Arguing with Jesus

John McLarty

Audio Recording:

Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists for Sabbath, February 24, 2018

Texts: Exodus 21 and Matthew 5.  (Please note the startling contrast between these two chapters.)

Will D. Campbell was standing there as a witness when young Black people walked into a Walgreens Drugstore in Birmingham, Alabama, seated themselves at the lunch counters and waited to be served a sandwich.

This particular Walgreens had two floors and there was a lunch counter on each floor. Campbell positioned himself on the ground floor.

A hostile White crowd gathered.

It is important to wrap our minds around this. Sixty years ago, here in the United States a Black person could not walk into just any restaurant and expect to be served. In the South where I lived, a Black person could not walk into ANY restaurant and receive service—unless the restaurant served only Black patrons. A Black family on a road trip could not pull into just any gas station and purchase gasoline. In Memphis, where I grew up, a Black person stepping into First Baptist Church or Westminster Presbyterian Church or First Adventist Church would be invited to leave and go to another church in town. They would be given the address of a Black Baptist church or a Black Presbyterian Church or the Black Adventist Church.

Segregation was written into law and any gaps in the law were covered by the unwritten rules of Southern culture. Finally, after 250 years of brutal slavery and a hundred years of barbaric mistreatment under Jim Crow laws—laws and practices that were defended and blessed by White preachers, Black folk rose and pushed back .Part of that push back involved walking into Walgreens and sitting at lunch counters and asking to be served a sandwich.

It was a revolutionary act. It was defiance.

Will D. Campbell was a white man and a Baptist preacher, one of the few who from the beginning understood and supported the drive for equality and justice. As Campbell stood there in Walgreens watching the sit in, a young man stepped out of the hostile semi-circle of jeering white hooligans. He marched up to the back of a young Black woman sitting on one of the stools. He held a bottle in his hand and threatened to pour battery acid down her back if she didn’t get up and leave. Suddenly a middle-aged white woman pushed her way through the crowd. She got right up in the hooligans face and began haranguing him. “What would your mother think, young man, if she saw you picking on a young woman? What would your grandmother think? Do you have a sister? Do have any cousins? Are all of the women in your family so crude and vulgar that not a one of them would defend the honor of their family by slapping you in the face for acting like a school yard bully here in public? Shame on you.” She said. “Shame! You coward. You loser. What are you doing here at Walgreens in the middle of the day? Why aren’t you at work? You’ve got nothing better to do during work hours than come here to Walgreens and pick on a young woman. Shame!” She glared at him until he lowered the bottle and slunk back into the crowd, then headed for the door.

With the humiliation of this hooligan, much of the energy of the crowd evaporated. All of them felt something of their pettiness. They could not sustain their belief that their mob behavior was a noble White endeavor.

When Campbell, the preacher, wrote about this experience. He talked of the woman’s use of words and her moral and social arguments as beautiful illustrations of the power of non-violence. This was Christianity at its best in defending the defenseless, in protecting the vulnerable without being seduced into violence.
But that’s not the whole story.

Since the crowd there on the ground floor had lost a lot of its angry steam, Campbell went upstairs to the other lunch counter. There, too, a crowd of hostile white hooligans was gathered in an arc behind the young Black folk sitting at the counter waiting to be served.

Like had happened downstairs, one hooligan stepped forward to harass the people sitting on the stools. This time, the hooligan’s target was a young black man. The hooligan taunted and jeered and insulted, to the great pleasure and applause of the thugs backing him. Then he began slapping the Black man, hollering at him to get out. Finally, the hooligan grabbed the Black man and yanked him backwards off the stool. The Black man began scrambling on his hands and knees toward the exit trying to get away from his assailant. The hooligan pulled out a knife and raised it to stab the Black man in the back as he was trying to get away. At that moment, a young man, who from his dress appeared to be a college student, stepped forward and punched the hooligan with his fist. He hit the hooligan so hard he went over backward and lost his knife. The Black man made his escape. Again, like what happened downstairs, the loss of their Goliath caused the Philistines to lose heart. The White thugs were unnerved by the failure of their champion and began moving away.

