The Ten Commandments of Jesus: 7. Go the Extra Mile

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-42

You may have heard that last week Donald Trump and the Pope got into a little tiff.  That sounds like it should be the start of a joke, but it isn’t.  Real life, ladies and gentlemen.

It started when Trump called Pope Francis “a pawn of the Mexican government” during an interview, for the Pope’s stance on immigration.  Later, when a reporter asked Pope Francis what he thought of Trump and his plans to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, Francis responded, “A person who thinks only about building walls…and not about building bridges, is not Christian.”[1]  Trump responded, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.”  Also he repeated the bit about being a pawn.

As one reporter put it, it was a “classic case of ‘that escalated quickly.’”[2]  Trump says they have since made up.

My intention is not to go down a Donald Trump rabbit trail here.  I’m bringing this up because it led to an interesting conversation on social media, in which someone I know spoke of the difference between “being a Christian” and “being Christian.”

Anyone, he said, can be “a Christian.”  That is to say, anyone can call themselves by that name, perhaps go to church, perhaps pray or read the Bible, but that’s a wholly different thing than actually “being Christian,” as in, being like Christ.  In Metho-speak we might say this has something to do with the difference between justification and sanctification, where justification is the beginning of the life of faith, saying yes to God and starting over, and sanctification is the work of the whole rest of the life of faith, in which we gradually become more Christlike as we avail ourselves of God’s grace.  Most of us here, though perhaps not all of us, would say we are Christians (noun.)  Most of us also probably still have some for improvement when it comes to actually following Christ.

I agree with Donald Trump, actually, that it does no real good to question another person’s faith.  I also agree with Pope Francis that the policies we support, among many other things, can make us more or less Christian.

It was a conversation that seemed relevant to this series on the Ten Commandments of Jesus, which is about how to live as Jesus taught us to live.  Or in other words, it’s about how to be Christian.  Not just a Christian, but Christian.

Today we are back to the Sermon on the Mount as we learn a little bit more about what it means to be Christian, and again today, it’s a pretty difficult commandment, or actually set of commandments: When someone hits you, turn the other cheek.  If they try to take your coat, give them your shirt, too.  If they make you walk one mile, walk two.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and lend to everyone who wants to borrow something.

What are we, crazy?

Maybe.  Or maybe you’d prefer a different word.  The one Dietrich Bonhoeffer uses—by the way, there’s another religious leader who dabbled in politics, as part of the German resistance to Hitler—is “extraordinary.”

“How then,” he asks, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “do the disciples differ from the heathen?  What does it really mean to be a Christian? … What make the Christian different from other men is the peculiar, the perisson [in Greek], the extraordinary, the unusual, that which is not a matter of course.”  He decries the “false Protestant ethic” which “diluted Christian love into patriotism, loyalty to friends, and industriousness.”  “Not in such terms as these does Jesus speak,” Bonhoeffer wrote.  “For him, the hallmark of the Christian is the extraordinary.”[3]

Forgiving people who don’t deserve to be forgiven.  Loving your enemies.  Giving people more than they try to take from you.  Things that don’t make sense—unless you are trying to follow Jesus.

Since today’s commandment is actually a lot of commandments in one, let’s look at them one by one.

You have heard it 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.

A lot of us have probably read this passage and thought, wow!  Old Testament law is so vengeful!  Not true.  This passage from Exodus (21:24) doesn’t mean if someone pokes out your eye, you’re required to poke out theirs.  It means you’re required to not poke out both their eyes.  The original Jewish law was a way to limit retaliation to what was proportional.

But Jesus does say there’s a better way, and that is to forgo retaliation at all.  Even if you would be in the right.  And in fact, he says, don’t just forgo retaliation, but turn the other cheek—not just as a sign of ignoring them, but so they can hit you again.

This isn’t a hypothetical situation in Jesus’ day, not only because people are people in any time and place and sometimes we do bad things to each other, but also because the Jewish people are living under the oppressive rule of the Romans, so there are Romans around to put them in their place literally all the time.  Maybe Jesus knew that retaliation was futile.  Maybe he loved the Roman soldiers as much as his own people.  In any case, getting yourself hit twice was apparently preferable to hitting back.

If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.

Again, if somebody tries to take something from you, give them more than they asked for.  If people in our presumably Christian country took this one to heart, we might not have such a culture of litigation.

In Luke’s version of this teaching, the bad guy is robbing you, not suing you.  I’m reminded of a story I heard from one of the Peace Corps volunteers I met during the summer I spent in the country of Lesotho.  In Lesotho, by the way, you address all older men as “Ntate,” or father, and all older women as “Mme,” or mother.  While this volunteer was out one day in the capital, some guy pickpocketed her cell phone.  She realized it just in time to run after him shouting, “Ntate!  You forgot the charger!”

I’m not sure I would have done the same.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

Remember, we’re under Roman rule here, and sometimes, if a Roman soldier saw an unsuspecting Jew just standing around, he could force him to carry his equipment.  Can you think of one famous example of someone being made to carry Roman military equipment?  (Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross.)

It’s funny how, just like “turn the other cheek” has come to mean something like, “take the high road and ignore it,” “go the extra mile” has come to mean “do a really, really good job.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have hated this characterization of the Christian as an impressive person who meets and exceeds society’s expectations.  To “go the extra mile,” in context here, means to willingly submit to twice as much forced labor as you had to.

Here Jesus shifts gears slightly, because the last two parts of this commandment, Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you, aren’t quite about oppression or retaliation.  It’s not just about the Romans who are in power over you; it’s also about the people you have social and economic power over.  And yet they’re not easier: my mantra is something more along the lines of “Try not to say no to everyone who begs from you.”  These are about giving even to excess, though; even when perhaps you’re being taken advantage of.   If someone wants something from you, give them more.

There is a lot about these teachings that we might call questionable.  Is Jesus telling abused people to submit to more abuse?  I really struggle with that one.   Would I really counsel someone not to even act in self-defense in a dangerous situation?  As a woman, especially, I take issue with that.  And I do actually tend to believe that healthy boundaries in life are a good thing, and I don’t even know what to do with that.  Maybe some of what Jesus says here is for rhetorical effect and there is some nuance in how he expects us to apply these things to real life, but I’m not sure what that looks like.  Is walking away without a fight as good as letting someone hit you again?

I will say that we do have a few options for how to interpret these teachings.

