I can’t believe I am sharing a sermon, but the one we heard Sunday at our friend Mark’s church in Charlotte was amazing in its timeliness politically and socially. It’s a message I felt like anyone can take to heart, Christian or not, and that Christians in particular should be challenged by.
It was serendipitous that I ended up in a Baptist church with my Jewish husband and heard this sermon. We were there because it’s the 10th anniversary of our friend Scott’s death and his partner Mark wanted to mark the occasion with a small gathering. Neither Bill nor I are religious, but we talked about this all the way home to Atlanta.
The minister got applause at the end of this, which I told Bill was not the norm in most churches, but there were definitely some folks nodding “no” at several points during the sermon.
The complete text of the sermon follows. I can’ t wait to hear what you think about it. Please share widely.
Manuscript 427 – “Created for Humanity”
Jesus had a checkered history with the Sabbath. For someone who was eventually called the ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ and worshipped on the Sabbath day, Jesus did not approach the observance of the Sabbath with the culturally expected reverence or respect. On multiple occasions it seems as if Jesus completely ignored the Sabbath in order to do his work. He healed a man with a withered hand, he healed a woman who was crippled, he told a man to carry his pallet, he spit into the dirt made clay and put it on a blind man’s eyes to restore his sight, and he allowed his disciples to pick wheat—all on the Sabbath day. In every instance, the Pharisees and religious leaders would call his actions illegal and, we are told, it was one of the main reasons they wanted to kill him. For many, these stories prove that Jesus intended to depart from Judaism and eliminate the Sabbath. But this interpretation of Jesus’ relation to the Sabbath, is a serious mistake. Jesus did not obliterate the Sabbath but reframed it and expanded it in ways that helped to renew and fulfill its deepest meanings.
Sometimes reframing and expanding an idea feels like destruction or loss to those who are wedded to the status quo and set on celebrating things the way they’ve always been—like the Pharisees. The standard trope is that the Pharisees were very ‘legalistic’ in their observance of the Sabbath, but the reality is that they had wildly departed from its original intention. In Judaism, the Sabbath had five components: Creation, Rest, Liberation, Justice, and Peace. Born out of the Genesis and Exodus narratives, the Sabbath was a practice of creativity, work stoppage, freedom from slavery, justice for all people, and the restoration of a right relationship with all living things or shalom. Of all five of these dimensions of the meaning of the Sabbath, the Pharisees chose to focus on only one: rest, the cessation of activity, or work stoppage; and even that they interpreted in a narrow way that only benefited the powerful. Any activity that could be construed as work was forbidden—no matter what the reason. Taking yourself, or requiring anyone else, to take you to the doctor, was forbidden.
However, the Pharisees had a legitimate legal bone to pick with Jesus. Allowing the disciples to pick grain was most definitely an act of work, which is why the Pharisees asked Jesus an obvious question, “why are they doing what is not lawful?” We must remember that the Sabbath was not just a religious law but the political law of the land as well—like Blue Laws in America, which prohibited the buying or selling of certain goods on Sundays. Some of you remember Blue Laws. Even when they were long gone my mother would say, “I don’t know where you are going on this Sunday afternoon—nothing will be open.” I said, “Mom, its 2018!” Jesus was a law breaker, and worse than that he supported and defended his disciples breaking the law. To the Pharisees his actions must have seemed like an insurrection! They said, “Why don’t you and your disciples have respect for the law? Breaking the law is wrong. Good people don’t break the law; they keep the law. People of faith and religious leaders especially should uphold the law more than anyone else, shouldn’t they?” Yes, the Pharisees had a point. People of faith should respect and uphold the law, if the law is just. On the other hand, theologians like Thomas Aquinas and others through the ages have always said if a law is unjust, then people of faith have a moral obligation to oppose it.
This week the Attorney General combined religious and political law and appealed to the Bible to justify the separation immigrant children from their mothers and fathers at the border. He said, “I would cite you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing that protects the weak, it protects the lawful. Our policies that can result in short-term separation of families are not unusual or unjustified.” This was not only untrue, but a horrific misinterpretation of Romans 13, and it is also the exact way the very same scripture was used by white supremacists to justify slavery, Nazi rule, unjust wars, apartheid in South Africa, and Jim Crow—as well to just other times in American history when we separated children from the parents of Native Americans, African Slaves, and Japanese immigrants. I prefer the interpretation of Romans 13 from our 16th century Anabaptist forbearers like Thomas Muntzer who said, “If the authorities render perverted judgement, Christians should deny this judgement as wrong and not tolerate it, for God demands an account of innocent blood. It is the greatest monstrosity on earth when no one wants to defend the plight of the needy.”
