Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Matthew 23:1-12 (Common English Bible CEB)

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do, they do to be noticed by others. They make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes. They love to sit in places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’ “But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly. Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher. But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant. All who lift themselves up will be brought low. But all who make themselves low will be lifted up.

Religion has always been connected with words. If you look at the history of religion throughout the ages and collected all the words associated with them, you would find volumes upon volumes of wisdom contained within the scriptures and prayers, the hymns, and the chants of many expressions of faith. Even religions that proport to be “wordless,” such as Taoism or Zen Buddhism, tend to have their own collections of words. [i] And this, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Buddhism for example, teaches that words can be like fingers pointing to the moon; the challenge however, is not to confuse the finger with the moon. [ii] In other words, don’t let the words themselves become more important than the meaning behind them.

Now, I think, this pithy bit of wisdom unearths an issue that we face as contemporary Christians. As people of faith, and especially as pastors, we say all kinds of things that might be considered profound, perhaps even beautiful to our ear, but at the end of the day I think our religious words can come-off as elusive or even exclusive to people outside the church walls. Why? Because far too often we don’t practice what we preach. I think religious people, even well-intentioned religious people, like myself, say one thing but do another. We offer words of compassion and cry out for justice but when it comes down to it, when it comes down to “putting our money where our mouth is” we sometimes fall short.

Which brings us to Matthew. In our reading for today, Jesus sensed the urgency of the hour, and therefore, he didn’t hold back in this speech. When he spoke to the crowds, he observed that the religious leaders, the ones with so much book-learning about God, were so full of themselves and so proud of their position that they missed the main point of it all. And Jesus, as we’ve seen so many times in Matthew’s account, used this teaching moment to instruct his followers about the way they should live. He invited them to become humble servant-leaders and servant-teachers. [iii]  They were not to imitate the example they had seen in the Pharisees and scribes, but instead, they were to live-into the higher ideals of their faith.

So, what were these “higher ideals”? Well, Jesus says in our text for today, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

The downfall of the religious leaders was their hypocrisy. They said one thing and did another. They didn’t practice what they preached, right? They created interpretations of the law that were so burdensome that no one could keep them. The only way for the common person to follow the law then, to be righteous, to be considered clean and therefore worthy of temple worship, was to enrich the religious leaders. The poor had to grease the palms of the wealthy.

So, Jesus was basically saying to his followers, “They say all the right things. They put together long, eloquent strings of words touting liberation and shalom; they talk a good game about caring for the widows and orphans and giving alms to the poor. And these things you should do. However, “if you want to know what a person believes, watch his feet, not his mouth.” [iv]  The words coming out of the religious elites mouths didn’t match their actions. That’s why Jesus said, “do as they say, and not as they do.”

And this makes perfect sense to me. James, in his writings, held that a faith without works is a dead faith. And that was the essence of Jesus’ criticism. The Pharisees and the scribes didn’t practice a living faith. In his book by the same name, President Jimmy Carter said, “In the Christian tradition, the concept of faith has two interrelated meanings, both implying fidelity: confidence in being (God), and action based on firm belief.”[v] In both the words of the former president and the brother of Jesus, we see what’s been termed “a theology of praxis.” That is, a theological understanding that just words must be accompanied by just action. Or, as in the words of the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez: “To be followers of Jesus requires that [we] walk with and be committed to the poor; when [we] do, [we] experience an encounter with the Lord who is simultaneously revealed and hidden in the faces of the poor”[vi]

As we come to this time of prayer and sacrament, I would like to invite you to ponder a couple of questions. Do we practice what we preach? Or, to be fair, Do we at least attempt to say what we’ll do and then do what we said? Do we have fidelity to both being and action? Do we take the time and effort to search for the face of Jesus in the faces of the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, or the lonely? In other words, is our faith a living faith, a faith that produces fruit, a faith that moves us, all of us, toward a more just world, and cleaner world, and kinder world?

These are the questions we must consider.