The first option is that this isn’t about coming back for more abuse at all.  Instead, Jesus is talking about acts of nonviolent resistance.  Note that Matthew specifies, if someone strikes you on the right cheek.  Assuming most people hit with their right hand, which I think we can safely assume back in the day, to strike someone on the right cheek would be a backhanded hit.  It’s an insult, not outright violence.  But if you turn your other cheek, you’re saying, “Go ahead.  Hit me for real.”  The aggressor is put in an awkward place.  Is he really going to hurt you, or not?  Luke, for what it’s worth, doesn’t specify cheeks.

And if someone sues you for your coat, and right there in the courtroom you undress and also hand them the garment under your coat, what does that make you?  Naked.  What was meant as a show of power suddenly leaves everyone feeling exposed—you, because you are, and them, for what they are doing to you.

And if you insist on going the extra mile carrying some soldier’s heavy bags, what, again, was a show of power perhaps becomes a situation where you are actually weak and stumbling along in a way that makes the soldier in question look not just powerful but outright cruel, if anyone cared, which I’m not sure if they did.

Bonhoeffer says, “Violence stands condemned by its failure to evoke counter-violence.”[4]

I like this idea.  I can really get behind the bus-riding, salt-marching, lunch-counter-sitting, glitter-bombing Jesus of active nonviolent resistance.  It makes the whole passage much more palatable.

But not everyone agrees that’s what Jesus is doing here.  And to be honest I’m not sure that the parts about lending and giving fit that reading in the same way.  You don’t need a strategy of resistance when someone asks you for money.  You either give them some, or you politely say no.

So if the passage isn’t actually about a strategy of resistance, maybe there is actually something about the Kingdom of God that requires us to bear aggression without retaliation.  Maybe, to quote Bonhoeffer again, “The followers of Jesus for his sake renounce every personal right.”[5]

I don’t really fear the aggression of Roman soldiers—again, one of the privileges that comes along with being white in America.  But one thing I do fear is being taken advantage of.

The other day I was walking back to Rosslyn from a meeting in Clarendon, and somewhere in the Courthouse area, a guy wearing a blanket and carrying a suitcase stopped me and asked if I could help him get something to eat.  I had a dollar in my pocket, but I tend to think it’s a good thing to just buy someone something to eat if I can, and we were right outside a café, so I said OK, and we went in.  Now, I am admittedly one of the cheaper people I know, and I was slightly dismayed at the price of a sandwich in this café when we got inside and looked at the menu board.  But then the worst part was that he asked if he could get a smoothie too.  As I paid for this guy’s almost-$15-dollar lunch, I really began to question my decision to not just give him that dollar bill.

I really have no reason to believe that this guy was taking advantage of me.  I’m sure he was hungry.  I tend to believe that people don’t generally just hang out outside cafes asking people to buy them something to eat if they couldn’t somehow use a free meal.  But it felt like this guy was taking advantage of me.  And I was mad at myself as I walked home, simultaneously for letting myself be taken advantage of and for being so cheap that I begrudged a $15 meal to someone in need.

But the question I think Jesus would ask of me is, should it matter?  Should it actually matter whether this guy hadn’t eaten in two days or was somehow taking me for a ride?  Or, as he began to rack up the bill I had agreed to pay, shouldn’t I have said, “How about dessert?”

I’m not sure I can say this from experience, but something inside me says that life could be about so much more than what I owe and am owed.

And maybe that’s why Jesus’ teachings in this passage are about a kind of resistance, whether or not it’s the political kind.

By giving more than someone tries to take, by offering the second cheek when they strike the first, by going two miles when they thought they were forcing me to go one, maybe I claim back a kind of power and dignity.  I am no longer the oppressed, the humiliated, the taken-advantage-of, I am someone who gives, freely.  Who helps, willingly.  Who chooses, in the strength that God gives, not to ever hit back.

This passage is not about being willingly victimized, because in these situations, I am not a victim.

There is freedom in declaring, “I’m a child of God, and no matter what you do, you can’t take that away from me.”

It’s still uncomfortable.  It still unsettles me.  I still am not sure I know what to do with this part of becoming Christian.

But I kind of like it, anyway.

 

 

 

 

[1] The best transcript I could find of the conversation comes from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/02/20/what-pope-francis-really-said-about-trump-not-being-christian.html

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/donald-trump/12163935/Donald-Trump-v-Pope-Francis-Trump-wins.html

[3] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 152-153

[4] The Cost of Discipleship, p. 142

[5] Cost, p. 140

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The Ten Commandments of Jesus: 6. Forgive Others

Scripture: Matthew 18:15-22

One of the great certainties of life, besides death and taxes, is that people will disappoint us.

I know when I put it like that it sounds hugely pessimistic and cynical, like a statement that would get a big old red flag if I wrote it on one of my psychological assessments for ministry.

But I don’t mean to be cynical or pessimistic: it’s just the reality of life lived together.  People make promises and break them; they say and do things that are hurtful; they get wrapped up in themselves and forget to think about others.  In life, many of our greatest blessings are other people, and yet inevitably, people will let us down.  Of course, we will let them down too.

When we started this series in January, the first commandment I talked about was Seek Forgiveness.  Today we come back to the flip side of that commandment: Forgive Others.

Everyone knows, whether they go to church or not, that if you are someone who is trying to follow Jesus and live in the way that Jesus taught, forgiveness is part of the deal.  And yet it can be one of those things that sounds like such a good idea in general, and such a bad idea in particular.  Like a good rule to live by overall, and yet impossible to apply in certain situations.

A friend of a friend of mine had been estranged from a family member for a long time over a disagreement they had had.  My friend at one point said to this person, “You’re a churchgoing person, aren’t you?  What about forgiveness?  Doesn’t Christ say to forgive?”

Their friend responded, “Well, that’s where I think Christ was wrong.”

We’ve probably all been there at one time or another.

But Christ wasn’t wrong about this one, I don’t think.  It’s just, like a lot of things, easier said than done.

Unlike a lot of the other commandments in this series, this one doesn’t come from the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus isn’t preaching to a big group of people here.  Instead, later in the gospel, he’s teaching his disciples.  It starts when they ask him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” and he tells them to become like children.  And then he continues, some stuff about avoiding temptation, and he tells the parable of the lost sheep, and then, what to do if another member of the church sins against you.

If a commandment of forgiveness ever seemed overly idealistic, this passage should make us stop and think again, because Jesus, who is no stranger to being disappointed by people, is a realist.  He assumes that if you live life in a community of faith, just like in any other community, people are going to hurt you.  And he gives a kind of script for what to do when they do: first, go and talk to them frankly, one on one.  (In other words, don’t start by going around telling everyone else what a jerk they are.)  If that doesn’t work, bring a witness or two, so they can corroborate what’s happening.  And if that still doesn’t work, then maybe that person can’t be part of the community anymore at the moment.  In that case, Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Of course, we know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors: he welcomed them, and went to their parties, and showed them grace.

