View today's sermon on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SzxCoPIyqM&t=2140s.
Psalm 26:1-8 – New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
1 Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. 2 Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind. 3 For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I walk in faithfulness to you. 4 I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; 5 I hate the company of evildoers and will not sit with the wicked. 6 I wash my hands in innocence and go around your altar, O Lord, 7 singing aloud a song of thanksgiving and telling all your wondrous deeds. 8 O Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.
Romans 12:9-21 – New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal; be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 Instead, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Matthew 16:21-28 – New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
This morning we read chronologically, from oldest to newest, from three books of the Bible. The first was a Psalm, which translates to “a song recited to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.” The Psalms are difficult to place on a timeline, but we can expect that they were composed many hundreds of years before Jesus was teaching in and around Galilee.
The Letter to the Romans, probably the last of the seven undisputed letters written by the apostle Paul, is dated 15-20 years after Jesus’ death. Saul, a zealous persecutor of early followers of the Way of Jesus was struck down and blinded by a light as he traveled the road to Damascus. He heard the voice of the Risen Christ, saying, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” His experience was life-changing. Saul began proselytizing for the Way of Jesus, changing his name to Paul and fervently converting Gentiles to the teachings of Christ for the remainder of his days.
Our last text this morning, perhaps the most familiar to us, the Gospel of Matthew is situated in the late first century, approximately sixty years after Jesus’ life and death.
I felt a current moving through these three passages this week. A progression, a growth as if from infancy to adulthood to elder wisdom status.
Beginning with the Psalm, it represents our fledgling relationship with God. What I hear in these verses is the Psalmist justifying their own behavior and judging the behavior of others. I envisioned this as the infancy of faith. We have to start at the beginning, and for some that has been interpreted and taught as a faith based on rewards and punishments. A faith that takes root through conversation with God. A faith that was built upon what was seen and felt and understood in the natural world. A world that was unpredictable and destructive as well as beautiful and sustaining.
In our scripture from Paul’s Letter to the Romans we have moved from infancy to adulthood. We have graduated into desiring being in right relationship, with God and with one another. Paul exhorts his community to do what is right in the sight of the Lord, not for fear of punishment, but for the reward itself. The entire community thrives when all are treated justly and fairly. The focus is on deepening our relationships through our actions. This passage ends with Paul suggesting that we leave room for the wrath of God… which definitely leaves room for further growth.
How does the Matthew passage fit in? I read in the scripture the importance of discerning God’s presence in our lives and the direction that God is pushing us to go. I hear in the scripture the necessity of separating human thought from God’s desires for humanity. I feel the movement from a theology of rewards and punishments to a God of love and compassion. I also recognize that our Hebrew scriptures and Christian scriptures have not changed over the past several thousand years. What has changed is our lens for interpreting our scriptures. There has been a gradual shift from a belief system of retribution to one of restoration. All of this keeps us in conversation with, in relationship, with God and neighbor. All of this keeps us entwined with the Holy Spirit – moving in tandem with God for the good of all. When we are at this stage of faith development we are functioning at the elder wisdom level.
I will quote from something I read recently on Father Richard Rohr’s website for The Center for Action and Contemplation, entitled Divine Love Restores. “As we read the Bible, God does not change as much as our knowledge of God evolves. I certainly recognize there are many biblical passages that present God as punitive and retributive, but we must stay with the text—and observe how we gradually let God grow up. Focusing on divine retribution leads to an ego-satisfying and eventually unworkable image of God which situates us inside of a very unsafe and dangerous universe. … The biblical notion of justice, beginning in the Hebrew Scriptures with the Jewish prophets—especially Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea—is quite different. If we read carefully and honestly, we will see that God’s justice is restorative. In each case, after the prophet chastises the Israelites for their transgressions against YHWH, the prophet continues by saying, in effect, “And here’s what YHWH will do for you: God will now love you more than ever! God will love you into wholeness. God will pour upon you a gratuitous, unbelievable, unaccountable, irrefutable love that you will finally be unable to resist.” … Richard goes on to say, “Love is the only thing that transforms the human heart. In the Gospels, we see Jesus fully revealing this divine wisdom. Love takes the shape and symbolism of healing and radical forgiveness… Jesus, who represents God, usually transforms people at the moments when they most hate themselves, when they most feel shame or guilt, or want to punish themselves.”
(Quote adapted from Richard Rohr, Essential Teachings on Love, selected by Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018), 78–79.)
I wonder where you locate yourself on this spectrum of belief? I ask you to think about it without judging yourself and without judging where you perceive others to be.
After years of seminary coursework I still find myself moving forward and backward, fluctuating up and down the line. I think this is in keeping with the thread that runs through these scriptures this morning. It is important to remain in conversation with and in relationship with God – and with our neighbors near and far.
Ask yourself, at what point on this spectrum of infancy, adulthood, and elder are we the most like Christ intended for us to be? I believe that we are meant to be like Jesus in faith and works and that he was fully actualized at the elder wisdom level. I believe we are meant to work toward restorative rather than retributive justice, as Jesus did. I believe that when we do that we are closer to right relationship with God and that brings us closer to right relationship with one another. What would that look like, you might ask?
The apostle Paul, one who moved along a growth spectrum of his own, from hatred to love, from infancy to wisdom, sums it up for us this morning. (Romans 12:9-13) 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal; be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality to strangers.
May it be so.
Rev. TJ Mack – September 3, 2023