(A sermon based on Luke 6:1-11 for Sunday, August 12, 2012. Sixth in a series...)
Our nation has in recent days been struck with two mass murders, one at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado and the other at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Both were senseless, heartless, cruel acts that can finally only be explained, if they can be explained at all, by the presence of great evil and deep sickness among us.
It seems to be the case, based on what information we have, that the shooter in the Aurora murders was motivated by personal demons while the one in the Wisconsin attack, we might surmise based on his association with white supremacist groups, was motivated by racial and/or religious hatred.
Each tragedy is as heart-breaking as the other and we pray for the communities, for the victims’ families, and for the injured in both cases and in both places.
In the case of the Wisconsin shootings, the violence was carried out against a community of people who were gathering on a Sunday for worship. We don’t know much about Sikhs around here. In this week’s email issue of Sojourners, Eboo Patel wrote,
The Sikh community has been one of welcome and hospitality since its founding in India 500 years ago. With their belief in a supreme Creator and a deep respect for all human beings, Sikhs place strong emphasis on equality, religious freedom, human rights, and justice.
Sikhs from India began immigrating to the United States in the late 19th century, and currently the Sikh population numbers about 314,000 in America and 30 million worldwide. Today, Sikhs are successful business people, active community members, and advocates for social justice.
To care about people motivates us to learn as much about them as we can, so knowing about the Sikhs is a good thing.
Still, I can’t help but think about something that was going around on Facebook in the aftermath of the Sikh temple shootings: “I was gonna post something that would tell you the difference between Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims but I realized you don’t need to know anything about somebody’s religion to know that you shouldn’t shoot them”(Attributed to Eric Parsons). Indeed. “Thou shalt not kill,” the Top 10 list says.
But Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:21-22a). In other words, the stance of our heart toward people, our attitude toward others, matters.
So, we know that not only are we not to kill people but we are also not to hate them. We are even to go beyond not hating them to actually loving them.
We need to go deeper, though, and in going deeper we can put the matter positively: we who follow Jesus are to care about people. We need to care about people more than we care about our rules—more than we care about doing right. We need to care about people more than we care about our religious doctrines—more than we care about being right.
We need to care especially about those who are hungry, poor, sick, and on the margins.
Let’s compare the attitudes and approaches of Jesus and of the religious leaders of his day.
Those religious leaders cared deeply about being religious; that is, they cared about following the rules and about being respectable. We need have no doubt they truly believed that what they were doing was the best way to show their love and respect for God. But when your way of expressing your devotion to God encourages or even allows you to show no compassion to people, you need to reevaluate your stance.
I say that because I can’t get away from—we can’t get away from—what Jesus said when he was asked what the greatest commandment was and he said that it was to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and that the second was to love our neighbor as like we love ourselves. From that moment on, love of God and love of people have been inextricably intertwined.
So when the religious leaders saw Jesus’ hungry disciples picking and separating grain on a Sabbath day they did not see hungry people who needed food; they saw careless followers of a radical rabbi who violated the Sabbath prohibition against work. They asked, “Why are you breaking the rules?” Had they had compassion in them, they would have said, “Let us get you some food.”
Jesus’ attitude, for which he had biblical precedent, was that the needs of people took priority over the keeping of rules; his stance shows that he believed that it honored God more to meet people’s needs than to slavishly follow the rules and to maintain one’s respectability.
And Jesus said, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
When the religious leaders saw the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on a Sabbath when Jesus was teaching there, they did not see a suffering human being in need of help; they saw a situation and a circumstance that could be manipulated to try to entrap Jesus. The man was not to them a person to be helped; he was an opportunity to forward their agenda. When Jesus saw the man, he saw a human being who elicited compassion and who called forth help.
And Jesus said, “Is it lawful to save life or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”
On a Sabbath last week in Wisconsin, a man did harm and destroyed life.
On our Sabbaths—indeed, on all our days—let us do good and let us save lives.
Let me suggest a four-step program that will lead us to do that.
The first step is to see people as people.
The second step is to see people as an opportunity to encounter the image of God and as an opportunity to minister to Christ.
The third step is to have the great compassion that God has shown to us pour out to others.
The fourth step is to act on that compassion.
Hear now a story of the Desert Fathers. A brother asked an elder,
There are two brothers, of whom one remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance. The other one takes care of the sick. Which one’s work is more pleasing to God? The elder replied: If that brother who fasts six days at a time were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who takes care of the sick. [Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1970), p. 47, cited in Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), pp. 103-104]
So…we can put our nose in the air like we just don’t care. Or we can follow Jesus.
It just may be that we will never see the world right, that we will never see God right, that we will never see ourselves right, and that we will never see life right until we see other people—particularly the stranger, the outcast, the other, the poor, the sick—right…