The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A (video link)
I Corinthians 1:18-31
Oh, settle in. As they say, “The Lord has laid a lot on my heart today.”
The scriptures are not going to be kind to us for the next stretch of time. I looked ahead—we get Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Matthew for the next four weeks. The Sermon on the Mount—Matthew chapters 5-7—is the heart of Christian ethical teaching, going all the way back to St. Augustine. Christian ethics—those moral principles that govern the behavior of one who professes to follow Jesus; that discipline that helps us know what is good and guides us to act in accordance with that knowledge. Christian ethics draws its juice from Jesus’ teaching, most especially the Sermon on the Mount, and the ripples from this teaching go out and out and out. It is said that Gandhi read the Sermon on the Mount every day for 40 years to ground his ethical vision and practice.
And the prophets and Deuteronomy and Leviticus—they’re just going to hammer us over the next several weeks. So please, don’t shoot the messenger—I’m just holding the space where we have to wrestle with these things.
And I’m going to confess to you right now—I am struggling. I visited my mom up in Louisville earlier this week, and she loves to watch the news. We don’t have cable at our house, so this is a world I don’t really know—I was doing some serious channel surfing. We watched Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, and then we watched Sean Hannity on Fox News, and frankly, at the end of an hour or so of this, I felt sick, physically sick, and really agitated. Both commentators were making leaps of logic that didn’t make sense to me, jumping from A to Z and skipping the 24 steps in-between, and interviewing people to shore up their perspective. I didn’t feel any more enlightened by the end, but my soul was definitely more troubled.
So, I want to circle back to what I said in my annual address in November when I was unpacking what it looks like to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world, especially this side of the Presidential election. Here’s what I said back in November:
I don’t know what the future looks like under Mr. Trump’s leadership; that will be revealed over time through his actions and through the actions of his administration. I know people’s minds are racing forward into a thousand different scenarios, but worry about the future is rarely productive or life-giving. We hold people accountable for word and deed, not for our fears of the what if’s. I will say of Mr. Trump what I have said of every President, no matter their party, my baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being extends to them, even if I disagree with every policy position they take. This vow extends to the President’s followers. This vow extends to those who oppose the President. We are called to respect the dignity of every human being, while at the same time, calling out any and all words and actions that diminish the dignity of another human being. Living like Jesus is really hard.
So, here’s the rub. This week, we started to see some of Mr. Trump’s words and deeds through Executive Orders. There are several that come into direct conflict with what I know of the way of Jesus and the law and prophets that formed him. The ones that have grabbed my heart and won’t let go include the ones on Thursday relating to Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements and Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, which include: the deputizing of local law enforcement to act on behalf of Immigration (which many local law enforcement agencies don’t want); the building of more detention centers along the border (most of which are run by private contractors with a poor record of living conditions); the erasure of due process (you can be deported not just for a conviction or being charged with a criminal offense, but also for committing an act that constitutes a chargeable criminal offense); and the intent to strip federal funding from local communities that are sanctuary communities. And the Executive Order on Friday Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, which suspends entrance into our country from Nationals of Countries of Particular Concern for 90 days while a review of our visa process is undertaken. In addition, the entire U.S. Refugee Admission Program is suspended for 120 days. Entrance of Syrian refugees is suspended until such time as the President decides they are not a threat to national interest. In addition, there is a right to review in this Executive Order for those who are religious minorities facing religious persecution in their country of nationality—so Christians persecuted by ISIS in a majority Muslim country may come, but Muslims persecuted by ISIS may not come if that country is majority Muslim. And this Order was given on the same day that the President marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day and promised that “Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.”