But for anyone who thinks Jesus is starting to seem too realistic, now, Peter pipes up.  Peter knows that even if someone says they’re very sorry, sometimes forgiveness just doesn’t seem like a good idea.  Sometimes too much forgiveness just starts to feel like being a sucker.  Sometimes a person just hurts you too badly, or too much.  This is where Peter thinks Christ might be wrong about the whole forgiveness thing.  So he asks: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  And Jesus famously responds, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  Or, depending on your translation, seventy times seven times.

It’s a familiar passage, but it should knock the wind out of us a little, because either way, that’s a lot of times, and either way, Jesus is telling us that sometimes, we’re supposed to forgive people even when it seems like a terrible idea.  And by the way, if you think you’re off the hook because Peter is only asking about other members of the Christian community here, remember that Jesus also showed grace to the Gentiles and tax collectors, and it’s pretty likely he expected his followers to as well.  The Christian community is one community in which people will inevitably hurt us, but it is far from the only one.

Let’s face it: sometimes, in context, forgiveness does just seem like a terrible idea.  At times it might even be downright offensive.

Sometime last spring or summer I read about a woman named Eva Kor, a German Jew who is a survivor of Auschwitz.   Most of her family was killed there.  Eva herself was used as a subject in “brutal” medical experiments, and she too almost died.  She described Auschwitz as “hell on earth.”

Last year, Eva Kor returned to Germany to testify at the trial of 93-year-old Oskar Groening, a former Auschwitz guard who was subsequently charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.  After testifying, Eva Kor went to talk to Oskar Groening, to thank him for owning up to his crimes.  She said she forgave him.[1]

Not everyone thought that this was a wonderful thing, and you can understand why.  Other people, including other Holocaust survivors, did not think this was a man who deserved forgiveness.  They did not think she had the right to personally forgive a crime committed against so many.  And I imagine they thought that to say this evil was something that could be forgiven was not to take it seriously for the evil it was.

One can see their point.  And yet, for this one woman, forgiveness, somehow, was possible.

Sometimes, it seems, trying to be like Jesus will mean doing things that are offensive—sometimes most of all to ourselves.

And yet as offensive as they may be from some perspectives, it’s also stories like these that inspire us, that help us to believe the best about humanity.  Who can forget when a gunman burst into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in 2006, shot eight students ages 13 and under, and killed five of them?  And who could forget just last summer when white supremacist Dylann Roof sat in on a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and shot and killed nine members of that church?  In both cases, through their pain, the community expressed forgiveness.  And we watched, and we wondered how it was possible, and in the midst of all the world’s brokenness, our faith was a little bit restored.  At least mine was.

It was stories of forgiveness that first drew me in the direction of ministry, as I’ve told you before: it was reading Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness, about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid, in a freshman college class that made me want to do the same kinds of good things in the world that he did.

But it made me want to do something more than that, too.  It made me want to forgive.

The stories I read in that book were horrible stories, like some of the ones I’ve already mentioned.  They were stories of cold-blooded killings of black activists by whites in power, stories of people who disappeared, children who were murdered, stories of people burning human flesh while they drank beer and had a barbecue on the side.  All in the name of preserving the power of the ruling white minority.  And they were the stories of the people who forgave them, in exchange for simply hearing the truth.

As a white person living in America, nothing like any of those stories has ever happened to me.  In fact, the most I felt like I had to forgive in my life up to that point was a high school boyfriend who had been kind of a jerk.  But I read this book and I wanted to forgive him, along with all the other mundane sins people had committed against me in my life.  I wanted to, because this book made me believe that forgiveness wasn’t just possible, it was the only way to live.

It was a point that No Future Without Forgiveness made even in its title—for South Africa, this was the only way forward.  It wouldn’t do to pretend the past had never happened and just move on.  It wouldn’t help to seek retribution against everyone complicit in apartheid in a way that might only perpetuate racial conflict.  The past had to be faced, and forgiven.  And the same was true for individuals—for the sake of the future, the past had to be not swept under the rug, not clung to bitterly, but faced, and forgiven.

After the trial of her Auschwitz guard, Eva Kor said: “My forgiveness is my act of self-healing, self-liberation, and self-empowerment.”

I’ve also heard it said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

As much as I love this idea, as much as it inspired me in college, it is something I struggled with as I prepared for this sermon, and I wondered what Jesus would say.  Would Jesus agree that forgiveness is fundamentally about me, the person who forgives?  Is it an act I do on behalf of myself and my emotional health?  Or is it an act that I do on behalf of others, because Jesus simply calls us to that high of a standard?

I don’t know, honestly, but I suspect that it’s both.  I suspect that Jesus wants us to forgive people because a life of resentment and bitterness is no life at all, and because forgiveness frees us for the abundant life God wants for us.  And I also suspect that Jesus wants us to forgive people over and over again because it’s the only way to live for all of us, together, in an economy of grace.  Sometimes we will need forgiveness, and sometimes we will have to give it, and it’s probably no good to try to keep track.   And as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer each week, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  You can’t have one without the other, because then the whole economy falls apart.  And if God has shown us mercy, who are we to withhold mercy from others?

But even if we want to forgive, there’s still the question of how.  What does forgiveness mean, really?  What does it look like?  Does it mean going back for more of the same hurt, seventy times seven times?  Does it mean the full restoration of a relationship?  Or does it simply mean setting ourselves free?

Maybe the answers depend a lot on who, and what, and when, and have a lot more to do with prayerful discernment than rote answers.  Forgiveness, for example, may mean reconciliation with a family member who deeply hurt you, but it doesn’t mean submitting to ongoing abuse. The person who hurt you may be deeply sorry, or may not be sorry at all, and forgiveness might look different in those situations.  The person you forgive may still be in your life, or they may not be, and the right thing might be to let them know, if you even can, and the right thing might be to write a letter you never send.  Forgiveness is complicated.  And Jesus is a realist, so he knows that.

I do love this image of forgiveness from the novel The Shack.  This is the story of a man named Mack whose daughter Missy is abducted and killed on a family camping trip.  Mack eventually returns to the spot where Missy was killed, and there he encounters God as the three persons of the Trinity.  Toward the end of his journey, Mack is having a deep conversation with God the Father, whom he calls Papa, and Papa makes it clear that the final part of Mack’s journey is to forgive the man who killed his daughter.

“Papa,” says Mack, “how can I ever forgive that SOB who killed my Missy?  If he were here today, I don’t know what I would do.  I know it isn’t right, but I would want to hurt him like he hurt me.  If I can’t get justice, I want revenge.”

