So, part way through my sermon I almost tripped off the edge of the chancel, and that is why there is a quick outburst of laughter in the middle.
Arriving at the end of Jesus’ sermon on the mount we are left with a new way of being in the world. One which gives preference to peace and reconciliation even before seeking God’s favor, even before seeking to reconcile with God, reconcile with your neighbor, with your sibling, with the stranger among us. The law, especially as we find it in Leviticus, focuses a great deal on one’s personal cleanliness, one’s personal righteousness, but Jesus redirects us to the communal nature of the law. He says the law and even our faith exists for the other.
The dilema that a Jew of Jesus’ time might have struggled with would have been how can I help the other, the poor, the downtrodden, the unclean if I am to remain clean, pure, and holy? How can I lift up the stranger, beaten and left in a ditch, if I am to remain clean and holy and touching him, interacting with him, would contaminate me, make me unclean. Again and again we hear Jesus confront the Pharisees, these good, godly, church-going people like us, as he tells them that their personal salvation involves losing their ritual cleanliness and purity for the other. Again and again he transgresses the purity laws to reach out to the most despised, the most lost, the unclean, the unholy, the forgotten, the dismissed.
If the pharisees of his day valued personal righteousness and purity over charity to others, what are our idols? We get to ask ourselves is, if the Pharisees of that day were so concerned with their ritual cleanliness that they struggled to reach out to the least of these, what keeps us from doing it?
Those good religious people in Jesus’ audience might have expected him to instruct them on how to be better at following and maintaining the law, at adhereing to what already was. Just be better, work harder, you can do it! but Jesus flips everything once again, be pure? No, be kind and meek, be righteous? Better to be a peacemake and seek reconciliation with those who have wronged you. Forgo any righteous attempt at retaliation or vengeance, Jesus tells us, instead reconcile.
In 2008 Julio Diaz showed us what this looks like. Julio was a 31 year old social worker living in New York city and he had a pretty simple daily routine. On his way home he would get off the subway one stop early and go to his favorite diner to eat dinner. But one night in April of that year his routine was disrupted by an angry young man with a knife who approached him as he got off the subway and demanded his wallet.
Now, in our storybook world of what is right and wrong, this is the place where a superhero should have shown up, knocked that kid on his backside and righted that wrong. An eye for an eye, right? Justice, right? But that’s not what happened.
As this youth was walking away Julio was struck by how small and fragile he looked, one young teenage boy against the world and he called out to him, “Hey, if you’re going to be out robbing people all night, you ought to take my coat too. It’s going to get cold tonight.” And the boy turned surprised. “I wasn’t going to do anything tonight anyway,” Julio explains, “just going to get dinner at the diner and head home. You can join me if you want.”
Warily the teenager decides to join him and they eat at Julio’s favorite diner. This youth watches as Julio greets everyone by name, as he chats with the server, says hello to the dishwasher. “You know everyone here. Do you own this place?” he asks.
“No,” Julio responds, “It’s just my favorite diner. I come here all the time.”
“But you’re nice to everyone, even the dishwasher.” Puzzled, intrigued, he just had to ask.
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you to be nice to everyone?” Julio returns.
“Yes, but I didn’t think anyone really lived like that.” The youth says and the story of his anger, his pain, his hopelessness begins to unfold.
Julio looked beyond the outrageous behavior of this young man and saw a brother, a neighbor, a hurting child. His response is not a trick, not a manipulation. No one is more wary of being sold a false bill of goods that our younger generation. We promise them a loving, gracious, Christ centered community and they notice when we fail to live up to it. Their pain is prophetic. It calls us to return every time we slip up, every time we move away from the path Jesus has laid out for us.
We have been called to be the light of the world, to join Julio in taking risks and reaching out to those acting out in pain, grief, and frustration. Blessed are the peacemakers, if you even think ill of another you are liable to the punishment, do not resist evil but respond with love and grace.
Jesus calls us to a different paradigm, one where we love one another so much we commit to holding the tension between difficult choices. One where we commit to both/and solutions and refuse to give up or force our solution on others. We are called to refuse any invitation to belittle others or demonize them, to see in them the image of God especially when we don’t understand.
When we hold these two scriptures in tension this morning we avoid the desire to push an agenda. The Leviticus scripture seems to speak so eloquently to our day and the issues we are facing, but when we hold it in tension with the semon on the mount we know we are called to deeper dialogue than, “I’m right, you’re wrong, scripture says so.” We are called to listen deeply to those we disagree with until we can hear and understand the issues that are driving their choices, we must listen with our hearts. We must listen with our hearts to every cry of anger and frustration until we can hear every fear, grief, loss, or cry of despair that lies underneath it. and we must seek to reconcile over and over again, and impossible number of times, promising to those we love and to those we don’t even understand, that we won’t abandon them or dismiss them, that they matter and we will continue to seek to understand.
Julio could have fought that youth. We would have applauded his bravery. He could have called the police and had him arrested. We would applaude his holding the young man accountable. He could have organized a neighborhood watch to keep an eye out for such young men and we would applaud his community service, but he didn’t. He opened his heart to him, saw him with compassion and gentleness as if it were his little brother making bad choices and he called out to him. Julio never says it was his faith that caused him to offer his jacket to this boy, but we know he is Christian by his love—isn’t that what we are trying to accomplish? That the whole world would know we are Christian because we walk the path of Jesus Christ.
This weekend at Presbytery we all listened as a woman spoke about a new component to their church life. How it was that this small church heard about migrant farm workers and dairy workers and reached out to them, how the local dairy, who employed so many of these recent immigrants said to them, “You are first in recent memory to reach to our workers.” How it hurt their heart to hear that no one had said to all these people, “You are a child of God,” “You matter!” “We care about you!” and now the entire congregation gathers to learn Spanish, to sing in Spanish, to worship in both English and Spanish as their lives have been enriched and their hearts filled with love for the neighbors they had simply overlooked for years.
She shared another story that touched my heart, one I can’t hear without imaginging tears streaming down this man’s face. She said that they had decided to celeberate the Dia de los Muertes, and one young man, a man in his mid -40’s, said through a translator that he had never been able to memorialize his father. He placed his father’s picture on the altar and talked about having been far from home when his father died and that he had no community with which to mourn, to grieve, to honor the gifts his father had given him, the loss he felt. Until now.
Who are the invisible and unseen among us? Who are we called to reach out, to uplift, to call to, “Hey, you need a coat, it’s going to get cold.” “Hey you! You can come to our church. You can come and worship with us.” “Your presence would bless us in ways we can only begin to imagine!”
We are called to a radical, gracious love that will take us places we never thought we would go, that will enrich our lives beyond anything we can imagine. To be brave and to be bold and to be present. We are called to hold that tension when we have disagreements. To hold it with the promise that I will not abandon you, I will not walk away, I will not silence you, because you matter too much. To hold that tension, creativily and let it work in us and change us and transform us, and take us some place new. May be it be so.