Winning Team

a sermon for the seventh Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

Luke 6:27-38

Have you been watching any of the Winter Olympics over the past couple of weeks? I haven’t been able to catch as much as I normally do, but I’ve noticed that whether it is the Summer Olympic Games or the Winter Olympic ones it seems that certain countries tend to do well in certain events and sports year after year. Downhill skiing, for example, is dominated by the Austrians. Their country is basically all mountains, so they kind of have an advantage when it comes to that sport. When you think of speed skating you tend to think of the Dutch. They’ve got no mountains at all. Everything’s super flat there and there’s lots of water around so they’ve developed the talent pool to skate on icy surfaces. The Norwegians are the team to beat when it comes to cross-country skiing and this interesting sport when you ski around a while and then shoot a gun. I think it’s called biathlon. I guess in Norway there’s not just a lot of snow but also moose to hunt. Snowboarding is typically something we Americans are good at. It was invented here, and it kind of suits us: edgy, flashy, and a bit out of control. Other people from other countries may bring hold a medal from time to time, but often certain sports become the hallmark of specific people.

Matthias Mayer of Austria takes the gold

If all of life were like the Olympic games, and people of different creeds and ways of life all competing together, Jesus would say that his followers would be known for their command of forgiveness and love. Jesus’ followers would be the team to beat when it came to blessing others and sharing what they have. They’d dominate the edgy events of de-escalating conflict and seeking the higher ground.

After all, any ordinary person can do good to those who do good to them. Followers of Christ take it a step further: they win the gold with this rule of gold: do to all others as you would have them do to you. Any regular sinner, as Jesus points out, can lend something to another person hoping they’ll getting it back, maybe with interest. It’s the Christians who are notable for how they give without strings. And any old schmo can love the people who are easy to get along with. It’s the ones who have been training with Jesus who get better at loving the ones who are a bit prickly.

This is Jesus’ hope and plan for the community his love creates: that they function in the world as a people who act differently than the norm. Conspicuously, they are to hold back on judging others and condemning them for their behavior. Jesus, of course, said all of this before people had to wear facemasks. Even he had no idea how judgmental we would become one day about the wearing of or the rejecting of facemasks. Nevertheless, his vision is that the ever-rolling tide of judgmentalism might be turned back by the people who follow him.

In one of the final episodes of the first season of Ted Lasso, Apple TV’s hit over the past two years, the title character faces off against his boss’ nasty ex-husband, Rupert, who has judged Ted to be an imbecile and a rube. Through a surprising game of darts in a pub, which Ted masterfully wins, he teaches Rupert the importance of being “Curious, not judgmental.” Ted chooses it almost as a type of life motto for himself, finding there is a wisdom in holding back on judging people and instead just observing them and getting to know them.

I have to think Jesus’ sermon to his disciples lines up quite nicely with that. Be curious, not judgmental, Jesus might have said. In a world of vengeful people, be merciful. In a field of harsh and rigid ideologues out there, be gracious and flexible. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back, and you probably want to get a generous measure.

Interestingly enough, one of the oldest documents we have about the Christian faith describes in thoughtful detail what some non-Christians thought of Christ’s followers. It’s called the Letter to Diognetus, and it is unique among the early Christian writings because it is not addressed to another Christian but someone outside the faith altogether. We don’t know who the author was, but we do know it was sent to some Diognetus, who may have been a tutor to the Roman Emperor. It was likely written sometime between A.D. 150 and A.D. 225. In it the author tries to explain how this new faith, this new group of people who follow Christ, come across in society. Here’s a bit of what he tells Diognetus:

“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle. They share their food, but not their [spouses]. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are poor, yet they make many rich. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life.”[1]

No eccentric lifestyle. No strange customs or way of speaking. Across the ancient landscape, home to so many different sects and groups, Christians are just known for love made real in the lives of the people they come into contact with, and, most notably, in the lives of those who don’t seem to like them.

This was the reputation of Christ’s followers then, and sometimes I wonder what our reputation is now. If someone were to write a letter to Diognetus today, describing how Christians behaved as a group, would it be so flattering? What would outsiders notice and comment on?

Jesus’ instructions in his sermon on the plain apply to both individuals and to the church as a whole. It’s not easy to tell that in the English because we have the same word, “you,” for the singular and plural second person pronoun, but Jesus switches back and forth between you as individuals and you as “y’all.” So, therefore, it’s not just our own individual enemies that Jesus encourages us to treat well, but also the enemies of the church, those who oppose or persecute us.