“Mack,” says Papa, “for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him.”

“Redeem him?” Mack says.  “I don’t want you to redeem him!  I want you to hurt him, to punish him, to put him in hell.  I’m stuck, Papa.  I just can’t forget what he did, can I?”

“Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack.  It is about letting go of another person’s throat.”

“Help me, Papa, what do I do?  How do I forgive him?”

“Tell him,” says Papa.”

“How?”

“Just say it out loud.  There is power in what my children declare.”

So Mack tries.  He says it out loud: I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you.  Then he asks: “Is it all right if I’m still angry?”

Papa says, “Absolutely. … But don’t let the anger and pain and loss you feel prevent you from forgiving him and removing your hands from around his neck.  Son, you may have to declare your forgiveness a hundred times the first day and the second day, but the third day will be less and each day after, until one day you realize that you have forgiven completely.”[2]

It occurs to me that when Jesus tells Peter to forgive someone seventy-seven times—sometimes that’s just for one thing.  Seventy-seven days of saying it out loud trying to mean it: I forgive you.  Seventy-seven times of letting it go, and taking it back, and letting it go again.  Seventy-seven times, until you stop keeping track and keep letting go for as long as it takes.

And maybe, when forgiveness won’t come, we rely on the same grace we’ve come to count on for forgiveness.  Someone pointed out to me recently that when Jesus was on the cross, he didn’t say, “I forgive you, for you know not what you do.”  He said, “Father, forgive them.”  When we can’t even utter those words, “I forgive you,” maybe instead we can say, “God, I release this person to you.”

And our hands loosen, just a little bit, from around their neck, and a part of us comes free.

[1] http://www.npr.org/2015/05/24/409286734/its-for-you-to-know-that-you-forgive-says-holocaust-survivor

[2] Wm. Paul Young, The Shack, p. 224-227

The Ten Commandments of Jesus: 5. Don’t Judge

Scripture: Matthew 7:1-5

If you were here this week for our Ash Wednesday service you heard me talk a little bit about the six months or so I spent as a substitute teacher after I graduated from seminary.  I learned a lot during those six months, and I even mostly enjoyed it, especially compared to working as a cashier at Staples, which I had tried just before.  As I gained some experience I got to live into this teacher persona a little, and I even picked up some teacherly sayings along the way, or at least what I imagined to be teacherly sayings.  Most notably: “Worry about yourself.”

“Ms. R,” a first grader would say to me, “so-and-so was talking when you told everyone to be quiet!”  “Worry about yourself,” I would say.  “Ms. R!” another kid would say.  “So-and-so cut in line.”  “I don’t care,” I would say, “worry about yourself.”

I’m not even entirely sure where I got this saying from, to be honest.  I admit that it had a lot less to do with any sort of coherent child behavioral philosophy than it did with the fact that I didn’t want to deal with it, especially considering all I had to do was make it through the day with all the children intact.  But after those months were over those words somehow still stuck with me as some actually pretty decent life advice.

Was I catching myself getting sucked in by some headline about the latest thing Bristol Palin had gotten herself into?  Worry about yourself, Allie, I would say.

Or was I catching myself getting a little self-righteous about people who do this whole church thing in a way I think is theologically inferior to mine?  Worry about yourself, Allie.

Today’s commandment to judge not, is, as far as I’m concerned, Jesus’ way of telling us to worry about yourself.

This is one of those commandments of Jesus that actually makes good social sense, unlike perhaps loving your enemy or giving someone your shirt when they try to take your coat.  Nobody wants to feel judged, and nobody wants to think of themselves as judgmental.  This isn’t just how to be a good Christian, it’s how to not be an insufferable person.

Once when I was in high school I was complaining to a friend about these kids we called Troupies.  The name came from the fact that most of them were part of Shakespeare Troupe, this group that put on Shakespeare plays a couple times a year, but that wasn’t my problem.  These were the weird kids at my school, the goths, the overly artsy types, the girls who didn’t shave their legs, the guys who wore capes.  They were probably the people who Jesus would have hung out with, though I wouldn’t have realized that then.  I did know some of the individual people in Troupe and they were fine, even nice.  But when they were together in a big group, where they often hung out in the auditorium lobby, they gave me a bad feeling.  That’s what I was telling my friend that day, assuming she would agree.

Instead she said, “You’re so judgmental.”

I remember practically sputtering back a response as I grasped for something to say in my own self-defense, and so I sputtered, “I just don’t like what they stand for!”

What did they “stand for”?  I don’t know.  My friend was right, of course.  But I didn’t want her to be.  What I wanted was to reserve the right to judge other people for no real reason without anyone thinking less of me for it.  Maybe even thinking I was cooler for it.  I wasn’t even that popular in high school.

Anyway, it didn’t work that way.

I’d like to say I’ve gotten better since then—I’m sure most of us would like to imagine we’ve grown as people since high school—and really, I hope I have.  I think that I would not judge people so harshly today based on those same characteristics.  But of course I still judge people.  We all do.  All the time.

We judge each other based on appearance—if someone is too fat, or too thin, or too well-dressed, or not well-dressed enough.  We judge based on race and gender and sexual orientation.  We judge each other based on political affiliation: you must be either ignorant and naive or outright malicious if you’re not voting for the same person as I am.  We judge each other based on social class and economic situation: “Get a job!”  We judge each other based on things we’ve heard, or on sometimes-faulty first impressions.

We judge people based on things they do, like leave their shopping cart in the parking space at Target when the cart return was only 20 feet away, or don’t do, like use their turn signal, or put the toilet seat down.

We judge their basic goodness as a person, their work ethic, their worthiness of help, their worthiness of respect, their relationship with God, maybe even their salvation.

Once I even heard another pastor preach on this passage—judge not—and later at coffee hour someone came up to me and said, “I know some people who really need to hear that sermon.”

To all of it Jesus says: “Worry about yourself.”  Are you living your life in a way that is faithful as you understand it?  Are you being a good neighbor?  Is your spiritual house in order?  Is the log out of your own eye?

Of course, there are times we have to judge, as in, there are times when we have to use our judgment.  We have to make the best decisions we can about whose company to keep, who to vote for, what policies to support, how to spend or give away our money, how to order our lives in a way that we trust is acceptable to God.  We choose between right and wrong and better and worse and all sorts of shades of gray.  Jesus isn’t espousing moral relativism here.  It’s not just “Do whatever you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone.”  At the same time, the person I should really be judging most strictly by my own criteria is myself.

