Loopholes? Or justice and kindness? A sermon for First Parish of Newbury

Texts

Micah 6:1-4, 6-8

1Hear what the Lord says: Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.

3“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! 4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  [I brought you through the wilderness, and through many dangers, into the land of milk and honey.]

6“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Exodus 20:1-17

(You can look this up.  Hint: the Ten Commandments.)

Matthew 4:23 – 5:-12

23Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.

1Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. 2And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

5“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

7“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way people persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Sermon

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our creator and our lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

A few years back I visited a flight school. You know, a business that teaches people to fly little airplanes like the ones on the airstrip on the way to Plum Island.  There was a sign on the wall saying

Do not buzz your house.

Underneath somebody had hand-written “Or anybody else’s house either.”

I’m sure there’s a federal law on the subject; it probably says something like “no person shall operate an aircraft below 500 feet above ground level in the vicinity of an occupied blah blah blah .zzzz. It takes a lawyer to understand that.

Student pilots – and all of us — don’t need lawyers to tell us about foolish risks: we already know what’s foolish.  In fact, lawyers won’t help. We’re going to take the risks anyway. And, we can learn something about human nature from that sign. Somebody will cook up a ridiculous excuse when they get caught being foolish: “It wasn’t my house, it was my girlfriend’s” Imagine the flight school owner’s jaw dropping when he heard that.  You know he picked up his jaw off the floor and his marker off the counter. You know he had to resist writing, “anybody else’s house either, ya nitwits.”

Do not buzz your house: It’s good when we human beings try to live by following the rules. Still, we’re always looking for a loophole. We look for some way to persuade ourselves that the obvious rule doesn’t apply to us.  We’ve all tried that.  Just this last Thursday, according to the Daily News, a man accused of driving too fast tried to convince a judge that the officer’s radar picked up a deer rather than his car. The judge didn’t buy it.

I daresay we’ve all heard our own version of “Nice try. Don’t buzz ANYBODY’s house, OK?” from somebody in authority.

Christianity and Judaism offer us rules to follow:  They’re summarized in the ten commandments: the law the Lord gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. Everybody’s heard of them.  Hopefully our children get a chance to read them through and think about them in Sunday School.

Some of us can rattle off the commandments. Still, Jews and Christians of various denominations don’t even agree on how they’re numbered.  I suppose we can remember the basics, even if we don’t remember them by number. Let’s see how we do…

Love God.   Don’t pray to idols.

Love your neighbor as yourself?  Yes, that’s a great commandment. But it happens not to be one of the ten.

Don’t take the name of God in vain.   Keep the Sabbath.   Honor parents.  Don’t kill.    Don’t commit adultery.   Don’t steal.   Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.

How are those for rules to follow? They seem pretty straightforward, don’t they? But don’t forget that lawyer talking to Jesus, trying to justify himself, asking “and who exactly is my neighbor?” Somebody always looks for a loophole.

I think we missed something – the last commandment. Listen to this: verse number 17 from Exodus chapter 20.  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.  Or his manservant, or his maidservant.  Or his ox.   Or his ass. Or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Can’t we almost hear the Lord saying, “Don’t covet ANY thing! ANYTHING that is your neighbor’s, ya nitwits!” in that commandment? Making rules without loopholes for humans to try to slip through is hard, even for the Lord with Moses as his messenger. No wonder it’s hard for you and me and the flight instructor. It doesn’t matter how clearly spelled out the rules are, we want to convince ourselves they don’t apply to our situations. “It was a deer, not my car.”

We sometimes even convince ourselves the Lord gives us a pass.

That brings us to the words we heard from the prophet Micah. God’s people are on trial, basically for finding loopholes in those commandments from Mount Sinai. They the people back then, and we the people now, stand accused of tricking ourselves into believing we are following the commandments when we aren’t.

It’s the trial of the age: God vs. God’s people. The mountains serve as the jury, and the prophet Micah is the bailiff. God demands,  3“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! 4For I brought you up from the land of Egypt”

The people admit their guilt. We offer to pay a steep fine. Listen: “ 7Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

The Lord refuses those penalties we offer. The Lord wants no pouring of perfectly good food into the dirt. The Lord covets no blood sacrifice.  The prophet – the bailiff – hands down the sentence. “8He has showed you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

For their transgressions, and for ours, the sentence is to follow the good: to live with justice, kindness, and humility. It’s a hard sentence to serve. Maybe the hardest thing about it is that it is not harsh. There’s no fine to pay, before we go back to our old ways. We can’t just assign the blame to a deer in the road or a farm animal, sacrifice it, and move on. The Lord wants no sacrifice. That particular loophole in the law is closed to us. We’re sentenced to live a better way.  …

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is beginning his ministry. He’s going all over Galilee comforting, healing, and teaching. The people he’s encountered are feeling the peace and grace of the kingdom of heaven.  It’s good. They want more. They’re starting to gather and follow him. So, he takes a break from his travels and goes up on a mountain. That’s what he does in Matthew when he wants a little space from the crowds.

