Sermon – February 19, 2017

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Bad and the Good, the Just and the Unjust

Rev. Joe Connolly

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“For God makes the sun rise on the bad and on the good alike— God makes the sun rise on those who are in a right relationship with God and those who are not in a right relationship with God— alike; and God sends rain and it falls on the just and on the unjust alike.” — Matthew 5:45b

I want to tell a story about something which happened when I was thirteen. I could go into a long, complex explanation as to why I know when this happened but suffice it to say it happened when I was thirteen.

When this incident happened I was home alone, not in school, and it was mid-week. My brother and sister were not there, so they were probably in school. Was I sick? Did my school have off that day? I don’t remember.

In any case, I was home alone. One reason I was alone is my mother, who might have been home otherwise, had an appointment with a doctor, the family doctor. Our family had recently moved from Brooklyn— Bushwick, Brooklyn, to be precise— to Queens— Woodhaven, Queens, to be precise. But our doctor was back down in Brooklyn— Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to be precise. That was about a forty-five minutes away by subway.

So, I was home and Mom was out. I decided that, as a surprise for my mother, I would take it on myself to clean the bathroom— the floor, the tub, the sink, the toilet.

That I would take on such a task might lead you to believe I was a good boy. You would be wrong about that which is exactly why this would have been a surprise to my mother. In any case, I got the first three done— the floor, the tub, the sink— in short order and then tackled the toilet.

Part way through that exercise I tried to lift the porcelain top off the back tank. My hands were wet. I had, after all, been cleaning things.

The top of the tank slipped from my grip, fell to the floor and shattered into multiple pieces. Now I have no idea how this happened but a fairly thin, quite sharp, very large shard of porcelain, about two inches long, bounced up and landed— or rather stuck— a little like the point of a knife— in the center of my left palm.

I did what any upstanding thirteen year old boy would do. For a moment— probably longer— I just stared, with something bordering on overwhelming interest in the spectacle of this sharp object protruding from my hand, this piece of porcelain hanging from my palm.

Being a thirteen year old I suppose I did not know enough to be frightened. I then pulled that knife-like shard out of my palm. At that point the wound, of course, started to bleed profusely.

To be clear, I think realized right away this was not a particularly serious wound. And I knew enough to apply pressure to try to make the bleeding stop. I was in a bathroom. I used plenty of towels to assist in that. (Slight pause.)

Once I had slowed the flow of blood to a trickle I decided it would be a good idea to call my mother just to let her know what had happened. And I knew where she was. She was at the doctor’s office.

Once I got her on the line I explained what was up. She, wisely, put the doctor on the phone. He questioned me about what had happned, what I had done in response to the accident and the current nature of the wound. He seemed satisfied that there was no immediate danger and told me my mother would be home soon.

And she made it home with surprising speed. I suspect she hailed a cab instead of waiting for the subway.

It was at that point, when my Mom arrived home, that the emotional trauma hit me. That brave thirteen year old cried when I saw her.

Those tears were not about the injury. In fact, the diagnoses of the injury, even though it was made by the doctor over the phone, sight unseen, was right on. The wound was minor.

No— the tears were not about the injury. The tears were about ‘why?’ Why did that happen to me, why when I was trying to do something nice, trying to be helpful did this happen. Why? (Slight pause.)

We hear these words in the Gospel we have come to call Matthew: “For God makes the sun rise on the bad and on the good alike— God makes the sun rise on those who are in a right relationship with God and those who are not in a right relationship with God— alike; and God sends rain and it falls on the just and on the unjust alike.” (Slight pause.)

Back in the 19th Century, Charles Bowen, who was a member of the upper class in Britain and a Judge was also an occasional author. He composed a doggerel which is more playful than Matthew’s composition and it says something similar to what Matthew offered. It is not quite the same, but similar, and a little snappier perhaps.

It reads like this: “The rain— it raineth on the just / And also— it raineth the unjust fella; / But chiefly it raineth on the just, because— / The unjust fella hath the just fella’s umbrella.” (Slight pause.)

Whereas I do not doubt that to be true, neither do I think that this is the point Matthew is making. I think many of us, Judge Bowen included, presume these words are about some kind of dichotomy between the just and the unjust, some kind of unfairness between the two.

There is one problem with that. As was stated earlier, this Gospel passage must be seen in the context of The Sermon on the Mount. [2] Hence, a key question becomes ‘what is The Sermon on the Mount about— really?’

You may remember The Sermon on the Mount starts with The Beatitudes. The list starts with this (quote:), “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit; / the dominion of heaven is theirs.” One of the last sayings in that list says this (quote:) “Blessed are those who are persecuted / because of their struggle for justice / the dominion of heaven is theirs.” (Slight pause.)

Two things need to be noted. First, popular perception to the contrary, nearly every one of these sayings address human struggle. Second, these are about our relationship with God. Which leads us to the question, what is being addressed in terms of relationship? (Slight pause.)

This was also said earlier and here is no doubting this: taken in its entirety, The Sermon on the Mount is daunting not because of the standards it sets. [3] The Sermon on the Mount is daunting because these words are written in a specific context: the proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah.

The proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah announces the approaching dawn of the reign of God. Hence, a question for us becomes are we willing to listen and to act on that, the approaching dawn of the reign of God?

All that brings me back to my thirteen year old self. Yes, I felt somehow violated by the universe. But I’ve lived long enough to know that you are likely to feel violated by the universe with some regularity.

I’ve also lived long enough to know that blaming the unjust can often be right. But blaming God is probably a mistake. You see, God wants to be in relationship with us.

Why? As The Beatitudes clearly tell us, God needs us to work toward justice— and that means justice for all people, in this world, God’s world. God needs us to work toward peace, and that means peace for all people, in this, God’s world.

God needs us to work toward freedom, and that means freedom for all people, in this, God’s world. God needs us to seek truth, and that means truth for all people, in this, God’s world. (Slight pause.)

And that, I think, might lead us to an obvious question. Are we, as frail as we are, as human as we are, able to seek justice, peace, freedom, truth for all people?

I think so. You see Matthew says we— we— that means everyone— we need to be in right relationship. What is right relationship? Love— loving God, loving neighbor.

Right relationship with God and neighbor, loving God and loving neighbor— perhaps that is the place, the path on which and where justice, peace, freedom, truth are available. Indeed, Matthew is also clear on another count.

No one said that when we are on that path called right relationship— when we are on that path called love on which and where justice, peace, freedom, truth are available— no one said that path would be easy. Of course, if you ask some thirteen year old boy about how hard the world can be I’d bet you’d get a similar answer. Life… ain’t… easy. Amen.

02/19/2017
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Life ain’t easy. Really? Even so, Matthew’s Gospel calls us to an interesting, indeed a challenging standard. (Quote:) “…be perfect as Abba, God, in heaven is perfect.”

BENEDICTION: Let us recognize that the transforming power of the love God offers is forever among us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.

[1] This doggerel is slightly altered for this context.

[2] This was stated when the passage was introduced at the time of the reading of the Gospel.

[3] This was said when the reading of the Gospel was introduced.

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