Will D. Campbell was a loud and public advocate of non-violence. But when he recounted this story, he acknowledged the limits of non-violence. The middle White woman downstairs used words and moral arguments and saved the day. The preppy-looking young man upstairs could not have pulled that off. He used the tool he had—his fist—and saved a life. And helped move his city toward greater justice.

With these stories in mind, let’s hear again the words of our New Testament reading.

God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.
If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too.
If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.
Give to anyone who asks, and do not turn away from anyone who wants to borrow.
Mathew 5:7-10, 38-42

If you had been there in that Walgreens Drugstore in Birmingham, Alabama, with Jesus on your cell phone, what do you imagine Jesus would have told you?

If you had been a server behind the counter, your Christian obligation would have been clear. Jesus told us to give to anyone who asks. So, even though you would be defying your boss and a hundred years of Southern culture, if a Black person sat on a stool at your lunch counter and requested a sandwich, as a Christian you would have been obliged to serve the sandwich.

Let me ask a trickier question. If you were a young Black person sitting at the counter, and the manager of the drug store asked you to leave, could you, as a Christian, in good conscience, refuse his request? Jesus said, give to anyone who asks. The manager is asking you to leave because your presence is upsetting other customers. So would it be your Christian duty to yield to the manager’s request?

Obeying Jesus is not simple.

Jesus said, Blessed are those who make peace.

Was it a Christian duty for the young Black people to “make peace” by meekly disappearing?
Was it a Christian duty for the owners of Walgreens to make peace by declaring their lunch counters were open to all people regardless of color?

Then there is a question that Jesus never addresses:

Jesus says that if you hit me on one cheek, I’m supposed to offer you the other.

But what if I’m standing here and see you hit one of my friends on the cheek. If my friend offers you the other cheek, what then is my obligation as a bystander? Does Jesus expect me to let you hit my friend?

Was the woman who shamed a hooligan into retreating from his threatened violence and the college guy who floored a hooligan with a punch—were these two people, the woman and the college guy, both acting in a Christian fashion?

In the current setting, how do we bring the wisdom of Jesus into our debates about access to guns?

Jesus did not articulate a political philosophy. Jesus did not offer any legislation. Moses gave extensive legislative guidance to the Jewish people. He laid out rules for conducting law suits and criminal trials. He addressed economic questions. Mohammad did the same thing for his followers. Jesus did not. Both Moses and Mohammad wrote specific rules for conduct in war. Jesus did no such thing.

Jesus did not tell us what to do with murderers. Jesus did not specify rules for warfare. Jesus did not address the conduct of criminal trials or offer specific direction regarding a Christian economy. Instead Jesus gave us a bunch of impossible commands.

Do not resist an evil person!
If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.
If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too.
If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for one mile, carry it two.
Give to anyone who asks.
Do not turn away from anyone who wants to borrow.

You cannot run a family this way. You can’t run a church this way. You cannot run a city this way. You cannot run a nation this way. If we turn these words into literal, objective standards, we will ruin our own lives and the lives of anyone who depends on us. You cannot obey Jesus without doing harm.

On the other hand, the words of Jesus have over and over again provided inspiration for people who have accomplished great good.

When I visit with the older women who work at the Day Care here in our building, they find inspiration for their consistent, skillful care for the children in Jesus’ words about welcoming children.

Our society offers little honor for those who work with children. The low status of childcare workers is expressed in the wages we pay them. But in the eyes of Jesus, there is no greater work.

I spend an hour or two a week at Aurora Commons, a drop-in center for homeless people on Aurora Avenue. The clients have all sorts of problems, mental illnesses of all kinds, addictions, criminal histories. They are not pretty people. But when I watch the staff, I am amazed at their tenderness, their affection, and sometimes their tough love. Where does this come from? Part of the answer is that the staff have been influenced by the words of Jesus.

They are not obeying Jesus. They are partnering with Jesus in caring. They have been inspired.

One of the most troubling aspects of Christian participation in the current political climate is the way that people who are most outspoken about Bible authority and Bible norms ignore the words of Jesus. When the president of Liberty University—a very “Christian” school—during chapel raises his jacket to reveal a pistol on his belt and laughingly boasts of packing, it raises disturbing questions about what Bible he is reading.

