The Sunday Sermon: Messy

Rev. Richard Hogue Jr.

            Welcome back to our full space, everyone! The chancel improvement project was long and arduous, even messy, but thanks to our wonderful construction crew and the help of so many of you, we’ve made it to the other side. It is wonderful to behold! I only lived with the last iteration of the chancel for about six months, yet another transition for us all, even if we haven’t been here long. All week the clergy of St. Paul have bounced from daily morning prayer over Zoom relatively quickly, as we and the rest of the staff were eager to see this take shape. The shower curtain of Christ is now no more! Alleluia, alleluia!

            Turning from that back to our Gospel text for this morning, we can feel deeply saddened, perhaps even troubled, by what Jesus says here. And that’s just the thing, this isn’t the comfortable Jesus. This is a scarier Jesus, dangerous to ponder and inscrutable to hear. Why do we give this same man the title “Prince of Peace” when he has seemingly stated the otherwise here? It is bewildering, this is Jesus with an edge, wielding scripture as a sword, making it clear that there will be consequences for his deeds and words; that the people can be divided. How does that square with the Jesus of just six chapters prior?

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Presumably, one prays for enemies because they exist, we will have enemies. Would that same Jesus really go on to say what we’ve heard this morning?  The answer is emphatically “yes.” He held these truths in tension. It may seem hard to reconcile. Remember that Jesus is a rabbi, who’s familiar with every line from Scripture. Quoting Micah 7.6 directly, he draws on the literary culture the crowd around him would have known well too. To add just a bit to what Jesus quoted from it:

Put no trust in a friend,

   have no confidence in a loved one;

guard the doors of your mouth

   from her who lies in your embrace;

for the son treats the father with contempt,

   the daughter rises up against her mother,

the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

   your enemies are members of your own household.

But as for me, I will look to the Lord,

   I will wait for the God of my salvation;

   my God will hear me.

Jesus isn’t just pulling out the prophets for no reason. Micah, as a literary work, comes from the reign of three kings in Israel between the 8-7th centuries BCE, with some editing that reflects redaction after the devastating fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE. It has three prophecies, concerning divine judgement, the fall of Jerusalem due to bad leadership, and a utopian vision for Israel and its neighbors of that time, respectively. Throughout each portion the prophet expresses trust in God, despite and in response to social disintegration.

            Jesus quoted a portion of Micah that exudes exactly that perspective. Perhaps no verse in sums up Jesus’ mission and the whole Scripture better than this from Micah 6.8:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,

   and bow myself before God on high?

He has told 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?

            Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. It may seem trite, but it is so messy for the ways we live. To do justice is messy, acting against injustices and inequities. To love kindness is messy, threatening our own privileges. To walk humbly with God is messy, because when we know we accept God’s grace we also accept acting prudently with our lives considering our divine relationship. To love our neighbors is messy, because we can be harmed. It is not just some sappy feel-good story. Jesus’ life is one of unbearable heartache over injustices, righteous anger at lacking compassion, defying those who claimed everything as their own when the truth is that it is all God’s in the beginning.

While we may not be able to agree with even those closest to us, potentially our very own families, we can rely on God’s vision for the world to carry us through our lives. This is not because it will magically happen. It is because of that messy truth for Micah, Jesus, and for us. We must live the more peaceful and just world that God intends for us. It isn’t easy precisely because it upsets our own kin sometimes. It may challenge the fundamental view of the society around you. It will tick off some powerful people. It is conspiring with Jesus for the sake of God’s reign. Living Jesus’ vision for the world ended his life, and he alludes to that in our gospel passage today as well. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

            Jesus brings a fire of the Holy Spirit that consumes him, compelling him to conspire for the world around him in the name of God’s peace, justice, and love. It is easy for us with the most to feel loss when we move from privileging and protecting power toward trusting in God’s peaceful abundance for all people. Widening the circle can be scary for us in the center. It is a messy truth.

From last week’s gospel: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” People go from consumers to neighbors. Wealth becomes shared, weapons become tools of agriculture and beauty, past wrongs are righted as much as possible, and death goes from the end to the beginning. This is the same Jesus, who says “Peace be with you” when he appeared to his disciples in the weeks following the resurrection.

What is God’s peace in the midst of all these messy truths in an even messier world? How do we do justice without drawing some lines in the sand and ruffling some feathers? What does it mean to love kindness and mercy if it can divide us from our own kin? What are the ways walking humbly with God disrupts the world? How do we respond to God’s unending love and grace? Jesus didn’t die because he was a really nice guy. Jesus died because the world wanted him dead, but we live to serve as he did as his resurrected body. Ultimately, we all get to choose for ourselves how to do it. It turns out it might be messy. Amen.

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