Sermon for February 3, 2013

Luke 4:21-30 ~ Being Nice And/Or Being Faithful (Being Fair And/Or Being Just)

Rev. Allen V. Harris

Preached at Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Shaker Heights, Ohio

To hear a podcast of this sermon, click HERE:  130203SermonPodcast

I was reading in a church leadership journal some years ago the story of a cat caught in a transom.  You remember what a transom is?  It’s that window contraption above a door in older buildings used to regulate airflow between rooms back in the days before air conditioning.  Well, in any case a cat had found it’s way into this building that had high ceilings and big doors and, through a variety of efforts using nearby furniture and pure feline athleticism, had jumped up into this transom.  It was meowing there in a most unnerving tone.

Well several coworkers had gathered below the cat in the transom and the author happened upon them as they were discussing, rather vigorously, what should be done to get this poor trapped cat out of its problematical situation.  Apparently they had been conferring for quite some time, and yet no clear solution was presenting itself.  It is at this point the author stepped away for a moment, came back with a mop, put the end of the handle up to the edge of the transom, and slammed it shut.  The cat sprang to the ground and headed right for the outside door.

The point that the writer was trying make in this journal about governance was that sometimes we just have to act and not deliberate so awful much.  But I found a different point in it.  There comes a time when we have to do that which is not necessarily deemed “nice” in order to do that which is effective.  In terms of our spiritual lives, sometimes being faithful may not be seen as being polite.

Perhaps this is true in general society, but it is definitely spot-on in church circles.  We have come to confuse being kind or compassionate with being “nice,” which is a very different thing.  “Nice” tends to be superficial and forced.  God does not call us to be “nice,” but instead, God calls us to be faithful.  There is nowhere in holy scripture where the divine edict, “Go ye, therefore, and be nice!” is uttered!

Now hear me out.  I am not saying that we are not called to be kind, compassionate, gentle, nor humble.  My sermon to you today should in no way be seen as a call to be rude, brutish, nor arrogant.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  Being faithful at times is as quiet as a whisper or as comforting as a parent’s warm embrace.  But being faithful, true to our biblical faith, requires – no demands that we put aside niceties and polite formalities in order to be honest, clear, and thoughtful.

And I take my cue from scripture itself.  There are awesome biblical characters who weren’t “nice” but who were faithful:

> Moses, once he gets his marching orders, is very clear and direct with Pharaoh: Let my people go!  Yes, he had a swarm of plagues to back him up, but he spent no time worrying about hurting the Egyptian leaders’ feelings!

> Esther was stuck between a rock and a hard place as to whether or not she should jeopardize her own life to save her peoples’ lives.  Ultimately she chose to risk offending her very powerful husband in order that a genocide might be avoided.

> Time and time again Paul had to confront detractors both within his fledgling churches and without in order to keep the primary mission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ moving forward in an Empire that was more and more dangerous to the new faith.

These folks did not have the time nor patience to be nice.  They were too busy being faithful.  Similarly, we confuse “fair” with faithful.  This drives me batty and it is definitely as pervasive in the general society as it is within church walls.  God does call us to a life of justice, but rarely is it “fair,” in the sense that everybody is treated exactly equal.  In fact, we go to great lengths to make sure every single person gets exactly the same thing when, in point of fact, not everyone needs nor deserves the exact same thing.

Perhaps some biblical examples of justice or faithfulness, trumping “fairness” might help:

> The Jacob and Esau stories are permeated with instances of divine justice and faithfulness trumping what would seem to be fair and worthy and right.  From the moment Jacob comes forth from the womb hanging onto his brother, Esau’s, leg to the moment their very own mother helps him trick his ailing father into giving the birthright to the smooth son rather than the furry son, Jacob is upsetting our apple cart of what is evenhanded and fair.

> King after king in the Hebrew scriptures are smited and damned for nothing more than looking sidewise towards the divine, and then along comes eye-catching and multi-talented David, who doesn’t just trip on the Ten Commandments but smashes a few with fireworks and Geraldo-worthy excess, who wins the mantle of one of the great patriarchs of the faith!  Go figure?!

> Mary sings a song that is nothing less than an ode to unfairness as she sings about how the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up, how the hungry get fed and the rich sent away to their rooms with nothing to eat, extoling the virtues of radically unquantifiable and unearned things like mercy, compassion, and justice.

> And, of course, the preeminent example of justice that is not fair is the story of the prodigal son, told by Jesus himself.  It is the son who was lost but is now found that is lavished with the party and the fatted calf rather than the dependable, faithful son.

