I want to start by saying that, in general, I do not pick out the Bible texts for Sunday mornings. We, along with most Lutheran churches and several other denominations use the Revised Common Lectionary, a three-year cycle of readings that covers large portions of the biblical text. There are exceptions to the rule. If there is a major event that happens nationally, a pastor is free to change the readings. Many of us used alternative texts the Sunday after September 11, 2001. If there is something unique going on in the life of the congregation, we might change the texts, as we have done when there have been funeral services on a Sunday morning. The lectionary is a symbol of unity, the idea that many different congregations are hearing the same texts on Sunday morning. The lectionary is a tool that we use, a convenient way of planning out the year, a tradition that challenges preachers to pay attention to more than the Bible’s greatest hits.
On January 29, 2017, 9 days after President Trump was inaugurated, the text for that Sunday was a greatest hits passage. It was the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. Pastors everywhere read, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for the will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Now I have to admit here that I do not the sermons that followed this reading, but I did hear stories of pastors who were approached by angry congregants who said, “You picked that passage so you could criticize the president.” In a good Lutheran understanding of preaching we punt and say, “That is the Holy Spirit at work.” You hear the text. You hear the preaching and you may walk away with a different message than I intended as I wrote it and that is what the Spirit does. Somewhere between my mouth and your ear, the Holy Spirit swoops in. So if you hear a criticism of idea you hold strongly, pay attention, because the Spirit may well be working on you.
I had a similar fear as I prepared for this morning, that people might hear Paul’s writing and find a political criticism of the president or might hear Jesus talking about welcome and think about immigration policy. To be clear, I did not choose these passages; they were chosen about 25 years ago before I was even ordained. I did plan to speak a bit about justice this month as it relates to compassion, but I also chose that a few months ago before the zero-tolerance policy and family separation issues.
But it is very hard to say nothing when there is such a glaring contrast between ideas about power and leadership. It would disingenuous for me to talk about power shaped by weakness when a good portion of the country, a portion that overwhelmingly defines itself as Christian, is celebrating a leader who in turn celebrates power through strength. Just this past week there was a whole series of rallies where he talking about claiming the name, “Elite.” “The elite! Why are Now I know this is rally language and he is working the crowd and it is supposed to be funny. But then I have to sit in my office and read Paul saying, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecution, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” We have to hear his message from God saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I am not going to belabor the idea but it points to the fact that as Christians, especially Christian Americans, there is a tension between the celebration of power in strength: strong military, strong borders, strong economy, and the Christian message of power in weakness that is central to the image of the cross. Now let the Holy Spirit work on you as you think about that.elite? I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president, and they didn’t.”
Then we have the gospel text where Jesus is rejected at a place that should be home, a text where Jesus sends his disciples into the world dependent on others for welcome, where he tells them that as they depart from places that do not welcome them they should shake the dust off their feet as a testimony to them. Again it would be disingenuous of me to talk about welcoming while ignoring the elephant of immigration looming in the background. What does it mean to welcome people in Christian love while recognizing the need for immigration laws and control of our borders? Those ideas don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
But I am not a lawmaker and you did not come here for my bright ideas about policy. What I have been trying to say this morning is that as we encounter our Bible texts and our ideas of faith, we should be making connections with what is happening in the world. This is why so many Christians, congregations and church bodies get involved with advocacy. Compassion, that virtue where we turn out from ourselves and start paying attention to others, is a Christian virtue that may push us toward standing with those who suffer harm. It is a virtue that pushes us to stand for and with those who are weak.
The outcry about the family separation policy came from many corners of the Christian world, from liberal denominations from which you would expect protest to conservative evangelicals that in general support the current administration. We are groups that disagree about a number of policy issues. We disagree on many church and state issues. We are groups that often disagree on the meaning of Christian faith itself. And while we might not agree on the laws, we can agree that the separation policy was not good. From a Christian perspective of standing with those who are weak, what was happening to children could neither be justified nor supported. Compassion moved many to advocacy and protest.
The call to justice, to identify with those who are poor, to advocate for those who are weak, is not a minor theme in scripture. Again and again in the Hebrew scriptures we find variations on the theme of care for the orphan, the widow and the stranger. In Zechariah God speaks and says, “Render true judgements, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, or the poor.” In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus challenges us to see him in those who are poor, hungry and thirsty. In fact, some will argue that the church lost its way from the moment it entered a building. Jesus wanted to make disciples who shared his love for the world with the world, especially those in need. Instead we hunker in our churches, try to keep our own noses clean and call it faith.
Certainly there can be a both/and attitude toward the Christian life, but we can get so wrapped up in worship as the center of what we do that we forget that it is not something Jesus asks for. In our congregation’s mission statement we talk about part of our mission as being centered in Christ. This is not supposed to be the center rather it is supposed to be a centering moment, one that grounds us in the good news, reminds us of the constant support of Jesus, the solid rock on which we stand, and then sends us out. I have described Sunday morning as similar to a rest area. We travel for the week and we have a moment to stretch our legs, find some nourishment, take a deep breath and head back out on the journey.
That journey is a journey of compassion and a journey of justice. That doesn’t mean you need to be a hippie or a superhero. Instead it means seeing every person as a child of God. It means being aware when people, precious children of God, are not being treated as people but as inconveniences or less than human. It means fighting the urge to categorize people in dismissive ways.
So I am going to give you another homework assignment or challenge. A colleague of mine who works with people who are homeless in Northampton makes a concerted effort to avoid homeless as a title, as in “the homeless” but uses it as a description. She will refer to people who are homeless or a person experiencing homelessness. She wants to get us thinking about people who are experiencing a condition rather than creating a general category. So listen to the number of times that grouping language is used. Immigrants. Homeless. Addicts. The more we take personhood away, the easier it becomes to treat a group as less than human, less deserving of care and justice. There are people who are immigrating. There are people who are homeless. There are people who are addicted. There are people who are Democrats. There are people who are Republicans. And every one of those people is precious and loved by God. This is where compassion begins and this is where the journey takes us.