August 20, 2017
Psalm 31:1-5, 21-24, II Corinthians 4:7-10
How many of you are good at math? Sometimes I wonder about God’s ability to do math. I mean, it is clear that God made things fit together in astounding ways. But there is another kind of math from God that doesn’t just doesn’t make much sense. This is what I mean…Jesus continues his sermon on the mount from last week with the following admonitions:
“You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth,’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well…You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (from Matthew 5:38-46)
When asked about forgiveness, Jesus tells them about a new math: you are forgiven so it is your responsibility to forgive others. His followers assumed he would give them a number of times to forgive and they thought seven sounded pretty good. Instead, Jesus told them they were to forgive seventy times seven and if they did not, it would not go well for them. We tend to interpret that as hellfire and brimstone and dismiss it, but I think Jesus meant it more like the saying that refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
The math Jesus gives us is not the kind where we count who is in and who is out or who deserves help and who doesn’t. Jesus tells us instead to look each person in the eye and treat them all as human beings, as children of God. It makes me think of the poet Wendell Berry who said,
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it…
from “Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front”
Psalm 31 teaches us to do things that don’t compute. It reminds me of the story of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was under house arrest while Jerusalem was under siege. The king of Babylon was destroying everything in sight. God comes to Jeremiah and tells him to buy land in Anathoth. Anathoth was right in the middle of the war zone. There is nothing about this that makes sense, but Jeremiah buys the land. Do the math. Who would buy a field in the middle of a war zone?
God’s promise is that people will again buy land in Anathoth. God promises that healing will happen in this war-torn region and God calls Jeremiah to invest in it now. Can you imagine God calling you to buy land in Afghanistan or Somalia right now? It makes no sense. It may be a bargain price, but that doesn’t mean the math adds up.
We like things to make sense. We like outcomes that are clean and we like it when people get what they deserve. But God meets us in the mess and says, “It isn’t going to go that way. Trust me. Love anyway. Forgive. Show up for one another. Don’t quit now. I am here no matter what. I am not leaving you now.”
We watched with horror last weekend as the events in Charlottesville, Virginia unfolded. How could this be? This is not what our country is about and we wonder how we can possibly make sense of it. Where is God when people are carrying torches and screaming hatred? The reading from Corinthians reminds us that power will come from God. We may be afflicted, but we will not be crushed. We may be perplexed, but not driven to despair. We may be persecuted, but not forsaken. We may be struck down, but not destroyed. God has the last word. That last word may not add up. It may not make sense, but that word comes from God.
Psalm 31 is the song of one who has endured suffering and realized what is important in living and dying in suffering and joy is trusting in God. We do it when it makes sense and we do it when it doesn’t. This Psalm teaches us how to die and how to live. It teaches us to trust in God in all things. This Psalm speaks to our world today. It acknowledges “terror all around” (v. 13) and says that God’s faithfulness and love makes is possible for us to “be strong, take courage, and wait for God.” (v. 24) We need to hear these words today.
The church has too often been silent in the face of racism, violence, and oppression. We can no longer ignore the blatant disregard for human dignity. This week, I traveled with a group to tour the Cibola Detention facility in Grants. It is in a Federal prison facility where undocumented immigrants are detained. It houses the only transgender pod in the country. I spent an hour talking with transgender women from different countries and hearing their stories. They are not allowed to interact with any of the other immigrants to protect them, but that means they are not allowed to go to chapel. Everything has been taken away from them and they aren’t even allowed to pray with the community. Sometimes I hear the suffering of people and wonder what I can possibly do. That day, I knew one tiny thing I could do. I prayed with the women before I left. I am continuing to pray for them.
I read a story this week about a group of UCC women in Washington who drive an hour one Sunday a month to support the families of immigrants in detention. They bring food and listen to stories of the families. They recognize the terror these families are facing and they support them by showing up. Ruth Shearer is one of the organizers. She says, “I was an R.N. before going to graduate school and earning a Ph.D. in molecular genetics. Now I'm 87 and just an old woman who still cares about people.”
There are many ways we show compassion for those who are oppressed. We don’t often talk about our prayer shawl ministry. There is a group of women who meet twice a month to knit prayer shawls. They have been doing this for ten years. They do a lot of counting as they knit. They tell stories and support one another as they knit tangible signs of God’s love for people who are sick, grieving, moving, or for new babies.
William Barber was in town this week. He is leading a Poor People’s Campaign fifty years after Martin Luther King, Jr. Four years ago, Barber began Moral Monday to seek justice for issues that are not partisan, but moral issues. Barber called on us to fight four evils: systemic racism, poverty, a war economy, and ecological devastation. We were reminded of the words Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in 1967:
“There is nothing wrong with a traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light. But when a fire is raging, the fire truck goes right through that red light, and normal traffic had better get out of its way. Or, when a man is bleeding to death, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed.
There is a fire raging now for the Negroes and the poor of this society. They are living in tragic conditions because of the terrible economic injustices that keep them locked in as an “underclass,” as the sociologists are now calling it. Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved.” (http://www.thekinglegacy.org/books/trumpet-conscience)
God’s math calls us to overwhelm evil with good. I have never been on the front lines of social justice, but the more I see, the more I feel compelled to act. The issues of racism, immigration, and poverty are deeply embedded in the fabric of our country and we must call out the sin of injustice. We must engage in tangible acts of justice. We must bring healing to the pain and terror in our world. A quote about new math has been floating around: “equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.” God gives more than enough love for all. God has created a world where no one should be hungry. God created all human beings to be treated with dignity. And yet, many are hungry, many are discriminated against every day. The scriptures today tell us to act without counting what it will cost. We are called be strong and take courage knowing that power will come from God. It is time for us to practice a higher math.