￼Let’s talk about power.
Let me give you two images: the beheading of John the Baptist is the first. The second is the feeding of the thousands in Jesus’ ministry.
Somehow, this world does not doubt the former. Sometimes it is wielded by Herod, sometimes by Pharaoh, others by Caesar- the rulers of this world wield that kind of power and we covet and fear it. The imagery of the beheading of a dissident is visceral, present, and real. We can see it, we can imagine it.
But what about the power that comes to mind with the feeding of thousands of people from just a few loaves and fish?
Even in the church, that kind of power is, well, doubted. It’s harder to get behind.
But let’s stick with it and build that picture out for a minute: imagine a world where everyone has enough. Imagine a community where all basic needs are met. Just for a moment, picture people being so kind to each other that even when there is a threat of not having enough for everybody, somehow the community wields so much kindness that somehow that scarcity turns it around into having enough for everybody. That spiritual energy of love is so strong in this image that the little bit of food mysteriously becomes enough. And that is a different kind of power than cutting off a man’s head. But for some reason, the world- and maybe even we- have a hard time giving it credence.
The psalm today is my favorite psalm in the whole psalter. It is the longest psalm in the text. It is an ode to the love of Torah, to the love of God’s law.
I know it’s a little weird to be a favorite. God’s law may invoke strange images, maybe involving Charlton Heston and lightning.
But if some kind of angry, wrathful God comes to mind when we mention the law, then that’s a distortion of what the law, the Torah, meant for the ancients.
The law for them was not restrictive. It was not a limitation on freedom. It was freedom. It was the way to a better life. It was the description of how to achieve that second elusive kind of neighborly power we were just talking about.
The Israelites knew the first kind of power. They lived under Pharaoh’s rule. Biblical scholar Walter Bruegemann describes their lives under Pharaoh like this: “Make bricks. Make more bricks. Make bricks without straw. Make more bricks. Do not take a break. Keep working.
￼Keep producing. Keep making bricks. These bricks will benefit Pharaoh and the building of Pharaoh’s reign. Pharoah’s law for the predatory economy is ‘be more productive.’ Those who are not more productive do not get resources. It is coercive productivity. Pharoah is so anxious about losing his status, belongings, and authority that he chooses to kill his own work force, Hebrew baby boys.” 1
But they escaped, and they got to Sinai, and they received this new set of commandments, carried down the mountain by Moses, this new way of life. And its focus was not making bricks for somebody else. It’s focus: neighborliness. Bruegemann summarizes the ten commandments, that paradigm shift, this way: “Do not make God into a usable object. Do not make your neighbor into a commodity.”
Jesus, of course, was Jewish, and lived under that same law of neighborliness. And while we don’t have time to go into it fully today, the sermon on the mount that we have a little of today is a big part of Jesus’ attempt to recapture the essence of the law after the people had fallen away once again and tried to turn the law into Pharaoh’s tool.
Now, it’s a few thousand years later, and it’s popular in some circles to beat up on the Torah, on the law, because again we have folks who have turned the law into Pharaoh’s tool. But that just isn’t what the Torah was for, and you can hear it in the psalmists voice as he sings out: Happy are they who walk in the ways of the Lord! Happy are they who observe his decrees! Oh, that I might keep your commandments, oh, that I keep your statutes! I will thank you when I have learned of your judgements, I will keep your ways of neighborliness– don’t let me go back to the ways of Pharaoh.
Just a footnote- the psalmist doesn’t say, “ make those people over there follow your ways.” The Psalm is an appeal to God to help the psalmist himself remember to be a part of it.
God’s ways are the way out of the anxiety of Pharaoh and the way into the peaceable kingdom of God’s abundant love.
And that’s good news for us, even though it’s hard news.
I have to say that this has been especially on my mind this week as I have entered into at least two or three conversations a day on the role of the church in what some might call “the current unpleasantness.”
How do we balance reconciliation with justice as followers of Jesus?
Can’t we just move on already and talk about something peaceful?
A nice sermon on the sublime beauty of the Trinity would be lovely about now, some say.
The wonderful thing is that we have room to disagree on these things. That’s part of being neighborly and resisting Pharaoh.
Here are my reflections in light of our texts this week.
