Closing the Distance

David Hilfiker

May 14, 2017
Text: Matthew 25:31-46

Over the last several months since the election, many of us have been exploring, in one way or another, how best to respond to our new political reality.  Our many teachings here on the subject may have seemed like beating a dead horse; some of us are thinking maybe it's time to move on, but I want to suggest that this unprecedented political and social situation is complex enough a moral issue with so many spiritual dimensions that it's important to continue our explorations of possibilities.  I hope these next twenty minutes can help.

Let me begin, somewhat paradoxically, by looking at the term "holiness," which Fred brought to our attention several weeks ago and continued to look at during the retreat last week.

The term was first used by Moses in Leviticus: "Be holy as God is holy."  “Holiness” was most often interpreted as moral purity and personal cleanliness, but by Jesus' time holiness had become a cudgel to oppress the poor whose poverty kept them from fulfilling the minutia of the Law.  But, as Fred pointed out, God's holiness is not about static purity but about "closing the distance." God closed the distance between God's transcendence and our limitedness.  We are to imitate of God by closing the distance between us and others, closing the distance between us and the suffering of the world.  Moving into the Kingdom is, in fact, moving into solidarity with the Other.

So how did Jesus' holiness reveal itself in his responses to the political realities of first-century Palestine which have parallels to the political realities of the twenty-first-century in the United States?  How did he work to close the distance?  And how do his responses give us some guidelines for developing our own?  So the outline for the rest of this teaching is

  • First, looking at Jesus' political and moral environment;
  • Second, detailing some of his responses; and
  • Last, finding some guidelines for us in those responses.

OK, first, Jesus' environment. Due to documents discovered in the middle of the twentieth century, scholars have learned a great deal of new information about first-century Palestine and its impact on Jesus' life and work.  Much of this is already familiar to most of us here.  Jesus lived in a peasant society in which the vast majority of people were inescapably poor and deeply burdened by the Roman government, the religious leaders of the faith, and the wealthy landowners, who, by that time, had acquired most of the land on which the peasants worked under oppressive conditions.  Meanwhile the religious institutions had been co-opted and offered little help to the poor.  In fact, they made life more difficult, for example by their insistence on holiness as absolute purity.  Striving for such holiness may have been possible for the elite, but it was beyond the reach of the poor and became simply another tool of oppression.

On the political side, Roman control was so absolute that change in the political/social system was, for any foreseeable future, impossible.  There were small groups of radicals who did try to foment revolution, but the violent Roman response quickly squashed them.  There was simply no realistic possibility for improvement in the external conditions of one's life.  People were powerless over their social and political environment, and they knew it.

At the same time Jesus lived within a faith tradition rooted in love for one another, justice for the poor and oppressed, and hope for the future.

While there are obviously important differences between our situation and theirs, I've become much more aware since the election of our loss of political and social power.  This has been building for decades, of course, but Trump's election and the complete take-over of Congress by an ever-more reactionary Republican Party, along with the related increases in corporate control have brought us to a new level of powerlessness.  No longer do we even speak the same language as those in power. 

This new sense of powerlessness is nothing compared to the experience of first-century Palestinians, of course, but the structural similarity has pushed me to think about the parallels and to look more carefully at the New Testament story of Jesus' life and how he responded to his people's oppression?  What might we learn by looking at Jesus's life?  Let's consider his teaching, his healing, his confrontations with the authorities, his times of retreat, his refusal to despair, and his nurturing the community.

Teaching

Jesus taught widely about the Kingdom not only to the twelve and to his larger group of followers but also to large crowds hearing him for the first time.  Teaching about the Kingdom re-roots his listeners in God's intention for the world.  It's not a practical message of political revolution; as I said, revolutionary change in Jesus' contemporary society wasn't possible.  Rather, it's about a new set of perceptions that brings about personal change and change within the small group that prepares for, even as it creates, a new society that is already but not yet.

Church of the Saviour has a long tradition of intensive teaching, both to the congregation and to the wider public.  It seems to me, however, that that tradition has weakened over the years and is a smaller part of our lives together now.  Especially in this new time, though, perhaps holiness calls us to reinvigorate our teaching … really invigorate it.

Healing the Sick

Many of our ministries at Church of the Saviour have been about physically healing the sick: Joseph's House, Miriam's House, Columbia Road Health Services, and others, but there are other kinds of healing: offering psychological and emotional support to those suffering the effects of trauma; private and individual psychotherapy to those suffering from emotional distress; it's also about practical support to immigrant families with young children, child care for working parents, tutoring, and so on.  Healing the sick was one of Jesus's responses to the oppression of the day, and we've followed him in that expression of love.