The Attorney General’s appeal to God and the Apostle Paul failed to address two critical questions. First, must we really separate children from their parents? That seems like unnecessarily punitive and heartless action. Second, why are these immigrants crossing the border and breaking the law in the first place? Only someone with no hope of survival in their current situation would do it. What would possess someone to risk life and limb to walk across a dangerous desert facing dehydration, starvation, exhaustion, violence, exploitation, rape, and possibly being separated indefinitely from their children? Why would any human being do that? Dom Helder Camara famously said, “when I feed the poor they call me a saint, when I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.” We don’t we like to ask the question why, because we often discover truths we would rather not know. Why are these people breaking the law and crossing the border? They are fleeing from poor, violent, and unstable countries. Why are these countries poor, violent, and unstable? Sadly, it’s often because of we involved ourselves in their governments and economies.
Starting in 1950, and throughout the Cold War, the US military and the CIA, were involved in disrupting economies, tampering with elections, arming rebel forces, assassinating democratically elected leaders, and influencing regime change in 22 of the 33 countries in South America in order to “stop the spread of communism.” These actions destabilized the entire region leading to civil wars, oppressive dictatorships, economic devastation, extreme poverty, and the mass migration of people looking for food and safety. People are crossing our border and breaking the law, because we disabled their countries and now they are desperate for food, clean water, safety, work, and relief. They risk death because they are desperate for life. In many cases they are desperate for a way of life that we have stolen through political, military, or economic means. They cross our border desperately looking for what we’ve taken from them, and we act like we are surprised they are here. We shouldn’t be surprised nor should we demonize them, hurt them, or separate them from their children.
We lack the empathy to put ourselves in their shoes and ask, “What would I do if my family was in that situation—if you were living in abject poverty with no hope—if your children were starving, unsafe, or at risk—what would you do? Would you be willing to take a treacherous journey, cross a border, possibly break the law if it came to that to save your family?” Many of us would do exactly the same thing if our families faced those distressing circumstances. We are quick to criminalize people and call them “illegal,” but we forget that a lot of what we call “crime” is the result of economic factors. Nobody grows up wanting to be a prostitute. It is what happens when you have no other options to feed or provide for your family. Dealing drugs like cocaine, heroin, or meth are ways that poor communities create an economy where one does not exist. This does not justify those activities, but it can help us consider how people got into those situations—to consider the human side. Jesus didn’t hang out with prostitutes and tax collectors because he loved to party. He understood the economic pressures that forced human beings into those ways of life—to break the law for the sake of their livelihood and their families; like our immigrant brothers and sisters at the border.
Jesus regularly broke the law and he was executed for it, but why did he break the law on this particular occasion? When the Pharisees confronted him about the disciples picking grain, Jesus referenced an obscure text in 1 Samuel 21 as precedent and said, “Don’t you remember that David entered the Temple when Abiathar was high priest and ate the holy bread, which it was not lawful for anyone but the priests to eat, and then gave some to his companions?” But the problem with Jesus’ reference is that it is not a great comparison. David and his companions asked the high priest for bread and the priest said “all I have is this holy bread, but even though it is against the law you and your companions are welcome to it as long as you are holy.” The context of the two stories is very different, but they do have two things in common. In both cases people break the law in order to eat bread and in both cases the reason they break the law is because they were hungry. Jesus even mentions hunger in his reference to David, which is not in the original story. So, we are led to believe this is all about hunger. Jesus and the disciples were hungry and that is why they broke the law.
On a bitterly cold day in February of 1846, a French writer was on his way to work when he saw something that affected him profoundly and changed the course of Western history. A gaunt and emaciated young man was being led away by police; arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. He was dressed in mud-spattered clothes, his bare feet thrust into clogs, his ankles wrapped in bloodied rags in lieu of stockings. The French writer who saw that boy was Victor Hugo, and anyone who has read or watched Les Misérables will immediately recognize the wretched scene as the story of Jean Valjean, an out-of-work peasant who steals a loaf of bread in order feed not just himself but his sister and her seven children. For his crime, Valjean is sentenced to five years of hard labor. Much of Hugo’s novel turns on that one desperate act and he uses that loaf of bread to challenge society’s conscience and highlight the injustice of the system. After describing the theft, he broke the story to make a narrators intervention: “English statistics, he wrote, “prove that four out of five thefts in London have hunger for their immediate cause.” Hugo was highlighting the economic cause of crime.
Hugo fought the social injustice of poverty all his life. He was writing at a time when children were imprisoned even for minor offences like stealing peaches, and he wanted to alert people that something had to be done about the poor. There was no sharper marker of economic status in 19th-century France than bread. The country was divided into the rich who ate soft white bread and the poor who ate coarse black bread made from rye, in which bakers mixed sawdust, tree bark and other additives making it so hard the poor had to cut it up with an axe, and soak it for twenty-four hours, before they could eat it. Bread was a radical symbol in the shadow of the French Revolution. A string of failed harvests caused an acute bread shortage and spiraling prices. Whether or not Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake,” the rumblings that led to the storming of the Bastille started with bread riots. Bread was a symbol for hunger and justice, and Hugo wrote “Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: ‘open up, I am here for you.’”