I have to be honest and say I don’t know exactly who that might be in today’s culture, since the church isn’t being persecuted in the same way in the United States as it was in the second century. There are no gladiator games, no pits of lions we’re being thrown to. Most of the times Christ-followers, churches, and Christian groups start from a place of power and privilege in our country. Regardless, the vision Jesus casts for his community is one where the unexpected and kind response is our standard. When provoked, when inconvenienced, when ridiculed, when misunderstood, the church responds with grace and understanding and self-sacrifice.

This is no persecution, but three years ago our congregation felt a bit singled out when the county required us to put a sidewalk along Horsepen Road. No other property along this road has one, so we considered fighting it, since we were going to have to cover the cost. But in one meeting one of our builders said, “Do you really want to be a church known for refusing to build a sidewalk, for fighting against something that will make you a better neighbor and might lead to more community in your context?”

It was like that builder was reminding us of what Diognetus had heard 19 centuries ago—us, the people who should be automatically gracious and do good even when it’s hard. Now the county is proposing sidewalks all along this corridor all the way down to Forest Avenue and Patterson. We started it! Jesus hopes his followers are named for starting and continuing all kinds of good measures throughout the world.

But whether it’s the donation of a sidewalk to people who can’t pay us back, or offering our other cheek to the person who has humiliated us, or giving to the person who has already asked for too much, these are tough teachings. Some of the things Jesus asks his followers to do here are tactics of non-violent resistance, like giving your shirt even if someone takes away your coat. In ancient times, the most anyone wore on their body was an outer coat and undershirt. And so if someone assaulted you by taking your coat, then by giving them your shirt too you stood before them naked, which would have been shameful for them. I’m not sure Jesus is preparing his disciples for something that might happen to them a lot or if he’s speaking metaphorically. The point is: rather than responding violently or even aggressively or even judgmentally, through forgiveness and compassion we put them in the position where they feel humiliated by what they’ve done.

These are indeed hard things, challenging teachings. The good news is that our job is never really to follow Christ teachings, like they’re some book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble that we buy and read each morning with our coffee. We are not called to follow teachings. We are called to follow the teacher, that teacher is risen from the dead. Christ loves us, guides us, even when we fail, even when we back away from this life of love. Christ claims us though grace and equips us through his Spirit and actually lives in us, both as individuals and as a group, empowering us to response in grace to world filled with hostility. God is kind, after all, to the ungrateful and the wicked, not just the ones who always get things right.

Our ability to play on this team, to be known for love and forgiveness and mercy is not up to us at all. We are able because Jesus has first loved and forgiven and been merciful with us. Jesus comes alongside of us and shows us the way. And I don’t know about you, but I feel I hold this team of ours back all the time. Jesus comes to rescue and retrain, reboot and refresh, time and time again.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who died just two months ago, worked for forgiveness and reconciliation in a country that was torn by the wickedness of racial segregation. He and other black people and people of color in South Africa had endured decades of cruel and wicked treatment. He was able to help the church bring about unthinkable changes of healing in that country because of his steadfast view that in Jesus God had already won against the forces of evil. He famously summed up the anti-apartheid movement by saying to those who supported it, “God is not mocked! You have already lost! We just ask that you see us as humans.”[2]

Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1931-2021)

Perhaps that’s the key to working on this list of unrealistic goals Jesus has for his team, a bar so high in forgiveness and love that there is only one way we can reach it. We remember we’ve already won. Our team is victorious. We love our enemies, we bless our persecutors, we live in kindness not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the only logical thing to do if Jesus is risen from the dead. It’s the only logical, natural thing to do if we are, in fact, what Jesus calls us: children of the Most High. And the measure we give will be the measure we get back, pressed down, shaken together, running over.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Epistle to Diognetus”, 5:1 ff. in The Apostolic Fathers. Edited and revised by Michael W. Holmes. Baker Books, p 541

[2] “Troublemaker in a Cassock,” The Economist, Jan 1, 2022 Edition

To Be Blessed

a sermon on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

Psalm 1 and Luke 6:17-26

The Smith Spring Trail in the Guadalupe Mountains of western Texas takes you on a short stretch through the Chihuahuan Desert, a vast and desolate dry area that can only grow the spiniest and prickliest plants. Because there are no trees there, no signs of human civilization—you can see for miles and miles over the rocky and barren terrain. It is all cactus and thorn for as far as the eye can see. All in all it is a 3-mile loop through desert except for one brief portion where you suddenly turn out of the wide and unforgiving landscape into a lush, almost tropical forest. That is the site of the Smith Spring, a small valley at the base of one mountain where, inexplicably, a stream of water breaks from beneath the rock and trickles down to form a small pool before cascading down the slope into a creekbed. It is a constant source of water, flowing year round.

