Our Gospel passage is part of what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. Many scholars see a connection between the Law of Moses in Exodus and Jesus’ teachings in this particular Sermon. Jesus was teaching his disciples and, as was often the case, a large crowd of people joined them and listened to Jesus who was becoming known as a wise rabbi. Before our passage, in chapter 4, Jesus proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” ‘What Jesus meant by “Repent” was: Do away with your shallowness and your sinful ways and turn to God who is solely good so that by this you will be reconciled to the Lord.
Next, in chapters 5 through 7 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught what repentance looked like as it would lead to a more righteous person. Jesus’ call to change was, and still is, a radical one. I know Christians who don’t like the words “Jesus” and “radical” to be used in the same sentence but, he was radical in his call to changed hearts and minds as well as what he required of his followers, including what he even now requires of us. This change in Moses’ Law is not particularly popular today for as Charles James Cook in the Feasting on the Word Commentary explains “to be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful, and meek will get you nowhere in the culture in which we live. This is why most references to the Beatitudes imply that in giving this instruction, Jesus was literally turning the values of the world upside down.” People of God, I call that profoundly radical. When we hear these blessings of Jesus in their simplest form and hear the words for what they are not what we want them to be, we know he calls us to a different way of being. That way is often not the most comfortable way to live. I don’t like to be uncomfortable–So why bother? We bother because we follow and respond to the Savior of all, the Prince of Peace who died for our wrongs and promised us life eternal with our good God.
Jesus began his Sermon with the above mentioned blessings, known as the beatitudes, one of which is: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” At the heart of who Jesus was and taught was shalom, the Jewish word that expresses peace, harmony, tranquility, welfare of the individual and the group, and wholeness. That sure sounds like a good thing to me but at times I get the impression that some Christians get uncomfortable when called to be peacemakers and that, frankly, surprises me even after 22 years in the pastoral ministry and many more in other forms of Christian ministry. This is what God in Jesus Christ calls us to be so that we too will be righteous in God’s eyes.
The passage Rev. Rodger read to you from the Old Testament book of Exodus is a story about Hebrew midwives living in Egypt at a time when the Pharaoh didn’t remember Joseph. Do you recall Joseph whom Rev. Rodger preached about recently? Joseph was Pharaoh’s 2nd in command, even though a Hebrew. He eventually brought the Hebrew people to live among the Egyptians, peaceably. Over time, the Hebrew people multiplied greatly and become strong, scripture tells us, and eventually, after quite some time had gone by, the Pharaohs forgot about their good relationship with the Hebrew people and enslaved them.
In our 2nd sermon passage for this morning, Pharaoh had become afraid of these people and wanted the midwives to kill any boys born to them. Instead, the midwives feared God more than Pharaoh and in an act of civil disobedience, the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, did not kill the Hebrew boys. This was a brazen act on their part because the Pharaohs were scary men. Thanks to their bold act, Moses was born and he later became a great prophet who led the Hebrews to freedom through God’s might. Moses eventually gave them the commandments they were to follow in order to be righteous people. Those commandments were what Jesus based much of his Sermon on the Mount on. And, while not getting rid of the Old Testament commandments, he interprets them in a new and very bold way in order to change people’s hearts and minds.
Those strong women bring to mind other midwives who have boldly acted against authority to help others fulfill their humanity, receive human rights and take care of God’s creation. Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Maryland only to take the risk to return again and again to lead other slaves to freedom farther north through the Underground Railroad. Diane Nash, an African-American civil rights activist, organized students to acts of nonviolent civil protests speaking up for the rights of black students in the 60s. She stated, “We can’t let them stop us (by our use of) violence. If we do that, the movement is dead.” She encouraged African-Americans to vote so their voices could peacefully be heard through that vote. Dolores Huerta is the tireless advocate for workers’, immigrants’, and women’s rights. She has been arrested more than 20 times for her participation in nonviolent civil disobedience. Malala Yousafzia (you- sef- si) is the young Muslim activist who has traveled the world as an advocate for the right of all children, including female children to receive an education. In 2014, she won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17, making her the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate. All these women risked, and some continue to risk, their lives through peaceful means as they took and take bold, courageous actions to resist the oppression and injustices of their day.
There have also been martyrs throughout history who have sought to bring protest through peaceful means such as Martin Luther King, Jr during the Civil Rights Movement and acts of risky civil disobedience such as Anne Frank during the Holocaust. Musicians have taken the risk to speak and act the ways of peace such as Pete Seeger, best known in the 1940s through the 60s. He was a folk singer and social activist inspiring many young people with his lyrics that spoke of the ways of peace. His song “To Everything There Is a Season” is taken from the Bible, the book of Ecclesiastes chapter 3. He preferred the season of peace when he sang “Build the road of peace before us. Build it wide and deep,” in the song Ode to Joe. Bono, from the band U2 and who is Paul David Hewson, an Irish singer-songwriter and philanthropist, also speaks out boldly for peace, the end of poverty and human rights. He was awarded the Nobel Man of Peace award in 2008.
For all these people, from the midwives to Anne Frank to Dolores Huerta to Bono, there have been many who disagreed with them and even some who sought to quiet them. Many of these bold peacemakers try to bravely and nonviolently reconcile people one to another while seeking full human rights for those for which they speak often the poor, the outcast, the incapacitated and the many “isms” of our society and world today. Jesus wants us to seek the ways of peace even though it may not be popular. He certainly wasn’t popular among the religious authorities and those of the Jewish people who didn’t wish his message to the poor, the disenfranchised, the outcast and the disabled to be heard. They didn’t want the commandments to be turned upside down.
The passage I read to you from the Sermon on the Mount says there is no longer “an eye for an eye.” The idea of an eye for an eye is recognized as basic justice but Jesus turns to the antithesis of that idea by explaining instead turn the other cheek, give both a coat and a sweater when asked for one’s coat, and walk that extra mile to help someone, even enemies such as when Roman soldiers would make Jews carry their load. The power of nonviolence and the ways of peace is that it practices “turn the other cheek.” Instead of striking back or returning evil for evil, “live peaceably,” scripture teaches. The Rev. Dr. Daniel Ott explains, “Reconciliation, justice, and peacemaking are so essential to our faith that our worship is empty without them. We might even say that worship is peacemaking and peacemaking is worship. One of the primary tasks of worship is to make peace with God and neighbor (all people,) to repent and forgive.”
Today is World Wide communion when we seek to remember that Jesus boldly reconciled us to God at the cost of his life. It is also when we collect the Peace and Global Witness offering which allows our money to speak for peace and to basic human rights in the world. May our word be “yes” to peace and reconciliation, as Jesus requires of us, by the things we think, do and say. May we all be Jesus’ ambassadors of peace and may we generously give of our time, talent and treasure to support the ways of peace.