Civil Disobedience

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
August 21, 2011 – Ordinary (21A)
Exodus 1:8 - 2:10
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Aw-kward (said with high pitched first syllable) – that is the common vernacular for an uncomfortable moment. We’ve all had those moments where someone has said the wrong thing at the wrong time, stood too close to you, or just did not pick up on the social cues we all give off from time to time. You know – phrases like, “Thank you for coming by,” or “Let’s do that some time,” which of course mean, “You can go now,” and “That would be nice, but I have no intention of committing to it.”

Somehow it has become commonplace within certain circles to name the elephant in the room, and the elephant’s name is – Awkward. Of course, a slightly subtler approach is to simply say, “Crickets,” indicating a silence so severely uncomfortable that you could hear crickets chirp. Then there are even those who are less subtle but more tech savvy that will play a sound effect from their phone. (Crickets) Thank you, Owen.

Whatever your comfort level or style may be with acknowledging the discomfort you feel, we all have moments like these. The thing about these kinds of moments is that they are not particularly bad, but they are not particularly good either. There is the potential for both good and bad to result from an awkward moment.

I think that is how the disciples must have felt in today’s reading. Jesus has just played a veritable Who’s Who with them to determine who they believe others are saying he is. Then he turns the question to them – asking, “Who do you say to others that I am.” Peter steps up and nails it, “You’re the Messiah, the Son of living God.” Jesus says, “Yes! Obviously you are attending to God’s Spirit – there is no way you could have come up with that on your own.”

Well. That was a little awkward. Jesus goes on to make promises to Peter that no mortal should ever receive (we’ll see why next Sunday), and then tells them all that they cannot tell anyone that he is the great liberator of their people. What?


What? You just confirmed that you were the one who will set us free from Roman occupation. You said you would end the suffering of my loved ones. And now you say that I can’t tell anyone that freedom is coming?

Of course it makes sense to us. The disciples did not understand, but it makes sense to us that there really was not much to proclaim without the resurrection. It wasn’t time yet. Yet we receive the same information – that Jesus is the son of the living God, the Messiah who died and rose that we might know the lengths God will go to out of love for us – and we are left with the same awkward question: Now what do we do?

Some have received this information – the idea that God has revealed Godself in the person, work, and resurrection of Jesus – and responded to it like Mel Gibson in Braveheart. You may recall the famous scene before hearing the British general deliver his demands. Wallace’s colleague asks him, “What are you gunna do?” Wallace replies, “I’m gunna pick a fight.” His friend responds, “Well, we didna’ get dressed up fer nuthin’.”

Righteousness feels good. It feels really good to say, “I’m going to stand up for what’s right!” But the difficult part, in our context, is figuring out how and when to do that. The difficult part is looking in the mirror and realizing how much we crave and need stability. The difficult part is realizing that we have to consider how much of the status quo we want and need. Even more so, the difficult part is asking ourselves, “How much of the status quo does God want or need?”

Shifra and Puah asked themselves this question. We hear hardly anything of these two women – before or after their appearance. Yet they set in motion one of the most crucial events of history – the Exodus. Scripture says that they were motivated by fear of the Lord. Pharaoh had unleashed horrors on their people and demonstrated absolute disregard for the lives of all Hebrews, yet they were afraid of God?

How do we truly understand what it means to fear God? We live in a Democratic Republic with elected officials. We live in an age of reason that has separated our experiences of things that are physical from that which is spiritual. Some people may use God as an excuse for things (Oh, I must have had that coming to me! – or – You must be living right!), but most people do not believe that God is going to drop a tree on them if they do not feed the homeless or go to church. We aren’t even afraid that God will stop loving us; if we really understand what God has done through Jesus Christ.

One thing we do understand is reverence, and by that I mean respect, giving allegiance too, and allowing something outside of ourselves to have authority over us. About the best we can do with Shifra and Puah is to see their actions as reverence to God. Reverence to God is what made them disobey the power of the state, and their small act of defiance set off a chain of events that allowed others to make even smaller acts of defiance – not that throwing your baby in the river in a miniature ark is a small thing. Not to say that a slave approaching the daughter of the man who ordered the death of infants is a small thing. Not to say that nursing your own child without ever telling him who you are and giving your own son away is a small thing.

These were all spectacular things – bigger than we can imagine! They were all dependant on risk and vulnerability. They were all connected to a basic reverence for life. They were all actions that resulted in drastic changes for the ones who took the risk. They were all acts of civil disobedience to an organized power that was made of flesh and bone.

Now there’s an awkward phrase – civil disobedience! Throughout all of recorded history there have been organized and accidental acts of individuals and groups that are opposed to those who govern them. Our very nation was born from one, and our heritage reveals a dance between accepting the staus quo, no matter how harmful it might become, and throwing off the chains that bind us. And the church has often been a partner to both the crime and the punishment – the problem and the solution.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring...and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.

These words are bittersweet when we consider the changes that followed them. These words are bittersweet when we consider the collective silence of the church during the time he wrote them. These words are bittersweet when we consider the power of individual Christians who heard them and responded in love, risking themselves – one for another.

Of course the beautiful thing about reminiscing over the past is that we can claim victories that others have won on our behalf. That’s a good thing. But the hard thing, the awkward thing, is determining what to do next.

We live in a time of war that we are insulated from by the commitments of our loved ones and the actions of our government. We live in a time of prosperity for some and scarcity for others. We live in a time of great and powerful change that is masquerading as the status quo.

And in the midst of this we have Paul writing to the Romans. Paul is not writing from a study carrel in a library. In fact it is difficult to say exactly where Paul is writing from, except that it is probably toward the end of his ministry. He, too, is living in a time of change and uncertainty. He’s been beaten, shipwrecked, and run out of more towns than most of us have been invited to. So, his comments about becoming a living sacrifice are less of a goal to move toward and more of a comment on what we do as followers of Jesus. 

And here is where it all comes together! The tension between the call to action and the awkward silence of knowing who Jesus is while waiting for the resurrection is broken by nothing less than the call to sacrificial living that honors and glorifies God!

Several years ago, a good friend of mine named Todd Davidson helped me see what sacrificial living means – through a piñata. We were part of a group of youth ministers that combined our groups for worship on occasion. This night there were about 70 of us and my congregation was the host. He was delivering a sermon on Romans 12, and he pulled out a piñata and a stick. He had the kids shout out the pressures they experienced while he beat open this piñata right in the middle of the Chancel. All I could think of was how much trouble I was going to get in tomorrow. He then removed the piñata and held up the candy and spoke of the transformation that God works even in the times we suffer – in fact especially in the times we suffer.

So here we are – the community of the redeemed, the candy from the piñata, the ones transformed by God into teachers, ministers, truth tellers, encouragers, generous givers, and leaders. Here we are – members of the institution of the church. Here we are – the ones being called peddlers of religion by the very people we want to reach. Here we are – the ones who have proclaimed Jesus as Messiah – and we are left with this awkward question: Now what are you going to do?

The answer will be different for each of us, I am sure. But one thing is certain, without risk there is no need for faith. May God, like some divine midwife, push us into and pull us through the awkwardness of responding to God’s amazing love together. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.
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