Scripture: Amos 5:18-26, Luke 6:27-36
Given on 11/12/17
When he was younger, one of my older son’s favorite writers was the Jewish poet and artist, Shel Silverstein. Silverstein had a number of collections of his poetry that all sat on Jameson’s shelf from A Light in the Attic to Falling Up to Where the Sidewalk Ends. Silverstein had a gift in which he could take some of the most enduring themes of life, things with which adults struggle everyday and bring them down to a children’s level with simple language, themes, and artwork. Perhaps Silverstein’s most well known poem is The Giving Tree. In The Giving Tree, a young boy develops a loving friendship with a tree and the tree loves the boy. When he is younger he spends much time with the tree, swinging on its branches, eating its apples, resting in its shade and the tree is very happy with the relationship. As the boy grows older, he spends less time with the tree and seemingly only returns to take parts of the tree to use as he is building his life. He sells the apples for money. He builds a house with the branches of the tree and he eventually cuts down the tree and uses the trunk to build himself a boat. The tree, which had been exceedingly happy in their relationship and in giving whatever it could to help the boy finally finds itself with nothing but a stump and it is sad. The story concludes when the boy is now a very old man and is out walking one day and in need of a place to sit and rest and comes upon the stump of his favorite tree and uses it one last time. The story concludes that “The tree was happy.” Now just from that brief description of the story, you can probably see where this story might become one of the most controversial pieces of literature every produced for children. There are, at least, two ways in which the story can be read. On the one hand, it is a story about selfless giving. The tree gladly gives of itself until there is literally almost nothing left while boy and then man visit less and less over the years. On the other hand, it is a story about a greedy boy and man who takes more and more from the tree for himself until there is nothing left of the tree. Silverstein, as any good artist would, is content to hold the tension in that story and allow the reader to determine for herself the true meaning of the story and over the years any number of interpretations has followed from a critical analysis in which both the boy and the tree represent larger parts of Western society, while some conclude that it is written in the genre of satire like Jonathan Swift or Mark Twain.
In interpreting the story, the chief issue arises not in figuring out which category to place the tale into but rather in the realization that we each play the part of both characters over the course of our lives that at times we are exceedingly selfish and greedy, that we wish to take more than what we need, to gain in a manner that causes another to lose, to want what we want and want it now forgoing any consequences that might arise from that acquisition. At the same time, we can also be wonderfully caring, generous, loving even when we can’t always know or perceive what exactly we get out of the deal. As parents, especially parents of younger children, we all know (or remember) the number of sacrifices to ones own personal happiness that we each make or have made in order for our kids to be happy. We are, at least I think, biologically wired to care for our children in an extraordinary way, even though, at time, some parents don’t. We can, at times, reach out to the one hurting in our midst, the one who is subsumed in darkness, the one who doesn’t know where his, or his family’s, next meal is coming from. It is deeply engrained in the spiritual DNA of the universe to act in loving manner to one another, even, at times, to the point of our own detriment. The broken nature of the world leads to our self-centered pursuit of desires even when it comes at the cost of others needs. The image of God, infused in each of our souls leads us to share in a love that forsakes ourselves in favor of the other. That is the conundrum that Jesus seeks to lift up in his words from the sermon on the plain.
It is difficult in the world in which we live to fully place the words of Jesus in the context in which they are spoken. “Love you enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,” he says. In our current surroundings, in the contemporary moment, there is not the near constant threat that is experienced by Jesus and his followers in First Century Palestine. We, as a nation, may be at war, but, for the most part that war is fought a half a world away and it rarely invades our day-to-day existence. We, might be politically divided, but our existences in philosophically shared enclaves ensure that those divides do not often invade our personal spaces. We may be personally conflicted about how to be in this world and with one another but we, for the most part, can move in and out of those conflicts at our leisure. In short, there is not imminent threat that we face in our daily lives and routines. This was not the case for Jesus and first century Jews. Judaism was a divided faith. At any given time 5 or 10 sects of the faith might be vying for control of the trajectory of the religion and that had a tremendous impact on how one lived their daily lives. Depending on which branch of Judaism you followed, your language, your symbolism, your ritual could be wildly different from that of your neighbor’s and in a place and time in which religious authority held vast amounts of power, your neighbor could be a threat to your way of life. In a similar sense, Israel found itself both politically divided and under the thumb of a dictatorial ruler. The Romans held power from afar and kept a military presence just to make sure you never forgot that. They had puppet regional governors and kings whose power derived from fealty to the larger realm. They made life in that society a chaotic mess of power struggles and violent reprisals. At any given time, soldiers could violent suppress any gathering they thought was a challenge to Roman authority. They arrested countless persons they suspected of sedition. They crucified thousands of people from common criminal, to revolutionary leaders, to innocent persons who just found themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time just to demonstrate their might and offer a warning to any and all who might think about following in their footsteps. Israel had legitimate enemies that shed incredible amounts of blood and for Jesus to call on his followers to “love their enemies” must have sounded like the craziest thing most of them had ever heard. To “do good those those that hate you,” came with genuine threat to one’s personal life safety as at that moment the choice would mean either willingly and openly interacting with people who would just as soon kill you as look at you or appearing as a traitor to the Jewish nation, state, and faith in an effort to appease those who would never be appeased. To “turn the other cheek” was both a symbol of willingness to accept violence and a prideful statement that one would never back down from the threat of physical pain and torture. This was a real and potentially devastating response to violence, but it was never an impulsive reaction the way that violent reprisal to violence would have been. It was a way of saying that this cycle of violence, this action and reaction that has been going on since the