Amen & Amen.

[i] Alan Brehm Do As We Say ( 2011

[ii] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, on pg. 61, Knitter says, “Fingers serve to point us in the direction of that mystery, which can be as real in our experience as it is beyond our words and understanding.”

[iii] Katheryn Matthews What Should I Do ( 2020

[iv] Richard Swanson Provoking the Gospel of Matthew (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2007) Pg. 255

[v] Jimmy Carter Living Faith (New York: Random House, 1998) pg. 4

[vi]  Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells (Maryknoll/ Melbourne: Orbis Books/ Dove Communications, 1984), pgs. 37-38.

Being Faithful

The Most Important Command (From The Message by Eugene Peterson)

When the Pharisees heard how he had bested the Sadducees, they gathered their forces for an assault. One of their religion scholars spoke for them, posing a question they hoped would show him up: “Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?” Jesus said, “‘Love God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

Today’s Message: Being Faithful

What’s it all about? What’s Christianity all about? What does it mean to be a person of faith? These are the questions that I would like to address today as we explore the very core, the very essence, of what it means to be faithful.

Now, to begin, I think you all know that within the wider Church there’s exists this assumption that being a Christian entails accepting a certain set of beliefs without question. And while that may sound harmless, living an unexamined faith has led to many of the darkest moments in our church’s history.  Think about the Crusades, or the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem Witch Trials, not to mention the rise of fundamentalism in our time. All of these stains on the faith, I would argue, have come from a long, slow advocation of rational thought in favor of a mindless, zelotious type of religious expression. In other words, when people stop thinking and asking and discerning; when the people of faith forget Jesus’ description of the core value of what it means to be a Christian, when we forget to love God, as Peterson so eloquently states it in today version of this text; with all of our “passion and prayer and intelligence” and to love others “as well as we love ourselves” …that’s when things begin to go off the rails.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Marcus Borg shared the following story. A small town businessman from a remote community in the mountains of North Carolina went to one of the larger cities, and there, for the first time in his life, he saw an ice-making machine. Now, machines that could make artificial ice were a recent invention; he thought this was wonderful because it meant you could have ice all summer long. So he returned to his small community in the mountains of North Carolina told his Baptist church about this great new invention. Within a month, however, the church had split into ice and no-ice Baptists. The theological issue in this case being is it a violation of the natural order established by God to make ice out of season. If God had wanted us to have ice in the summertime, God would have raised the freezing temperature of water seems to have been the argument.[i]

Now, the point of this example is that Christians, and maybe even Protestant Christians in particular, have been very concerned about believing the right things: infant baptism versus adult baptism, who can take communion and who cannot, the place of woman or LGBTQ folks within the Church, and so forth and so on. So… like I said before, we sometimes we make being a person of faith very complicated, as if it’s about getting our doctrines right and then excluding anyone who disagrees or hold a differing set of values.  

Being faithful, however, is actually very simple, even breathtakingly simple. Again, borrowing from the theology of Borg, I would like to offer you three statements to explain what I mean.

First of all, being faithful is about loving God and loving what God loves. So, what does it mean to “love what God loves.” John 3:16, one of the most beloved of all the Scriptures, says, “For God so loved the world….” God loves the world, not just me, not just you and me, not just Christians, not even just human beings, but the whole of creation. And, of course, this is also the central point of the Genesis story of creation. After each day in that six-day creation story, we are told “God saw that it was good,” and at the very end, “God saw that it was very good.” Now, of course, God doesn’t love the world simply as it is. God has, to use a phrase from Robert Frost, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” God loves this world and wills that it be a better and more just place for all people and all of creation.

The second statement. Being faithful is about becoming the kind of person who can love God and love what God loves. We all stand in need of transformation. The process of growing up does not predispose us to that deep love of God and that deep love of what God loves. The growing up process teaches us to be concerned about ourselves. This happens to all of us. It’s cultural. It’s human nature.