There may even be times in our lives when we need to call other people out for their actions, and hold them accountable.  Matthew, Paul, and Jesus all acknowledge that.  In a passage we’ll come back to next week from later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches Peter what to do if someone in the Christian community wrongs someone else.  After some due process, it might be that they can’t be part of the community anymore.  Paul deals with that a lot in unruly communities such as Corinth.  If people aren’t living up to the basic tenets of Christian life in a way that’s damaging the community, someone’s got to tell them to knock it off.

But this passage, today’s passage, does at least demand that we place some pretty strict limits on our judgment of others.

For one thing, we might ask ourselves, does my judgment in this matter make the world a better place?  Does it make even a little bit of positive difference if I make some comment about the Kardashians being trashy, or does it just make me feel better about myself?  Does it help anyone in any way if I comment disparagingly on someone’s weight, even if I follow it up with “I’m just concerned about their health?”

In today’s passage, Jesus isn’t even addressing our self-righteous judgment of strangers.  He talks about the speck in your neighbor’s eye.  In the Greek it’s not even neighbor but “brother.”  He assumes community.  If you don’t have a relationship with the person you are tempted to judge, it’s not even worth talking about.  Those other passages from Matthew and Paul about holding people accountable all assume that real accountability takes place within a loving community.

Second, obviously, don’t be a hypocrite.  If there’s one thing Jesus can’t stand it’s hypocrites, especially the religious variety.  Don’t be so busy analyzing that speck in your neighbor’s eye when your own eye isn’t even clear.  Make sure you are able to see clearly.

So what if you can?  What if you are absolutely sure that you are not guilty of the sin you see in another person?  Well, if that is a particular log you’ve already worked hard to remove from your own eye, maybe you are in a good place to address the speck in your neighbor’s with love and humility.

On the other hand, probably none of our eyes are speck-less, and our energy is still probably better spent worrying about ourselves.  And if the time does come to hold someone accountable and speak the truth in love, we’d better be open to having the truth spoken right back to us.  How clearly can any of us really claim to see?

Acknowledging that our vision of others is always somewhat less than 20-20, I think what Jesus demands of us is to be open to the possibilities of other people’s stories.

I’ve told this story once before, but I’ll mention it again: It’s easy to pass panhandlers on the street and think, they’re just going to buy booze.  That’s a judgment right away that isn’t necessarily helpful, or fair, because it isn’t necessarily true.  But sometimes it is true, and when you know someone personally, sometimes you have a better idea of whether or not that is true for them.

But I’ll never forget the conversation I had with one of the homeless guys who used to hang around here sometimes, who told me, “I drink because I’m afraid to fall asleep on the street otherwise.”

Well dang.  Maybe I’d get drunk every night, too, if I were him.  And whether or not I would choose to give him money for that purpose, I could not hold that against him.

I once heard the saying, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love if only you knew their story.”

A colleague of mine once told a powerful story along those lines.  It was Christmas Eve, and a family he knew from the community showed up at their Christmas Eve service, a mother and three children.  The three children yelled and shrieked and ran around in the aisles. The next morning, Christmas Day, they were back.  There were cookies after the service and the children ate all of them before anyone else even had a chance.

Naturally someone was going to complain, and one guy did.  He grumbled about how these people were acting in church and how could the mother let her kids just run wild like that.

The pastor, my colleague, replied, “Did you know that her husband just left them?”

The guy got quiet and said, “No, I didn’t know that.”

“He left her for her maid of honor,” the pastor told him.  “He cleaned out the apartment and left them with nothing.  Do you know what her Christmas gift was to those kids this year?  One hour of heat.  Do you know when that one hour was?”

The man said, “I guess it was during this service.”

“And,” the pastor continued, “can you guess what their Christmas dinner was?”

The man said, “Cookies?”

This story actually has a happy ending, because once this man understood what had happened, it changed everything.  He paid to have their heat turned back on.  His wife cooked them a big turkey dinner.  He dressed up as Santa and brought the kids presents.

Sometimes we don’t always get to hear the full story.  Sometimes we’re just left with our assumptions.  But I do feel like we’d all be a lot better about judging each other if we could just say something like, “I’m sure there’s a story here, and if only I knew it, maybe I would understand.  I don’t have to know the story—I’m just going to believe there is one.

Not judging others, according to Jesus, isn’t just a social good.  It’s not just how to be a palatable human being.  Instead, judgment of others is what one commentary calls a “spiritual disease.”  As Thomas a Kempis wrote in his great spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, “As a man is within, so he judges what is without.”

Maybe when we find judgment of others bubbling up in ourselves, it’s really a chance to ask ourselves a question: What is bringing this up for me?  Maybe, for example, my reaction to the Troupies in my high school had less to do with “what they stood for” and a lot more to do with my own fears about fitting in and wanting to be socially superior to someone.  Maybe I judge other people as unworthy so that I can convince myself that I, somehow, am “worthy.”

But if I’m confident in my identity as a child of God, created in God’s image, loved and forgiven, maybe there’s not so much reason to worry about everyone else, except to see that they are also loved and cared for in the same way I am.

It’s kind of scary to hear Jesus say “With the judgment you make you will be judged”—or at least, it should be. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t bode well for me.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I trust God to be more loving and merciful than I am.

But that’s just it, right?  If God judges me mercifully, who am I to judge others harshly?  If only God sees me clearly and truly knows my story, who am I to assume I know others’?  If God holds me accountable in love—real, genuine love—who am I to approach others with self-righteousness?

I’m a sinner, and my vision is pretty cloudy.  And I am relying on grace, just like everybody else.

Judge not, says Jesus, lest you be judged.

I know some people who really need to hear that sermon.

One of them is me.

Ash Wednesday: Nothing to Hide

Scripture: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

After I graduated from seminary and before I became a pastor, I worked for about six months as a substitute teacher in Fairfax County.  I learned a lot in those months, from the middle school biology I had long ago forgotten to the songs of High School Musical to the fact that for me, no call was more to be dreaded than the call to teach second grade.  But the most valuable thing I learned is what I call the art of completely winging it.

I was in a different class almost every day, teaching anyone from pre-K kids to high school seniors.  I taught special ed, ESL, beginning orchestra, geometry, and IB Higher Level Business.  I taught in schools at the rich end of the county and schools at the poorer end of the county.  Every day I would get in early, check the plan the teacher had left for me, which might have been anywhere from two lines or four pages, wait for the kids to show up, and try my best to prove to them that I was in charge and I knew what I was doing.  Of course, I didn’t know what I was doing.  Every day I was completely, utterly winging it.

