Well, I want to begin by thanking church member Dick Lucier once again for those wonderful words about our Stephen Ministry program. It was seven years ago now that church member Paul Burdick and I went to Pittsburgh for a week-long Stephen Ministry training. And at that training, there were more than 300 people from more than 60 Christian denominations.
I didn't even know there were that many Christian denominations! But we met so many wonderful people from all across the country. And we learned so much. I met people that I'm still in contact with today, seven years later.
But there was one night where we had some unpleasant dinner conversation. Two women came and sat at our table at dinner. And they began asking us about our church. And Paul explained that we are a progressive and inclusive, open and affirming church. And that was a term that the women were unfamiliar with. And so Paul explained that open and affirming means we are a church that's fully welcoming and inclusive and celebratory of the LGBTQ community. And then Paul asked the woman about their church. One of them responded, well our church is very different from yours, our church, you see, is Bible-based. And the Bible, she said, is very clear that homosexuality is a sin.
Well suffice to say, that, in effect, shut down the dinner conversation for the rest of the evening. And I'm sorry to say that throughout that week, whenever we ran into those two women, they would look away from us or walk in the other direction.
As many of you know, there are still so many Christian denominations in America today that teach and believe what those two women believe. And they categorize people into groups, those who are worthy, and those who are unworthy. Those who are worthy of marriage and those who are unworthy of marriage, those who are worthy of receiving communion, and those who are unworthy, those who are worthy of ordination, and those who are unworthy.
And they categorize people into the saved, and the unsaved.
Now, this, of course, was not new to Jesus. Back in Jesus's day, over two thousand years ago, the scribes and the Pharisees also divided people into groups, into Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, into the clean and the unclean. And so in the Gospel reading from today's lectionary, which I just read for you, you see that the scribes and the Pharisees, the upstanding religious people of Jesus's day, they're angry at Jesus, because Jesus's disciples are eating with unclean hands, which went against the religious rules. It didn't just mean that they were unclean, physically, with their hands. It meant that they were morally unclean as well. They were sinners.
And you see how Jesus responds to that statement. He says, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, “The people worship me with their lips, but their hearts are so far removed from me.” Jesus calls them hypocrites, because they claim to be so religious, but their hearts are so far removed from God.
And isn't that true today with so many Christians? They proclaim with their lips, “I'm a Christian.” They wear crosses around their necks, but their hearts are so far removed from Christ's. You know, there's that famous quote from Mahatma Gandhi. He was talking to a group of Christians. And he said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
And sadly, I think that is true. The scribes and the Pharisees were more focused on people following the letter of the law than the spirit in which it was written. Now, of course, we know the law they were following from the Old Testament was handed to Moses. That's how we got the 10 commandments. But you know, the commandments of Jesus are way more challenging than the 10 commandments. Now, I've shared with you before, I think the 10 commandments are really easy to follow. I do not struggle with them at all, for example, honor the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the day of rest. I wish every day was the Sabbath.
And it's easy for me to honor my mother and father. There was such wonderful peace. They made such great sacrifices for me. And I never really struggle with the impulse to steal something, or the inclination to go and murder someone. And I've shared with this with you before, a few years now, and every time I say it, it elicits a laugh. But never once. Not one time in my life, have I ever coveted my neighbor's wife.
The 10 commandments are easy, but the commandments of Jesus are not. Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another as I have loved you. And I must admit, that is a commandment that I struggle with each and every day of my life. Jesus loved people unconditionally. Who can do that? He loved people so unconditionally that he said, bless those who persecute you. Love your enemy. turn the other cheek. Forgive 70 times seven times.
Even when Jesus was being stripped and whipped, and spat upon and nailed to a cross, he still said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus loved those people who stripped and whipped and spat upon him and nailed him to a cross. And we as Christians are commanded to love the same way.
But I gotta tell you, I really struggle with doing that. I struggle, especially during the times we're living in, I really struggle to love those who are causing so much harm. I struggle with people who preach bad theology. I struggle with people who spread misinformation, and people who peddle conspiracy theories. And I really struggled in Pittsburgh that week, in loving those two women who so cruelly dismissed me and Paul and me, all in the name of Christ.
Now, this commandment, to love one another was not new to Jesus. It wasn't an original thought that he came up with. It already existed. In fact, this commandment existed in other faith traditions, some of which were older than Christianity. Now, a few years back, Barb Lucier purchased for our church this framed poster that lists the golden rule in all of the world's major faith traditions. And we have this hanging up in our Retreat House across the street. So I get to see it all the time. I know it's hard for you to read, but I'm going to read to you what it says:
And this same teaching is in Taoism, Sikhism, in Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and in Native American spirituality as well.
And I find that so fascinating, because all of the world's faith traditions were taught in different eras, different cultures, different countries, and in different languages. And yet they all point to the same commandment, that commandment to love one another.
And yet, here we are today we have Christians in America who are proclaiming with their lives that they are Christian, and that they obey Jesus’ commandment to love one another. Well, we don't really see them putting that into action, do we?
I mean, look, right now we're in the midst of a global pandemic. Thousands of our neighbors are dying. And yet there are still Christians who care more about their own personal freedoms and liberties, than they do about the health and well being of their neighbors.
In the first reading we heard today from James, it says that we are to be doers who act, and who care for those who are in distress. And Philippians 2, chapter three, it says that we are to consider the needs of others before our own. That's what it means to be Christian, to consider the needs of others before our own.
Now, from time to time in recent years, we hear from one Christian group or another that wants to have the 10 commandments on display in public buildings. They want it in courthouses and city halls. But you know, I never hear them wanting to have the commandments of Jesus up in those public places.
So can you imagine in a public courthouse, say above the judges head or above the jury box, if it said, “Forgive those who have done wrong.” “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Or can you imagine in a city hall, or in a place where people are enacting policies where people go to vote, if it's set up on the wall, “Feed the hungry.” “Care for the sick.” “The last shall be first.” How come these Christian groups don't want those words up in public?
My friends, if we are to truly call ourselves Christians, then we must not only follow the 10 commandments given to us by Moses, we must follow those commandments of love that were given to us by Jesus, no matter how hard it may be for us to put them into action.
For as the song says, “They will know we are Christians, by our love.” Not by our doctrine, not by our dogma. They'll know we're Christians, by our love. So let us go forth this day to recommit ourselves to being that love in action, so that we can heal the world and bring about the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth. A just world for all people.
Reverend Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
By Richard Rohr
The Dalai Lama said: "Every change of mind is first of all a change of heart." I would add: "Every change of heart is soon a change of mind." This is the urgently needed work of mature spirituality. Many folks over the years, even very good-willed people, have read and listened to my presentations of the Gospel, yet have actually done very little -- in terms of lifestyle changes, economic or political rearrangements, or naming their own ego or shadow selves. After all, "Isn't church about believing ideas to be true or false? Isn't religion about attending services?" Most people just listen to my ideas and judge them to be true or false. They either "like" or "don't like" them. But thinking about ideas or making judgments about what is moral or immoral seldom leads to a radically new consciousness. Transformative education is not asking you to believe or disbelieve in any doctrines or dogmas. Rather it is challenging you to "Try this!" Then you will know something to be true or false for yourself. So I will continue to encourage you to try something new: change sides, move outside your comfort zone, make some new contacts, let go of your usual role, make a friend from another race or class, visit new neighborhoods, go to the jail or to the border, attend another church service, etc. Then you can live yourself into new ways of thinking, which then seem so right and necessary that you wonder how you could have ever thought in any other way. Without new experiences, new thinking is difficult and rare. After a new experience, new thinking and behavior comes naturally and even becomes necessary.
What did you think?