If there is one thing that we humans do faithfully, it is to disappoint ourselves and those around us with our faithlessness.
This is Holocaust remembrance week, and as one commentator I heard reflecting on the atrocities committed by the Nazis - including the murder of over six million Jewish people, along with others such as gypsies, gay men, Jehovah’s witnesses; as one commentator reflected, lest we think ourselves – as one of the countries that formed the “Allies” that ultimately freed those trapped in concentration camps – lest we think ourselves blameless, we should remember that it took us of the Allied countries twelve years to open those gates to freedom. Twelve years to muster the will to stand against the ideology of the Nazis that taught that only certain people are worthy, only certain skin colors and sexualities. And we should not forget that Hitler and those fed by his nationalistic fervor were given as a part of their diet of false superiority and lies the belief that they were the chosen ones of God, even soiling the word Christianity and all its inherent mercy-implying, love-multiplying roots made possible in our Savior’s all-embracing – all-embracing sacrifice - by applying this term Christianity as a name for themselves.
Even today, in this very country, we have states passing laws that say that teaching about the Holocaust is not required in their classrooms. It would seem that they believe that they do not need to help students come to learn about this part of history that is not just pertinent in understanding the tragedies once committed by humans, but in understanding the potential that lives in each of us this very day – this very day – to commit acts of atrocity and prejudice and yes, even murder. By words, by deeds, and just as surely by a lack of speaking up against that which is wrong when it is necessary to do otherwise and a lack of acting when to act might mean a turning of the tides in favor of justice.
Even today, in this very country – our country that was built on lofty ideals of freedom and justice for all people; even in this very country today there is a rising movement pushing a false ideology known as White Nationalism, whose adherents believe that everyone has to be Christian, and not only Christian but American, and not only American, but American according to laws made in light of their supposedly beliefs – beliefs that upon scrutiny by any well-meaning person, show themselves to be full of hate for various others, and a familiar list of targets, including those of other races, religions, and sexualities. And why is this list so familiar? It hardly varies from that list already names as targets for extermination by the Nazis. And once again, the beautiful faith made possible and given to us by God through Jesus Christ who suffers alongside our suffering; once again this beautiful faith called Christianity is being sullied as people who act in any way but Christ-like call themselves followers of the humble carpenter’s son, the son of an unwed teenage mother, the son of God who cried out for justice as he lived in this world, and by whose blood being poured out made true justice possible.
This was not an easy week in our nation’s news, and our stomachs turn when hear the reports or watch the video footage of Tyre Nichols being beaten to death down in Memphis, the same city in which the late great Martin Luther King Jr. gave the speech in which he professed having been to the mountaintop where he had seen a vision of the new creation God intends for all of humanity. Calling for justice for all people, including the sanitation workers of Memphis in that day and for all people of all skin colors every day. Justice.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. could tell us what he had seen from the mountaintop because Jesus brought him along to see that vision of justice. Justice such as Jesus describes in the first part of the Sermon of the Mount that we hear today in our gospel lesson. Justice that declares that God is not distant, but sees those who mourn, those who are in meek and meager circumstances, those who hunger and thirst to see a righteousness that this world has not given them yet.
The prophet Micah reminds the Israelites and us that God has been faithful to them even when they were faithless. Even as God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and they stumbled and doubted God did not desert them, but even sent them fine leaders in Moses and his sister Miriam and brother Aaron. And when King Balaak of Moab, fearful of the Israelites and the way that their journey to freedom that brought them through his land might disrupt Balaak’s power, tried to call Balaam to come and curse the Israelites for him, God was faithful. God spoke to Balaam on his way to King Balaak – or more specifically, when Balaam’s ears were initially closed to God speaking to him, God spoke to Balaams’ donkey (the old-fashioned translation here is that God spoke to Balaam’s “ass”) and caused him to stop where he was. God interrupted the narrative of worldly power seeking to oppress and hurt the Israelites through one of King Balaak’s own citizens. And one of resident donkeys in that kingdom as well.
And that is the remarkable good news. Hear it my good people! For I did not sugar-coat how we got started this morning. There is too much at stake for sugar-coating. But if we leave today feeling down-hearted, dispirited and dejected as we contemplate the troubles, the disasters brewing in our world today, then we have missed where God is taking us on this journey of life and faith. For even as we humans will surely, time and time again, get things wrong and make things worse, and forget how beautifully and wonderfully God made us as all of humanity to be in God’s image. So, too, and doubly as surely, will God who has acted in Christ make it possible for us as humans to participate in different and a more verdant and just narrative. God is calling us just as surely as God called Balaam and the Israelites before us!
“…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
For even as the Nazis were building up the concentration camps, there were those who were also building up the resistance to this and other evils. I was reading not long ago about a school in Belgium. This school, as the country of Belgium came under Nazi occupation, organized themselves to take in students who would be targeted by the Nazis because of their Jewish background or for other reasons. They matriculated them in such a way that they could also help them disappear, and in this way,s they helped to smuggle over 3,000 students out to safety under the cover of the night.
And let us not forget the tireless work of those laboring on the Underground Railroad, to get people wrongfully enslaved from a geographic location of oppression into new lands where a more free and just life might be built.
Surely these are some of the kinds of people and acts that Jesus was speaking of in his Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus spoke of how the merciful and the peacemakers and those persecuted were among those particularly blessed by God.
And how else, how else, when we as humans will be so consistently faithless, can works of justice and mercy and lasting change happen through our hands? There is a reason that the songs of the Civil Rights movement were also the songs of the churches – singing of the strength of God that would carry them through the times of tribulation. Yes! It is the strength and mercy and the faithfulness of GOD that will see us through, and that will wake us up to see what we can do to participate in God’s work of mercy and blessing. Even we who are faithless. Even we can be lifted up. Even we can be re-fashioned and re-molded so that we do not apply the name of Christianity to ourselves in a false way. So that it does not take us twelve years or even twelve months to speak out against those who call themselves Christians but act in anything but Christ-like ways. So that those who look at us, as we seek to carry out the work of justice and mercy might say, “yes, yes, I think I see the face of Jesus in those people.” I think I see the face of the One who loved this world into life and who loved this world and God’s people so much that death on the cross was worth the sacrifice.
Sacrifice to give us all another chance. So, may we not squander the chances we are being given! To follow our Savior. To labor for justice. “…for what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)