As your priest, as your pastor, as your teacher, as a preacher, I am in some serious conflict because I can’t not know what I know about the scriptures and the way of Jesus and what these demand of us. And I can’t let you not know these things either. I can’t not know Leviticus 19:34—The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Period. I can’t not know that Jesus himself was a Jew who had to flee a brutal dictator, every bit as brutal as the leader of Syria who dropped chemical weapons on his own people, Jesus and his parents were refugees who had to flee to Egypt with nothing but the clothes on their back. By the standards of these Executive Orders, Jesus himself, as a Jew from a majority Jewish nation, would not be prioritized for coming into our country.
I know I am talking politics from the pulpit here, but I’m not talking to you as a Republican, because I am not one, and I am not talking to you as a Democrat, because I’m not one, but I am talking to you as one who has given my life to Jesus and his way and that way doesn’t just stop at these doors, but that way seeks to reconcile the whole world. So, I don’t have the luxury of not wading into this stuff. Jesus didn’t compartmentalize his world, nor can I, nor can you. Our faith and our world are in a world of conflict right now—as Eucharistic Prayer C says: Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.
But I also need to say that how we engage these ethical issues from the place of our faith matters; it matters a lot. It is always up to each of us to discern what actions we are called to take in this world, and that demands of us discipline and spiritual practice. So, I am starting back up the Social Justice Training Group. If you are feeling called to take action, I am calling on you to ground yourself and form yourself deep in the way of Jesus, so that you can, as St. Paul said, put on the mind of Christ and discern clearly the actions you are called to take; so that the way you take those actions doesn’t replicate this cycle of violence in word or deed. First meeting—next Saturday.
I would also encourage you strongly to do some fasting from Facebook and cable news. I don’t think these swirling, adrenalin-fueled exchanges are going to increase our wisdom. I encourage you to search out and read primary sources. If you want to know what the President is doing, go out to whitehouse.gov and read the texts of the actual Executive Orders. Watch hearings on c-span. Don’t take commentators views for your own, and don’t depend on summaries. God has shaped you and formed you, and you have put on the mind of Christ—you have a unique perspective to bring and a unique way of understanding what you read and hear—do not cede that authority away.
And in this time, we have got to double-down on our efforts to be in conversation with people who hold different perspectives than we ourselves might hold. We’ve got to listen to their perspectives, and even more, learn their stories and what shaped them to see the world as they do. There are legitimate policy differences between conservative and liberal perspectives on all of these issues, and all the ideas out there deserve to be heard with respect. We are dealing with huge, complex problems—we can’t afford to curtail any creative possibilities. And as we listen to ideas that might strike us as absurd, let us not reduce the person speaking them to a caricature. They are made in the image of God no less that we.
And, for us in this room, all of this work has to be run through the lens of Jesus and our sacred tradition. So, as is always the case, we turn to the scriptures given us today.
First, Micah. And sneak preview, next week, Jesus will remind us that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them, and that our righteousness needs to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees—not being scholars knowing every aspect of the law and the prophets doesn’t get us off the hook.
So, Micah, what do you have for us?
Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.
Uh oh, the LORD has a controversy with his people, and the LORD is going to contend with the whole nation. And what is that controversy? Well, the LORD gets really specific about it verse 12—your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
The LORD continues: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam…
Micah continues: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
So, it won’t be our worship and our offerings, even our most precious offerings, that will fix this. No, God has told us what is good and what the LORD requires—and these are always the two central questions of ethics—what is good and what behavior is required to get there—do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.
Justice matters, and it is clear throughout the law and the prophets that God is keenly invested in how the poor and the oppressed, the widowed and the orphans, and a whole multitude of others in society are getting along. And God gets downright incensed when they are getting crushed, especially when this happens at the hands of the wealthy and the powerful.
To love kindness—and it’s even stronger than that—the hebrew talks about loving hesed, which means loving steadfast love. Steadfast love is the kind of love that God loves us with—it is a fierce love. God is calling us not just to act with steadfast love, but to love acting with steadfast love. This is the love that refuses to let go, ever, which means that we can’t just write off our enemies—they, too, are made in the image of God.