This is what Jesus was trying to address following his reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in his all-too-nice and all-too-fair hometown.  After being the Worship Leader for the day and reading the first lesson, Jesus made his neighbors proud.  “What a fine boy Mary and Joseph’s son has turned out to be!” they thought to themselves.  He could have left it there, but, instead, Jesus began to wander from their ideal when he declared that the reading was being fulfilled in that very moment. They could have gotten upset then and there, but they forgave him thinking he was talking in generalities and not specifics.  But then Jesus, rabble-rouser that he was, decided to make his little biblical reflection more pointed and plain.  He gave two examples from scripture, that of the widow of Zaraphath during a time of famine and the cleansing of the leper Naaman.  In both instances God’s power was used to help some but not all.  Pointing out that God demands neither niceness nor fairness, but faithfulness and justice gets Jesus run out of town on a rail, and almost killed.

In what is often called his “mission statement,” the reading Jesus offered to the people in his hometown of Nazareth from Isaiah 61, clearly espoused a set of values that could be termed neither nice nor fair.  One cannot truly bring good news to the poor and still be considered “nice” by those who benefit from people living in poverty.  One cannot honestly proclaim release to the captives and sight to the blind and be fair to all people.  One cannot actually let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of God’s favor and make everybody happy and treat everybody uniformly.  It just cannot happen.  Powers will have to be confronted.  People who have historically been excluded or oppressed will have to be treated differently from those who have had access to power and privilege for a long time.

It is at this point that I want you to think about specific examples of where we tend to focus on being nice and fail to be faithful, or where we spend a lot of time and energy on being fair, but fail in our call to justice.  [And let’s take out of play the well-worn example of the church parking lot.  We all already know that one of the places churches need help on is the tried-and-true practice of being all nice and complimentary in the parlor during coffee hour but then being scathing in our assessment of others in the parking lot.  We know that’s not right.  We also know the practice must end where one decision is made in the church board meeting and then another made in back room dealings.  Those are obvious examples of our needing to focus on faithfulness and justice more intentionally.]

And while there are many examples in our own lives where these conversations about what is fair and what is faithful get mixed up, nowhere are these more explosive than in the conversations we have about race and class.  Gone are the days when religion, politics, and sex were the topics non grata.   Race and class have become the hidden conversations in our culture.  Many of us, particularly those of us who were raised in either the mainline Protestant church as well as those of us who are white, have a tendency to try to keep the conversation on the level of what is nice and what is fair.  We use a language that is personal, rather than corporate, and look at individual interactions rather than systemic relationships.  But the level of tension in our world and our nation, and even our city, indicate a much more honest and real discussion must take place.

In the month ahead, oftentimes referred to as Black History Month, let us use it as a stepping-stone to further and deepen more honest conversations year round.  Let us spend less time worrying about what is nice and polite to say, and more about being honest about our feelings and thoughts.  But this will only work if we are also open to change, for this is the real reason we engage in any of this discussion and work for faithfulness and justice.  Going into a conversation committed to being honest and forthright without also being open to be moved by the other person’s honesty and candor is pointless, not to mention arrogant.  Do you not think Moses, Jacob, Esther, Mary, and Paul were open to transformation?  Of course they were!  That’s the essence of faithfulness to God!

Now what we might learn from Jesus, and thousands of years of conflict and strife, is that there are ways to make our conversations more productive and less stressful: how to pick the right time, place, and approach to make the conversation nurturing and transforming.  But the conversation has to happen!  We here in America have lost our commitment to rigorous debate and deep discussion.  We are enchanted by sound-bytes and enamored with the idea of badgering others to death to get our point across.  THIS MUST STOP!  The church could once again model for the world faithful discussion and honest dialogue about issues of race, class, sexual orientation, and other so-called “hot-button” issues.  But it won’t happen if we are dead-set on being NICE!!!!  It starts with building relationships.  I am far more willing to be confronted on my presumption of white privilege and my latent racism if the person calling me to accountability has a name, a history, and some kind of a bond with me.  A much more worthwhile discussion will take place about heterosexism if I have developed a friendship with the person I am in need of challenging.

Sisters and brothers, the cat is still stuck in the transom.  There are many topics crying out for honest deep discussion, including the dogged presence of racism in our lives and the growing chasm between persons of different class and economics.  But the problems will not be solved if all we do is sit around trying to figure out the nicest way of getting the cat down.  Let us begin today to value faithfulness over niceness.  Let us choose a deeper justice instead of superficial fairness.  But it will require risk – as Jesus, Moses, Esther, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, César Chavez and others understood all too well.  Being open to being transformed by our discussion and developing relationships with those with whom we disagree are two powerful places to begin if we truly want to be faithful and just in our churches.  Let us begin today.  And let’s get the darn cat down from there!  Amen.