One of the cool things we did this summer at Camp Kindness was to cover the sidewalks of Cable with messages of kindness and encouragement. With the permission of the store owners, the kids took sidewalk chalk and shared their individual messages of kindness with the community. I think was so cool because it’s one thing to “talk a good game” but it’s a whole different thing to put kindness into action. And the kids did a great job of converting their thoughts into written words and beautiful pictures.
Now, this got me to thinking: What messages do we as adults and as a congregation send to the community? How do we convert our faith, our thoughts and good intentions into beautiful pictures of kindness and grace? Well, (CABLE: the rainbow signs on the front of the church) (DELTA: our words of invitation to the wider community) send a message of extravagant welcome to all, that’s a good example. We give generously to the food shelf, to the 5 for 5 and many other special offerings, we have dinners and seasonal worship that offer opportunities for our neighbors join us in fellowship and prayer and song. And over the course of the past four years, I’ve come to appreciate that both of our churches have a special way of including visitors, summer residents, and members into the very fabric, the very life and leadership of the church. That’s really a unique and I would say “Christ-like” quality.
But I think our actions must go even deeper than even these things. But how? How can we go deeper? Well, consider that in Eastern culture, old men didn’t run. However, the character of the father in today’s text “ran out” to meet his son. Why? Well, one obvious reason was paternal love and his desire to show that love to his returning son. But there’s something else, a cultural aspect in play here as well. You see, this wayward son had brought disgrace to his family and village and according to the Law of Moses, specifically Deuteronomy 21, he should have been stoned to death. But if the neighbors had started to stone him, they would have also hit the father who was embracing him![I]
And since this parable is an allegory in which the parent represents God and we are to see ourselves in the character of the son, we, I think, are meant to see that God loves us in that same unconditional, willing to be stoned, kind of way; that God loves each of us, all of us; mistakes and transgressions and bad choices and all.
And if God was then willing to turn an emblem of shame, to turn an icon of guilt; if God was willing to turn the most humiliating way of being executed in his day, namely, crucifixion upon a cross, into a channel of grace and a symbol of healing and restoration, then why in the world would we sit on our hands when it comes to proclaiming “a just world for all”?
You see, all of these parables that we find here in the middle of Luke’s Gospel point us forward toward to cross; that’s a literary tool called “foreshadowing.” But these parables and teachings are also meant to remind us of Christ’s mission and purpose. A mission that he revealed in the fourth chapter of this gospel: “I came,” he said, “…to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and to liberate the oppressed.” And that’s exactly what Jesus did back then and what God is still doing today.
Because no matter where you find yourself today, God loves you. God loves you! Do you get that! GOD LOVES YOU! So, no matter how far you think you’ve wandered off, God’s awaiting your return. BUT God isn’t standing still, according to this text, God is symbolically running toward you, embracing you and celebrating with you when you change your heart and life.
Because, and this is important, sometimes I’m the one who’s poor and at other times I’m the bearer of good news. Sometimes your neighbor is the one who’s in prison, either literally or figuratively, and at other times they may be the “keeper of the keys.” Sometimes you’re the one suffering from spiritual blindness, apathy, or indifference to the plight of others, and at other times you’re a beacon of Light in the darkness. And sometimes, sometimes, we’re the ones being oppressed. But there are moments, my friends, there are moments when we are the liberators. We cannot be all things to all people, but we can seek to be the hands and the feet and the voice and the heart of the Sacred One each and every day. If… if we have the courage and the will and the faith to stand up and be heard.
Which leads us back to our original question: How can we go deeper? Well, how we go deeper may be different for each of us and that’s okay. I’m going to offer some suggestions and an illustration, but please understand that this list is neither exhaustive nor is every suggestion going to fit the purpose and calling of every person. Jesus invites us to live-out the gospel in unique and wonderful and diverse ways; just like we, as a community of faith, are unique and wonderful and diverse.
So, first, a little about Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, as you might already know, read from the Sermon on the Mount nearly every morning and evening for over forty years. Although he wasn’t a Christian, he decided early on to live his life according to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. As he wrote in his autobiography, the first time he read them they went straight to his heart. Such teachings, he writes, “Offer no violent resistance to evil,” [And they] delighted me beyond measure.”[ii] Gandhi goes on to say, “When I came to the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount, I began to understand the Christian teaching. It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me.”[iii]
Dr. King once said of Gandhi, remembering that Gandhi was Hindu; King said that Gandhi was “the greatest Christian of modern times.” Why did Dr. King offer such high praise? Because Gandhi went deeper. He didn’t just offer lip service to Christ’s call and example of non-violent resistance, he lived it! And in the end, it did make a difference. He made a difference to the marginalized and oppressed people of India and South Africa.
How can we make a difference? Well, we must put the full weight of our voice into action. I mean, we cannot simply say we welcome all people into our midst unless we’re actually welcoming. Right? We cannot say, “God loves you, warts and all,” and still gossip or talk about someone behind their back. We cannot call ourselves a “safe sanctuary” and then turn a blind eye to domestic violence or bullying or sexual abuse even when taking such a stance is unpopular. But instead, we can participate in things like the upcoming Break the Silence Sunday on October 13 and candlelight vigil that evening in support of those harmed by domestic violence or rape or sexual abuse.
Do you see what I’m driving at here? Going deeper means getting our hands dirty, stepping outside our comfort zone, and leaning into the problems that surround us. Perhaps it even means changing our hearts and lives and attitudes about some of the most critical issues that face us today.
For instance, we cannot claim to be a people of justice and then put our own self-interest before the plight of the poor, or the asylum seeker, or the refugee. That’s counter to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. But instead, we can offer a calm voice in the debate, debunking hate-filled words like “invasion” and instead advocate for a fair and just immigration system. And we can participate in becoming a part of the healing process by contributing to our care-kits for children at the border drive this November.
And same is true when it comes to climate change. We cannot claim to be a climate justice congregation if we don’t look inward and change our ways and habits, even if those changes are painful in the short run. We could instead, take inventory of our carbon footprint as individuals and as a community, we could participate in marches to raise awareness, and we can continue to offer hope to our children and grandchildren by making decisions based upon the effect those decision will have upon the next seven generations.
Now, I know this is a lot to process. But it’s vital that we not only consider these issues, but that we act upon them. My friends, it’s time for each of us to take out our chalk and begin coloring pictures of kindness and grace and acceptance on the sidewalks of this world and the time is now for us to turn and come home into the embrace of a Creator who’s running out to meet us, and who loves each of us, all of us, all of humanity and all of creation, unconditionally and beyond measure. My friends, the turn begins today. Amen and Amen.
[ii] Mahatma Gandhi, An Autobiography, or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, trans. Mahadev Desai (Navajivan Publishing House: 1996, ©1927), 58. See Gandhi on Christianity, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis Books: 1991), 5.
[iii] Mahatma Gandhi, “The Jesus I Love,” Young India, vol. 13, no. 53 (December 31, 1931), 429. See Ellsberg, 21.