A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 19, 2017
On the short list for today’s worship service was an old hymn from the early twentieth century revivalist tradition. The hymn didn’t make the cut, but listen to some of its text:
Take time to be holy, speak oft with thy Lord;
Abide in Him always, and feed on His Word.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak,
Forgetting in nothing His blessing to seek.
I suppose it sounds slightly sentimental and a little dated, but I wonder if there isn’t still truth in its urging – “Take time to be holy.” How many holy ones are here today? Raise your hand if you consider yourself holy. No takers? I wonder why? What does it mean to be holy? What do you hear when you hear that word?
Dictionary definitions include “dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred; devoted to the service of God; morally and spiritually excellent; exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness; divine; devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity; having a divine quality.” That word, “divine,“ reminds me of a humorous sign on the seminary bulletin board that read, “Support your local divinity school; be divine.” I’m not sure any of us succeeded in achieving divinity but the sign did help to lighten the load for budding theologians..
This business of being holy sounds like hard work, yet there it is in the beginning of today’s ancient word from Leviticus. This little section of the law starts off with instruction to Moses, “Tell the all the people: You shall be holy for I your God am holy.” And we hear something like that at the end of today’s text from Matthew’s gospel, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, NRSV). These are challenging exhortations for us. They seem unattainable, feel overwhelming. I remember as an adolescent stressing over the pressure to be perfect as my fathers – both earthly and heavenly – appeared to be. It’s not easy to be the preacher’s older son. How would I ever measure up to such thoroughly holy expectations? At times, I felt helplessly and hopelessly inadequate.
But, over time, I’ve come to read these texts differently. The exhortation in these texts is not to be totally pure, absolutely flawless. Rather, it is to fulfill God’s design in creation, to be God’s people, God’s children, created in the image and likeness of God, to complete the work God has begun in you and me. Remember, we have been following the idea that the function of the ancient law, both in the Torah and the teachings of Jesus, was not to bind humanity to some long outdated legal code but to liberate us to be the beings that God intended from the beginning of time. Ironically, these laws serve not to restrict our being but as guidelines and inspiration for living fully into our humanity. Be holy as God is holy. Be whole, be complete, are better ways to translate Jesus’ sense of perfection, or as Marcus Borg interprets, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” “’Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you’” (Matthew 5:48 The Message).
These ancient laws are grounded in love and they are fundamentally relational. They lead us to essential interconnectedness, to the relationality that is inherent in the nature and will of God. They are to serve the shaping of shalom – peace, harmony, well-being – for the whole creation, us included. The passage from Leviticus begins with an exhortation to holiness and ends with the instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your neighbor as one also created in the image and likeness of God, a human being no different from you…” (Lloyd R. Bailey, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Leviticus-Numbers, p. 230). Do you think there is any connection here? Do you think if we take time to be holy we might also be better at loving our neighbors? The hymn writer says, “Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak, forgetting in nothing [God’s] blessing to seek.”
Now here’s my current dilemma. There’s an adage that progressive preachers love to quote: “One must hold a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.” You’ve heard it, right? Probably more than once. It’s great encouragement to bring the Bible and the news, faith tradition and contemporary culture, the Word and the world into a much-needed conversation. It’s instructive that the quotation is attributed to Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, working in and around Germany during the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s. The truth is that what Barth actually recalled years later was that “…he advised young theologians ‘to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’” That sounds more like Barth. The Bible is first and foremost. Still, the instruction, which was significant then, is relevant today.
Love! Yes. Love God with your whole being. Be holy as God is holy. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be compassionate as God is compassionate. “’Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.’”
But, resist!? How does that fit in? What do love and resistance have to do with each other? I admit it’s a challenge. Read your Bible, read your newspaper. The times are troubling. There’s a whole lot going on in the world, including the craziness in our “own backyard.” It disturbs us deeply. Either we want to take to our beds or take to the streets, and friends, it’s hard to know which way to turn. How do we bring the Word and the world into conversation, at least in our own lives, if not in our communities?
An article in Sojourners quotes Pastor Brian Herron, addressing 2000 faith leaders in Minnesota, gathered to consider the question, “Will you be chaplain to the empire or prophet of the resistance?” He said, “Today we stand together feeling an uneasy sense of urgency in the atmosphere. You can feel it all across this country. And even though the table set before us seems to be on the edge of darkness, we are called to be God’s Lights; and the Light always breaks the darkness. There is an electrifying, energizing need to move, mobilize, and strategize to build up our prophetic resistance for such a time as this” (Michael-Ray Mathews, “Will You Be Chaplain to the Empire or Prophet of the Resistance?” Sojourners, 2-16-2017).
This question of love and resistance reminds me very much of the life and witness of Martin Luther King, Jr. King read his Bible. He studied Christianity and the church. He earned a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology. But he also read his newspaper. He walked the streets of Montgomery and Atlanta and Washington. He saw people neglected and exploited, abused and murdered by powers that be. He heard the language of segregation and racial hatred, of social injustice and economic inequity, of political chicanery and military power. Imperfect as he might have been, in that sense that so worried me as a child, he understood love at a very deep level and believed in its capacity to change the world. But he also understood love would require resistance to the evils he read in the news and on the streets and throughout the dominant culture. He was clear that what he read there did not reconcile with what he read in the Bible about God’s desire that all people live together in shalom. His was a powerful vision of the ways in which love and resistance must come together, how they had to be linked in order for the Beloved Community to become real for all.
In a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967 he said, “I know that love is ultimately the only answer to [hu]mankind’s problems. I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate. … I have decided to love.” We know he led an activist movement that operated in the streets and in the halls of congress, in the factories and farms, in board rooms and sanctuaries. That movement of resistance effected significant change, but it was not enough. King was quick to remind his followers, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” God’s will will be done on earth as in heaven. But, in order for that to happen, there is still work to be done. And we must do it.
So, this morning, as you consider love, the love that makes us holy and compassionate, that completes our being as people of God, what do you see that needs resisting? When you pick up your paper or your magazine or your tablet or your iPhone, what do you see in the world around that needs the grace of love’s compassionate resistance?
[Some of the responses from the congregation included resistance to:
- The destruction of the planet
- Closing our doors to refugees and immigrants
- Economic inequity throughout the world
- Abuse of power by those in authority
- Inhumane treatment of others
- Stereotyping and demonizing Muslims]
“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. God gives the best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
“In a word, what I’m saying is, ‘Grow up. You’re the people of God’s Beloved Community. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you’” (Matthew 5: 43-48, The Message). Amen.