The Jesus we’ve got clarifies the law in a way that requires us to engage. We have to get our hands dirty, maybe even our whole body. As Jesus starts this gospel passage this morning he says that the commandment against murder isn’t really about just not killing people. That isn’t what leads to that beautiful kind of power that creates neighborliness. Lack of conflict isn’t what makes true peace. It is the presence of reconciliation.
Nope, we’re not off the hook, and that is a shame because there are a lot of times that something shows up in my Facebook feed that I feel like I should really be awarded bonus points simply for not killing the poster of that article.
But nonetheless, Jesus brings the point home that God’s law isn’t about simply creating a society where we don’t kill each other, or even one where we don’t have conflict. It is about creating something constructive instead. It is about creating a society where when people get angry, as they are want to do, they deal with it. They stop what they are doing, and they go and talk to one another, human to human, person to person, face to face. And they reconcile. And that is the most important thing. It isn’t really as simple as being a society that doesn’t kill each other. It is about being a society that values each other enough to care when we injure each other spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically.
Reconciliation doesn’t leave out resistance, though, because reconciliation is only possible when both parties are willing. At the beginning of the sermon on the mount we had the beatitudes, which called the community to value those who are discarded by Pharaoh’s power. Jesus at the beginning of this speech reminds the community that God’s law of neighborliness gives a special priority to those discarded by Pharaoh’s law.
And towards the end of the sermon on the mount, Jesus will direct the community to resistance. “You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say to you do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Theologian Walter Wink says this passage is more accurately translated “do not resist violently.” 2 Wink says that turning the other cheek by itself is a form of resistance. We have in Christ a model for nonviolent resistance that is wholly foreign to the idea of retaliation with beheading, with taking tit for tat, and instead of retaliating against Caesar went to the cross, our ultimate symbol that when Pharaoh or Caesar or Pilate’s power appears to win, God’s power has the last say. In Jesus and the cross, the Church received the very difficult model of power in nonviolent resistance, of risking all that we have and all that we are for those who Pharaoh does not value. As many scholars have noted, we are not called to pacifism. Pacifism is passive. Nonviolence is active, taking an active stand by intentionally refusing to either be a helpless victim or a heartless monster, but instead reaffirming both your own dignity and the humanity of those who seek to dehumanize you or others. 2
Imagine where civil rights would be without nonviolent, Christian resistance. We celebrate the feast of Absalom Jones tomorrow as a triumph over the powers of Pharaoh when the church first tried to exclude African-Americans and suddenly refused to seat them anywhere but the balcony
￼of the church. Absalom Jones lead the African-Americans in nonviolent resistance to that atrocity and left the church. The powers of neighborliness eventually were too strong to resist as the parties later reconciled, and the church later ordained Absalom Jones as the first African-American priest.
Absalom Jones and his followers resisted in faith, and I am glad for it.
The final distinction I want to make is this: if you are simply members of the church, then none of this matters. The way of Jesus isn’t meant for members of a country club, each individually making decisions about what they like and don’t like.
But if you, if we, are the body of Christ, joined together mystically in the unity of the Holy Spirit, then maybe the power of neighborliness has a chance. Then it is less important what you believe or what I believe and more important what we are called to do together, as one body with many members, each with a purpose and a value and knitted together into the larger fabric of humanity in the waters of baptism. That body’s purpose is to spread the law of neighborliness. Happy are they who walk in the ways of the Lord!
If being a part of that mystical body sounds interesting to you come explore it more deeply in the inquirers class this Lent, whether you have been here for 6 days, 6 months, or many years. If you are interested in how to live in neighborliness with our brothers and sisters from other faiths in a world afraid to leave the clutches of Pharaoh, I invite you to sign up for the book study small group this Lent so we can have small, safe spaces to build communities of neighborhood in the living waters of baptism.
Because the good news is that God wants for us what we keep forgetting: that every single person is valuable in this global neighborhood of abundant love. Every immigrant and every citizen. No matter who they voted for, they are valuable. No matter whether they spew hatred or spew love; they are made somehow in God’s image in this wondrous economy of God’s grace and neighborliness. And maybe the whole point the psalmist is trying to convey is that the only way we can get that is to walk in God’s ways. My friends, we have a way forward. It leads through the cross. It’s a harder path than the way of Pharaoh. But it leads to a very different place– to a peaceable kingdom full of neighborliness, love, and abundance. Which way shall we choose?
The Rev. Jeff Martinhauk
Epiphany 6A, February 12, 2017
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego