I have one of those decade birthdays coming up in a few months. I can’t believe how old I’ve gotten. It’s like I wasn’t paying attention to the passing of the years and suddenly I woke up to find I’m this old guy, someone a lot closer to his death than to his birth. I’m not depressed about it, just baffled at how quickly it seemed to happen.
I guess it’s natural at this stage in life that I find myself thinking about my legacy. What have I life stood for? What have I left undone? What will I leave behind when I’m gone? How will I be remembered? If I want to do something about my legacy, I’d better get on it because I’m not getting any younger. I’ve done some good things in my life and I’ve done some bad things too. I’d like to be remembered for the good things.
But in the process of preparing for this sermon, I’ve come to realize that trying to manage my legacy is really a waste of time. We can exercise control over what we say and what we do, but we cannot control what other people think about what we say and do.
Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Sometimes only in hindsight, with the passage of time, in the cool light of day, do we come to see who was on the side of good and who was not. Sometimes the good guys are the ones who are being disobedient.
Sometimes, usually late at night or very early in the morning, not very often, maybe a couple of times a year, when nobody is looking, I go right through a red light. Since we moved to Kingston, it’s been the one at Pearl Street and Main, which I always hit red. I do this for two reasons: 1. It’s a stupid rule that you have to sit there waiting for the light to change when there is absolutely no other traffic for miles around and nobody is looking. 2. Every time I do it, I get this delightful rush of exhilaration, like I’m really getting away with something. At my age, exhilaration is a very good thing.
Sometimes it’s the good guys who are being disobedient.
Now that he’s dead, everybody agrees that Martin Luther King, Jr. was on the side of good. He is revered today as one of the most prophetic voices in living memory, and rightly so. That’s his legacy. But let’s not forget that wasn’t the case when he was alive. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was alive he was regarded as an enemy of the state. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, said that King was “the most dangerous and effective negro leader in America.” Everywhere he went he stirred up trouble: protests, clashes with police, crowd violence, arrests.
I was 19 and a freshman in college when 39-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. And I remember clearly, as I’m sure you do if you’re as old as me, that the FBI, the police, and he vast majority of white Americans were relieved that he was dead. The same dead, black pastor America now honors with a national holiday, during his lifetime was treated like a dangerous menace to the welfare of the nation.
Maybe the FBI should to hire Santa Claus as a consultant so he can help the government do a better job of making its list of who’s naughty and who’s nice.
The scribes from Jerusalem who condemned Jesus as a heretic, were probably very nice people. They believed they were doing God’s work. In bringing Jesus down, they were following instructions from the book of Deuteronomy, which says that there will be false prophets who perform signs and wonders and you must see to it that they are put to death.
The scribes had plenty of evidence against Jesus: Firsthand accounts of his openly violating the Sabbath laws; testimonies from witnesses who confirmed that he kept company with shady characters and enemies of the state—known sinners, tax collectors, foreigners, uppity women, misbehaving children, and unclean people.
They don’t deny that he has the power to cast out demons. But they claim his power doesn’t come from God. If it did, he would not be breaking God’s law. They say his power comes from the Devil, the ruler of the demons.
The scribes also know that Jesus is extremely charismatic. That’s really what makes him such a dangerous man. They know some people dropped everything to follow him. They have seen for themselves the crowds he draws. They have seen how at just the sound of his voice, people would people would start weeping. They have seen how he could hold a crowd of over a thousand people in rapt attention for hours, while teaching them in parables that blew their minds, even though nobody really understood exactly what they meant.
Jesus is on the side of good and on the side of God, but the authorities are intent on exposing him as a phony and a heretic. Some people already think he’s out of his mind. His own family tries to restrain him—they know he’s a wanted man, and if he continues to openly defy the authorities, it’s not going to end well for anyone.
The scribes from Jerusalem, along with the chief priests and the Pharisees will ultimately be successful in taking Jesus down. They will turn him over to Pontius Pilate. And when Pilate fails to find that Jesus is guilty of a criminal offence, the chief priests will do some crowd stirring up of their own, inciting the people to call for the release of Barabbas, and yell for the crucifixion of Jesus.
Jesus was executed as a heretic and a lunatic. Today, of course, everybody knows that Jesus was on the side of good the whole time. Even Muslims and Jews, Buddhists, Wickens, Scientologists and atheists agree that Jesus was a great teacher and prophet who devoted his life to doing good and standing against evil
But it’s not always easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. It depends a lot on who you’re asking. If you ask Americans to name the most evil nations in the world today, North Korea and Iraq will be near the top of most people’s lists. But if you ask North Koreans and Iraqis to name the most evil nations in the world today, guess who is at the top of their list?
The great Christian philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche offered this warning: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process they don’t become a monster.” You can’t fight evil with evil and expect a good outcome. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from trying.
Our country’s zero tolerance policy on southern border crossings is a good example. Crossing the border into the U.S. without proper documentation and approval is illegal. But forcibly separating migrant children and infants from their parents seeking asylum in America is even worse; it’s evil. It has created a nightmare for thousands of innocent children and their families.
“I cried, I begged,” said a sobbing 28-year old father from Guatemala after having his 18 month-old-son dragged from his arms, screaming. He’s been asking where his boy is, and says “no one can tell me anything.”
The Washington Post reported last week that in some cases, our government is keeping migrant families forcibly separated even after court cases are over and parents are released or sent back to their home countries. The current zero-tolerance border policy has turned into intentional cruelty, and you can bet it will come back to haunt us.
In the long run, it won’t even work as a deterrent to illegal border crossings. Because repaying evil with evil is not a solution; it just creates more negative consequences and fans the flames of evil in our lives and in the world.
I think the lessons of history and witness of Scripture have this to teach us: Deciding who is on the side of good and who is on the side of evil is a tricky business and is pretty much a waste of time. Anyway, that’s God’s work. Your work and mine is to be on the side of what is good, and right, and just.
Navigating our way through the forces of good and evil in our world can be overwhelming. But being the side of what is good, and right, and just is not very complicated. It’s a matter of making right choices, and Jesus gave us the guideline to follow in his other summary of the law and the prophets. It’s called the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the rule we should always obey, if not for the sake of others, for our own sakes.
And don’t tell the kids, but it’s okay to be disobedient once and while. Sometimes, being disobedient is the right thing to do. A little harmless practice is just fine. It might even put a spark in your step.
As long as it causes no harm, go right ahead a break a stupid rule from time to time. Go right through that red light when nobody is looking and there is no other traffic for miles around. Don’t do it too often, don’t be careless, and keep in mind that there may be consequences if you get caught.