We sometimes critique our work as charity not justice.  Over fifteen years ago, I wrote a magazine article exploring the tension between charity and justice.  Ow I still believe that such critique is important because it brings our paternalism to consciousness and forces us to deal with it.  But it's also, unfortunately, led us sometimes to denigrate the help we give to the oppressed by naming it "charity."  But there's a deeper way to think about our giving than I did in that article: We believe that health care, a good education, jobs, food and shelter are rights to which people are entitled.  If our society refuses to provide those necessities through government programs, then our choice to provide them is not charity but basic justice.   In addition, to begin to give back to the poor some of what we've taken from them through our societal structures is not charity; it's the beginning of proper Reparations, of justice.  Just because our society doesn't recognize its obligations, doesn't make people any less entitled to them.

Confronting the religious and political authorities

Third, Jesus repeatedly confronts the religious and political authorities of the day.  He knew that the institutions they represented were the primary causes of the oppression the peasants suffered.  The elite blessed the status quo and reinforced the strong class boundaries.  Jesus knew that without changing the political structures it would be difficult to usher in the new realm of God. 

His confrontations were not based on the likelihood that they would create significant political change, at least not in the imaginable future; rather, their primary purpose was to name the evil of the elite's behavior and to invite individual conversion about the nature of the Kingdom.  Perhaps more importantly, Jesus was preparing his followers for the day when they had to do the confronting so that Kindom values would become the basis for the new society.

Similarly, our demonstrations and protests are not failures because they don't immediately change the minds of the authorities or the institutions they represent.  Rather the primary purposes of our demonstrations are to name the evil, to create community among us and to demonstrate to the authorities the new world we're seeking.

Regular time for quiet, reflection, and prayer

Fourth, it's important to remember that Jesus took regular time away from his ministry for quiet, reflection, and prayer.  This discipline has been long important in the Church of the Saviour, in part because it's an important preparation for the struggle with oppression.  The discipline of quiet is not something extra or "added in." It's the necessary training for the battle we're engaged in.

People can be tempted to see this quiet time as a self-absorption, a respite from the important work of political change.  But that's not how Jesus saw it.  For him it was a necessary part of preparation pointing the way to a Kingdom life; it was preparation to survive the Empire.  And so the disciplines are for many of us.

Refusal to Despair

We don't often think of Jesus' refusal to despair as part of his response to the social and political situation, but the Last Supper makes it clear that Jesus is not attached to the short-term results of his ministry but has given up control of his life to the Kingdom and trusts in God for that future.  It's hard to overestimate the impact of this response on the future work of his disciples as they continue to bring in the Kingdom. 

In some reinterpretations of the story of Judas's betrayal, it's Judas's despair that leads to his turning Jesus over to the authorities.  In these stories Judas had believed that Jesus was preparing for a political revolution.  When that wasn’t happening, he believed that giving Jesus over to the authorities was not betrayal, but the push Jesus needed to force him into violent revolution.  But Jesus' refusal to despair cuts off the possibility of a violent response.

This refusal to despair is crucial to our work as a faith community.  Hopelessness about an oppressive future can allow us to accept current political behaviors as "the new normal."  Our communion service every week, however, reminds us to cultivate our hope in the face of death.  Our refusal to despair allows us to remember our Kingdom values and recognize how grievous is the assault on those values.  Our refusal to despair also serves to remind the larger world of the hope for a different future and is an example of what that future might look like.

Nurture of the Community

This brings us to perhaps the most important part of Jesus' response to the social, political, and economic world in which he lived.  Jesus spent much of his time nurturing the twelve apostles he'd called to follow him: teaching them; encouraging them; chastising them; showing them how to live together; and reminding them that theirs was a new life, a new community of believers.  Ultimately, social movements may arise through an individual but they only flower through the community.  Ultimately, most of us move closer to God only with the support of a community.

It's in community that we imitate God and practice holiness, closing the distance between one another.  It's in community that we close the distance between ourselves and the wider world.  One way we at Eighth Day have nurtured our community and worked to close the distance has been to actively encourage diversity in race, class, educational level, intellectual capacity, and so on.

We've been intentional about inviting and welcoming new people in and visiting those who can't easily join us at worship.  We've opened up membership and encouraged community members to join mission groups and move into relationships of spiritual accountability. 

There are little things like coffee before worship, potlucks, or the presence of greeters.  There are some hidden things as leaders work confidentially to resolve potential problems.  None of these things is (or should be) exceptional within a church community, but they demonstrate our desire to nurture and support one another. 

Especially in this time of social and political confusion, we desperately need each other's encouragement, need to find ways of binding ourselves together as family.

Conclusion

So our question these last months has been: How are we to respond to the political and social chaos we've been living in?  I'm suggesting that Jesus' activities in the face of the political and social chaos of his time were his responses to that chaos.  Teaching, healing the sick, confronting authorities, taking time away for quiet, refusing to despair, and nurturing community are responses that we, too, have been making for a long time.  So we're already a fair way along in the process of answering the question.  Each of these responses is part of our answer as a community.  As always, of course, there's more we will do but we've begun. 

I hope that, increasingly, we'll be more conscious of how central this community is to giving our lives away.

Amen.