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Packing and Unpacking

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

February 9, 2020
Matthew 5:13-20

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The South African Constitutional Court is a deeply symbolic place. The building has been constructed adjacent to Federal Hill, the colonial prison in which some of the worst atrocities of the Apartheid police were carried out. But, after the fall of the Apartheid regime, the new Democratic South Africa built themselves a home for their highest court, an intimate building, light-filled, designed almost to emulate the ancient feel of tribal leaders gathering under a tall tree. But my favorite parts of the architecture of the constitutional court are the doors: the entrance to the building, just across from that old haunted prison, the entrance is marked by these huge thick wooden doors, fifteen feet tall if they’re an inch, carved from top to bottom with pictorial representations of each of the rights enshrined in South Africa’s constitution. The document itself was and is one of the most progressive statements of human rights in world history: it enshrines a right to life, a right to housing, a right to health care, a right to sexual preference — it’s almost unimaginably far-reaching compared to the language of our own Bill of Rights. But the new country was not content simply to put those rights on paper.

And so they carved them, as deeply and as largely and as permanently as they could, in these huge doors to the highest court in the land. The problem, of course, is that the doors in and of themselves don’t actually do anything. The doors can advertise a right to health care, but they can’t pay medical bills. The doors can advertise a right to housing, but they can’t build neighborhoods. In fact, one has barely to walk a quarter mile from those doors to find neighborhoods where the images on them seem almost laughably out of touch. What does a right to housing mean for folks living in shantytowns that get destroyed every time the river rises? What does a right to medical care mean in a country where unemployment so high that nobody can afford the costs? What does a right to sexual expression mean in a country where gender-based violence and anti-GLBT violence are still at epidemic rates? For sure it would be hard to wander through some of the township conditions in South Africa and deduce from the evidence that this is a country with a right to life carved into its deepest convictions.

But of course the doors still matter. Our ideals matter, even when we fall short of them. Five years ago, when I was first in country, the doors were very much alive. In Khayelitsha township, Treatment Action Campaign told us how their lobbying to get better. governmental support for HIV medication was about trying to hold the state responsible for the right to medical care, carved on those doors. In Johannesburg, the Khulumani Support Group told us that their advocacy for historic victims of Apartheid was part of carrying out the right to life, carved on those doors. But I have to say, five years later, as we met with similar groups on our trip just over the past few weeks, it felt like people had given up on the doors. “The government won’t do a thing,” we heard, over and over and over, no doubt thanks in part to an epidemic of corruption large enough to now merit its own anti-corruption commission. There’s too much money. There’s too much power. The system is too broken. The system doesn’t work. We heard it over and over and over: the government operating just inside those doors had also completely forgotten what was carved on the outside of them.

In no way does this mean that the people have given up. We met with churches eager to work on their own questions of racial equity. We met with entrepreneurs working day in and day out to raise up the communities around them. We met with NGOs on the ground in local communities doing the hard work of combating inter-generational trauma with small, intimate conversations. But, when I advertised this trip, I said we would meet with activists. I thought we would meet with activists. I expected that we would meet with activists. And to be honest, if activism is in some way defined as the act of trying to effect structural change in and through organizations of power; if South African political activism is about trying to remind people with power what it says on those doors, then, to be honest, I’m not sure we found a single one.

Have they abandoned their principles? Of course not. “Do you think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets?” Jesus says. “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Historically, this section of the Sermon on the Mount has a tendency to confound its interpreters. There’s a kind of specificity to it that sounds like legalism, like Jesus is going around with his portable Torah, auditing everyone’s behavior against the law, chapter and verse, like Jesus has traded the forest for the trees — which, frankly, doesn’t sound like much like Jesus, and certainly doesn’t square with the section of this sermon that immediately follows this passage, where Jesus begins to reinterpret the commandments themselves for a new time: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ but I say to you that [even] if you are angry with your brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” Jesus seems to be playing fast and loose with the letter of the law. As exegetes of the law go, Jesus makes for a terrible originalist, which makes all this stuff about one stroke of a letter just a bit out of character.

