That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

“Jesus Saves, Do Justice”: Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6B (Track 2) – June 17, 2018

Our kids this week have been “Shipwrecked,” but they’ve also been “rescued by Jesus.”[1] They’ve been learning the truth of that promise emblazoned on neon crosses at innumerable inner-city rescue missions in nearly every English-speaking country in the world, “Jesus saves,” through the metaphor of being lost at sea and washed up on a deserted island. That’s something that happened to St. Paul at least three if not four times![2]

But, unfortunately, St. Paul’s experiences at sea are not in the lectionary this week. Our readings from the bible have nothing to do with ships or the ocean or being lost or getting rescued and aren’t really easy to tie to what the kids have been doing with all these shipwreck decorations in the church. Instead of shipwrecks, the readings this week give us trees. Ezekiel reminds us of one of God’s metaphors for Israel, the noble cedar planted on a mountaintop spreading its branches to provide homes for the birds and winged creatures of every kind (which represent all the nations of the world), producing mighty boughs and the plenteous fruit of righteousness and justice.[3]

The Psalmist extends the metaphor applying it not only to the nation but to the individual declaring that the righteous shall be like fruitful palm trees spreading like the cedars of Lebanon, never growing old and producing abundant fruit.[4] Then Jesus tells two parables, one about seed germinating unseen in ways unknown and the other about the mustard seed which, like that mighty cedar, grows into the greatest of all shrubs, a tree with mighty branches in which all the birds of the air may make their homes.[5]

I’ll get back to those trees in a minute, but first I want to talk about what “Jesus saves” means. As some of you know, I have a bunch of memorabilia in my office, things collected over the years. Among those things is a collection of plastic figurines and other items known the world over (or, more truthfully, only in my head) as “The World Famous Funston Jesus Collection.” I have a bobble-head Jesus, an action figure Jesus, a traveling-mercies Jesus (to be hung from a car rear-view mirror, a rosary with Jesus hanging on to the cross for dear life as if being blown off by the rush of wind), a Jesus Shaves mug (add hot coffee and Jesus’ beard disappears), a glow-in-the-dark Sacred Heart of Jesus light-switch cover, and many other such items of religious silliness.

One of the items in the collection is this bank. Jesus kneels in prayer at a rock, his hands clasped, his eyes open wide and gazing toward heaven; between his outstretched arms is a slot big enough to accommodate a quarter; at the foot of the rock are the words “Jesus Saves.”

Two things this week brought this bank to mind as I was thinking about what to preach today. Obviously, the “rescued by Jesus” theme of Vacation Bible School was one. The other was when the religious internet in all its iterations – news media and social media, Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and you-name-it – exploded in outrage when Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited Romans 13 for the proposition that separating children from their parents at the U.S. Border is appropriate because it is the law (it’s not, it’s merely administration policy) and because the government is (in Session’s words) “ordained by God.” The Attorney General was echoed in the White House press room by spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders when she insisted that enforcing the law is Biblical, that it’s “in there several times.”

I’d already been thinking of my bank when that news hit. Its misuse of the legend “Jesus Saves” in a humorous way contrasts with the serious, and clearly wrong, citation of scripture to support the immoral and just plain evil treatment of children and their parents happening on our southern border. Where the bank is comic, Sessions’ and Sanders’ remarks are tragic; where the bank seeks to amuse, they seek to mislead; where the bank’s intentional misrepresentation of a theological concept might be disrespectful, their misrepresentations of scripture and its meaning are blasphemous.

My friend and colleague, Fr. Chris Arnold of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, neatly summarizes the meaning of Romans 13. Earlier this week, Chris wrote:

Paul did not write what he wrote to give justification to authoritarian regimes. Paul was writing to a threatened community hidden in the slums of Rome. He was saying “please, keep your heads down because this empire can and will crush you under its heel, and you need to survive.” It was survival advice for Christian rebels in the capital city of the Empire. It was not ammunition for that Empire. In a world where Pharaoh, Herod, and Nero ripped families apart in their despotic madness, Paul wanted people to live.

But Paul does not stand on the side of Nero. We stand with Jesus Christ the crucified, and not with Pontius Pilate. The use of Romans 13 by this world’s powers and principalities is nothing short of blasphemy.[6]

Romans 13 is specific in its context. In a nutshell, Paul was advising his readers to pay their taxes to avoid being persecuted and martyred. There is no other sensible application of the text, although it has been frequently misapplied to justify all sorts of horrible miscarriages of law and governance including slavery in 19th Century America and the extermination of Jews in mid-20th Century Germany. Paul’s admonition to obey the law is no more applicable to what our border guards and immigration police are doing than the idea that “Jesus saves” is applicable to banking.

In fact, the clear witness of the Gospels is that Jesus opposed enforcement of or obedience to the law when it would work hardship. The law clearly forbids adultery and it would have been legal for that crowd of enforcers to stone to death the woman caught in flagrante delicto; Jesus clearly thought they shouldn’t and saved the woman from execution.[7] The law would have prevented his disciples from harvesting a bit of grain to curb their hunger on the sabbath; Jesus didn’t stop them, but permitted them to save themselves from hunger.[8] The priest and the scribe in Jesus’ story of the man injured by robbers on the road to Jericho were well within the law to pass him by; Jesus didn’t approve of their doing so, but commended the Samaritan who saved the wounded man.[9] In nearly every situation in which enforcement of or obedience to the law would cause harm to another, Jesus disapproves. Instead, Jesus saves.

