Today I am going to preach on righteousness – it is a word in both of the readings today – in the gospel message form Matthew and Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. But before that, I want to tell a joke. I love when sermons begin with a joke – and I think that I am often pretty gloomy up here – so I am going to switch things up and try to make you laugh. Here we go.
A teacher asked the children in her Sunday School class, “If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale, and give all the money to the church, would I get into heaven?”
"No!” The children all answered.
“If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would I then get into heaven?”
Again, the answer was “NO!”
“Well,” she continued, “then how can I get into heaven? In the back of the room, a five year-old boy shouted, “You gotta be dead!”
So – Righteousness. What the heck is righteousness anyway? What does it mean to be righteous?
In the gospel reading from Matthew we heard: “That whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.” Hmmm.
And in the writing of Paul to the church in Rome he says that “you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
According to Google – righteous is morally right or justifiable and virtuous. And in an informal use of the word it means very good or excellent and they actually use as an example – righteous bread pudding! I think there was a fad some years back of calling many things righteous – remember that?
Jesus tells us in lots of ways what righteous is. He says that we have to follow all the commandments, but that just following the letter of the law does not mean that you are righteous as he says that your righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. One would assume that the religious leaders of the Hebrews were following the Ten Commandments and the 613 cleanliness laws – but Jesus says that it’s not just about actions, but what is in inside of us. He tells us in the Beatitudes who and what is righteous – right? And he tells us very clearly what to him are the two most important commandments – which of course we all know by heart - “Love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, and the second one is to love your neighbor as yourself.” Now, honestly, this in itself is not easy. We all struggle with just these instructions from Jesus.
But then it gets harder - the gospel for Tuesday – Independence Day - is Matthew 5:43 which is even more difficult to accomplish. It says that we must “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, so that we may be children of our Father in heaven; for God sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” This is a terrifically challenging passage for our most patriotic day of the year! Could Jesus expect us to love Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea? A man who starves his own people and threatens the safety of so many? Our holy scriptures are not easy – we are asked to really wrestle with our feelings about such things.
What helps me to feel compassion - for those who bring terror and mayhem to our planet, or who murder innocent people, is my attempt to see into their drivers. There is an important book on violence by James Gilligan who worked with some of America’s most violent criminals to gain understanding into their behavior. In his book, Preventing Violence, he makes the case that violence arises out of feelings of disrespect. When someone feels chronically diminished by society or disrespected in some traumatic way by someone on a personal level – they can become like a volcano - ready to erupt. Gilligan says that the path to less violence on our streets isn’t more prisons but better schools in the inner cities – that if the poor communities had good quality schools combined with a respectful environment – we could make a big impact on reducing violence. And isn’t this what Jesus would call righteous?
And so many here at this church are doing just this – Charlotte Fleet and Dinah Roberts at Harambee a school in Northwest Pasadena and many of you at Our Saviour Center and the Doris Dann Kids Campus. This is righteousness!
An excellent example of righteousness was what our Gabe Vasquez did this week with some of our youth. He took them on a week of mission work including serving a meal for the homeless at Midnight Mission, and when I ran into them at the Cathedral Center they had just come from an immigrant detention center where they heard stories from the youth there. The stories moved them to tears. Righteous Gabe! Way to develop compassion for the family of God.
Paul tells us to be freed from sin and slaves of righteousness. Freed from sin might include anything and everything that gets between us and God. Now I know most of us here are good with the big commandments, but what about the more subtle sins like coveting? That’s a challenge in our materialistic world. What sin is you Achilles heel? I know for many of us judging is a sneaky sin that we struggle with. Is gossip something you indulge? How about anger?
Paul even calls us to be enslaved to God! What an audacious concept! What might that mean to us? Certainly to obey God. Certainly to listen to God and seek to please Him. It might mean to once and for all put God in the center of our lives. As John the Baptist says: “I must decrease, He must increase.” It seems that we must let go of our self-absorption so that we can make room in our cluttered brains for God.
That’s why contemplative practices are so critical to becoming obedient to God. In the stillness we make room for God. We invite God into our selves. We say yes to God and to God’s healing action. What could be more righteous?
As we approach Independence Day, how might you become more – free? Free of sin that might be keeping you from being a slave of righteousness? What might you let go of that holds you back from becoming enslaved to God? What would it look like to be more righteous? Amen.
Sermon July 2, 2017
Sr. Greta Ronningen, CDL
Church of Our Saviour