But it seems to me that you can hold principles and live on the ground at the same time. I think that’s what the law and the prophets are, of course, first and foremost: a statement of principles, hand-inked into the scrolls of Torah, occasionally even carved into stone. They name the highest principles of the people living under covenant: the supremacy of God, the supremacy of worship, the obligation to neighbor, the obligation to discipline. The vision of a world where justice flows like water, of a land full of milk and honey. By the time Matthew writes his Gospel, these stories and these principles have been gathered up into the scrolls of Torah, hand-written and hand-rolled, these large, heavy, ritual objects that were carried from gathering to gathering. Like the doors on the Constitutional Court, these scrolls are heavy. They are meant to be heavy. They’re meant to be imposing. The whole idea is that the principles carved and written into these objects are so weighty, and so critical, and so radically fundamental to the life of the people, that no slight wind can blow them adrift, no passing shower wash them away. They are built to last.

But they don’t always live on the ground. The doors don’t do anything on their own. Neither, of course, do the scrolls of Torah, no matter how sacred the words written on them. In principle, they may proclaim the triumph reign of the God of all creation, but on the ground, Israel has been vanquished and occupied over and over and over: first the Babylonians, and then the Greeks, and now, as Matthew writes his Gospel, now, of course, the Romans, the Roman empire that stretches further than the sun rises and sets. And Israel has discovered by now what I hope we all know by now about empire, which is that no empire does anything on principle. No empire does anything just because it’s carved into a door. No empire does anything just because it’s written on a scroll. No empire does anything just because the law obliges it to do so. Especially under empire, these principles are only as good as the people willing to do the work. “Do you think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets? Not one stroke of a letter!” Jesus says. “But none of it comes to light without you. You are the light of the world.”

It’s worth noting what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say “I am the light of the world,” which we’ve all been trained to hear, much thanks to John’s Gospel and the light that comes into the darkness. Nor does he say, as much credit as he gives them, he does not say that all the laws and the prophets are the light of the world, much as his audience might prefer it to be the case. Instead, to people long under the thumb of empire and under the threat of destruction, to a people weary of this long unforgiving darkness, he says: You are the light of the world. You are the ones alive with the power of God. You are the ones wrapped up with the grace of God. You are the ones held in the mercy of God. The road before us is long and the work is difficult and the time short. And yes, of course, Jesus says, as we have said for generations, I will take the scrolls along the way. They will guide us. They will enlighten us. They will challenge us. But they cannot do the work by themselves. So Jesus says, I’m taking you, too. I need you, too. You are the light of the world. When nothing else can be.

Just after worship today, we will gather up as a congregation for our annual meeting, which, as it always does, prominently includes some time for discussion of our budget going forward into 2020. By the time the budget gets to this meeting, of course, it has been carried through months of discernment and evaluation; committees have set their goals for the  year; Session has weighed those goals to the best of its ability; a group of faithful leaders in this church have tried to distill all of those goals into one document which by time it gets here feels significant and substantial and, in its own way, carved in stone. It is, or at least it should be, a statement of principles — the budget should tell us what we value; it should be a reflection of what we desire; it should guide us as we journey into 2020, into this year so full of promise and worry and opportunity. And I should say that I am proud of this budget: it represents a lot of work on the part of a lot of good people who have done their best to distill our principles into a spreadsheet and carve the spreadsheet into a rock. I am glad to have this document with us as we set off into the year.

But of course,  the budget doesn’t do justice on its own. It can’t love kindness by itself. It has no ability to walk humbly with God. Our principles are only strong and only as powerful as the people willing to do the work. Which means that this meeting isn’t just about a list of principles. It’s also about the commissioning of the dedicated and creative people here at UPC who are to continue the transformative work they are doing. It means the budget isn’t even the most important thing on the agenda; the most important thing on this agenda is the slate of new elders and new deacons who have said yes to the call to lead this church in its ministry for this time and in this place. And furthermore, it means that this agenda isn’t even the most important thing at this meeting. The most important thing at this meeting is that we gather as a congregation, the body of Christ in this time and in this place, and in our gathering, we remind ourselves that at the end of the day, you are the ministry of this church. You are the people that God has called for this time and this place. You are the light of the world.

Thanks be to God.


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