– I really love our first reading from the OT / Exodus. Short text that says so much about God. I have a book in my library at home whose title is: “What do we speak about, when we speak about God?”. And indeed, it’s a good question b/c so many things have been said about God since the beginning of times! Everybody (each culture / religion / generation and each individual) has an opinion / speculates about who God is and what God wants and how we are to find God b/c of course…who knows?
Yet if we open the Bible, there are some passages that are so clear! Even if we know they were obviously written by a human hand – it really feels divinely inspired (and that’s what we claim). God tells us who God is. And most of us when we introduce ourselves / we may give a list of qualities (I am like this, like that), but isn’t interesting that, instead, the Bible describes what God does? God says to Moses “I am who I am”, so in order to know who God is, you have to know what God does. If we look at the verbs in our OT lesson, this is what God says about what God does: I have observed / I have heard / I know / I have come down / I will bring (my people) up.
And it tells us a lot right? God observes, hears and knows. Now we learned that when we were children, that God knows everything, yet for most of us it is still a little bit frightening to think about that. God sees and knows when we do something wrong, or shameful. But this is not what the Bible says. The Bible says that first thing God sees and hears, it is the misery of those who suffer. God does not know everything to make people feel bad, to judge and to condemn them, but God – and it is two others verbs the Bible uses about God’s actions – God is going to “come down” in order “to bring (his people) up”.
The Bible does not describe who God is by listing God’s great qualities, even if it could. Rather, it tells us how God feels and what God does. God is touched by the people – and I would argue not only the people, but by suffering in general, the suffering of every living thing – and God acts to relieve this suffering. God comes down to the one who is suffering to bring them up / raise them up.
And it is all the story of salvation right? This is not only the story of Exodus. This is also the story of Jesus: Jesus was touched by people’s sufferings, he came to live with the poor, he saw them and heard them, he brought them healing and hope, made them feel loved and accepted. He came to “raise them up from the dead” in many, many ways.
This is what God does and so this is also what we are called to do when we have a living faith / as followers of Jesus – and today, we are reminded of that through MLK’s example. How MLK’s faith in God, being a follower and imitator of Jesus, made him act in very concrete ways: He observed, heard, knew the suffering of African Americain people and he also came to help them and to raise them up. (= be with them, marching and advocating, in order to defend their dignity and obtain for them equal rights). We may think that MLK’s life was so exceptional (and in many ways it was, of course) that it has little to do with us – yet, as Christians, his life is a great example of what it means to follow Jesus.
But how can we do anything like that? It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Quote of MLK I love: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
I learned this week reading the newspaper something I didn’t know, that MLK’s Day is “National Day of service”, a day to encourage volunteering. And I love that b/c to me it is the whole idea: To take action, at our own level, to love in acts. Concretely. And it can be small things. The newspaper told stories about those volunteers and they did those little things – like one man described how every week, he took an hour to go read to a student in a poor neighborhood. Yet all the volunteers said they were so proud as they realized they were able to make a difference in the life of others, but also in their own lives. One of the volunteers said: “The reason I am so happy is because I have started to live my life for others”.
To act concretely, to do something for those who suffer, this is what God does and what believers are called to do, because this is the nature of love. I was saying that, since the beginning of the world, people wonder who God is, but isn’t it also true about love? What is love? There are so different many ways to think about love. But this is what the Bible tells us: Love is about seeing, hearing, knowing others, being touched by them, but it is also, and it is mostly, coming down (from where we stand) to be with them and to raise them up / to lift them up. And we can all do that, at our level. Isn’t it wonderful that all of us, wherever we are, we can love as God loves us? We can all decide to start to see and hear and learn more about what’s going on in our world or in our neighborhood, and not just feel sorry or even heart broken, but go and do something about it. We can do it as individuals but also as a community, as a church, no matter if we are small or don’t feel we have much power. We are all called to love this world and to bring more love in this world.
This is also the message of the Gospel today. As Jesus describes love, he uses verbs all the time: “Love” for Jesus is synonymous with “Do good” / “Bless” / “Pray” / “Offer” / “Give”. We often think that this Gospel on the love of the enemies is very idealistic, when to me it is very realistic. It shows love not as a dream or a passive emotion or a mere feeling, it shows what love is supposed to do. What Christians, churches are supposed to do.
You know, I love to celebrate MLK’s Day b/c of that. B/c in the life of MLK, of those who fought for civil rights, we see love in action / transforming a country / changing the world. The Letter from Birmingham Jail we have just read reminds us of that: Love is not supposed to be passive / and so certainly churches aren’t supposed to be passive. In the letter, we can feel MLK’s energy, but also his sadness and disappointment at churches which don’t do what they are supposed to do. Christianity is not mainly a cultural or even a religious identity. Being a Christian is (first and above all) about putting love into motion, letting God work through us, especially as we care for those who suffer – every living creature.
I read something similar this week – written by a pastor (John Pavlovitz): “If you profess to be a follower of Jesus, I’m not concerned with your politics and I don’t care about your doctrine. I’m not interested in the Scriptures you can recite or the prayers you utter out loud. (…) Show me that you actually give a damn about people: not just (…) American people or Christian people or white people—but the disparate parade of human beings in every way you encounter them, in every condition they arrive, with whatever backstory they’ve lived through. If you tell me you’re a Christian, be someone who, like Jesus—looks at the crowds and has a compassion for them that propels them into proximity with their pain.”
The extremism MLK speaks about in his letter is not a politic extremism. It is loving to the extreme – which leads us to take action, concretely, everyday, and not only privately but in the public space when needed. But this is Jesus’s message. When Jesus asks us to love our neighbors, he says that it not about loving only our friends, about being nice to people, it’s about loving those who are different, but also those who hurt us, those who do evil because in the end, being a follower of Jesus is about overcoming a culture of hate. If as Christians we are supposed to bring a culture / an identity, that’s the culture / identity of love we need to bring.
We hear today this great saying of Jesus: to turn the other cheek. But it’s not about letting people hit you. Slapping the cheek in many cultures is a provocation. And so what Jesus asks us when he asks us to turn the other cheek, is to not respond to provocation. To not enter the vicious circle of hate. To resist the hate / not become hateful whatever the reason / to turn the hate around by responding with love to all situations. We have to confess that most of us Christians think it’s okay to hate at some point to hate, whether it’s criminals, immigrants, terrorists, gay people, abortionists, white supremacists…you name it. But to all of us Jesus says: It’s never okay to hate. Jesus knew what he was talking about. Jesus had many people who hated him – so much they put him to death. Yet even on the cross Jesus loved them and showed compassion. As Christians we are supposed to embody love. Not just pity or compassion for victims or criminals, but a love in action that seeks to relieve suffering, bring justice, raise people up – all people. The nature of love is ultimately that it brings Redemption.
How do we do that? Maybe we have to start by confessing our inability to love / how hard it can be to love in a world full of hate and provocation and ask Jesus, as MLK kept on doing, ask Jesus to give us his strength, the strength he showed on the cross / the strength to love to the extreme and to the end. Amen.