Jesus followed the long tradition of Israel’s prophets. When David assigned Uriah to the frontlines, this was within his rights as king; it was legal, but the prophet Nathan condemned him for it.[10] When Hezekiah displayed his wealth and his weaponry to Babylonian emissaries, it was a fully legal (if foolish) thing for a king to do. Nonetheless, the prophet Isaiah disapproved.[11] When Jeroboam expanded his kingdom, opened his society to foreign wealth and influence, so that he and his nobles could “lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall,” Amos took them all to task even though it was legal and the king and his court had observed all the rituals and ceremonies of the law.[12] In their time and place, it was legal for these kings to do what they did. What the prophets consistently pointed out, however, is that it was not just.

The mandate of the prophets, the clear call of scripture, and the consistent word of God is not “Enforce the law!” or “Obey the law!” It is “Do justice!” “He has told you, O mortal,” wrote the prophet Micah, “what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[13]

Which brings us to all those trees and mighty shrubs in today’s readings. Rabbi and seminary professor Yosef Y. Jacobson says that in the Hebrew Scriptures trees are used as a metaphor for human beings because each is comprised of three components: roots, a body, and fruit:

The roots of the tree, buried underground and mostly invisible, represent the subconscious layers of the human psyche, which are for the most part invisible. Just like the roots of a tree, the composition, breadth and depth of the human subconscious are disguised and constitute the roots of all manifestations of the human self.

The body of the tree – the conspicuous manifestation of its roots — symbolizes the conscious personality of the human being, the way we describe our existence consciously to ourselves. It is the “person” you (think you) know.

The fruit of the tree – harvested and consumed by others – represent the impact we have on the lives of people around us . . . . [14]

Obviously, we are to have a good influence on others, to produce what Amos called “the fruit of righteousness.”[15] In Jewish lore, the specific symbol of this fruit is the pomegranate because it is said to have 613 seeds, which correspond with the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, of Torah. The Book of Exodus requires that the hem of the High Priest’s robe be decorated with pomegranates representing knowledge, learning, and wisdom.[16] God’s people, in Ezekiel’s metaphor, were planted on the “mountain height of Israel . . . in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar,”[17] that they might “become a people of the covenant, committed to the ethical principles of righteousness and justice.”[18]

St. Paul uses the venerable metaphor of the tree in his Letter to the Romans. He writes that we gentiles are wild olive branches grafted onto the root stock of Israel[19] and, like that original tree planted high and lofty, we too (both as individuals and as a community) are to grow into a noble cedar, a mighty tree spreading our branches and bearing our fruits of knowledge and wisdom, of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control,”[20] of righteousness and justice.

Just like “Jesus saves” does not mean that Jesus accumulates or safeguards wealth, “Do justice” does not mean “obey the government” or “enforce the law.” In Romans 13, Paul does advise his readers to obey the civil law, but then reminds them that all law is “summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.’”[21] Paul would not and his letter to the Romans does not condone the immoral and frankly evil separation of children from their parents. What US border agents are doing is not “biblical.”

So let us pray that we, rescued by Jesus, saved by Jesus, may be like that noble cedar, doing justice, bearing those righteous fruits, and providing a home to all of God’s children. To repeat again the petition of our opening prayer, “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion.”[22]

Amen.

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons used for the service are Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4,11-14; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; and St. Mark 4:26-34. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Notes:

[1] Shipwrecked VBS curriculum, accessible online (Return to text)

[2] 2 Corinthians 11:25; Acts 27 (Return to text)

[3] Ezekiel 17:22-24 (Return to text)

[4] Psalm 92:1-4,11-14 (Return to text)

[5] Mark 4:26-34 (Return to text)

[6] Facebook posting, June 15, 2018 (Return to text)

[7] John 8:2-11 (Return to text)

[8] Luke 6:1-5 (Return to text)

[9] Luke 10:30-37 (Return to text)

[10] 2 Samuel 12:1-14 (Return to text)

[11] 2 Kings 20:12-19 (Return to text)

[12] Amos 6 (Return to text)

[13] Micah 6:8 (Return to text)

[14] Yosef Y. Jacobson, The Human Tree, Kabbalah Online, accessible online (Return to text)

[15] Amos 6:12 (Return to text)

[16] Exodus 28:33-34 (Return to text)

[17] Ezekiel 17:23 (Return to text)

[18] Sidney Schwarz, Judaism and Justice: The Jewish passion to repair the world, My Jewish Learning, accessible online (Return to text)

[19] Romans 11:16-24 (Return to text)

[20] Galatians 5:22-23 (Return to text)

[21] Romans 13:10-11 (Return to text)

[22] Collect, Proper 6 (Sunday closest to June 15), The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 230 (Return to text)

1 Comment

  1. I do appreciate your sermons, keep preaching Brother.

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