I didn’t know at the time how valuable that experience would be, until I did start my first job as a pastor and realized that winging it was still what I was doing most of the time.  A couple calls to make an appointment for pre-marital counseling?  That is a thing that I can do!  Another pastor faints at the end of a funeral and I get to lead a spontaneous graveside service?  No problem! Totally got it!

It’s been six years and two churches, now, and I know how to do a lot of those things, and even so, a lot of days, it still feels like I’m winging it.  I’m winging it at church and I’m winging it at being an adult and all I want to do is prove to everyone else that I know what the hell I’m doing.  But a lot of times, I don’t.

The difference now is that I no longer believe I’m alone in that.

I believe most of us spend our lives trying to prove ourselves.  We try to prove to everyone else who might be watching that we are good at what we do, that we are good at our jobs, that we are good partners, good parents, good citizens; that we have it all together and we know what the hell we’re doing.  And our greatest fear, sometimes, is that someone might find us out.

Even Matthew, in this traditional Ash Wednesday reading we heard, talks about people who are trying to prove how good they are at religion.  That guy must really know what he’s doing, praying out loud on the street corner and giving all that money away!  That guy who fasts all the time must really have it all spiritually together!  He and God must be super close!  Matthew’s hypocrites, I suspect, are as afraid as the rest of us.

We want to prove to ourselves and the world that we have some sort of eternal worth, and so we try to make ourselves immortal, through our children, or our work, or our art.  We want to have mattered, and we want desperately to believe we do matter.  And our other great fear, perhaps, is that really, we don’t, and that others might know.

We spend our whole lives trying to prove ourselves, but the truth is most of us have our doubts.

And we are right to have our doubts, in a sense, because we don’t always know what we’re doing.  And we do an imperfect job, at all of it, and we mess up, and we disappoint people, and we disappoint ourselves.  We are broken and our brokenness plays a part in the world’s brokenness.  We don’t have it all together.  And we’re not immortal: we will die, and we will be forgotten. The truth is that this human life of ours has its limitations, and our broken hearts have their limitations.

But the beauty of Ash Wednesday is being able to say all that out loud.

Today we confess that we don’t have it all together, not even a little bit, that we mess it all up more than we care to think about, that we are sinful, and insignificant, like the dust we smear on our foreheads.  Those ashes announce to the world not that we’re holy, like Matthew’s hypocrites, but that we’re broken, and mortal.

That’s why Ash Wednesday is a day for everyone who feels like an impostor at their job, a failure as a spouse and parent, who will never be thin enough or successful enough or rich enough, who will never be the person they always imagined they might be.  Today, we can all stop trying to prove ourselves.  Today, we have nothing to hide.  But also today, we get to look around and say, “You too?”

Maybe you’re not good enough, but none of us are—apart from the grace of God.

Ash Wednesday is when we begin to set our eyes ahead to the season of Lent and the cross that looms at the end of it.  And we start to remember that it’s the cross where God takes all of our sin, all our failings, all our limitations, and transforms them into something beautiful.  It’s God who makes strong the weakness we try to overcome; it’s God who makes us whole when our wounds won’t heal themselves; it’s God who forgives the failings we try to hide; it’s God who gives us eternal worth when nothing we do matters; it’s God who gives us life when death is the promised end of everything.

The prophet Joel says that today is a day for returning to God with all our hearts, and as we do, we also return to the truth about ourselves.

God is God and we are broken people, dust into dust.

And God sees our brokenness and loves us anyway, and we don’t have to hide anymore.

 

 

The Ten Commandments of Jesus: 4. Don’t Worry

Scripture: Matthew 6:25-33

I am a person who knows a thing or two about worrying.

I get it from my mom: I joke with her once in a while that if I ever say I’m thinking about going to do a thing or visit a friend at some point in the indefinite future, she will immediately ask, “Where are you going to park?!”  The Rosner family women are detail people, and we get concerned if they aren’t all laid out ahead of time.

I worry.  Sometimes, I worry about things I can somewhat control, like how I’m going to get everything done, or whether I’m saving enough for retirement.  Sometimes, I worry about things I can’t, like whether people will like me, or the fact that I probably have some life-threatening health problem that has heretofore gone undetected.  More than anything, probably, I worry that I will fail, sometimes specifically at something I’m doing at the time, but mostly just in general.

I read an essay by Lauren Winner once that resonated with me: “I worry,” she wrote, “that avian flu is finally going to hit this year and I will get into my car and head west to my stepmother’s remote farm, but I will arrive too late for the quarantine, or my stepsister will pull up at the same moment I do and there will only be enough food for one of us and my father and his wife will be forced into some twenty-first-century blended-family Sophie’s choice.

“I worry that my identity is being stolen by someone right this second and every cent drained out of my bank account and a Lexus bought with a credit card in my name.

“I worry that I have forgotten a crucially important appointment, or that I’ve forgotten I’m supposed to be giving a lecture in Saskatchewan and there’s a small group of people sitting in an auditorium somewhere angry, worrying where I am. …

“Or I boil water for tea and as the tea is steeping I check four times to make sure I’ve turned the burner off, and after I leave the house I worry that the stove is on, that the house is burning down, and I call my neighbor and ask him to go check.  The stove is always off.”[1]

Someone should tell Jesus that for people who are prone to worry, this commandment not to worry is just one more thing to worry about.  Oh, great!  I’m doing that wrong, too!

Besides, as someone prone to worry, I have to say there are some very logical objections to this teaching of Jesus.  It seems like if we all took this seriously, we’d all be dancing out in a field somewhere waiting for God and other people to take care of everything for us, instead of actually buckling down and doing it ourselves, like responsible adults.

After all, there are people counting on us: our families, our friends, our employers.  We can’t just go around saying “Consider the lilies!” when there’s stuff that needs to get done.

I remember a man I met once when I was at my church in Williamsburg.  At that church I was also in charge of our pastor’s discretionary fund to help people in the community with rent and medicine and other needs they came with.  We had so many requests that I had to establish a separate day and time of the week just to meet with people who came with requests for financial help, and I had to set pretty firm boundaries on that, because otherwise this one ministry quickly began to run my life.

One evening I was at church for a meeting, and this committee member came into the room and told me there was someone downstairs to see me.   I went downstairs and there was this man I hadn’t met before, and he told me he and his family needed a place to stay that night.

I told him about our walk-in appointment times and he said, “But we don’t have anywhere to stay tonight.”  They had been staying in a hotel, as many homeless people in Williamsburg did, and the time they had been able to pay for or, perhaps, that someone else had paid for on their behalf, was up.

Now, I know, and I knew then, that when you are poor or on the edge and dealing with one emergency after another, it’s hard to think farther ahead than the next emergency.  That being able to do so is often a privilege of the better-off.  I knew that, and yet it took everything in me as he kept pressuring me for help to keep from yelling, “Why are you just dealing with this now?!!”

