Mark Twain nailed it when he said, “What bothers me about the Bible is not the parts I can’t understand, but the parts I can understand.” I mean, it’s not rocket science. What does God ask of us? Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly, with God in front. Not rocket science. But what’s interesting is how we try to make it hard- maybe so we don’t have to do it.
In the scripture from Micah today, God is having an argument with God’s people. “I delivered you from slavery, people! I rescued you from your enemies as you made your way to the Promised Land! I have always had your back!”
We, the People, respond to God’s reminders by saying, “Oh! How can we say thank-you? We know! We’ll bring armloads of sacrifices, with some yearling calves!” Others of us say, “We can beat that: we’ll sacrifice thousands of rams!” Others of us say, “we’ll pour barrels of olive oil on the altar.” And one of us, trying to best all the others, says, “I can do better than that: I’m going to sacrifice my firstborn child. Human sacrifice! That will show God how grateful I am!”
God replies with an “Are you serious, people? There are only three things I have ever asked of you to show that you loved me: Act with justice and fairness to everyone you meet; Act with kindness and compassion to everyone you meet; and remind yourself that you’re not God: I am.”
In the gospel of Luke (10:25-37), Jesus says that the most important thing is to- do you remember? It’s there on the back of your bulletin covers- the Affirmation of Faith. “Here, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And we shall love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength. This is the first and great commandment. The second is like it: love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. There is no greater commandment.” (Mark 12:29-31; Matt 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28). Love God; love our neighbor. Pretty simple. But in the Gospel of Luke, the first thing out of our mouths when we heard this was, “Well, who is my neighbor?”
Which person am I supposed to treat with justice, with kindness? Is it just my family members and the people I like, or does it include grumpy old Mr. Smith next door?” And Jesus turns the thing around and tells a story about a good Samaritan who helps out an enemy who has been ambushed by robbers on the side of the road. At the end of the story, Jesus doesn’t ask, “Who is your neighbor,” but “Who acted as a neighbor?” God doesn’t care about the offering we bring to the altar; what God cares about is how we treat each other- with justice, with kindness, with humility.
I got back Monday at 3am from the Women’s March on Washington. What an incredible experience! 500,000 people all packed into the Capitol Mall- it was like being squished into a pink sardine can! Peaceful, passionate, prophetic. We stood there from 10 in the morning until 4 that afternoon- 6 hours of speakers and poets and musicians. 6 hours of inspiration and hope. No violence, no rudeness: just a gathering of good people concerned about justice and kindness. And that same peaceful, passionate protest happened in marches all across the country, and all across the world.
Who is our neighbor? The woman working two minimum wage jobs, who has to choose between rent, food, or medicine for their kids? The man who depends on school breakfasts and school lunches to feed his kids, and then worries about what they’ll eat on the weekends? “Where is the justice?” we were asked. “Where is the kindness, the compassion?”
Who is our neighbor? Is it the transgender girl wearing a dress and heels who has to go into the men’s room because that’s the gender on her birth certificate? The kid who gets bullied and beat up for who they know themselves to be? The kid who gets kicked out of their own home because their parents refuse to accept who they are? “Where is the justice?” we were asked. “Where is the kindness, the compassion?”
Who is our neighbor? Is it the immigrant kid who was given hope and the possibility of education and citizenship under the Dream Act? Who is now possibly facing deportation because her parents brought her here without documentation when she was 2? The kid who has never known any country than the US, who is now being told that they will be sent back to a land where they have never lived, to a culture whose language they have never spoken? “Where is the justice?” we were asked. “Where is the kindness, the compassion?” I got to thinking about two immigrants who came to us last year to share their stories: Liz Dong and Saif Hammami.
Do you remember Liz? She was a young woman who worked for immigration rights through a Christian agency. Liz is one of those Dream Act kids, who came over from China with her parents when she was 10 years old. Her great fear when she spoke to us was that with a change of administrations, the Dream Act, which allowed her to go to school, and work, and perhaps become a citizen, would be revoked, and many Dreamers would be sent back to a place they didn’t know, didn’t remember, and never called home.
Liz wrote me a note this past week. She told me about something called the Bridge Act. This is what she had to say: “If I cannot stay here, I will go back to China… But there are many folks in my shoes who cannot go back to their home countries due to violence, poverty, and persecution. It would be inhumane to deport them… Here at the Evangelical Immigration Table, we encourage folks to reach out to their Congressional legislators regarding the BRIDGE Act, a bi-partisan legislative version of the Dream Act (DACA) introduced in both the House and Senate. The BRIDGE Act, if passed, is the only thing on the table now that will protect Dreamers from losing their legal status and being deported. Being where Emmanuel is, Rep. Sensenbrenner is an important voice on the BRIDGE Act, as are Sens. Johnson & Baldwin.” It was good to hear from Liz. She’s a fine young woman with a great heart. And I’m going to look into that BRIDGE Act- I hadn’t heard of it before.