But faith offers something entirely different. Faith is a counterbalance to that innate tendency. What faith offers each of us is a way or a path that puts the other before self. But this transformation doesn’t just happen. It involves practice. The process of becoming more and more deeply centered in God, and centered in God as known decisively in Jesus, this requires an attention to our connection with God. In some ways our connection with God is like a human relationship. How does a human relationship deepen and grow? It deepens and grows by paying attention to it, by spending time in it, by being present to it. And so it is with our connection with God and this process of becoming more and more deeply centered in the Sacred. A centering that happens through both our personal and traditional practices of faith. Worship is the most important collective practice in the process and prayer the most widely used individual practice. In other words, prayer and worship are vehicles through which we deepen our connection with the Sacred.

Okay. The third statement. Being faithful is about being part of a community of transformation. It’s about living within the tradition and within a faith community as a means to an end. (that end being transformation) And this idea dovetails on what I’ve been saying thus far. Those of us who live in western culture grew up in a society that holds values and norms that are very, very different from the central theme of the Bible; the theme of loving God and neighbor. Society tells us to look out for number one. Society tells us we’re privileged and that we deserve more no matter the cost to anyone else or anything else. This was our first socialization and our primary formation. Or at the very least, if you grew up in the church, it was a parallel formation. But here’s the counterbalance to this way of thinking. Participating in a faith community, and I mean really participating in church, is about becoming involved in a process of re-socialization, or re-formation, so that our sense of ourselves, our identity, is shaped by our involvement in the  community. Transformative community is key to overcoming the self-centeredness that we see all around us and leads us to begin living into the kind of faith that Jesus inspires.[ii]

Now, let me conclude today with one more way of thinking about these “two great relationships”[iii] of loving God and neighbor. Being faithful is about having a passion for justice. It seems to me, that when we take a deep, long look at what Jesus said and what he did, over and over again in the gospels, we discover his passion for justice. I heard Cornel West say once, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”[iv] Justice is what love looks like in public. You know, justice is what love looks like because justice is the action part of love. Justice is love with “skin on.” Justice is the working part of seeking a just world for all. Having a passion for justice means moving beyond experiencing God’s love only as sentimentality, by moving into the realm of demonstrating God’s love for humanity and creation though action. My friends, we demonstrate God’s love when we give to organizations and missions that reach out to the most vulnerable; we share in Christ’s passion for justice when we use our voice and our vote to lift the downtrodden and the oppressed and those on the margins of society to a place of dignity, security, and prosperity; and we indwell the very Spirit of God when we come to view the world thru the lens of the other before self. A passion for justice means coming to the realization that we’re all, all of creation and all of humanity, black, brown, and white, …that we’re finally, all, interconnected at the very core of our being. The Spark of the Divine is in and within everything and everyone. There is no person who is less in the eyes of God and there is not a single creature, not even a mosquito, who is invaluable to the circle of life. We finally ALL count!   

My friends, my prayer for all of us this week, and especially as the pandemic rages on and as this election draws near …my prayer is that our understanding of love, that our “passion and prayer and intelligence” will be lived out, both individually and in community, passionately pursuing, a just world for all.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen and Amen.  

[i] Marcus Borg What’s Christianity All About ( 2011

[ii] Ibid Borg

[iii] Marcus Borg The Heart of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins Publishing) 2004

[iv] Quote found at ( October 25, 2020

Cat Juggling

Galatians 6:1-10 (from The Message but using more inclusive language)

Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore them, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived. Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life. Be very sure now, you who have been trained to a self-sufficient maturity, that you enter into a generous common life with those who have trained you, sharing all the good things that you have and experience. Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, they will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All they’ll have to show for their life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work within them, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life. So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.