Like I said, I had a meeting to be at, and I had already learned the consequences of not setting good boundaries with this fund.  I don’t remember what I told him: probably gave him the number of the nearest shelter, if it was in season, and sent him on his way.

But it was thinking about this passage that made me wonder if I was really in the right, or if perhaps I had it all backwards, if he was the one trusting God with today’s problems and remembering the lilies, and I was the one demanding he worry a little more and impose on other people’s generosity a little less.

I still don’t really claim to know the right answer to that, or if I did what God would have wanted me to do in that situation, but my commentaries did assure me that this passage certainly doesn’t mean that we should just throw all cares and responsibility to the wind.

It’s true, the disciples who followed Jesus did leave everything behind, including their families and their livelihoods and their sense of security, and it’s true, they did have to rely on the hospitality and generosity of others as they went from town to town proclaiming the Gospel.  And that kind of pure trust is a good thing, I think, and something we should try to emulate.  Maybe, in fact, there’s nothing wrong with expecting grace.

But Jesus wasn’t just talking to his inner circle of disciples here; he was talking to the crowds who gathered to hear him, and besides, some people needed to be ready with dinner on the table to offer the hospitality the disciples trusted God—through people—to provide.

Paul also traveled from place to place spreading the good news, and he worked with his hands to support himself so as not to impose on the people he lived and worked among, and so they wouldn’t think the Gospel was something they had to pay for.  That’s another, also faithful, model.  Paul also planned ahead for his journeys, raising money and gathering the appropriate letters of reference.

John Wesley says it well in his sermon on this passage: “Our Lord does not here require, that we should be utterly without thought, even touching the concerns of this life.  A giddy, careless temper is at the farthest remove from the whole religion of Jesus Christ…It is good and acceptable to God, that we should so take thought concerning whatever we have in mind, as to have a clear comprehension of what we are about to do, and to plan our business before we enter upon it.”[2]  Now John Wesley is a man after my own heart.

OK, so maybe Jesus doesn’t want us to just go dance in a field and ignore all of life’s responsibilities.  So what is he asking of us here?

Context is important, as it always is.  The part that comes right before this in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is about serving two masters: as in, you can’t serve both God and money.  “No one can serve two masters,” Matthew warns us.  “You’ll either hate one and love the other, or vice versa.” I didn’t include that as one of the Ten Commandments because it’s more of a warning than a commandment, but still, definitely something Christians should take to heart.

Matthew goes straight from this warning into his therefore: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life!”  As if worry, in some way, had something to do with who or what we worship.

Maybe it is what I worry about that shows something of what my priorities in life are, what’s important to me, what I fear that I might have to be without.

And maybe it’s the wrong things I worry about: the possibility that the world won’t love me, that no one cares, that I’m not doing enough to get ahead in life, and that in the end, there won’t be enough for me.

I do: I worry that there won’t be enough.  Enough money, enough love, enough grace—for me.

Jesus, once I read this passage again, doesn’t flat out say not to worry.  He says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

Maybe what I should be worrying about, or at least concerned with, is whether I’m living out God’s call on my life in a faithful way.  Maybe I should be worried about justice, and peace, and how well I’m loving others.  “Strive first for the Kingdom of God,” Jesus says.  “And all these things will be given to you as well.”

It’s not that nothing bad will ever happen.  Bad things do.  People lose jobs and lose people and lose housing and go hungry, all the time.  Things can fall apart.  Even the birds of the air sometimes lose their habitat and have nothing to eat, and the lilies wither under a frost or during a drought.

But through all of it, God is there, and God is looking out for us, and God does, in general, give us what we need—especially if we’re willing to need a little less.

I sat in a Bible study on a mission trip to Honduras one time and listened to the other women in the room talk about the faith they had in God’s provision.  How the gardens they planted would grow; how there would be enough food.  This was a community that was receiving meals from Stop Hunger Now.  They did not have a lot.

I wanted at some points to object—that it doesn’t just work that way automatically just because you have faith.  But I, of course, was the one in the room who had never had to go without.  So I shut my mouth, and let these women who knew something about relying on God’s provision teach me something about trust in a God who knows and cares about our needs.  It’s easy for me to object to this commandment when I feel like I can actually keep it all together all by my worried self.  But what about when I can’t?  What then?

What Jesus is asking of me in the passage, I think, is not to give up all initiative or sense of reality or adult obligation. It’s to do what’s up to me, and trust God with the rest.

To make the plans I can, and know that the rest is in God’s hands.  To do my best, and to know that whether I succeed or fail, God loves me anyway.  To plant that garden, knowing that the rain may or may not come, but that God will be faithful, and somehow, there will be enough.  To do what I can now, and not worry so much about all the possibilities and eventualities and things that are looming overhead that I can’t recognize the gift God has given me in each day.

“He forbids only that care,” says Wesley, “which poisons the blessings of today, by fear of what may be tomorrow.”

You see, I think I missed something in this commandment at first, and that is that it’s not a commandment at all: it’s a word of comfort.  Jesus doesn’t want us to have one more thing to worry about: he wants us to have peace!  Don’t worry about all those things you always worry about, because in the end, God and God’s Kingdom are bigger than all of them. 

Don’t worry, because there’s no need: you’ll only miss out on God’s abundance today.  But God will still give abundantly tomorrow.

For this worrier, that’s all I need to hear sometimes: do what you can, and find peace in the fact that when it comes to God’s love, and grace, and abundance—there will always be enough.

[1] Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, p. 78-79

[2] John Wesley, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount: Discourse IX,” in The Works of John Wesley, Vol. V, p. 385.

The More Excellent Way

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1-13

I am very upset with what happened in Flint, Michigan. Some leaders motivated by greed, and the love of money, made self-centered decisions that had no regard for life. A whole city forced to drink poisonous water, for years, just to maximize on the profits. Thousands of children now face life threatening high lead concentrations in their tiny bodies. Pregnant women, nursing homes, schools, hospitals, all forced to use lead poisoned water because they are poor. They are black.  They don’t have similar values. They should work hard and build their own water purification system. All this happened because someone wanted to make an extra $100 a day. And of course, whenever there is a crisis, we begin to point fingers at each other. We call each other names, and demand that someone be held accountable.  And, I agree. Someone must pay for this.

But the question is, how should we deal with this crisis?

So, I want to invite you to write a letter to the church in Michigan. In it, we are going to suggest how they should handle the crisis. How they are going to work together, treat each other, punish the offenders or forgive them, some of whom are also members of the church, and solve the problem.