And he sits with his disciples on that mountain to teach them. The crowds are hoping for some kind of worldly glory. They’re hoping this Jesus, this leader, will heal them AND overthrow their Roman overlords. Jesus needs to teach his disciples the kingdom of heaven is not about that kind of winners’ glory. The crowds need to learn he isn’t going to organize them to pick up their pruning hooks and plowshares, attack the local squad of Roman soldiers, and run them out of town. Jesus is not going to help them find a loophole in the law where it says “don’t kill, except for those awful soldiers.”  That’s not what the law says.

So he starts his teaching by telling them who’s blessed. The poor in spirit: the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Those who mourn: they’ll be comforted. The peacemakers: children of God. In today’s reading we hear all those blessings – the words we’ve learned to call the Beatitudes.

Scott Hoezee, a Reform theologian, asked an interesting question.  What would it be like to know a person who’s blessed in those ways Jesus mentioned? What would it be like to have Debbie Blessedness as a friend? This friend would be non-confrontational and pious. She’d always be trying to see somebody else’s point of view.  She’d probably seem a little depressed, showing signs of mourning whenever confronted with news of man’s inhumanity to man, whether in South Sudan, a street in Lawrence, or the local women’s shelter. She’d give twenty bucks to everybody standing by the side of the road with a cardboard sign saying, “homeless – please help.” You might wonder when she’ll stop taking care of everybody else in the world and start taking care of herself. You might tell her, “it’s OK to spend some money getting your hair done.”  At the same time, you’d continue to support her. You know she’s serving out Micah’s sentence: she’s doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with her God.

With a friend like this, we know we sometimes wonder: should we stop calling her Debbie Blessedness and start calling her Debbie Downer? We get tired of her focus on all the negative stuff, on the troubles of this world.

When she gets us organized to spruce up the street for the Fourth of July parade, we’ll think “Debbie Downer.”

While we’re working next to her to feed hungry people, we’ll think “Debbie Downer”.

When she invites us to help pick up plastic off the beach before the migrating birds arrive, we’ll think “Debbie Downer.”

When she asks for money for college scholarships, as we’re forking it over we’ll think “oh no, more Debbie Downer.”

And when Debbie gets into some kind of trouble for doing the things she does, we’ll be right behind her supporting her.  If she’s hauled into court for breaking some regulation or other, the bailiff and the judge will see us packing the benches. And we’ll hear our friend Debbie speak with confidence to the judge. She’ll talk Micah’s talk – she knows Micah’s way because she walks it every day. She’s not looking for any loophole. If she has to break the law in the cause of righteousness, she breaks the law. And we’ll know our friend Debbie is Blessedness, not Downer.

My friends, this Debbie Blessedness character is an exaggeration. Most real people aren’t able to do everything she does. Maybe Francis of Assisi, or Dorothy Day or Theresa of Calcutta can live lives of that much blessedness, and that’s great. We can rejoice and be glad on their behalf.

Still, if we judge ourselves by comparing ourselves to them, we’ll surely come up short.   If we force ourselves to try to live like them we may end up resentful and self-righteous. And nothing good can come of that kind of self-righteous resentment: it just makes us look for loopholes in the rules. Judge, it was the deer that was going too fast, not me. Not me.

Instead, let’s live with the promises of these blessings.  The promises confer on us the eternal power of the kingdom of heaven.

We have permission to do our best to make peace: it’s God’s way.

We may, in the face of a world full of corruption, keep purity in our hearts.

We can show mercy: we’re promised that what goes around comes around.

We can work for righteousness and not give up, for righteousness will surely come.

We can be non-confrontational and meek. That works better in the long run than getting up in peoples’ faces.

We will sometimes be sad, mourning our losses. That’s OK, we’ll get through it with God’s help.

As we do all these things, we’ll sometimes get discouraged. Our spirits will be low. We’ll be poor in spirit.

And that’s fine. We don’t need to talk ourselves out of being discouraged.  It’s the glory of God, slipping in to our hearts through the loopholes in our spirits. God’s glory is right there hidden within our struggles.

We’re each doing our little bit of justice. We’re each doing our best to love a little bit of kindness. And we look up as we take another step, and behold! walking right beside us, we see God.

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