Sunday, October 23, 2016

Envy Versus Persecuted

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 10:16-31:

Magic trick… When I saw that trick done by an actual magician at the state fair, I immediately thought of this message and the idea of envy, because, honestly, I envied the fact that he could do the trick, and thought how cool would it be to be able to do that in front of you all and have you envy me, except that I can’t actually do the trick because I don’t know how to make the actual coke disappear. And so all I could do was to be envious. Envy can be useful, in that it can lead us to be better, then is my envy of the magician could lead me to actually go out and learn how to do those tricks to, and it’s been said that there is no ambition without a little bit of envy attached, but it can also be destructive. Destructive to ourselves and also destructive to others. And all of us have this sin of envy within us. All of us have been envious of someone else at least once in our lives, and this is a universal trait as I read this week that every known language in the world has a word approximating what we understand as envy.  Envy lies at the root, or at the very least is a part, of many of the other deadly sins that we have spent the last six weeks looking at, and envy is unusual in several ways.

The first is that envy is always directed at someone else, which is not true of the others, because even lust can be directed at an inanimate object, rather than at a real person. The other thing about envy, according to Joseph Epstein, is that “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.” Now one of the things that I’ve been surprised about in my reading for this series is that although the Seven Deadly Sins came out of the Christian monastic community, and were finalized and promulgated by Pope Gregory the Great, there are a lot of Jewish writers writing on the seven deadly sins.  Epstein is also the one who coined the term virtucrat which he defines as "any man or woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain.” I think that fits well into the idea of how people often think about suffering, as well as envy, because I think the best definition for envy, and the reason I matched it up with Jesus statement that blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, is that envy is sadness at another person’s good fortune. While suffering leads us to ask the question “why me?” Envy leads us to ask “why not me?”

Scripture is full of stories of envy, and the negative ramifications that come from that, with one of the earliest and best known being the story of Cain killing Abel.  Both Cain and Abel make their offerings to God, but only Abel’s offerings are received, and so Cain gets mad. He is envious of the position that Abel has in relation to God, and his envy turns to anger, and his anger then turns to murder. In focusing on others, being envious of what Abel has and what he thinks he deserves, whether he actually does or not, Cain believes that the appropriate response to this is to bring Abel down a level, and in this case not only deprive him of what he has, but to deprive him of his very life.  That is one of the problems with envy, is that it can cause us not to want to climb the ladder to be like them, which Cain might have done in looking at why Abel’s offering was accepted whereas his was not, but instead he sought to bring Abel down. As Dorothy Sayers said, “Envy is the great leveler: If it cannot level up, it will level down.”  Or it’s like the joke about the man who when he is given one wish by a genie, says that his neighbor has a cow, and that cow gives not only the best and richest milk around, but produces vast quantities of milk, and so the man tells the genie “I want that cow dead.”

But perhaps one of the best stories, although not as well known, is the parable of the day laborers. Jesus tells this parable of a landowner who goes to the town square first thing in the morning and hires a group of laborers to work in his fields and agrees to pay them the regular daily wage.  Later the owner goes back to the marketplace at 9 and noon and three and even at five o’clock and hires workers for his fields, only this time he tells them he will pay them what is fair. Then at the end of the work day, the workers assemble to receive their pay, but rather than paying those who had been there the longest, the landowner instead paid those who came at the end of the day, and he paid them a full day’s wage. Now those who had been there from sunrise had to start thinking, well if they’re getting that pay then he has to be going to pay us even more, but they were wrong. When they go to the front of the line, the landowner paid them exactly what he had agreed to pay them, which was the regular daily rate. The same pay that all of the workers got regardless of how long they had been there. And then they started to grumble amongst themselves, probably saying something about fairness, maybe that they were being taken advantage of, perhaps that they were being persecuted.  But the landowner tells them that he has done nothing wrong. He paid them the wages they agreed to, he didn’t cheat them out of anything.