Where do we start?

We don’t often think about how difficult it must have been for the Apostles to write letters to churches with problems. Our scripture this morning (1 Corinthians 13:1-13, talks about the greatness of love, and is the most requested scripture at weddings.  It is so beautifully written, almost poetic, like a romantic song. Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, love does not boast, it is not proud, it is not rude, it is not easily angered. Love does not keep a record of wrong. And, this is all wonderful advice for commitment in relationships or marriages.

But, this scripture is not about weddings. Paul was not engaged in marriage counseling when he wrote this letter. He was dealing with a crisis. The church in Corinth was in trouble. Biblical history tells us that the Corinthian church requested Paul’s help. They wanted to know how to deal with someone who was having sexual relations with his step mother and bragging about it. Some church members owned and frequented brothels, and thought that since Christ had redeemed them, they were no longer under the law. Therefore, they could be free to sin.

The other major concern was the use of spiritual gifts. Gifts of prophecy, Speaking in tongues, and gifts of knowledge were elevated above other gifts. Instead of edifying the community, gifts became a source of competition and division. There was an obsession with worldly wisdom and power. Success and prosperity as you may call it, similar to our modern day church troubles. Corinth was a prosperous city, known for its bronze, with a lavish lifestyle (an ancient Las Vegas). It was characterized by cultural diversity, stigma, and wealth disparities. A huge part of the population was made up of former slaves, and returning exiles. You can imagine the challenge of addressing all these issues in a letter.

According to the book of Acts, Paul stayed in Corinth for at least eighteen months on his second missionary journey. The letter to the Corinthians is one of Paul’s most practical theologies. His primary purpose was to restore Christian unity. The problems needed practical solutions. However, just because there is a crisis, doesn’t mean that everything and everyone is evil. It doesn’t even mean that nothing is working. So, Paul ventured to show them, a more excellent way (12:31b). The way of Love!

Why is love the more excellent way? And what kind of love is Paul talking about?

Much of the New Testament was written in Greek. And Greek words are more specific than English. The definition of love in English is so confusing that we can use the same word to refer to a mother’s love of her child, and use the same for her love of shopping. So, it helps to understand the context used by Paul through the lens of the original language.

In this passage, Paul uses the word Agape for love. Agape signifies moral love. It conveys the idea of goodwill. It is concerned primarily with the wellbeing of another, irrespective of their reaction. In other words, you love someone without any expectation of personally benefiting from your action. The other three Greek words used for love include Eros from where we derive the word erotica – sexual love or attraction, passionate love with romantic undertones. The other is Phileo which refers to brotherly or sisterly love most often shown in close friendship. Love among best friends. We also find Storge which refers to an affectionate love that you have of family or spouse. All these kinds of love are important, but within particular contexts. The most powerful, however, is agape, which is the God kind of love.

Paul uses agape love to stress two important points in dealing with the crisis.

Firstly, the dangerous possibility of doing service or ministry without pure love. The first part Corinthians 13:1-3 stresses that fact that one can speak in tongues of men and angels, have the gift of prophecy and an ability to solve mysteries, but if they do not have love, they are nothing or useless. “If I have faith that can move mountains but have no love, I am nothing.” If I give all my possessions to the poor, package rice for the homeless, as we will be doing after the service today, if we have no love we gain nothing. That’s frightening to me.

Paul reminds the church of Corinth that their troubles are a result of neglecting the most important thing, love. None of the other gifts so greatly desired and treasured can truly be effective unless and until they are inspired and illumined by the Spirit of love. The Corinthians had confused priorities. They valued prestige and power over a genuine concern for one another. Discipleship was replaced with showmanship. They had neglected the words of Jesus that “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love must be the motivation of all ministry and service. Love must guide our use of gifts, both spiritual and material.

Nothing can take the place of love. True unity comes with God’s grace, which Paul refers to in chapter 1:3. It is the grace of God that will bring unity of mind, heart, and spirit and heal all divisions in the church. Love is the opposite of self-importance or self-display exhibited in the Corinthian church. Love will always lead to humility and kindness.

Secondly, love is the ultimate and only enduring reality. Love never ends. Love never fails. It will remain. Of course this does not mean that we won’t be disappointed sometimes. It doesn’t mean that people we love will sometimes break our hearts. But, when that happens, love will give us the capacity to endure. It will enable us to forgive, to be patient, to be kind, to be generous.

However, in this context, Paul is making an allusion to the promised fulfillment of salvation. In the end, all preaching, prophecy, feeding the poor, will not be required because we will be in the presence of God. There, only love will remain. This is the only attribute that moves us closer to reflecting God’s character. God is love.

Let us now finish writing our letter to the church in Michigan. How are we going to respond to the Flint Water Crisis? The truth is, we all have fallen short of God’s character (Romans 3:28). What happened in Flint Michigan is a reflection of our brokenness as humans. We all could make the same greedy and self-seeking decisions. We all want an extra $100, and sometimes that desire overrides our will to do the right thing. As Americans, we have all contributed to eroding our sense of justice; by promoting individualism over community. Entitlement over corporate responsibility. We do this when we ignore the homeless and avoid making eye contact. We don’t want to be bothered. We have our own issues to deal with. We do this when we remain silent and just watch as politicians and their cronies harass refugees.

Paul reminds us, that only God can change this selfish tendency. Only God can show us our blind spots. “We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us turning to our own way.” Through the gospel that Jesus preached, we learn the power of God’s love, and forgiveness. This love reached out to us while we were still lost, and keeps guiding us back, so that we me be reconciled with God.

Christianity is a call to love. And if we lose that, everything we do regardless of how fancy and grandiose it seems, no matter how popular, it is nothing. All the charity work and mission trips we undertake, if love is not the ultimate and sustaining motive, we have done nothing.  That is a frightening possibility. To do all the church stuff and still miss the mark.

You may be asking, okay now that I know that love is the most excellent way – it brings unity, prevents and fights injustice, gives me the capacity to forgive, and seeks the welfare of others as I do my own. Where do I start from?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (South Africa) makes a profound statement that helps us to start. “None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as humans unless we learn it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are.”

The way to love another human is to recognize them as human and, as such, desire for them what you desire for yourself. That is why the two greatest commandments state: You shall love the lord your God with all you heart, mind and soul; and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.

So, when you leave this place, go into the entire world and be the love. Be kind. Be generous. Be patient. Be courteous. Be forgiving. So when you pray, instead of asking God to change the world, ask God to change you. Ask God to fill your heart with love. So that, in all your doings, love will be your motivation.

This is the more excellent way. Love. Amen.