STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 21, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
WORSHIPPING AT HOME TOGETHER
Call to Worship: Psalm 37: 39 & 40
God gives life, spacious and free, to the upright
He protects them and keeps them safe.
God-strengthened, we’re delivered from evil—
when we run to him, he saves us.
Prayer of Adoration and Confession:
Holy God, you are truth and righteousness,
We praise you because your thoughts are above our thoughts and your ways above our ways – without you we would dwell in darkness. In the early scriptures you gave us a framework for ethical behaviour. Through the prophets you declared how important justice is to you. Through Christ, you showed us the way of love and led us into the fullness of life lived in him. You did this because it is your hearts desire to see your kingdom come on Earth. We praise you because you care enough to guide is in paths of righteousness. You call us to champion your righteousness by our words and deeds. You ask that, as Christ’s people, we live with integrity. You desire us to be brave in the face of injustice. You call us to be true to you and consistent in our love for others, no matter what the cost.
We admit that too often choose what is anti-Christ. We do not walk in his ways, or speak truth, or stand up in the face of justice. Sometimes, we deliberately choose to do what we know is wrong. We even tempt others to follow some shadowed impulse that will bring harm to others. We’re fearful that pleasing you will bring the displeasure of others down on us and frequently we desire their approval over yours. Forgive us.
In our time of worship, give us clarity and courage. Give us a sense of unity with all who are worshipping with us. Give us thankful hearts that flow into praise and love for you. We pray in your holy Triune name. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 34: 17 – 19
Is anyone crying for help?
God is listening, ready to rescue you.
If your heart is broken,
you’ll find God right there.
If you’re kicked in the gut,
he’ll help you catch your breath.
The righteous are often mistreated;
still, God is there every time.
Prayer for Illumination:
God you are our light in darkness and our shelter in times of trouble, encourage us as we listen for your Word to us, so that we may have the courage of our convictions. Amen.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 5: 9 NRSV
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.” The Message
1 Samuel 24
John 2: 13 – 17
Often the last two Beatitudes are lumped together as one, but I’ve chosen to look at them separately. So, in the next Beatitude, we encounter the phrase “for righteousness sake”. We first understand “righteousness” as a synonym for the Triune God. Only God is holy or righteous. Mortals only become righteous through faith in Christ’s redeeming work of death and resurrection. In contrast, to be “self-righteous” presumes that we have made ourselves righteous or right with God, and therefore equal to God and better than others, (which isn’t a very holy attitude, when you think about it). While we’re on Earth the Holy Spirit sustains Christ’s work by continuing our sanctification. Therefore, The Message translates “for righteousness sake” as “your commitment to God”. We could also translate this as “for the sake of God” or “for the benefit of God’s kingdom”. In this Beatitude, Jesus is not only speaking of our commitment to God, out of which all else flows, he’s also speaking about living our lives in ways which align with God’s righteousness – living in God’s world, God’s way; in ways that bless God and please him. When we do those things, we often suffer persecution and when we’re persecuted, we’re blessed because we’re “driven deeper into God’s kingdom”.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve witnessed events which neither made God smile nor benefited his kingdom; namely, George Floyd’s murder in the US and, here in Canada, the violent assault of First Nations Chief, Allan Adam. These incidents and others like them have sparked protests around the globe. At the heart of the protests is the call for equal rights and treatment for people who are marginalized, constantly suspected, abused and yes, even killed: black people, native people and others who are treated as lesser human beings than white people. Not all protesters are saints – some have let their righteous anger get the better of them, there has been violence and looting, but the majority are peaceful. Moreover, protesters are people and what they’re wanting isn’t extreme. Essentially, they’re are asking for basic human rights – dignity, respect, safety, freedom and equal opportunities. They’re calling for “righteousness” to prevail; they’re wanting to see a shift into God’s world, God’s way. For this, they’re experiencing persecution. They’re dismissed, criticized, threatened, and intimidated; force is used against them, some have been sexually assaulted and even shot dead (Italia Marie Kelly, Oluwatoyin Salau, Victoria Sims). (As a caveat, not all of this persecution is at the hands of police and I don’t believe all police are trigger happy racists. Some police act with unacceptable abuse of power; others stay centred even in situations where their lives are threatened.) Prejudice poisons every society and it’s seeds are in the hearts of individuals. As an example of the persecution the protesters are experiencing, below is a photo of a white racist mocking the murder of George Floyd by kneeling on his brother’s neck in effigy while taunting and verbally abusing protesters.
Colluding with wrong, allowing or perpetrating injustice is both harmful and easy. It creates wounds that take generations to heal. It stands in the way of God’s kingdom. The stronger our call for righteousness, the more evil and hatred rise up to counter it. To stand up for what’s right isn’t easy. When we experience persecution “for righteousness sake”, it’s unpleasant at best, deadly at worst. No one enjoys being hated and criticized; threats and intimidation make us fearful; murder is the ultimate weapon used to stop what is good. It takes great courage to continue on a steady path. When we’re persecuted for doing what’s right, the temptation is to cross over to the dark side, letting our spirits be flooded with hatred. We’re tempted to fight fire with fire. We can even convince ourselves we’re justified in doing so. If we give in and follow our own natural inclinations, we turn our back on God’s will. It’s cowardly. That’s why Jesus lifted up those who do what’s right.