Are things all that different today? Nearly 1 billion people in the world are poor. 47 million Americans live below the poverty line. There are 1.5 million poor people in North Carolina and 129,224 people living in poverty right here in Charlotte, and (we know now) with the worst odds in the nation of moving out of poverty in their lifetime. Meanwhile the wealthiest people in America saw their income surge by $762 billion in 2017, which is enough money to end hunger and extreme poverty throughout the whole seven times over, according to Oxfam. In fact, the top 100 richest people earned enough last year, in one year, to end hunger and extreme poverty. It is not a matter of ability or resources, it is a matter of will. Desmond Tutu said “When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political, or social, or spiritual?’ No, he said, ‘I will feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”
Likewise the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote, “How simple you are, O bread, and how profound!…familiar to every mouth, [but] if we plant your seed and grow it not for one but for all, there will be enough: there will be bread for all the peoples of the earth. And we will also share with one another whatever has the shape and the flavor of bread: the earth itself, beauty and love—all taste like bread and have its shape, the germination of wheat. Everything exists to be shared, to be freely given, to multiply. Then life itself will have the shape of bread, deep and simple, immeasurable and pure. Every living thing will have its share of soil and life, and the bread we eat each morning, will be hallowed and sacred, because it will have been won by the longest and costliest of human struggles.”
Jesus is not going to ask us, “Did you follow the law of the land?” That’s not what Matthew 25 says. We are told he is going to look at us and say either, “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” or he will look at us and say, “I was hungry and you did not feed me. I was thirsty and you did not give me something to drink.” Jesus aligned himself with the poor and the hungry because he had a set of theological, political, social, and spiritual convictions that is sorely missing today—that has been lost, abandoned, disappear from our society, which few of us truly comprehend. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “The sabbath was made for humanity, and not humanity for the sabbath.” The sabbath was made for people; not people for the sabbath. The highest law, was made for people; and not people for the law. Jesus was saying that people are more important than the law; that God made the laws for people and not the other way around. People come before the law.
What does Jesus teaching mean? It means that religious laws or political laws, or laws that are both political and religious should exist to serve people and not hurt or oppress people. It means that if a law makes people suffer with hunger for instance, that law is evil and must not be carried out. It means that it is not always a sin to betray the law, but it is always a sin to betray people. Jesus’ teaching means that laws (religious or otherwise) should always be for the people. It means that if there is a law that benefits some people, but hurts others then Jesus would oppose it. It means that if there is a law that benefits religious people, but hurts others then Jesus would oppose it. It means that if there is a law that benefits politicians, but hurts people then Jesus would oppose it. It means that if there is a law that benefits corporations, but hurt people then Jesus would oppose it. Jesus was not talking about laws that hurt people’ feelings, opinions, or sensibilities, but laws that hurt people’s bellies, bodies, and bank accounts. There are certain laws that Jesus was simply willing to break. He was willing to break any law that was breaking the backs of his people.
God does not affirm laws simply because they are put in place by authorities, as our Attorney General claimed, God only affirms laws that are created for and serve humanity—for the benefit of human beings—for the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed. The Sabbath was created for human creativity, for human rest, for human liberation, for human peace, for human justice, for human joy and human delight. It was not created for some humans, like the rich Pharisees to enjoy while other people go hungry. It was created for ALL human beings to enjoy. It was created for total human flourishing, which is why any law that does not lead to the flourishing of ALL human beings whether they be rich and poor, black and white, male or female, straight or gay, republican or democrat, citizen or immigrant, Christian or non-Christian—is an immoral and unjust law that the followers of Jesus must oppose. Either a law is for the benefit of ALL people or it is not from God. This is what Jesus was teaching the Pharisees. If people are hungry on the Sabbath, don’t get caught up in the law, just feed the hungry, and you fulfill the Sabbath—you fulfill the highest law.
The Sabbath is not sacred because it is a law, it is sacred but because it requires that we care for other human beings. Laws are not sacred. People are sacred. So the question we have to ask ourselves as followers of Jesus is, “Are people more important to us than our laws, or are our laws more important to us than people?” Caring for people more than we care about the law is what Jesus called love, and in Galatians Paul said, “there is no law against love.” In fact, if you read a little further in Romans 13 you discover the whole chapter is really about love triumphing over the law. In Romans 13:10 Paul said “love does no wrong to a neighbor, for love is the fulfillment of the law.” Jesus said it too, “All of the law” he said, “hangs on these two commands: “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and body. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Without love we are nothing, but noisy gongs and clanging symbols. So, beloved, let us love one another for love is what truly comes from God, and not the law. Amen.