You cannot believe how clear the water is—you feel as if you could reach down and scoop up some up with your dusty hand to slake your thirst. The vegetation noticeably changes. There are now large trees with big, drooping leaves. A ring of lacy, light-green ferns rims the edge of the pool. You look up and notice you are standing in total shade. Just a few dozen yards away, however, the desert stretches out before you.

Before my family happened upon Smith Spring this summer I had never encountered an oasis, or how just a small bit of water could make such a difference in life. It is a scene that illustrates perfectly what the composer of Psalm 1 is trying to describe. He imagines two natural landscapes like the desert and the oasis and explains their differences in stark terms: those whose delight is in the law of the Lord, who meditate on God’s teaching day and night are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season. They are like the velvet ferns and mosses that ring the pool of Smith Spring, which find their sustenance in the water’s nearness. But it is not so with the wicked. They are like the dry and broken limbs of the desert, like chaff that easily blows away in the wind.

Chihuahuan Desert, TX

Here we are asked to view a clear contrast between the righteous and the wicked, and it all comes down to how closely they are growing to the law of the Lord. Those who are connected to the things God desires and the things God loves thrive and prosper. Those who do not, those who plant themselves elsewhere, who root their live within themselves alone, will not be able to stand upright. One is blessed, the other is not. Our translation uses the word “happy” instead of blessed, but the original Hebrew conveys more of a sense of fortune than it does an emotion. Fortune, blessing, is to those who don’t consult the wicked, who don’t look to sinners for advice. But who anchor their roots in the life-giving ways of God.

It’s the first psalm of the Bible, the one that sets the tone for all the rest and teaches us right up front that God’s Word is a trusted and life-giving foundation. It’s helpful to know right up front what makes for a blessed life and what doesn’t. Sitting in my son’s kindergarten classroom for a conference this week with all the educational decorations on the wall, the rules and consequences, expectations for behavior, I could see it was clear that contrasting right from wrong is was something to teach in the very beginning.

All too often, however, we end up framing blessing and fortune in other ways. We end up thinking that blessings has to do with doing well financially. We label blessed those who are prosperous and socially successful, who have fame and power, and those who are poor or in unfortunate circumstances have been cast aside. We lift up the affluent and powerful as examples to follow because of the affluence and power we desire. We praise them for their hard work and their brilliance. And the poor—well, we often to think that somehow, somewhere, they are responsible for their ill fortune. Blessing has been bestowed on the billionaires. Damnation on the destitute.

In the church this has come to be known as the prosperity gospel, a harmful belief that financial blessings and even good health will come upon those who do God’s will and work and pray hard enough at it. The prosperity gospel gets me to focus more on what I could reach for, what I could attain, rather than where my roots are planted. This was a common way of thinking even in the ancient world. Those who were poor or in some kind of misfortune were assumed to have fallen out of favor with God.

Into this kind of world comes Jesus, the Son of God who announces the arrival of God’s kingdom. He has already said he comes to bring good news to the poor and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He has assembled a rag tag group of followers from all walks of common life. And now, amidst a huge multitude of people Jesus comes and stands on a level place to begin healing them and teaching them. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus does something similar,  but there he’s on a mountain. Luke remembers this sermon happening on a flat area, as if the landscape itself is accentuating how he is one with them, and how they are all really equal to each other.

And in the midst of this huge crowd filled with all kinds of lost and hurting people Jesus says the most peculiar thing. He says “Blessed are you who are poor…blessed are you who are hungry…Blessed are you who weep now…Blessed are you when people hate you.”

It’s the total opposite from what almost everyone would expect. All of the things that people likely thought were curses, Jesus suddenly calls blessings. All of the things we still think are curses—things we try at all costs to avoid, parts of our lives we don’t want anyone to see, people we try to redline out of nice neighborhoods and push to the other side of the tracks—Jesus calls blessings. And when he continues, it gets a little more personal, “Woe to you who are rich…Woe to you who are full now…Woe to you who are laughing now…Woe to you when all speak well of you.”