beginning of time and the fall of man stops right here and goes no further. Jesus goes on, “to those who take your coat, give also your shirt.” This was, again, not a hypothetical situation. It was a daily threat that those in the Jewish community risked losing whatever they had to those who possessed more power and might. It was not uncommon for soldiers to take whatever they wanted and not be concerned about the wellbeing of the one from whom they are taking. And here is Jesus telling his followers to give not just their coat but their shirt as well—to the people potentially responsible for killing your husband, wife, son, daughter, father, mother. Finally, give to everyone who begs from you. This is hard because there are no caveats. It doesn’t say, “give to the one who begs from your surplus.” It doesn’t say, “give to the one who begs as long as you know that it won’t be used to procure drugs or alcohol or cigarettes or whatever else you might find objectionable. Jesus’s call is to give, even if it forces you to switch places with the beggar, even if it causes you to give to someone who will inevitably misuse and abuse your charity and kindness. It just says, “give to everyone who begs from you.” And Jesus concludes with an explanation that brings all these ridiculous practices into greater clarity. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners can do that. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” That is to say, “You are my followers and I expect more from you than the rest of the world. You are my followers and I expect you to give without anticipating getting anything in return. You are my followers and I expect you to give without placing any expectations or conditions on the actions and behaviors of the recipient. Because anyone can do it the other way. You are my followers and I expect you to love one another with a sacrificial love that transcends all the hate and violence and greed and apathy and abuse and brokenness that too often exists unabated in this creation.” In other words, to follow Jesus, you have to love even those you can’t stand. And sometimes, “love hurts.”
Over the past few days, just about the only conversations I have had, with friends, colleagues, family, members of the press, have all revolved around the devastating church shooting that occurred at just about the same time that we were gathering for worship. And I know that folks get tired of hearing me talk about mass shootings in the country but this one hits pretty close to home for anyone who attends a house of worship with any frequency in this country because there is literally nothing that makes any church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or sangha any different from the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX. It hits close to home because of the devastation wrought against the family of the pastor there and the loss of his daughter. It hits close to home because I have been filled with images of what such an event might look like in our space and have been aware of the presence of a singular rail at the lectern and the marble barricade that forms the pulpit. And I am haunted by visions of bullets ricocheting off all the hard surfaces in this space and sometimes I have to stop what I am doing when all that becomes too real and just cry for a few minutes. My friend, Lisa Davis, who is working on a piece for the Star on responses to the shooting asked me what I was going to say today and I sarcastically replied, “well, if we, as a nation have decided that we are ok with sanctuaries becoming skeet shooting ranges then I am going into another line of work.” And then I said with resignation, “I really don’t know what to say.” Since then, I have thought a lot about the Reformed Tradition. I know that seems like a weird segue but I had planned on preaching a second sermon about the Reformed Tradition moving forward and so it had been on my mind a lot recently. But the Reformed Tradition was brought forth from the fires of revolutions that were bubbling just under the surface in Western Europe. It would portend larger revolutions in the United States and France soon thereafter. It was a declaration that the status quo is no longer acceptable and we must strive to better embody the lessons of scripture, the teachings of Jesus, the constant and chaotic movement of the spirit as she moves wherever she will. It is a revolution in spirituality that has alit western philosophy, politics, economics, and culture for half a millennia and yet. The past 50 years or so have seen that light diminish more gradually each year. We have become far too comfortable with the status quo of our world. We have become far too content with trying to regain the past than with seeing where the spirit is calling us today and tomorrow. We have forgotten that we follow a guy who called for a revolution in his day to the point that they killed him. We have forgotten that we place our faith in a God that makes a way our of no way and brings life eternal from death. We have forgotten that to follow the spirit does, include a measure or pain and discomfort as we seek to better embody the love of God for our neighbor. I don’t know a lot about the guy who pulled the trigger 450 times in a small church in southeast Texas but I know that he clearly had deep seated mental struggles and that for far too long we, as a nation and a culture, have created a stigma around people who want to get help. I know that he had no business owning a gun but that we as a culture have made it incredibly easy to procure weapons of war, even for those who shouldn’t be allowed to be within a country mile of them. I know that we are foolish if we think that absent a momentous change in the way we talk and think about both mental health and guns in this country that this same event won’t replay itself again and again and again. And while there may be some who cannot conceive of the way forward, we in the church can never claim to be in that number. We know that we must practice a love that is transformational in this world. That loves and cares for the ones who are killed and the ones that think that killing is the only answer. We know that our savior told us that those who live by the sword will die by the sword and surely we can advance that forward 2,000 years and replace sword with gun. We know that we are called to take care of all who struggle for meaning and light and purpose and love because who else is going to? We, in this place are Reformed, but we must, too, be always reforming. Never satisfied with the status quo. Never able to declare that there is enough love practiced in this world. Never willing to leave anyone behind, no matter what they have done or left undone. We must always push forward and be radical in our love, all-embracing in our efforts for peace, and grace-filled towards each person we encounter on the journey, no matter what they have done or left undone. Saints and sinners and everything in between. It is not easy. The guy we follow got nailed to a tree as he tried to spread the love of God in the world. It is not easy because sometimes love hurts, it entails struggle and loss and pain. It is not easy because far too often the one who needs the love the most, is ourselves. It is not easy, but we must preserver because that is what we are called by God to do. This moment and every moment. Glory be to God in the highest and peace, for the love of God, amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, amen.