Rev. Lillian Daniel, who, by the way, happens to be pastor to two of my kids, shared the following story. “When I was a child,” she writes, “my mother would proudly tell people, ‘Lillian is like a little cat. Whichever way you throw her, she always lands on her feet.’ She meant it as a compliment. We had chaotic lives, moving from one country to another, my father in and out of war zones. And that was just what was visible from the outside. Not all our family’s war zones were in another country. What my mother meant was that I could take it. I may have been little but I was tough, agile, canny and cunning, like a stray cat that always lands on its feet.”

Lillian goes on to say, “[But] later, as an adult, I began to question the metaphor. What kind of person throws a cat? And furthermore, what kind of person stands by to watch it happen? Picture a poor cat flailing about in the air – thrown against its will, furry limbs thrashing about in the sky, scrambling in the nothingness for a foothold that does not exist. Finally, upon descent, all four paws find their way down through gravity at just the right moment to have the padding scraped off them by the unforgiving concrete below.

What kind of person, after watching all that, responds by congratulating the cat on its graceful landing? How about this for an alternative? Stop throwing cats. And if you see one about to get thrown, step in and stop it. And if you hear one crying out for help, don’t listen in dispassionately like you’re a scientist performing an experiment on resilience, waiting to see how things turn out. Step up and stop the experiment. By the time you’re congratulating a cat for landing on its feet, you have missed the chance to do something real. You can’t go back and change that. Just be on the lookout for the next cat flailing in the air. And next time, try to help.[i]

Now, I this devotional message (which I lovingly refer to as the “cat juggling” story) is poignant both in terms of Paul’s message that we just heard and as we continue to live through an era of distraction, defamation, and disinformation.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, he invites us to make a careful exploration of who we are within this thing we call church. Paul goes on to then invite us to spend some time discerning this “calling” …he refers to it as “the work we’ve been given.” And finally, Paul encourages us to go and do that work!

Seems pretty simple, right? We’ve all been called, led, challenged, invited (choose your verb here) …we’ve all been drawn to these congregations in some way and we’ve been discerning our individual roles within these communities ever since. Now, some of us are called to various leadership roles within the church; president/moderator, treasurer, board member, so forth and so on. Others are led to share their talents; music or reading scripture or teaching Sunday School just to name a few. Other people feel the need to attend to the spiritual or emotional welfare of others and some of us are called to oversee the financial end of things or to encourage others in their faith journey. All of these things, and so many more, are what makes our churches go. The people, all of you, are the engine powering the mission and ministry of Cable and Delta United Churches of Christ. Make no mistake about it. All of this works because each of you have answered your calling to participate in the present Realm of God here on earth.

But even so, even with all of that being said, this is where Paul gives us pause, a bit of warning one might say. He writes, “Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.” The “creative best” you can. I like that! God doesn’t call us to be mindless robots. God didn’t infuse humankind with reason for no reason. We’re called, my friends, to creatively go about doing our best as we live-into this calling to be welcoming, inclusive, compassionate, and forgiving individuals …and as congregations.

Now, Paul’s warning brings us back around to the cat juggling illustration that I alluded to earlier. Remember that Lillian Daniel questioned the “humane-ness” of throwing cats just to see if they land on their feet. And rightly so. But I think the metaphor goes a little deeper. In our nation today, and unfortunately, within too many of our faith communities, there is an acceptance of morally questionable stances on social issues.

Take this issue of lying for example. Emmanuel Kant, arguably the greatest moral philosopher of the modern era, asserted that it’s never okay to lie. Never! Why? Because the consequences of lying outweigh any hurt feelings or avoided argument that may ensue. Lying however, or “alternative facts” as lying has come to be known, has become the norm rather than the exception. And the problem with a lie is that if you tell it enough, people will start to believe it.

The best and most extreme example of this is the Q Anon conspiracy theory. If you haven’t heard of this one, hold on to you hat. It alleges that, through a secret source called Q, there’s a liberal cabal who runs an international human trafficking ring, they’re pedophiles, cannibals, and they’re spreading the Corona Virus using 5G. You can’t make this stuff up. Well, actually, you can, because this is of course nothing but a load of bull. But if you tell a lie over and over and over again, maybe some of it will stick. Now, I’m going to write more about Q Anon and the sociological and theological damage it has the potential to cause in my upcoming November newsletter article, but for now it’s suffice to say that none of it is true. None of it! Q Anon is completely off-the-rails! But some of our neighbors, some of our friends, perhaps even some of our fellow Christians have fallen for this nonsense.