He says to them “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Are you envious, because I am generous? It is envy of the treatment of the others in comparison to how they think they were treated. They only think they were treated unfairly, they only think they were cheated out of what they think is due to them because they looked at what the others received and they were filled with envy. They didn’t think the others deserved what they got, and if they did, then surely they deserved even more, after all they had worked all day and the others had only worked for a few others. But what would have happened if they had been paid first and then gone away. Would they have been filled with envy? Probably not because they wouldn’t have ever known that the others got the same pay as they did. So the difference is that they saw what happened, and then decided to compare themselves with others. That is where the problem resides. If they had simply been grateful for what they had they would have been fine. If they had simply been glad they were able to receive work that day, they would have been fine. If they had simply not paid attention to what the others got, they would have been fine. But, instead of expressing gratitude for what they had, they choose to compare themselves to the others, choose to compare their pay to others, which left them feeling shorted, feeling less than, feeling as if they didn’t matter because in their envy they did not see the actual reality of what had taken place. Gratitude is about appreciating what you have, which is the opposite of envy, which is sorrow at someone else’s good fortune.

Sometimes what we think is someone’s good fortune is because our fortune seems to not be going well, or perhaps not as well as it was before, and maybe we even make the claim that we are being persecuted. We are hearing that a lot these days, that Christians are being persecuted, and there is an amount of envy towards others, or towards the past, that this is not the way things used to be. But there are several significant problems with that line of reasoning, and most of them have to do with the difference between persecution and preference, or between persecution and privilege. Now this is not to say that Christians are not being persecuted, because they are in many places. One of the people I went to seminary with fled from North Korea after his father converted to Christianity and then was arrested and eventually executed. His family, who had also converted, fled the country and came to America, and after earning a Ph.D. in engineering, he was called to the ministry. There are Christians who are being persecuted, it’s just not happening in the US, and here is what I mean.

Not having people tell you Merry Christmas in the mall when you are checking out is not persecution. Not being able to have a Christian prayer said publicly at a Friday night football game is not persecution. Having soccer games taking place on Sunday is not persecution. These examples here simply mean that Christianity is no longer preference, or given privileged position within society so that they are given a position of prominence with the assumption, wrongly in most cases, that everyone else is Christian and therefore Christians are favored and treated as special, while everyone who is not Christian is either ignored and told that they don’t matter. Moving away from that privileged position simply means we are recognizing more and more that we live in a pluralized world, but let us remember that Christians are still the majority and even politicians pretend to be Christians, even if they are not, in order to try and gain votes. Similarly, just because someone tells us that we can’t say hateful things to others does not mean we are being persecuted, just that we are being told not to be a jerk. Because often we confuse why something is happening, and this even happened in the ancient world. There was clearly persecution that took place towards Christians because they were Christians, with the persecution that took place under the Emperor Nero being the best example.  But in other cases Christian communities were persecuted not because they were Christians, but because they were doing things the Romans didn’t like, like having secret meetings at night, and the Romans went after all groups who did such things.

And yet it was their response to these persecutions that we should learn something about, as well as Jesus’ injunctions about persecution, because Jesus says blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. Notice he does not say “Blessed are those who believe the right things” or “blessed are those who tell others how wrong they are.” Instead this is about righteousness, which is about living in wholeness and right relationship with both God and with each other. Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, Jesus says, “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” There was one other beatitude that said blessed are for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, does anyone remember which one? It’s the poor in spirit, the very first one, which has a large degree of humbleness to it, and I think the same thing is being applied here. Jesus is not talking about the virtucrats here when he is talking about those suffering for righteousness, but those who approach the world and God with humbleness, who are doing the things that are called for in the beatitudes, that they are meek and peacemakers, that they are merciful and pure in heart, that they mourn and they hunger and thirst for righteousness. But then Jesus adds one final blessing, which can either be seen to stand on its own, or as a continuation of those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, and that is that Jesus says “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” There is a decided change in this last beatitude because Jesus is no longer talking about people in the third person, or in generalities, but instead he shifts to the directive of you. Blessed are you when you are persecuted. This matches with the passage we also heard this morning in Jesus telling the disciples, again, that they will be persecuted and suffer because of him.

