February 16, 2020
Village Chapel Presbyterian Church
Dr. Todd R. Wright
Last week, while doing research, I ran across a professor who engaged her preaching class by having them join her in evaluating one of Jesus’ sermons.
(Can you imagine grading Jesus’ preaching skills?!)
It was the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we looked at last week. It got good marks for developing clear, concrete images – salt and light; but the professor had some questions about whether the final verse would be heard as good news. After all, since the scribes and Pharisees were known to be sticklers for keeping the law, how were Jesus’ followers to exceed their righteousness? And if they are not able to do what he tells them to do, isn’t that just setting them up for failure?
It gets worse this week. Jesus’ sermon proceeds from the Beatitudes, puzzling blessings of the least-of-these, to counter-intuitive affirmations of the disciples as salt and light, to a series of antithetical statements: “You have heard it said … but I say …”
Each of those statements takes some piece of the Torah – about murder or adultery or divorce or oaths – and intensifies it, sharpens it, broadens it, deepens it, and to the casual listener seems to make it more impossible to keep. (I can see the professor grabbing for her red pen!)
But this is an extended sermon about how the kingdom of heaven is putting down roots in their midst. This kingdom does not look like the kingdoms built by David or the Romans … and the habits and customs and values and actions of those living there are to be distinctive!
Make no mistake. They are challenging. But they are God’s loving attempt to build a
community suitable for people created in love, created for abundance, created for relationship!
So the law says, do not murder, but Jesus says, in the kingdom of heaven, even uncontrolled anger is a deadly threat to the well-being of the community.
The law says, do not commit adultery, but Jesus says, in the kingdom of heaven, even leering looks and lustful thoughts threaten the respectful relationships we are trying to build between men and women, adults and children, the powerful and the powerless, in this community.
The law says, there are certain steps to follow in a divorce, but Jesus says, divorce makes the vulnerable even more vulnerable, so in the kingdom of heaven it should be avoided unless absolutely necessary … and even then the community should care for the vulnerable.
The law says, do not swear false oaths, but Jesus says, in the kingdom of heaven, you need to be known for being telling the truth and keeping your word, without a bunch of silly embellishments.
Over and over again, Jesus is describing a community devoted to reconciliation – within the faith community, between married couples, and out in the world.
This is so important that Jesus says reconciliation is a prerequisite for being able to worship God. And if something has broken your relationship with a brother or sister, you need to deal with it, even if that means delaying offering your gift on the altar!
Can you imagine a liturgical moment of self-reflection right before the offering plates are passed? Can you imagine people getting up and walking across the aisle, or walking out, to seek forgiveness or right some injustice? Can you imagine the healing that would result?
Jenji Kohan can. She is the creator of the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black” about women in a minimum security federal prison based on Piper Kerman’s memoir.
In an episode during the final season,1 two prisoners are practicing the steps of restorative justice – confessing, listening, voicing how they think justice might be achieved. Maria Ruiz is confronting another inmate who tried to drown her. She says she thinks she should be locked up, away from others, so she can’t harm anyone else. The inmate protests, “Didn’t you ever do things you can’t explain?” Ruiz replies, “Nothing that violent, against another person!”
At this point, the guard, Dixon, explodes, “Really? Do you have a split personality or am I just not a person to you?” The class leader objects, but Ruiz asks that he be allowed to talk. Dixon says, “During the riot, you held me hostage.” “Yes,” Ruiz admits, “I’m sorry.”
But Dixon is not done. The words gush out: “You imprisoned me. You tortured me. You humiliated me. And I haven’t been the same since. When the alarms went off during the lockdown yesterday, it all came back. I still can’t sleep. All I can see are nightmares of you and your baton.”
Ruiz, crying, apologizes, “I am so, so sorry. I put you through some awful experiences. And what I did to you is still messing you up. I can’t take it back. I wish I could. But I hope that maybe it helps a little that I do know what I did to you and I’m trying real hard to be a better person, so no one else ever has to feel the way you do because of me.”
The two end up hugging and the class leader sums up, “Restorative justice can lead to some unexpected places!”
Unexpected, in anyplace but the kingdom of heaven. For there a broken person can seek to be reconciled with the one who broke them and both can be healed.
Doesn’t that sound like good news to you? Doesn’t that sound like a community that you would like to live in? Doesn’t that sound like something the world needs?
That is what Jesus is offering. That is what he will go to the cross to make possible. That is what we have the chance to experience … and exhibit to the world. Amen.
1 Season 7 (2019), episode 88 overall, “The Thirteenth”, written by Merritt Tierce