Sermon: Rabble Rousing Riff Raff

Sermon for Williamstown
The 19th of February 2017

Matthew 5:38-48

I recently bought an ABC board book for my younger god-daughter. I liked it so much that I then bought copies for other toddlers I know, as well as a copy for myself. This is no ordinary ABC book. It’s called A is for Activist and it has pages like: ‘F is for Feminist. For Fairness in our pay. For Freedom to Flourish and choose our own way.’ That’s my sort of ABC.

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The page for ‘R’ is my favourite. ‘”Radical Reds!” the headlines said. “Ruinous Rioters!” the Rumours spread. “Rabble Rousing Riff Raff …” … Really?’ There are some twenty non-violent activists illustrated on this page and Innosanto Nagara names them all on his website, but I didn’t need his notes to identify the three in the front. They are three of my personal saints: Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador; Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement; and Martin Luther King Jr. Looking at Nagara’s website I discovered that another of the pictures is of Sophie Scholl, the university student who with her brother was executed at the age of twenty-one for handing out anti-war pamphlets in Nazi Germany.

I’ve mentioned these four people because they were all Christians who lived out the Sermon on the Mount. Three of them, King, Romero, and Scholl, were killed because of it.

Today we hear what are possibly the most outrageous demands of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.’

The temptation is to water these sayings down; to find ways of making sense of them so that we don’t actually need to follow them. The commands are spiritual, not to be taken literally. The commands are to be taken literally, but we’re to recognise that living them out is impossible and thus that we must rely on God’s grace alone for salvation. We are to try to live them out, even knowing that we’ll fail, because simply trying will make us better people. They can be lived out, but only by people under occupation, as the Jews of Jesus’ time were under Roman occupation, people for whom  resisting an evildoer is likely to lead to death.

I’m not going to explain Jesus’ commands away, but I am going to explain them. People like Sophie Scholl and Martin Luther King do resist evildoers, in apparent contradiction to Jesus’ words, but in their resistance they live out the commands of the Sermon on the Mount.

As I said last week, Jesus’ authoritative interpretation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount is about the meaning behind individual commandments. Turning the other cheek, giving cloak as well as coat, going two miles when compelled to go one, giving to all who beg – these are all examples of loving everyone, even our enemies. Jesus tells his followers to go far beyond the common human practice of loving our neighbour while hating our enemy. Anyone can do that! But Jesus’ followers are called to imitate God, and God’s love is extreme. God treats even his enemies with grace and mercy. We see this in Jesus, who not only preached this sermon, but lived it – walking the way of the cross; refusing to resist those who betrayed, tortured and killed him; embracing death itself in order to show us all how much God loves us. Jesus’ life and death is the measure of God’s love for us, and he calls us to imitate God’s love by loving our enemies.

People like Romero and Scholl and King loved their enemies while resisting their enemies’ evil. The peace-making organisation Pace e Bene, whose name means Peace and All Good in Latin, was set up by Franciscan Friars in 1989 to work for peace. It describes three common ways of resisting violence. The first way is to avoid violence: to decide that it is not our problem; to leave it up to the police or the military; to simply deny that violence is happening. The second way is to make an accommodation with violence: to accept that it exists, but decide that violence is just the way it is; or that it’s not so bad; or that there’s nothing we can do about it. The third way is to meet violence with violence: with physical violence; with violent words; by wielding financial or political power. When politicians respond to the violence of ISIS by attacking all Muslims, attempting to ban women from wearing burkas, or arguing for the deportation of Muslims who follow Islamic religious law, for example, they are fighting violence with violence, even if they do so by speaking in Parliament House.

Pace e Bene suggests another way; responding to violence with active non-violence. This fourth way says to the evil-doer: ‘We will not co-operate with your violence and injustice; we will resist it with everything we are.’ It simultaneously says to that evil-doer, ‘But we will never forget that you are a human being, and we are open to you as a fellow human being’. As I was taught when taking part in training for active non-violence, we hold one hand up to say ‘Stop’ and one hand out to say ‘We are part of one another’.

This is the way of Martin Luther King, of Dorothy Day, of Sophie Scholl, of Oscar Romero, of Rosa Parks, of Mahatma Gandhi, of all the people on the ‘R’ page of A is for Activist. This is the way in which hundreds of thousands of people around the world, non-Christians as well as Christians, have lived out Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount.

In the 1960s Martin Luther King was accused by some liberal clergy of being an extremist because of his non-violent resistance to segregation. They thought the struggle for desegregation should be left to the courts, not to men and women sitting at lunch counters and in bus seats and marching in protest marches. In response, King wrote the ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ and if you haven’t read that, please do so. In it he says:

… as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love – ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice – ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ – ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist – ‘Here I stand; I can do none other so help me God.’ Was not John Bunyan an extremist – ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist – ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist – ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .’ So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice – or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.[1]

Jesus ends this section of the Sermon on the Mount with the command: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ The Greek word teleios does mean perfect, but it also means complete, whole, mature. That’s what people like Martin Luther King are, complete and whole people, people who demonstrate integrity and maturity. That is who we are called to be, too, complete, whole and mature. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus commands us to live as God’s beloved children, loving as God loves, with a love that is excessive and over-the-top. God ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’. God’s love is like a flooding rain. It doesn’t just go where we want it to go. It turns things upside down. It challenges the plans we make for our lives. It may even destroy things we value and think are important. Because God does not just love us, or the people of whom we approve. God loves the people of whom we disapprove, too. In fact, God loves the people who persecute us, the people who are our enemies. When we imitate God, we love them, too.

Can we really love as God loves? Can we really be perfect, as God is perfect? Not, of course, by ourselves! As John Wesley wrote: ‘God knew well how ready our unbelief would be to cry out, This is impossible! And therefore stakes upon it all the power, truth, and faithfulness of God, to whom all things are possible.’[2]

I’m going to end this sermon with some music. Several years’ ago I saw the movie Selma, which tells the story of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, for equal voting rights. Amazing, amazing movie, with an absolutely brilliant David Oyelowo playing Martin Luther King. There were lines in that film that put words into why I became a minister, and other lines that punched me in the gut: ‘Who murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson? … Every white preacher who preaches the Bible and stays silent before his white congregation.’  (The film-makers couldn’t use King’s actual words, so I went to find what he really said at that point and found: ‘He was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the security of stained-glass windows’. The original didn’t hurt my heart any less than the fictional version had.)

The song written for that movie was ‘Glory,’ written and sung by Common and John Legend, which won the Oscar for Best Song. I feel a little unsure about making it part of the playlist of my life and ministry, because as an Anglo-Celtic-Australian I am definitely one of the racially privileged, living a life that takes advantage of the oppression of people of other colours and faiths and nationalities. But this song speaks to me of my faith and of Jesus Christ. So, I invite you to listen: Glory

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World, New York: HarperCollins, 1992, p. 94.

[2] Quoted in Jason Byassee, ‘Matthew 5:38-49: Theological Perspective’ in David L. Barlett & Barbara Brown Taylor (eds.), Feasting on the Word, 2010, p. 384.

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