Sermon – June 2, 2019 – Seventh Sunday after Easter


Breaking the Cycles

I saw on CNN that a conservative activist recruiting students at Berkley was punched out by an unidentified person, apparently another student.  Last week the editor of an Alabama newspaper wrote that the Klan should ride again an string up folks he called “communist socialists” in Washington, D.C.. Today he’s out of a job.  A week ago a Coast Guard Lieutenant was arrested for plotting to kill members of Congress and journalists who were critical of the current administration.  We are continuing to become more tribal and more separated.  This is not normal.  But it is not unprecedented.  Here’s some news that won’t surprise you.  Israel and Palestine are still mixing it up.  They are still skirmishing, accusing and failing to reconcile. If we pick up a paper 20 years from now, I fear it would be the same news.  These feuds, these chronic struggles are evident everywhere. Pakistan and India are at it again, a conflict located in religious distrust and disrespect between Muslims and Hindus. Remember Rawana? Millions died in a vicious genocide of tribal Tutsis at the hands of the rival Hutus.

We had a home grown feud that has become a metaphor for the inability to solve conflict without violence.  Remember the Hatfields and McCoys?  It was a family feud.  It was violent.  Lives were lost, people were shot, beaten, hung, burned up.  A few went to jail.  For a variety of reasons that ranged from jealousy, to a disputed hog, the feud went on.  Part of the roots of the conflict was anchored in a much larger conflict, the American Civil War.  The Hatfield’s were pro-confederate; the McCoy’s pro union.   Eventually, as in most conflicts, the past becomes reason enough to stay in conflict.

We don’t have to look far to see the same patterns, the same pathology in our recent past.    For those of us who grew up in the 50’ through the early 90s, we lived under a foreign policy called MAD—the irony of that is not likely to escape us anytime soon–Mutually Assured Destructionwhere our position over against the Soviet Union and theirs to ours was if either of us started a nuclear war, we would blow each other the smithereens. . . . MAD.  It had a companion policy called NUTS.   I’m not making this up.  NUTS . . . Nuclear Utilization Target Selectionwhich operated under the premise that if you blew up enough of your opponents nukes in a first strike you would not subject the complete destruction of MAD.  You would use NUTS in ordering to avoid MAD.    But then folks begin to realize that nuclear equipped submarines and mobile intercontinental ballistic missile systems made NUTs, well, nuts.

In it we were taught to believe that this made sense, to hate the commie pinkos that made us do it and to teach others to hate them too.

We have cycles of separation and division and conflict in most of the dimensions of our national life.  In race relations we called them separate but equal, in politics we have something called opposition research where we discover as much dirt as we can on our opponents and then smear them with as much as will stick.   Even in business we have innocuous sounding things called mergers and acquisitions, which is most often the strong preying upon of the weak.

This kind of tribal thinking is currently encouraged by many of the incompetents and nincompoops who populate cable TV and AM radio.  These folks peddle an ethic which encourages strife, division and conflict as a virtue, where service and deference to our neighbor is mocked, where working people are preyed upon and where the prerogatives and benefits of the rich and connected are leveraged by the misery of the poor and the powerless, repeating a cycle of division between people, races, economic status and even regions that has troubled this country and the world for time immemorial.  We could debate the reasons until the cows come home, but chief among them are fear isolation.

We haven’t learned much over the years, so we ought to pay particular attention to Jesus in this remarkable, challenging teaching known as the Sermon on the Plain.  As we read the sermon we note all these admonitions, these instructions are spoken in the context of relationships.  We are not islands, isolated human beings, whose behavior and decisions and outlooks do not affect the other.  That is a given in Jesus teaching.  We are being taught how to be a community.  Just as Moses taught the people of Israel after they fled Egypt, we are being taught how to be  with one another and the world for Jesus’ sake.  Jesus is saying in this teaching that our hearts must lead our actions, and that our hearts must be oriented in him and to his purposes. It is not enough to do the minimum with our actions while our hearts remain full of hatred or bitterness or anger.    Instead, as his followers, we are to exceed these minimums for the sake of the neighbor, for the sake of breaking apart these patterns of revenge and recrimination that breed conflict, suspicion and strife.  For the sake of Christ.

People lived under an old standard, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That is the law that codifies, legitimizes extracting measured revenge or retribution or compensation against another. In fact, it guarantees the survival of the destructive cycle, even as it limits its effects.  This law has been around since the time of Hammurabi, years before the Old Testament writers included it as part of the instruction for the people.  It was progressive ethic in its time because it limited conflict and mitigated cruelty, restricting punishment and recompense equal to the crime or offense.

