Having studied in some detail most of the New and the Old Testament, or what we call now the Hebrew Bible over the years, I have gained a profound respect for the storytellers who crafted these biblical narratives. While most of these stories come from an oral tradition, they were also written, rewritten and edited and re-edited over a long period of time. But in so many of these stories what comes through for me is an employment of words that I generally find beautifully lyrical, remarkably fresh and often powerfully moving. So many of the writers of the books of the bible were wordsmiths and literary geniuses of the first order.
However, having said all this there are some passages of the bible that cause me concern. There are some passages that give me great difficulty and I am not exactly sure what to do with them. For me these kind of difficult passages fall into three broad categories.
The first category is relatively benign. They are the stories that, with historical evidence, just don’t pan out the way the bible describes them. I certainly don’t wish to ruin the story for anyone, but the archeological facts do not support there ever being a great walled city of Jericho. There was a small settlement called Jericho, but it was lightly defended and never had any walls around it. Why the ancient scribes exaggerated this story into Hollywood proportions will always be a mystery, but I think we should be aware of this fact when we interpret this story.
The second category is much more difficult I find them greatly troubling. These are the stories that tell of horrific violence, quite often done in the name of God, and more often than not directed against women and children. One example is the story of Jephthah in the Book of Judges. Jephthah was an Israelite military leader who made a vow with God. He said if God would let the Israelites prevail in their battle against the Ammonites he would sacrifice, that is kill, the first person who greeted him when he got back home. Well Jephthah did defeat the Ammonites and when he got home the first person to greet him was his only child, his teenage daughter. While Jephthah does allow his daughter to spend some time with her friends before her death, he does keep his vow and she is killed. Where is the justice in this story? Where is the good news in this story? One might even ask where is God in this story? As this is Remembrance Sunday we must recall, among many other things, all the innocent women and children killed and wounded in human conflict, and I find stories like these in the bible to be profoundly disturbing. I think we have to be very, very careful how we interpret them.
The last category of passages in the bible that I find difficult is quite different than the first two. These would be passages that challenge me in a good way, but that I still find hard to accept or to live up to. By challenging me in a good way I mean they force me to grow, they make me push the boundaries of my faith to a place where I find it uncomfortable to go, they compel me to think fiercely about what is right and what is wrong, and in this process they oblige me to mature as a human being. Today’s gospel from Matthew is one of those passages.
I should also say that it is one of those passages that I find beautifully written and crafted. For example in part we hear, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. Then they answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you”? “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”. The words are simple and yet powerfully emotional, expressive and inspired. I dare say there is no difficulty whatsoever finding where God is in these words. For me God breathes through each of these words so that we might take them in and contemplate their remarkable candor. God is speaking right to us in these words and pushing our faith and our boundaries.
It is a remarkable statement isn’t it? And that is the difficulty, at least for me. Is Jesus saying here that the way we treat the down and out people of our world, the marginalized, the poor, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, the homeless, those whom society would look away from in shame, embarrassment or contempt is the way we treat Him? Is Jesus saying that we should treat prisoners with the same respect, as we would offer to Him? We here, as do Christians around the world, literally laud and honor Christ. We rightly praise His Holy name and give thanks for His love, peace and light that He gives to the world. I personally cannot imagine what it would be like to not have the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life. How do I – we – even begin to thank God for that? So, is Jesus really saying that how we behave toward the messy, unkempt homeless man who hangs out at the corner near where we live is the same as the way we treat him? Lets take it to its logical conclusion. Is Jesus saying that if we walk by this man, if we look askance at him and give him a glance of contempt, if we ignore him and pay him no mind, let alone give him no food or drink, that we are doing the same thing to the Son of God? The unmistakable, unequivocal, unambiguous answer is yes, we are. That is exactly what Jesus is saying here. Don’t be fooled by the talk of sheep and goats in this message. This is not a parable with multiple meanings. This is a pronouncement statement, and as such Jesus is telling us with a clarity that should snap both the body and the mind to attention that no one is to get left behind, no one is to be put aside and no one is to be disdained because of who or what they are.
So - end of sermon? Well, it could be. I have stated what I think this passage is about and given to you the message I think Jesus wants to convey. But, there is more. In fact, we are just beginning to look at the hard part. Given that we are called to let no one go without love and care what exactly are we supposed to do? I gave this quite a bit of thought. I looked at this passage from Matthew very carefully. It is a different kind of message than the one about the rich young man who asks Jesus what he should do in order to follow Him. In that story Jesus tells the young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor and then follow him. The young man could not do it; he could not give up his wealth and so he just went away.
That is not what Jesus is saying here. That’s another sermon. What Jesus is saying here is don’t walk past a stranger and look down on them, don’t ignore people who are lonely, don’t give up the opportunity to help those who need help even if all you can do to help is give them one cup of clean water or one can of food, and don’t ever miss the chance to extend to someone else the dignity and love they deserve as a child of God. That is something that with some work I think we can all achieve, but it does take some work, for you and for me. And what is the nature of that work? What do we have to do? As I was preparing this sermon I kept thinking of the small passage in Luke where Jesus says, “Don’t hide you lamp under a jar, put it on the lamp stand so that others may see your light”. Then I thought of this quote that I love written by Marianne Williamson in her book Return To Love. Perhaps you have heard it before – it is worth hearing again.
Our deepest fear is not that we are
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful
beyond all measure.
It is our light
not our darkness that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves: who am I to be brilliant,
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are born to manifest
the glory of God
that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us,
it’s in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine
we consciously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others. End of quote.
Our playing small does not serve the world. Our hiding our light will help no one. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you”? We did it when we incorrectly assumed that we are not important enough to make a difference in the world. We did it when we thought those who we encounter on a daily basis are not much affected by what we do or what we do not do.
It has been said that the three most powerful words in the English language are, “I love you”. I would agree with that sentiment. And I would add that a very close cousin to that statement is, “I care about you”. The power in these words comes from the fact that their meaning far outweighs the effort it takes to say it. There is something in these simple words that conveys the idea that you, you who I am speaking to are the light of my world, that you are the glory of God in my presence and I want to say this to you because no matter what, your worth to me as a person is more than all the wealth of the world. Now, imagine saying that and meaning that to everyone who we meet. That is what Jesus is calling us to do. Where I come from there is a word for that, and I’m sure where you come from you use the same word and that word is ‘grace’. God gave us grace through Jesus and God wants us to share that grace with each other. My sisters and brothers in Christ, the most amazing thing about God’s message to us is that by helping others in whatever way we can do that, we are at the same time allowing God’s light to shine right through our being. It literally makes us brilliant and who are we, to quote Williamson, not to be brilliant?
I end with one more very important reason to let our light shine and in so doing have the courage to love all others. In the remarkable movie Saving Private Ryan the opening scene takes place in the present day and the camera pans over the large grave site in Normandy, France where the fallen from the D-Day invasion were laid to rest. What I find so moving about this scene, other than the fact that there are so very many graves, is that each gravestone is not a plain slab, but rather a Christian Cross or a Star of David or a Crescent. Abraham Lincoln said in part in his Gettysburg address, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”. Indeed our fallen who we remember this Sunday did not die in vain, they gave their lives for a monumental and inspiring cause. As we listen to the list of the fallen soldiers from this church we remember that their sacrifice was given that we may worship as we do, that we may live in the freedom that we enjoy and that we may love all others as God would have us achieve. A very high cost was paid for those freedoms and the gift that we may live as we do. Let us remember that, let us honour that and let our lives shine brightly so that the love we share with all others makes a real and lasting difference in our world. If we can do that I am sure our fallen heroes would say to us, “The victory is surely and finally won” Amen.