Saif Hammami- do you remember Saif and his wife and son and daughter. Cute kids! Nice, hard-working family. Remember how his wife made us this big tray of the best baklava I have ever eaten? They’re Syrians, who fled Syria because a bomb came through their daughter’s window and destroyed their home. Do you remember how he asked us to write letters to let his aging father visit? With the executive order that came out this week barring Syrian refugees from entering the country, that’s not going to happen. What is more likely is that Saif and his family will be deported back to Syria – back to the possibility of death and the certainty of despair.
These are people we know, people we have eaten with. People we have cared about. They are our neighbors, whom God has called on us to love as much as we love ourselves. And something terrible could likely to happen to them in the near future. Where is the justice? Where is the compassion? And what would God have us do, as we follow Jesus? It’s not rocket science. It’s just a matter of having the courage to do what is right. Or as Mark Twain said, “What bothers me about the Bible is not the parts I can’t understand, but the parts I can understand.”
There is only one book in the Bible that doesn’t have the command to love the widow, orphan, and the stranger in our midst. Only one. And that one, the Song of Solomon, also doesn’t mention God anywhere. All of the other 63 books of the Bible hold this command to love the widow, orphan and stranger as a central tenet of God’s will. So what keeps us from doing what is obviously God’s will in the Bible?
I know part of it is just the rhetoric of hate and fear that pervades our nation these days. We are split into political factions that keep us from seeing the humanity of those around us. Liz and Saif- they are lumped into a fear of Islamic terrorists and illegal criminals that any day might invade us unless we get rid of everything foreign, everything other, everything “not us.”
And we’re not just talking about immigrants and refugees. Sen Ted Cruz of Texas is about to introduce
a bill to Congress that would allow any business or person to discriminate against gay people. The bill is called the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA). The first amendment says that Congress cannot make a law about establishing religion, abridging free speech, or the taking away the right of people to assemble peaceably.
But what about hate speech? We don’t allow hate speech, speech which can cause violence to another person. How would this bill that says you can discriminate all you want to against gay people- against some of us- how will this bill make us second class citizens again, encourage hate toward us? Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. If we would follow in the way of our Savior, what should we do in the face of such outright hatred?
Dear friends, I understand that politics is not something that we want preached from the pulpit, because we all have different opinions which need to be respected. But sometimes, doing justice calls for us to speak out and do something, and that’s called politics. Sometimes, loving kindness calls for us to speak out and do something, and that’s called politics. Sometimes, walking humbly with God calls for us to speak out and do something, and that’s called politics. Which puts a pastor like me in a tough position: do I call us to justice, and kindness, and following our Savior, or do I remain silent, and risk nothing except the lives of those who are the most vulnerable?
And that puts all of us in a tough position: do we speak out for what is right, what is fair, and what is compassionate, or do we not rock the boat? Mark Twain nailed it: “What bothers me about the Bible is not the parts I can’t understand, but the parts I can understand.” It’s not rocket science. It’s just discipleship, which tests our character, our faithfulness, and our willingness to follow in the footsteps of our Savior, who was willing to die so that others might live.
In the name of the One who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Scripture for Jan. 29, 2017
God is having an argument with God’s people. Their conversation goes back and forth, as God tries to help them understand what it is that God really wants from them. Listen in…
“Listen now, O people! Listen to God: Take your stand in court. If you have a complaint, tell the mountains; make your case to the hills. And now, Mountains, hear God’s case; Earth, you be the Jury. For I am bringing charges against my people; I am building a case against Israel. My people, how have I done you wrong? Have I burdened you? Worn you out? Answer me! I delivered you from misery in Egypt; I paid a good price to get you out of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, along with Miriam and Aaron. Remember what Balak the king of Moab tried to pull off, and how Balaam son of Beor turned the tables on him? Remember all those stories about Shittim and Gilgal? Remember- and keep all my stories of your salvation fresh and present.”
God’s people cry out in reply, “How can I stand up before God and show proper respect to the Almighty? Should I bring an armload of offerings topped off with yearling calves? Would God be impressed with thousands of rams, with buckets and barrels of olive oil? Would God be moved if I sacrificed my firstborn child to cancel my sin?
“People!” God cries out, “I have already made it plain how to live, what to do- what I am looking for. It’s simple: Do what is fair and just to those around you. Be compassionate and loyal in your love. And don’t take yourself too seriously: take ME seriously!”
Friends, what does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Listen now to what the Spirit would say to us today.