Summit Presbyterian Church
July 21, 2012
Proverbs 4: 10-27; Matthew 5: 1-12
Turning our Feet
"Listen to me!" - may be the three most common words - after I love you - spoken by parents to children, teachers to students, aunts to nieces and grandparents to grandchildren. Sometimes they're said calmly, sometimes sternly, sometimes they come out as an aggravated yell -- but they're always urgent, because we always have something important to say. We've been around the block; we know what we're talking about. Whatever they may think as they roll their eyes, we have better advice than their friends or some celebrity on TV or the internet. And it's our job to share that wisdom.
"Listen, children, to a father's instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching." Generation after generation, parents have instructed their children, as this speaker in proverbs was instructed by his father: "When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother's favorite, he taught me, and said to me, "Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth." The words differ from family to family and the details change from century to century. Three thousand years ago in Israel a father may have warned against eating pork, moving a neighbors boundary marker and stealing sheep, as well as sex before marriage, disrespect for parents, lying, or falling in with the wrong crowd. Today a mother is more likely to warn her child against eating junk food, taking drugs or stealing ipods, as well as sex before marriage (or at least until they're older) disrespect for parents, lying or falling in with the wrong crowd. In Proverbs we hear the same love and anxiety and repetition that we hear when we talk to our own children (especially the repetition): We say: don't follow the crowd or do things just because your friends are doing it: if your friend said to jump off a cliff, would you do it? Proverbs says: "Keep hold of instruction; do not let go, guard her, for she is your life. Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it; do not go on it; turn away from it and pass on." "Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Keep straight the path of your feet, and all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil."
In proverbs, the father also makes promises. "Do not forsake wisdom, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you." "Hear my child, and accept my words, that the years of your life may be many. . . . When you walk, your step will not be hampered; and if you run, you will not stumble." "Keep my commandments, and live." Promises, promises -- we make them too: if you study and do well in school, you'll have a good career; if you keep away from drugs and avoid the wild crowd, you can get a good job and support a family. Call it faith, call it optimism, call it denial, these promises are not in our power to keep. It's true that wisdom and doing the right thing have a protective affect - kind of like lowering our cholesterol and exercising has a protective effect against heart disease. But even when children are keeping their gaze straight before them and keeping our words in their heart, mental illness can strike; a car can hit them in the road; a disease can fell them, drugs or alcohol; they can lose their job or their marriage or fall into debt. Even when when they are keeping straight the paths of their feet, swerving neither to the right or the left between their father's home and the 7-11, evil can come chasing them. I'm not saying that George Zimmerman is evil, or even that he intended evil - and we'll never know precisely what happened that evening - but some combination of racism, gun-idolatry, cowboy envy, bad law and plain old folly -- (in Proverbs folly and evil are close cousins) - all those evils ran after Trayvon, before and after his death.
And so Trayvon's parents are left to mourn, to lean on the Lord, and to wonder: how long, Oh Lord, must we bear pain, and have sorrow in our heart all day long? (Psalm 13) How long, Oh Lord, wonder all who believe in the equality of God's children, how long will you hide your face from us? The moral arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but it's way too long. It's way too long and too many people are trying to straighten it: by insisting we're in a post-racial world; by striking down the voting rights act; by defunding city schools, by taking away food stamps, by being fearful and timid and defensive - I'm speaking to us white people now - rather than students of history and listeners and doers of justice. How long, O Lord, and how dare you speak to us in proverbs, when the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful . . . . when there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. (That's also the Bible, Ecclesiastes).
When Jesus spoke to his disciples, and the crowds, on that mountain, he knew their anguish and their questions. They were no strangers to oppression and mourning, to hunger and persecution. Jesus also made promises. Promises that were in his power to keep, indeed, promises he's keeping now: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. It may not feel that way, but sorrow will not last forever and blessed are those who love enough to grieve a loss.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness -- it may seem like these days they're not even getting crumbs, but they will be filled.
Blessed are the peacemakers -- now they may be called terrorist sympathizers, but they will be called children of God.
Blessed are the meek -- I thought of those families in India this week, the children poisoned because when you're that poor you never throw out containers, you use them to store other things - they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy - and God knows we all need it. These promises are for the future, for the age to come when the heavenly city will descend from the clouds and tears will be no more. They're promises for eternal life, when Jesus takes us to the dwelling place he has prepared. But they're also promises for the here and now. Christianity is not the opiate of the people, telling everyone to wait for the pie in the sky bye and bye. The Kingdom of God is not yet, but also here. We see glimpses of it, sometimes more than a glimpse. In progress made in racial justice, as the President pointed out on Friday. In kind words of welcome to the stranger, in family love, in people joining across faith and nation to care for the earth or to work peace or to stand for justice. We see it in the joy of friendship and the fellowship of the church.
And it's in that blessed place, where the church is called to live, trusting in these words of Jesus. Comforting those who mourn - in our church family, but also beyond. Seeing the meek for who they are -- heirs of the earth, joint heirs with Christ Paul might say. Working for peace, in our culture of guns and drones and bombs. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness -- when so many are hungry, when the changing climate threatens everyone but especially the poor, and when racism is still a clear and present danger. This is the life to which the church is called, as hard as it may be and as imperfectly as we may do it. Or returning to Proverbs, the church is called to see all God's children as her children: African American children in Detroit, white suburban children in Grosse Pointe, children weaving carpets in Pakistan, children taking SATs in Massachusetts. The church is called to not only instruct them in the ways of wisdom and righteousness - and to help parents and teachers do so -- but also to protect their path, turning the feet of evil away. So that all of God's children may live.