There are several keys, I think to this passage. The first is that Jesus says that he is sending them out like sheep into the midst of wolves. There are lots of ways to interpret that passage, but I think one of them is to see Jesus saying that we are to be like him, the sacrificial lamb, and to recognize the strength that comes with that, especially when we consider it against those who are lifted up in the beatitudes. If we are going to pick up our cross, we have to realize what that actually means and what it entails. The second is that we are to be wise as serpents, but gentle as doves. Don’t live like a serpent striking out at everyone, instead live out of love and peace. He even tells the disciples that the world will know us by the love that we show. So when we are peacemakers, and when we are meek, and when we are humble, and when we hunger and thirst for righteousness and when we are merciful and when we are pure in heart, that these things are counter cultural, these things go against the status quo and challenge the status quo, remembering that these issues are not passive, but in fact are aggressive. They point out the injustices that take place, and call out evil in the world, and call us and the world to live a different way, to live the way of the kingdom, and thus we will be attacked and persecuted and suffer because of these stances. And Jesus is telling us to be ready for it, and not to give in, because those who do these things to us do not have the final answer, nor or they ultimately in control. “Do not fear those who can kill the body” because they cannot destroy the soul, only we can do that. In addition, Jesus is saying that these are legitimate reasons to suffer because they are the right things to do. Or as we read in 1 Peter in reference to suffering unjustly, where is the credit for when you suffer for doing wrong, versus the credit that’s gained in suffering for what is right and just and true.

So the question we might ask is, “Am I suffering because of my conformity to Jesus, or because I am a prickly person? Am I suffering because I look like the Kingdom of God? Or is it because I am merely mirroring a conflicted world with a charade of faith pasted on the outside?”

That is what the early church understood that we seem to have lost. I hear Christians now complaining how they are suffering, and again I would argue that it’s rarely persecution, and whining about how unfair it is. Is that winning any converts? No because it’s speaking only to the already converted. The martyr literally means witness, that those who were being killed were witnessing to their faith through how they responded to their persecution. They didn’t fight it, they lived into their faith and through finding joy in God in everything, others were amazed and others actually came to the faith because of that witness. They suffered and went to jail and were tortured and even killed for their faith. Where is the witness for us today? It’s in saying that if you are willing to stand up for what’s right, then you must also be willing to pay the consequences for those actions. What are we willing to risk for our faith? Are we willing to risk persecution? Are we willing to risk suffering? Are we even willing to risk death? Or do we practice our faith because it’s preferenced and therefore easy and safe and we want to keep it that way?

Do you know why the roman’s eventually shut down the coliseum? Because the lions were eating up all the prophets.  The prophets were persecuted because they challenged the status quo, they challenged the powers and principalities, and so those powers struck out, the same way that they struck out at Jesus. Jesus didn’t just talk about a new way of living, a new way of seeing the world, he lived it out. He lived it out in his own life and he lived it out in his death. Jesus says to us, don’t see the world as it is, see it as God intends it to be, for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. And his vision of that Kingdom is found in the sermon on the Mount and encapsulated in the Beatitudes. Those blessings stand in contrast to the seven deadly sins because the sins are about brokenness. Broken relationships with God and broken relationships with each other. But the beatitudes, the kingdom, is about wholeness and healing, about forgiveness and mercy, about grace and understanding, and peace and justice, and when we seek to live those out then we seek to challenge the world, and Jesus tells us that that challenge will not go unopposed. And so he tells us that he is sending us out like lambs into the midst of wolves, but also comforts us and says to us “Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness sake, and blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” The question for us is which path are we going to choose? The path that is easy and wide that leads to destruction? Or that path that is narrow and hard but leads to eternal life? Blessed are those who choose to follow Christ, and pick up their cross and tread the hard road that leads to God’s blessings and God’s promises. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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