But Jesus sees this now as the minimum.   He recognizes that it systamatizes conflict, and does not resolve the issue of one’s heart, where the true relationship between God and humanity and humanity with one another is revealed.  It unmasks the troubling truth that most of the time our actions are defined by the actions of the other.  That’s why Jesus clearly makes the case that to love only those who love us demonstrates little about the exceptional nature of God’s love.  It is natural, it is a given that we love our friends and families, our spouses our relatives.  That is a given and not a virtue.  No, the heart cleansed in baptism, the heart purified by the Holy Spirit, the heart of the follower of Jesus practices the love of God toward all people like God himself, who loves all of his creation.  He is the one who causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. You see, love is the source.  In Christ, we become repositories of that love and that changes everything.  There we discover our meaning, our joy and our hope.

Here is the difficulty of our teaching today, of course.  Jesus refuses to play second fiddle to our friends or our enemies when it comes to how we relate with one another.   Jesus will not let the work of the kingdom, the vocation of discipleship, the job of being salt and light be defined by anyone or anything else than him and his cross.  In these he unmasks our other loyalties like civil religion that makes the flag and the cross interchangeable.  He unmasks our narrow definitions of love and tolerance that reach only the borders of our own prejudices.  He unmasks our fear of the other, and invites us to follow him to them.   No flag, no symbol, no document, no clan or tribe outside of him will define for us how we are to be disciples in the kingdom of God.  Jesus claims the center as the source and norm for living in the kingdom of God.  You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. . .no, everything is changed now, beginning with your hearts so that on my account . . . your are able to . . .  bless those who persecute you  . . .  love your enemies. . . . . pray for your persecutors.  Everything is changed now.  Utilitarianism is dead to this ideal.  Radical self-interest and isolation are put on notice.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is helpful here.  In his book “The Cost of Discipleship”, he acknowledges our limits as we love the easy ones.  He says it is the extraordinarythat makes a way for us to follow.  The extraordinary nature of God’s love in Christ.  He writes this, “What is the precise nature of the extraordinary?  It is the life described in the beatitudes, the life of the followers of Jesus, the light which lights the world, the city set on the hill, the way of self-renunciation, of utter love, of absolute purity, truthfulness and meekness.  It is unreserved love for our enemies, for the unloving and the unloved, love for our religious, political and personal adversaries.  In every case it is the love which was fulfilled in the cross of Christ.  What is the extraordinary? It is the love Jesus Christ himself, who went patiently and obediently to the cross.  It is in fact the cross itself.   . . . The extraordinary quality is undoubtedly identical with the light which shines before people for which they glorify the Father which is in heaven.  It cannot be hidden under a bushel.  It must be seen.  And how does this quality work out in practice?  The extraordinary, and this is the supreme scandal, is something which the followers of Jesus do.”

And I would add change begins in our unity with one another a the first thing.

What he is saying is that our peculiar vocation is to love as God loves, to see through the eyes of Christ and let that define our relationships, that we would reflect in our lives tolerance, solidarity, and community with all people rather than what we are told about how we ought to feel about them and treat them.

Were this ethic practiced in our neighborhoods we would not have issues of racial division; were this ethic practiced in our politics we would not have problems of tribal conflict, nationalism and the fear of one another; . . . . if this were practiced in Palestine and Israel, that land could again deserve the title Holy.

This seems an impossible ideal but we have to remember this is a process, a journey, a way of being molded, shaped, and even as we beginwe are embraced, empowered and blessed, not for succeeding or for getting it right, . . . but for believing that this is God’s way and that we are called to it.

So . . . we begin first by changing how it is we view the world, we change how we share that world view.  I am reminded of that wonderful lyric from the Broadway musical South Pacific, “you have got to be taught how to hate and to fear, day after day and year after year.  To hate all the people your relatives hate, you have got to be carefully taught.”

Don’t we know that we can teach another way?  Don’t we know we can teach a better way by keeping the promises we made to each other in baptism, to abide with each other, to walk in Christ’s way, to encourage one another, to steep ourselves is scripture, worship and the community of Christ.  And supreme scandal, as Bonhoeffer says, is that this something the follower of Jesus do and step by step, heart by heart, surprise by wonderful surprise, these unproductive patterns are broken as God will use us to build the kingdom in the way of love.

God be with us as we take up the journey     Amen