So, what do we do? Do we correct them with the truth? Yes. But are we to shame them? No. Are we to toss them in the air to see if they land on their feet” of course not. If we wouldn’t be so inhumane to a cat, why in the world would we defame or denigrate our fellow human being, our friend or family member, our fellow followers of Christ? That’s simply not what we’re called to do as people of faith.

But what we are called to do is employ our “creative best.” I mean, when the fervor of this election season becomes a part of history, those fooled will begin to see Q Anon for what it really is: a lie. Our task then, is to welcome them back into the fold. Lovingkindness goes further than shame, always.

Paul says in our lesson for today, “If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law.”

So as to complete Christ’s law. That’s powerful. That’s the Truth. That’s the essence of, and the burden of, being in relationship with others. Christ’s law is one of compassion, grace, and kindness. It’s about reaching out a hand to those who are down and forgiving those who have hurt you. “If you think you are too good for that,” Paul says, “you’re badly deceived.”

Let me leave you with one final thought today. The 14th century theologian, Meister Eckhart, once said, “Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature–even a caterpillar–I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.”[ii]

God is in all of our fellow human beings, and cats, and caterpillars for that matter, and all of these things have worth and are valued in the Realm of God. This is such an important concept to remember as we elect our next president, as we tackle the huge problem of racial injustice, which include things like the economy, jobs, and community policing. And these words from Eckhart still ring true as we take on the ominous task of addressing global climate change. “So, full of God is every creature.” My friends, if we approach the world with this mindset, we will have taken the first step in living-into Christ’s law. We will be living, loving examples of Truth.

May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

[i] Lillian Daniel Don’t Congratulate a Cat on its Landing ( Oct. 13,2020

[ii] Quote found at (www.ucc,org/samuel/sermon/seeds) October, 18, 2020

Civilized Civilization

Matthew 21:33-41- Parable of the tenant farmers

[Listen to another parable…] There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death. “Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way.  Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’ They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

[Jesus asked the Chief Priests and the Pharisees] “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?” They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”

What Kind of Civilization Do We Desire?

What Kind of Civilization Do We Desire? Sociologist Margaret Mead was once asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. So she, as all good teachers do, reversed the question back to her students. They offered examples of when humans formed tools like shovels, fish hooks, cookware, and grinding stones. She listened patiently and then said, “These were important advancements, but they do not speak to civilization, our ability to live together in authentic community.” She went on to say that she considered the first signs of civilization to be a healed thighbone. Mead explained that in the animal world if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger. You can’t find food. You can’t access water. You become the prey. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. A broken thighbone that had healed suggests that someone had taken the time to stay with the fallen one, had bound and treated the wound, had carried that person to safety, and had cared for that person during recovery. Healing someone through difficulty is the beginning of a civilized culture. [i]

Our Gospel lesson for today gives us a glimpse into the nature of culture in Jesus’ day and what changes would be necessary to create the kind of civilization God desired. It’s a parable about a landowner and his relationship with his tenant farmers. When it came time to collect his share of the produce, he sent servants, twice, but the tenants beat them and threw them out. Finally, the landlord sent his son, and the tenants killed him. When Jesus asked what the owner of such a vineyard would do to the tenant farmers, the Jewish leaders answered in a way that was entirely expected. They said the landowner will take his vengeance on the tenants by killing them. An eye for an eye type of thinking.

Let’s pause here for a moment and think about that response. Is this answer problematic for anyone else? Well, it was for Jesus because he went on to declare that the power the Pharisees enjoyed would be taken away and “…given, to a people who produce fruit.” (v.43) Which, of course, didn’t sit well with them.

