Sunday’s sermon: If You Open Your Heart

social justice

Texts used – Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:1-12

  • Peter and I were watching a movie this past week. We’re a bit behind the times, so it’s one many of you have probably seen already: “Hidden Figures.”[1]
    • Basic premise – follows the true story of three incredibly intelligent black women (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn) who worked for NASA during one of the most critical times of the Space Race back in the in early 1960s
      • Without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it, this movie makes it clear just how crucial the actions and accomplishments of these women were to NASA’s function and successes at the time. But it also highlights the rampant racial tensions of the Civil Rights era.
    • Opening scene of the movie: 3 women all carpool into Langley together, their car is broken down on the side of the road on their way to work, one woman is working on fixing the car with the help of the other 2 when a state trooper shows up à Now for any of us in this room, if we were broken down on the side of the road and a state trooper showed up, we’d be thrilled. It would mean that help had arrived and that we were safe. But this was Virginia in the 1960s. These women were black. The trooper was white and male. Their first reaction wasn’t relief but intimidation and fear.
      • Reminder of the pervasiveness of the Jim Crow laws that made things so difficult and dangerous and unjust for African Americans living and working in the southern U.S. throughout the Civil Rights movement → Jim Crow laws starkly segregated black people and while people in the south from 1877-1967
  • Now, I bring up Jim Crow laws this morning because the final confessional document that we’re tackling during our Lenten sermon series – the Confession of Belhar – was written in a similar context.
    • Written as an outcry against apartheid in South Africa (1948-1991)
      • Apartheid laws = very similar to Jim Crow laws of the south → segregationist in the extreme, enforced by the state in ways that were often brutal and terroristic
    • Written by leaders of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South African in 1982 as an outcry against the way in which the Dutch Reformed Church had upheld and sanctioned the segregation and disunity of the races
      • The DRMC was specifically founded by DRC in the late 1800s to serve the “colored population” but the DRC reserved right to veto all decisions made by the DRMC, held title to all DRMC properties, and refused to allow black people and white people to share communion at the same table
    • Final draft of Belhar came out in 1986 → officially became part of the Book of Confessions in 2016
  • Now, there are a couple of unique things about the Confession of Belhar that are important.
    • 1) It’s the only confessional document that we have that comes from the global south – from a mission field → Friends, it’s no secret that the Church is on the decline in much of the northern hemisphere – here in the U.S., Canada, Europe, etc. But in the global south, the Church is growing in leaps and bounds. It is both powerful and vital that our Book of Confessions finally includes the voice of our brothers and sisters in this part of the world.
    • 2) Every single one of the “We believe” statements or paragraphs (down to the individual bullet points) come specifically from Scripture → I couldn’t figure out a way to easily fit this onto your bulletin insert today, but if you look at the text of the document in the Book of Confessions, you’ll see that there’s a specific Scriptural reference listed next to every statement except the “We reject” statements.
      • All confessional documents have Scripture woven into them in some way or another but none are based quite as heavily in Scripture as this one
    • 3) (and maybe most important) It’s the only confessional document that focuses the church’s confession solely on its own life → Not the ways in which the culture around us has influenced us but the ways in which we have sinned as the body of Christ. – from the letter written by the committee that worked on getting Belhar adopted by the PC(USA): It is far too easy for the church to look outside of its walls and find fault, all the while ignoring the sin in its own life. Belhar focuses the church’s attention on the way its own life and witness has fallen short of the gospel.[2]
  • Friends, this is where the rubber meets the road this morning. This is where our wrestling with this confessional document begins. This is where our Scripture readings for this morning fit in.
    • OT reading = God calling out for justice through the prophet Isaiah
      • Begins by calling the people out for their mistakes: Shout loudly; don’t hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their crime, to the house of Jacob their sins. They seek me day after day, desiring knowledge of my ways like a nation that acted righteously, that didn’t abandon their God. They ask me for righteous judgments, wanting to be close to God. “Why do we fast and you don’t see; why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?” Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want, and oppress all your workers. You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast; you hit each other violently with your fists. You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today if you want to make your voice heard on high.[3]  → God is not mincing words here (not that God ever really does). Basically, it comes down to matching words and actions. Are our actions speaking a different message – proclaiming a different gospel, revealing a different God – than all of the flowery words and phrases that come out of our mouths? Do we speak too often of thoughts and prayers without following those good intentions up with solid actions? Do our actions outright contradict the faith that we supposedly claim as central to our way of life?
      • In lieu of these hypocritical fasts – these empty displays of faith – God goes on to describe exactly how we are to embody God’s message and mission in this world: Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family? … If you remove the yoke from among you, the finger-pointing, the wicked speech; if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, your light will shine in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noon.[4]  → Caring for those in need, sharing from our own abundance, bringing together the body of Christ throughout the world instead of highlighting the things that separate us. These are the actions pleasing to God, plain and simple.
    • Importance of this also highlighted by Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount in our NT passage (most commonly referred to as The Beatitudes, or the Blessings): Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad. Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth. Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full. Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy. Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God. Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children. Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.[5]  → Many of the blessings that Jesus lists in this passage are the opposite of what we desire for ourselves. We don’t seek to be hopeless. We don’t seek to be grieving. We don’t usually seek to be humbled (although we are often quick to claim humility as one of our many virtues). We don’t seek to be harassed or insulted. And yet Jesus lifts up these challenging, troublesome things as ways that we will indeed be blessed, not because God wants us to be beaten down and suffering, but because so many of God’s beloved children live their lives like this day in and day out, and God wants us to understand just how precious each and every person and their experience is to God. But to do so, like it said in Isaiah, we have to open our hearts to something or someone that may be wholly different from ourselves.
  • Paul in Rom: Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.[6]  → “Any other thing that is created” … including all the ways that we separate ourselves from each other. And let’s face it, we’re living incredibly separated right now, aren’t we?
    • Colleague during spiritual direction training → one of many assessments – “anger” score was high, high enough to alarm her → response of the instructor when they went over her results: “You’re just living in America in 2018. Everyone’s angry.” → Are Isaiah’s words echoing for anyone else? “‘Why do we fast and you don’t see; why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?’ Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want, and oppress all your workers. You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast; you hit each other violently with your fists. You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today if you want to make your voice heard on high.” We are so good at pointing out ways in which others have wronged us … ways in which others have fallen away … ways in which others have screwed up and are beyond saving … ways in which others need to “get their act together.” But both our Scriptures and the Confession of Belhar remind us this morning of that old playground turn-around: When you point one finger at someone else, there are always three other fingers pointing back at you.
      • From Belhar: We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family. … Therefore, we reject any doctrine which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being manifested in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation.[7]“If you open your heart … your light will shine in the darkness.” Amen.

[1] “Hidden Figures.” Directed by Theodore Melfi. Based on Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Distributed by 20th Century Fox, released Dec. 25, 2016.

[2] “Why Belhar, Why Now: Belhar and the US Context – A Letter from the Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar” from The Book of Confessions: Study Edition (revised). (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 402.

[3] Is 58:1-4.

[4] Is 58:6-7, 9b-10.

[5] Mt 5:3-12.

[6] Rom 8:35, 38-39.

[7] The Confession of Belhar from The Book of Confessions: Study Edition (revised). (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 10.2, 10.4.

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