Christianity just doesn’t make sense sometimes. You can take that in several ways. The most obvious is to say that what we do does not always match up to what Jesus commands us to do. Abuses of power and privilege are just as evident in the past and present church as they are in any social grouping. We often remain silent on political realities for fear of ripping ourselves apart. When certain groups or denominations within the Body of Christ do take a definitive stance, you can bet they will be excluding some element of society – and it is rarely those with any power to do anything about it.
Nope. Christianity just does not make sense. It does not make sense because it is based on a concept that is simply counter productive – at least by all logical means – the concept of grace. Nestled in between the last phrase of the Prophet Micah’s answer from God is the word “hesed,” which we often translate as “kindness.” The command to “love kindness” is not as simple as it seems. To our ears it sounds like, “You should really like being nice to people. Love kindness. Love it!”
To Micah’s audience, it may have been downright offensive. Micah spoke for God to the powers of Israel during the same time as Isaiah. The difference is that Micah was an outsider. He was a common man. As Israel began to fall to foreign powers and those with wealth and power fought over the scraps of land and the political power they held, you can bet that the laborers, the farmers, and the shepherds got caught in the squeeze. Micah mocked the wealthy who were willing to give up even their first born children to keep from losing any more ground.
“What do we do? How can we be saved?” they cried. Micah reminds them of Balaam, a name of a cursed prophet who tried to manipulate God by tempting the people to infidelity. He tells them to remember that God is God and they are not. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good.” Then he lowers the boom and tells them that it is not about what they do. It is about who they are. Of course, what you do flows from who you are, so he has effectively said, “Unless you become someone new, you are lost. You are lost because you are not working for justice.”
The Lord requires justice. Over and over again the prophets tell us that the Lord requires justice. But justice is not simply retribution. If it was, the whole Bible would read like the Book of Judges. The people sin. They are conquered. A judge rises to kill the bad guys because God will only let God’s people suffer just so much. In the end, justice that is limited to bad people getting their due is just vengeance. That is why justice is always tempered with righteousness – the work of God to make things right, to bring into union, to recreate the state of blessing and love that we were created for in the first place.
Viewed this way, justice means that the powerless are cared for. Righteousness means that the humanity and dignity of each person is respected and understood, although I doubt there are any who would disagree with the idea that we need to care for those who cannot care for themselves, and that those who are looked down on should be lifted up. Our nation declared its independence by stating that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The trouble comes with the way we distribute justice and kindness. Kindness, righteousness, mercy – these are all in the same bag with the concept of “hesed.” Mercy is the place that Christianity makes the least sense. Mercy seems to be the opposite of justice. Mercy is the setting free of the one who is condemned.
I recently read a comment from someone who said that she has no problem receiving mercy, but she hates to give it. Offering mercy means being in a position of power. It means that you have the chance to make sure that justice happens. Offering mercy means letting go of that power. It feels like a great weakness. It feels like giving permission to bad behavior – to pain and suffering.
And that is why Christianity really does not make sense. Because we are telling the world that there is a God, that God is loving, active, and present, and that God is not going to punish you for being terrible. Instead, God is going to love you. God is going to forgive you. God is going to be merciful to you.
For the Corinthians, this was absolutely ridiculous. It was laughable. People said, “So you’re telling me that a radical Rabi who got himself killed is going to overthrow Rome…right.” So, Paul writes to encourage them, and because there are so many divisions he starts with the one thing that unifies them – the cross. Yes, we proclaim Christ crucified! Yes, we claim the symbol of death and power as the symbol of hope and life. We claim the cross of Jesus as life giving.
Now, I recognize that for some the crucifix is vital to their faith because of the constant reminder of the suffering of Jesus. It reminds us that God has suffered and will suffer with us and for us. It is a symbol for the pain and suffering that we cause in the world. Personally, I grew up in the tradition of empty crosses. I used to wear one on a necklace, and I have to admit that I was a little taken aback when a coworker in a restaurant once said, “I’m glad to see there’s not a dead guy on your cross.” I must have looked confused. She continued, “My Christ is alive.” Suddenly I moved from confusion to understanding. Suddenly I understood what Paul calls, “the folly of the cross.”
And it is this Jesus who is the Christ that bridges the gap between our inability to make up for our mistakes and the movement of God that brings about justice. It is this Jesus who describes a kingdom where the poor and hungry, the meek and merciful, the pure in heart and the persecuted are blessed.
The thing is, Jesus is not simply telling us that we should act a certain way. He is telling us what will be in the end. He is telling us what God is working on and moving us to become. The Israelites asked Micah what could be done to save their nation. The Jews asked Jesus how the Romans could be overcome. But God answered a different question. God told them how to be faithful and how to live as God’s people.
And so God tells us: “I am God and you are not. Just take care of people – help them. Don’t enable them to hurt themselves by offering kindness that does not require a relationship. Think about the forgiveness that I have given you. Realize the power you can demonstrate by setting someone free! Realize that all of this comes from me, and don’t expect yourself to know it all or to do it all. Seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with me. That’s how you can live as a member of my family.”
The key to all of this, I maintain, is “hesed” – loving kindness. I want to share with you an image. This is Isaac Theil. He’s Jewish. On his ride home on the subway, a young black man fell asleep on him. A fellow traveler asked if she should wake him. He said, “No. He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We've all been there, right?” Well, she took a picture, posted it online, and it went viral.
Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, president of The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, was moved by Theil's recollection of his own fatigue as an explanation for his kindness, and said that it was a perfect demonstration of human empathy. Hirschfield said, "To be able to draw on past hardship to soften our hearts towards others is one of the most repeated commandments to the Jewish people, and is the core of many spiritual traditions."
Jesus, a Jewish Rabi, came to demonstrate the deep and abiding hospitality of God. Today we will celebrate the compassion of God for each of us through Holy Communion. Today we will give thanks that Christianity just doesn’t make sense. Today we will receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet as members of the family of God who live in the kingdom of grace and mercy that is both present and yet to come. And to God be the glory, now and always. Amen.