Finding Room In Our Soul

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | November 1, 2020

Micah 6: 6-8 & Matthew 5: 1-12

A few years ago, I was doing some last-minute grocery shopping on the day before Christmas. I rode my bike to the big grocery store that has everything. The store was packed with people. I picked up my few odds and ends and looked for a place to get in line for the check-out. Over there they call it the queue.

I saw an opening at the self-checkouts and went over got ready to go. As I stood there waiting my turn, a strange feeling came over me. Like how you feel like someone is watching you. I turned around, and sure enough, behind me was the actual queue for the self-check outs. There were about fifteen people standing there, all glaring at me because I had committed one of the major sins of British culture – jumping the queue. I sheepishly took my groceries and found my proper place at the end of the queue.

I heard a saying once that all the troubles of the world can be traced back to two words: me first. That’s how some folks make their way through life.

My parents tried to instil in me positive qualities and good character. These lessons often occurred at the dinner table. I learned how to measure my words and be careful about what I told them. An innocent question such as, “What did you learn in school today?” could lead to unintended consequences.

Part of my dad’s shared wisdom was about what he called, “finding an equalizer.” He would say that if you’re in a situation where you have to defend yourself, then look around for an equalizer. It could be a rock, a stick, a bottle anything that might give you not just an equal footing, but an advantage. The only times I ever got into trouble for fighting was if I fought and lost.

One time when I was around 12 years old, I was riding my bike in the street and a kid from across the street came running after me swinging a choke-chain dog collar. I started pedalling faster and he let it fly. It became tangled up in the spokes of my bike. I was in front my house trying to untangle it when my dad came out.

“How did that happen?”

I told him how the chain got tangle in my bike. The other kid was across the street in his yard, watching my struggle.

“You’re not going to let him get away with that!” He yelled. And then he ordered me to go over there and teach that kid a lesson. Only he used more colourful language. I said I didn’t want to do that.

“Well if you don’t,” he said, “You’re gonna have to get back in the house through me!”

So I went over there and punched the chain-thrower in the nose. My dad stood on our front porch to make sure I did it. We started fighting it out and the kid ran in his house and I went in after him. There were his mom and dad sitting in their living room looking at me with a startled expression and so I left and on my way out, I turned over their garbage can. 

And that’s how I got back in the house that day. That’s one method that people use to get through life. If somebody tries to do unto you, then you give them a worse doin’.

God calls us to a different sort of engagement with the world.

The texts we read today are what we might think of as a basic template for the life God makes possible. The Old Testament writer (Micah – 6:1-8) asks what is necessary to please God, wondering if more of a good thing is better. As in if one drop of oil on the forehead is good, then how much better might ten thousand rivers of oil be?

Quantity is not the true measure of devotion; rather it is the quality of one’s devotion. Simple is better: “…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

It sounds easy enough. But hearing that leads to doing can be a challenge. Maybe with religion we like to complicate things because that way we have more loopholes.

The story of Jesus as told in Matthew contains what we call “The Sermon on the Mount.” If it were a classroom lecture Jesus might add, “This is it – there is no extra credit in God’s realm.” Apply yourself to this as a basic assignment and you will have plenty to do.

A lot of my training for ministry was based on the idea that the church should be a force to be reckoned with. The notion that people are “lost” and should be “won over” to Christ. Which translates into more people filling the pews on a Sunday morning. More people equals more money – more money means we can provide more programs that attract more people and so on.

There have always been people who seem to have mastered the formula of success. As if after two thousand years we’ve finally discovered the secret. Enrol now and you too can achieve great things.

What I would like to see is – “Today’s Seminar: Doing Justice, followed by Loving Kindness, and in the afternoon we will go on a Humble Walk.”

Of all the things Jesus said, describing who was blessed and on what basis they found blessing, what we call the beatitudes had to be the most contrary, counter-cultural, and revolutionary of all his teachings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and the merciful? These are not what we think of as positive qualities. These are the qualities of the downtrodden and the bullied. So why is he telling us these things?

It might have something to do with the idea that religion is not about shaping the world to suit ourselves. I think it has more to do with shaping our souls to face the challenge of living in the world.

I had been in Glasgow for a few months when one day I was running some errands and I pulled my car into an open parking spot by the curb. I was adjusting the car into the spot when a couple of guys in a council vehicle came along and thought I was pulling out. When they saw that I wasn’t, the guy in the city council car laid on his horn and I laid on my horn. That’s my spot, pal! You go find your own.

I got out and ran my few errands and when I came back to the car there was a huge glob of phlegm on the driver’s side window. Had they not been in an official car they might have added a broken wing mirror to the mix. Welcome to Glasgow, where the world works in a particular way. Blessed nothing, if you’re gonnae get in my way or take the spot I wanted, then pal you’re gonnae get it.

I thought about the exchange. What part did my actions play in the outcome? What could I, or should I have done differently?

So when I drove home, I pulled into the driveway and got the hose out and rinsed the glob of phlegm off the window. In thinking about it and this is not to frame it in a judgemental way, but more as an observation or question, once that glob was rinsed off my car, it was gone. But what of the person who hawked that wad? What of it remained in his heart and soul?

We’re always weighing up the costs of our choices. Sometimes we are in the position of having to wash the spit off the car window. But what price does the soul have to pay in being the one who spits?

Maybe what Jesus is getting at when he say’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” has something to do with the rest of the statement, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is not a place or a kind of royal status that allows anyone to be above the fray. The kingdom of heaven is not at the front of the line. It’s more like being in the center – the center of life, or centered in life – like the eye of a storm is a center of calm in the maelstrom.

Blessed are those in solidarity with the poor, to such belongs the realm of God.

Blessed are those who mourn injustice, the day will come when they will find comfort.

Blessed are those who don’t need to buy their way to the head of the line, they will inherit everything.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst with a purpose – for justice – they will be filled.

Blessed are those who see things as they are; who are not under the illusion that money is their god, they see God because their first loyalty is to God.

Blessed are those who work for peace – not peace enforced by power, but peace that comes as a result of justice. They will be called the sons and daughters of God. But the system that lives by the credo “money talks” will revile them.

It is no wonder that the first followers of Jesus were gathered from the ranks of the poor. I know these days, this week, I could use some of that centeredness. Finding room in our souls for the kingdom of heaven is a daily challenge and a life-long journey. Amen.

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