I read an article recently about how many preachers are exhausted these days because of the extremely divided nature of our country. I wouldn’t really put myself in that category, but I do know because of the highly charged political environment these days, preachers and religious leaders have to very carefully craft their message so as not to rile up one side or the other. It seems every little message or remark can get interpreted by one side or the other as an offensive stance. One of my colleagues here in Richmond describes preaching these days as walking a tightrope, carefully measuring every little word and phrase for neutrality.

Here Jesus walks no tightrope, he measures no words, he makes no room for neutrality. He is explicit and bold and in doing so his words completely reorient our understanding of who is blessed, who is fortunate, and who is not. And it flies in the face of the prosperity gospel and our own adoring perspectives on the rich of the world who offer joy rides into space and host world leaders in their private mansions. I look at Jesus’ list and find myself offended because I fall in the list of “woes.” Relatively speaking, I am very rich, and I love it when people speak well of me. I take note of how many people watch us each week on-line and all the likes on my social media posts—especially if I have a good Wordle score. You betta recognize!

During my seminary internship in Cairo, Egypt, I worked closely with many refugees from southern Sudan, Darfur, and the Horn of Africa. These were people whose lives had been utterly disrupted by violent armies who had slaughtered their loved ones and burned their villages. They came to Egypt as the only means of escape hoping they might find a safe life elsewhere, knowing they could never return. They had very little in terms of physical property. Most were mourning and also in need of physical and mental health care. I’m always a bit nervous when I speak of those who are labelled poor because everyone deserves more than being known and seen for what they have or don’t have. It is easy to romanticize poverty, too, but I learned that year that being poor is no one’s dream. It is heartbreaking not to be able to provide food for your children. Even as we celebrate the fact our congregation raised $4000 last Christmas to help Afghan refugees resettle in the Richmond area, we know it can be demeaning to exist by relying on handouts. Those who work closely with Moments of Hope, a charity our congregation will support this month through the making of 500 sack lunches, could tell you better than I can that the causes of poverty are complex. There is no part of Jesus’ words here that is lifting up poverty as a happy state or something to be desired. Jesus does not want anyone to be a refugee or hungry or grieving.

refugees at a camp in Darfur, Sudan

And yet we do learn from our refugee friends, from those we reach out to in need, how fortunate they are in one key way, just as I have learned how fortunate the widow is mourning her husband’s death, and how fortunate the high school kid who is excluded and made fun of because of their faith or church attendance.  That is, the poor have few places to put their roots but in the promises of God. Those who mourn, who’ve been racked by grief or disaster, have nowhere to turn but to the consolation from heaven because their heart is aching and empty and nothing on earth seems to help. The person who is left out of prosperity because of their skin color, for example, knows a lot more than I do how to depend on God. Ask Daniela Jacobs, Principal of Fox Elementary School, and her community of children and teachers if they believe they alone can rebuild their school and their careers.

Blessed are they! Fortunate are they! They are more apt than most others to be like trees planted by streams of water because that’s where the sustenance is reliable. And the rich and popular and powerful and ones who have it made—who are often the white, the male, the well-educated—we just so happen to be just in the right place rarely to have to depend on anyone outside of ourselves. When power is on your side and you have general control over your circumstances, why would you ever seek help outside of yourself? Woe to us! We learn too late the truth of the old Chinese Christian proverb: the only thing the human soul cannot endure is extreme prosperity.

And yet this Jesus. This very Jesus with his stern warnings for you and for me still wants people on level place, it seems, the rich and the poor, the mourning and the rejoicing. This Son of God comes to walk alongside the wicked and sit with the sinner. And so he does go to a mountain one day with his message in a giant transplanting effort so that all may be deeply rooted again and again in the mercy of God. It’s a lonely, forsaken mountain where nothing but a rugged cross sticks out of the ground. And thorns. Those too. The prickliest kind. And right there as he dies he shows us all what it truly means to throw all your trust in with God’s Word, to be nourished in things like forgiveness, mercy, hope, and love. He goes where we could never grow to show God claims it all and God conquers all.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be blessed. I want to be planted by streams of water where my roots can grow and thrive. He does that again today, my friends. To all of us. In his body and blood he gathers us all again to a level place. He gathers us all—rich and poor—to a level place with the hopes we will go from here, some of us humbled, some of us lifted up, to make the world more loving and more level.

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.