Boy, this has been quite a month. So much going on – so many different voices and messages. These past four weeks we’ve read through the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Week by week reading through the first part of the Sermon on the Mount.
We began at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, with the Beatitudes. God’s blessings; framing the call to discipleship with a message that’s cryptic and precise. Full of meaning for our lives.
Jesus then goes on to describe the importance of relationship and community; the surrounding movement called to transform and maintain the world. Reminding us that he’s the one who has been sent to fulfill the call of the Prophets. And, he’s the one who shows us by his ministry how we too are called to live – to be a light for others. It’s those same words that we use in our baptismal liturgy, from this 5th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. “Let your light shine before others so they may see your good works.”
This morning we hear Jesus again talking to his disciples. Continuing to challenge them, offering them a way out – not so much as an option, as a way of life; but rather as a way to live. Pushing them, and us, to not only love our neighbors – after all, that’s easy. But to stand up for our enemies as well. Now there’s a challenge. Perhaps looked at another way, to stand up for folks that we may not fully understand. Perhaps someone different or out of the ordinary – whatever that is for each of us. Now that’s something that really takes courage.
If this is to be possible at all, it’s because of God’s empowering love. God’s word made flesh in Jesus lives and thrives in the midst of all things. Our Gospel this morning shows us the extent of that love as we’re shown God’s vision for the world. A place where God’s unconditional love is expressed through us, inclusive of all of God’s children. Jesus command to love your neighbor as yourself, is textbook theology. Basic understanding of faith.
Make no mistake, the task isn’t an easy one. It’s by far easier to ignore or even turn the other cheek at things we really don’t want to see. Resigning ourselves to being passive, works better than having to confront another person or difficult situation. We avoid having to face our own insecurity or even our own bias along the way.
Last Fall, we hosted a special Holocaust Symposium here at Faith – two Saturday classes and a weekend in Washington, DC at the Holocaust Museum. We shared history and there were open and frank discussions that covered a range of experiences. Religious persecution and bigotry that existed then and now.
Part of our opening Devotions from one of our classes was taken from Elie Wiesel’s words upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize: “…If we forget, we are guilty… I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
This week, a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center said American hate groups are on the rise. American hate groups — and particularly anti-Muslim groups — have grown, fueled in part by misinformation and damaging rhetoric being spewed. The report says hate groups in the United States nearly tripled, from 34 in 2015 to 101 last year.
It’s real. This has become the Center of the Universe that Wiesel talked about. When our Clergy Group met last, the question was raised about what each of us was hearing in our own congregations – our own faith traditions. Just a reminder that we’re talking about local religious leaders from these two immediate towns – New Providence and Berkeley Heights – and the two Rabbis from Summit. Every one of us – Sikh, Baha’i, Muslim, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and a host of Protestant denominations – all shared instances of people in our own congregations coming to us with fear and concern.
Parents horrified that their children – teenagers and young adults – are being bullied and harassed in school and on the streets. Teenagers talking about being ridiculed and taunted because of their sexual identity or religious beliefs. Right here. Right now. It’s real. And it’s happening to people in this congregation and to members of our families – friends – neighbors – co-workers.
That’s why we have the Education programs that we do. Why we have Aaron Potenza with us this morning from Garden State Equality – to talk about issues of gender and sexuality. And why we’ll have Dr. Chaudry joining us again later this Spring for another program on bias in the Muslim community. Next weekend, our Confirmands will be on Retreat and we’ll be using the theme – “Racism, Hatred and Bigotry.” And in the Fall, another Symposium – with the same name. Knowing one another as human beings and not as ‘enemies’ or the ‘other’ helps all people gain a greater understanding of one another. History teaches us about being responsible and responsive to God’s world as a shared humanity. That’s what the Gospel is about. That’s God’s Love in Action.
In his letter this morning, St. Paul concludes by writing about who we’re to look up to and emulate. Certainly not mortals, not our human leaders. But, the one that he talks about – the one who we belong to, is Christ. Christ who belongs to and is God. We are all part of this human family, God’s family.
And we are all called to stand up, to be the voice for the voiceless, to advocate and to act for the oppressed. To be the face of Christ and to do the work of Christ in the world. For the sake of our children, for all humanity, and for God’s sake. Amen.