This sermon was first preached in 1993. Nothing has changed.
BIBLE READINGS: Deuteronomy 10:12,13,17-20 Amos 2:6-7a Matthew 5:43-48
Last week, my friend Louise and her two children, were stalked home from school by two youths. They were followed, unsuspecting, across the rail overpass, and down their street. As the children rode their bikes into the yard, Louise was attacked from behind. She was knocked from her bike as the two tried to snatch her handbag.
What is our Christian response to this event which is typical of the breakdown of our society? It is a problem which concerns us all. Similar things have happened to people in our congregations; they may happen to us.
We could lock ourselves away, paralysed by fear, never coming out, and using stronger locks and shutters. But the problem will grow, and eventually burst in past our locks. It does in some places already.
We could leave the city, fleeing to the country, or at least, a nicer suburb. But the problem will follow us. And probably for most of us, it is financially out of the question in any case. We can't leave the world.
We could call for more police, and vote for a party with a strong "Law and Order" platform. Perhaps we might join parliamentarians like Mrs Kotz and the others calling for the re-introduction of the death penalty, and try and solve violence by violence. If history teaches us anything though, it is that the more police solution never works. If we depend on police and penalties alone; there are never enough police.
Neighbourhood Watch is a better beginning. It's trying to reclaim the streets for the people who live in them. Instead of people being isolated units in their houses, they accept a responsibility for other households, and the shared community property like bus shelters and telephone boxes. Our area has run some community building exercises which builds further on the beginning Neighbourhood Watch makes.
But even so a desire to keep the strangers out, and to obtain retribution, pervades Neighbourhood Watch. Neighbourhood Watch gatherings can be angry and negative denunciations of the strangers who attack us. And that's understandable. I know the trauma that the three robberies we have suffered in this parish has caused our family. Yet Christ calls us to a still better way. He said Love Your enemies.
And he points out to us that even enemies are human. Even the yobs in the street. God makes the sun rise on even the hooligans, the strangers who come and attack us. They too, are of flesh and blood. They are of our kind. We cannot reject them. God provides justice for the widow and the orphan, it says in Deuteronomy, and loves the stranger. You shall also love the stranger, it says.
Now it may be said that this is a fanciful reading of the Bible. It says strangers, Andrew, not criminals! But they are only strangers to us, and they rob us and attack us, because we are strangers to them. And the vandals who do over a street three streets away are likely to come from our street! They do not attack their own people. If we were truly friends, then we would have much less to fear.
Why are there criminals? There a few people who are just plain bad. They choose to be. But I think very many of the people we are scared of, are victims of oppression, some from their earliest days. I am not excusing crime here, but I am saying many people have been socialised and brought up into bad living as much as they have chosen it.
They have suffered the bruising oppression of violent families, or the oppression of a rapidly changing world which leaves them without hope. They have often been ill served and victimised by their education in school and outside of it. They have been immersed in the high level of accepted violence on TV, and the militarism of our society, with little contrary conditioning about love and friendship and negotiation and compromise.
And most of all, at this time, they are oppressed by a greedy, economic rationalist society in which, to quote Amos, we sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. Society confronts them, rarely with the Good News and the ethical call of God, and hourly.... by the minute.... with the news that to really BE, to really be human and happy, one must have possessions... and plenty of them. And we too, are a part of all that.
O come on! It's not like that in Australia! Selling the poor for a pair of sandals.
Really? The young people who smash and grab and vandalise, do it because they see no hope. And because they are angry. Little share of this country will be for them. There is no work. Governments are still promising tax cuts instead of increasing the taxes of the employed rich to fund social justice and job creation. And every TV ad we see gives us the underlying message that happiness comes from lots of money and possessions.... something more and more people can have less and less of.
And we do sell the poor for the price of a pair of sandals. It's literally true. You see, the shoe making industry in Australia, along with the textile industry and many others, is in deep trouble. And why? It's because we will not pay the fair Australian price for a pair of shoes. So the industry is going broke and people are losing their jobs.
We buy shoes and clothes from China and other places, where people work in sweat-shop conditions, often little short of slavery, which no Australian Union would ever accept. We sell others into slavery for the price of our cheaper shoes; the workers in Asia, and the people we put out of work in Australia by buying them. And with the money we save, we buy our colour TV and video, and our new car, and so on. Perhaps we should say we sell the poor for the price of a TV.
It's not quite that simple, other things are involved too. But our basic woe in this country is that we want more for less, and are prepared for other people to suffer so we can have it. The Faith suggests to me that oppression comes because we do not love our neighbours, let alone the strangers, let alone our enemies. And finally, like it or not, Jesus challenges us with the statement that all people are our neighbours... even the factory worker in China, and the woman down at Clarke's Shoes who will lose her job.
So what do we do about it all... the factory worker in China, or even the mugger at the end of our street? Is it not all too hard? How can we buck the system? How can we do anything? It's impossible!
Not so. Not really. Nothing ever happened except that one person decided to act.
Jesus said, Love one another... even your enemies. If we would be a community in our church..... if we would be community in our street, it would be the beginning of love. People whom we know, cease being strangers.
People who become friends, are people whom we see how we can really practically help.
People who are friends, or even part of our church, are people for whom we will go without luxuries, that they may have simply even enough.
We grow beyond feeling obliged to help, to wanting to help.
If we put community as a priority, things will change, even if only a little to begin with.
We put a lot of emphasis of the family in the church... which is OK, but we have also idolised the nuclear family, as though it were God ordained. In fact, it is a feature only of the western world in the last 150 years or so. And we have idolised the nuclear family at the expense of friends, neighbours, church and community. The basic category in society, according to Jesus, is not our family, it is our neighbour... our friend. Not just our brothers and sisters, but our neighbour.
I could spend this year saying that basically I'm a Jenny, Kim, and John person; a nuclear family man. Everyone else doesn't really matter.
Or, I could say, basically I'm a Bellwood Parish minister. The people who are not part of the parish are not my concern.
But God says to me... and God says to us as a church and a parish," No, you are a neighbourhood person, and you are to love your neighbour. "
If we will do that, we will not just talk about Good News, we will be Good News, and we will find Good News, because in loving our neighbour, we will meet God.
You shall also love the stranger. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
Deuteronomy 10:12 So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.
Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the LORD your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the LORD set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.
Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.
Amos 2:6-7a Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals-- they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way;
Mat 5:43-48 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?� Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Direct Biblical quotations in this site are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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