scriptural narrative, and thereby “hijacking” scripture to teach something it doesn’t want or intend to teach. Instead we are going to dig into the teachings of scripture to illuminate the role and action of civility in our daily lives.
My belief is that civility (“polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior”) should flow very naturally from the mouth and life of someone acquainted with our scriptures. Christians, in their imitation of Christ and following the teachings of both the Old and New Testaments, should always be incredibly civil in daily discussions, when interacting with diverse neighbors and even when disagreeing. But we know that’s not always the case. Christians are often some of the most shrill and uncivil voices in our religious, political and social discussions and debates. (In October of 2009 I blogged about my embarrassment that Christians with bullhorns rudely disrupted many of our Muslim neighbors praying for our nation at the National Mall in DC.)
I’ve also heard and seen Christians act and speak with abrasive incivility and then rationalize and justify their words and actions upon religious arguments. They will judge, condemn and ridicule others, or one another, and then say something like, “I’m just following the Bible” or “It’s just what my faith demands of me.”
I believe that Christ and our scriptures show a better, immensely better, way. And so we begin with Jesus confronting those who devalued others (specifically their own parents) and rationalized it away with religious reasoning. In Matthew 15 some religious leaders questioned Jesus about his followers not being very correct in their observation of ritual purity, and he turns the question back on them in a deeper way, asking why they observe religion in a way that neglects the needs of their elderly parents. In the context of our verses in Matthew 15 Jesus is pointing out that people are more important than rules and regulations, even the best rules handed down by tradition and seeming so religious and right. The needs of the neglected parents matter more to God than legalistic excellence in the children. Jesus quotes Isaiah to say that their mouths and lips seem to be praising God and doing the right things, but it’s all wrong because their hearts are misplaced, moved far from God. I believe the teachings of our Christ and of our scriptures consistently show that religious practice and God’s heart are inextricably intertwined with the way we are called to treat others.
The passage is also a strong lesson that I am much more responsible and identified, not by what I might hear or see, but by what I might say and show. And this is where I must start with civility in my own life: within myself. My being civil is not dependent on someone else, but it’s a responsibility and an attribute of my own life, my own heart, my own words and actions. I hope that as we explore scripture in November we’ll be mutually encouraged and taught in deeper ways how the teachings of our Lord and our sacred texts lead us life-affirming, God-honoring and neighbor-serving civility.