And we have to walk humbly with God. And there’s two parts to that. We have to walk. We have to walk where God walks. And in this passage, God is going to march us straight into doing justice. But we must also walk humbly, with humility. Walk we must, but we don’t walk with arrogance or, that great enemy of faith, absolute certitude. We must always be open to critique. None of us is infallible when it comes to discerning the mind of God. Paul reminds us, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do”—that’s the human condition. I once heard an Anglican theologian call us to act with a bold humility or a humble boldness—either perspective will get us to the right place. We have to act, but always with the knowledge that this side of the kingdom, we don’t really know the full picture.
These are the teachings which formed Jesus. If we don’t ingest and internalize them, we won’t understand him.
And then there’s Jesus’ own teaching today. The beatitudes. They are beautiful. They are poetic. And they can fly right by us with how hard they are because we are so accustomed to their beauty.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The greek for poor here actually points to those who are destitute of a wealth of learning and intellectual culture which the schools afford. This could be huge swaths of people across rural America and the rust belt and Appalachia and inner cities. And this poverty infects the spirit—spirits who have been crushed through neglect and lack of opportunity.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. And the mourning aren’t just those who are grieving, but also those who are lamenting.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Oh the meek—these are those who possess a gentleness of spirit.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are those who hold integrity ever before our eyes, who hunger for it and thirst for it; those who won’t let us forget that our words and our deeds have to match up; they have to be in alignment; they have to embody right relationship with God and each other and with all that God has made.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Mercy, oh my goodness is this in such short supply. Blessed are those who know they have power and authority and rights to do all kinds of things, but who can yield for the sake of hesed, who can yield for the sake of that steadfast love which never lets go.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Cynthia Bourgeault would remind us that only those who can drop their minds down into their hearts can see God clearly. The mind and the heart have to be talking; they have to be connected if we are to see God and to see as God sees.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. We are back to the ministry of reconciliation. Jesus will make clear that this isn’t roll-over-and-play-dead-peace-at-any-costs peacemaking. But it is to say that we don’t get to opt out of seeking peace wherever division infects our hearts and the hearts of our society.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” And here, Jesus turns from those amorphous 3rd person groups, to the people right in front of him—his disciples, the crowds, and that would be you and me—and Jesus gets real: “You seek to make real these right relationships, you seek to speak and act and hold out before the world a life lived in alignment with God’s vision—oh, you’ve just signed up to be persecuted and reviled and to have all kinds of evil things uttered against you falsely on my account. But rejoice, be glad, because you have just entered into that great communion of saints with all the prophets who have gone before you—it got pretty rough for them, too, but community and solidarity go a long, long way.”
All of these ways of being are so hard, and yet, it is in these beatitude places, some of which are contemplative stances, some of which are ways of being, and some of which are ways of acting and doing—it is in these places and spaces that we find blessing that the world cannot fathom.
Micah tells us what the LORD requires of us and Jesus gives us a whole frame for where we are to engage and, more importantly, how we are to engage. And I know that what they are asking of us is just plain hard, but this is the life to which we’ve been called. It isn’t going to make us popular, but it is profoundly full of blessing.
The details of how exactly we engage all that is before us will be as different as the people in this room. Let us not judge one another, but let St. Luke’s be the generous community that we have always been and accord one another the best of motivations and intentions. Let us support one another, even if we totally disagree with the action another is called to take, knowing and trusting that we are all trying to find our way as we seek to follow our Lord. That same Eucharistic Prayer C that I quoted earlier, it goes on to say: Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
I will continue to do my best to bring forth the clearest teaching I can, even when it rattles our cages. Living and moving among all these places of conflict, all these places of division, all these places so filled with paradox, all these places so full of pain—this is the way of the cross, but let us never forget that this is also the way that leads to life, abundant life Jesus promised.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, welcome to the hardest spiritual work you’ve ever had to do. Together, let us do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God and discover the blessings that will surely come as we walk in this way. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
January 29, 2017