Thomas Jefferson is famous for making his own “Bible.” Using scissors and paste, created a work he titled, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He read from it every evening before going to bed. In this personalized Bible, he eliminated all the passages that spoke of miracles or theology. He kept all of Jesus’ moral and spiritual commands and many of his parables. He cited the book as proof of his being a Christian—even though he did not believe in the doctrine of the trinity or the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus.

Many Christians today appear to go the opposite direction. They speak loudly and passionately about the parts of the Bible that prescribe capital punishment and celebrate war and genocide, but they ignore the passages that call us to the highest ideals of generosity, compassion, and mercy. Many Christians are far more committed to Moses and the Ten Commandments than they are to Jesus and the Beatitudes.

Did you hear the contrast between our OT and NT readings this morning?

We are Christians. We respect the words of Moses and Isaiah and David. But we insist that the highest spiritual vision is not found in the legislation of Moses but in the poetry of Jesus.

Moses wrote, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Punish proportionately. This is good legislation.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” This is divine inspiration. Our highest ambition is to move the world toward this holy love.

Even when we speak politically, our highest goals are redemption and justice, not retribution and punishment.

When Jesus said, Do not resist the evil one. Give to everyone who asks. And lend to anyone who wants a loan, he was not giving us rules to obey. He was calling us to partner with God in creating the Holy City. When we spend time with the words of Jesus—when we argue with them, when we wrestle with the question of how on earth we can apply them here and now in the real world—these words will shape our souls. They will influence our characters. They will make us better people.

Recently I had lunch with a young man, just catching up with what was going on in his life. His parents are from another country. His teen years were pretty rough. He lived in a culture of human failure. Then his life was touched by one of our Green Lake families, and he saw a completely different vision of what it meant to be human, of what it meant to be a man. He escaped the influence of the gangsters. He went to school and got a job. It was rough. Both the work world and academia were alien environments for him. Because he wanted to make a career in information technology, he was put in touch with a Green Lake member who works for a tech firm. The member became a mentor and tutor for him. At one point the young man came to an appointment with his mentor/tutor but he had not finished the project he had been assigned. He apologized to the mentor. It was finals week and he just wasn’t able to get all his school work done and the project assigned him by the engineer. The young man apologized, saying, “I don’t want to waste your time.” The engineer said, “You’re not wasting my time. I just want to help you succeed.”

As the young man told me about this conversation, his face lit up. Those words have burned in his mind for the last couple of years. No one in the world he came from would invest in someone else like that. The engineer was going to get nothing out of this. It was simple altruism. Doing for another person, because that’s who we are. That’s what we do.

Those words continue to fuel this young man as he juggles work and school. Then as our conversation continued, he told me of another dream. Yes, he still wanted to get a degree in computer science and make a career for himself. But I heard something new this time. Once he finishes his degree, he said, he wants to go back home, back to the place his parents came from, and set up an institute to help the young people there thrive. He spoke of paying forward the kindness he has received.

This is the fruit the religion of Jesus bears. Jesus’ exalted words elevate us. Among us, helping someone is natural. We want each other to succeed. If there is something we can do to help someone, we figure that’s what we are here for. That’s what it is human to do. This is the Jesus effect. This is where Jesus’ words take us. As we open our lives to the inspiration and wisdom hidden in Jesus’ impossible words, we ourselves become branches on the tree of life. Our efforts, our words, create ripples of life. And who knows how far they will spread.

I understand why Christians ignore the words of Jesus. As our New Testament reading illustrates, Jesus’ words are difficult. We cannot simply obey Jesus. Jesus words, taken literally, do not make good politics. They don’t even work as rules for our life together in church. But when we pay attention to them, when we argue with them, we will be stretched to highest imaginable goodness. As we stay with the words of Jesus, meditate on them, ponder them, and, yes, argue with them, we will be shaped ever more closely into the image of God.

Our public speech will be tempered by the wisdom and goodness of Jesus. We will lose our fascination with punishment and retribution. We will lose our illusions that we deserve better than the ninety percent of humanity with fewer privileges and less wealth. We will seek to cooperate with God in his peacemaking. Our politics and our speech will become more gracious, more disciplined, more just.

In the words of Jesus himself, we will become the children of our Father in heaven. And our own legacy will be other children whose efforts to do good will be our most glorious legacy.