So, considering his response, I don’t think the problem here is with the text itself. The problem we must address is the way the Church has traditionally interpreted this parable. We have tended to view it as an allegory for the way God works—the landlord is God, the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the Jewish leaders, the servants are the prophets, and the son is Jesus. Okay. That makes sense, right?

But if we read the parable that way, it portrays God as an absentee landlord who makes unjust demands of those he has put in charge of his vineyard. And in this scenario, God apparently doesn’t know very much about how to be an absentee landlord, because he sent his servants, twice, to collect the rent without any protection. And in the end, the Pharisees shared a view of God that reflected their cultural bias. They offered a view a vengeful god, represented by the landowner, who was within his rights to take revenge on those who had opposed him. [ii] 

Now, I don’t know about you, but this allegorical interpretation, this image of a vengeful God, doesn’t work for me. I mean, contextually speaking, it’s not at all consistent with the image of God that Jesus paints all throughout the gospels. He paints the image of a God who is kind and generous toward the just and the unjust alike. [iii]  Jesus consistently shares an image of God as liberator, he shares a God who desires peace and wholeness for all people; Jesus’ God is, in the ends, a God of justice.

So, if that’s the case, what’s really going on here? What are we meant to “take-away” of this parable?

Well, I have already illuded to the fact that I believe Jesus is telling us this story to illustrate something about the civilization in which he was living. I mean, in order to gain a deeper understanding of this parable, we must first understand the landlords in that age. You see, they would take such a large cut of the profit that the tenant farmers in their employ were left with barely enough to keep their families alive. Jesus shared this parable with the Pharisees to hold them accountable for mistreating the poor in their civilization.

So, on a deeper level then, this passage isn’t about vengeance at all, rather it’s about Justice. It’s about the present Realm of God, a Realm that operates with a different set of rules. It operates on the basis of God’s grace and unconditional love rather than hatred or exclusion. God’s Realm operates from a place of unfailing mercy and forgiveness rather than the specter of God’s vengeance.

And yes, you can find places in the Bible, Romans 12 for example, where the Apostle offers a “vengeance is mine says the Lord” kind of thinking. But even in Paul’s writings, context matters. I say that because he isn’t advocating for God wiping out all one’s enemies. We know this because the very next line in his letter to the Romans is, “…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink.”

And this is important stuff! It’s important because how we interpretate the Bible, how we view the nature of God, and how we integrate that interpretation and perspective into our lives and relationships determines what kind of civilization we desire to create.

I mean, do we want to live in a civilization where we walk past the wounded stranger, like the priest and the Levite in Luke’s Good Samaritan story or will we tend to the “broken thighbone” of our neighbor, no matter where that neighbor comes from or how that neighbor worships, or who that neighbor loves? Do we want to live in a civilization where “might makes right” even if the “mighty” version of “right” is unjust? Do we want to live in a civilization that cages children because they come from the wrong side of some human-drawn line on a map or will we heed the words of Jesus and welcome the stranger, offer hospitality to the foreigner; Jesus said, “…let the children come to me and do not hinder them?” Do we want to live in a civilization where one race is privileged while all others are treated as inferior or will we risk advocating for racial justice? Do we want to live in a civilization that consumes, and consumes, and consumes all of Mother Earth’s natural resources, even at the cost of our own existence or will we take climate change, and the resulting hurricanes and wildfires and pandemics, seriously? My friends, so much of our life and our faith finally boils down to this single question: What kind of civilization do we desire? Let us ponder that question and hold it in our hearts.

Amen and Amen.

[i] Cameron Trimble Signs of Civilization. Plotting Faith: An (Almost) Daily Devotional from The Center for Progressive Renewal  ( Nov. 29, 2020

[ii] Alan Brehm. Vengeance? ( 2011

[iii] For this viewpoint, see Barbara Reid, “Violent Endings in Matthew’s Parables and Christian Non-violence,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 (2004): 252-53, 255.