In the account from 1 Samuel, the Israelite King Saul has developed severe paranoia. He’s convinced David intends to kill him and take his throne. Saul straps on his armour and orders his army to hunt David down and kill him. He’s relentless in his pursuit. They track David through the wilderness of Israel and learn he’s hiding in the caves. Saul goes from cave to cave looking. Well, it’s a long day and eventually you need to use the facilities. Being the King requires one to be dignified, so Saul slips into a cave. It happens to be the same cave in which David’s hiding. This is the perfect opportunity. With Saul’s back turned and his hands busy, David could sneak up on him and slit his throat. He chooses instead to do what is right and what is pleasing to God. In a similar, modern day news story a belligerent, white supremacist found himself isolated in a crowd of “Black Lives Matter” protesters in London, England. With the enemy behind their lines, the protesters started to push and beat the man. Not their finest moment, but a somewhat understandable response. If David had killed Saul, who, but God, would have blamed him? A few other protesters, all black men, saw what was happening and pushed through the enraged, jostling crowd. One man, Patrick Hutchinson, picked up the partially conscious man and carried him to safety. Shown below, the personal trainer and grandfather, Hutchinson, said, “I thought, ‘well if he stays here, he’s not going to make it’. So, I went under, scooped him up, put him on my shoulders and started marching towards the police with him, whilst all [my friends] were protecting me and the guy I had on my shoulder…I wanted to prevent a catastrophe.” Some in the crowd thought he’d done the wrong thing. Hutchinson suffered persecution, “I could actually feel strikes and hits as I was carrying him…It was [scary], you don’t think about that though at the time. You just do what you’ve got to do.’”
Being on the side of righteousness is always a choice we make and it is always a choice that takes courage.
Sometimes, it’s clear what God would have us do and what will further his kingdom. As Hutchinson said, “It’s not black versus white, it’s everybody against racism”.
Jesus made this choice when he took a whip and over-turned the tables in the temple. People came from all over Israel for Passover to make sacrifices in the temple so their sin would be forgiven, and they could start fresh with God. They had to present perfect animals for sacrifice and it’s hard to (a) find a perfect animal in a typical flock and (b) drag it across the desert and still have a perfect animal when you arrive. So, the people would come to Jersualem with the intention of buying a pre-approved animal in the Temple. The populace, under Roman rule, used Roman currency with the head of Caesar on it. The Jewish religious leaders considered this to be idolatrous coinage and therefore impure. It was too tainted to use in the Temple which had it’s own currency. But, lucky for the pilgrims, there was a currency exchange booth or two, where one could by temple coinage at seriously exploitative rates. Now imagine you’re waiting in line when a visitor to Jerusalem arrives. He’s not a celebrity, a person of rank, or a priest – just a nobody rabbi from Galilee. You don’t pay him much attention until suddenly, he starts a one-man riot. He throws handfuls of money. He overturns the tables. He yells. He opens cages. He grabs a whip and chases out the people and animals. You’re sure he’s a crazy person and he’s been unnecessarily violent. He’s been disrespectful of the Temple, the people in it, and the worship of God. The religious authorities arrive on the scene. They’re angry – can you blame them? They speak to the man, indignant at his lack of respect for them and for God’s house. The man though is sure he’s done the right thing, the thing that benefits God’s kingdom. After all the Temple is a place of worship to honour God in prayer, not a den for money launderers and loan sharks looking to make a quick buck. Would you support the Rabbi or persecute him? Would you think the Jewish leaders were right or Jesus? It’s not always easy to tell what is righteous in the eyes of God. Often, we see through a different lens. But there are some helpful guidelines.
Does the action put God before all else? In the Temple, the actions of Jesus were righteous because it put God before personal authority, money, people-pleasing and niceness.
Is what you believe is righteous in keeping with scripture? Does it align with the teachings of Jesus and the values God holds?
Does it benefit God’s kingdom? Often, we think what is right is what is beneficial to us, but does it serve to create a world that is more equitable? Does it give people dignity? Does it set people free, giving them the abundant life which Christ offers? Does it bring healing and reconciliation? Does it honour the sacred gift of life that God has given us? Does it take courage? Is it apt to lead to persecution from people who do not share our values?
When we’re doing what is “righteous” our hearts are in the “right” place; like Patrick Hutchinson, we foster values such as compassion, empathy and forgiveness.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” There are two ways this is true. As The Message puts it, suffering of any kind always drives us deeper into God’s kingdom. Our need for God’s love, for the grace of Christ and the strength of the Spirit is heightened in our suffering, as we’re pushed by our pain to seek God’s face and God’s will. Persecution brings us closer to God. Secondly, persecution is the greatest form of suffering. It’s demanding, as it isn’t easy to love our persecutors, but when we do, we see the Kingdom of God unfold. Healing takes place. Our spirits expand. We become more inclusive. The fight for righteousness makes the reality of God’s kingdom more concrete. When we see God’s kingdom unfold, we’re definitely in our happy place.
This closing story is a sign of God’s kingdom. These two children “fell in love” at the age of 5. They decided that when they grew up, they’d get married.
21 years later, they did!
May we work and pray for righteousness so that we’ll live to see God’s kingdom come on Earth – a kingdom that is colour-blind and harmonious. A kingdom where people are equal and love prevails. It will make the persecution we suffer for righteousness sake worth while.
Questions for Reflection
How do you understand righteousness?
When in your life did you stand up for what was right?
Can you remember being persecuted?
Have you ever worked against God’s kingdom?
How do you think God’s kingdom will look when it comes to Earth?
Offering: Strong and righteous God, you have saved us and called us to be co-workers in your kingdom. We offer ourselves to you to be part of that work. Help us to be bold in standing up for what is right. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession:
The Lord’s prayer
Invitation to Mission:
We go into a world, where so much is wrong, to fearlessly build God’s world, God’s way.
May the Triune God bless you and keep you. Amen.