This sermon was given via video conference to the Centre Place Community of Christ congregation in Toronto, Canada on February 16, 2020.
This last week, my husband and I have been watching the TV show Good Omens. I don’t know if you are familiar with that but It is about an angel and a demon who are trying to prevent the end of the world because they love humanity and all its trappings and don’t want to see it destroyed. The angel loves his bookstore and the demon loves his car, his Bentley. One of the scenes has stayed with me. The angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, who became friends with each other after the incident in the garden, are witnessing the crucifixion of Jesus.
“Did you ever meet him?” asked the angel.
“Yes,” said the demon. “He seemed a very bright young man. I showed him all of the kingdoms of the world.”
“Why?” asked the angel.
“He’s a carpenter from Galilee. His travel opportunities are limited.”
“That’s gotta hurt” said the demon, watching the executioners at work. “What did he say to make them so upset?”
The angel answered, “Be kind to each other.”
“Oh yeah, that’ll do it,” said the demon.
I think what struck me about the scene was the social commentary in this exchange. I like the way that the theologian Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, picks up on this same idea and elaborates on it:
Jesus was killed. This is one of those facts that everybody knows, but whose significance is often overlooked. He didn’t simply die; he was executed. We as Christians participate in the only major religious tradition whose founder was executed by established authority. And if we ask the historical question, “Why was he killed?” the historical answer is because he was a social prophet and movement initiator, a passionate advocate of God’s justice, and radical critic of the domination system who had attracted a following. If Jesus had been only a mystic, healer, and wisdom teacher, he almost certainly would not have been executed. Rather, he was killed because of his politics – because of his passion for God’s justice.
But we are a little early in the season for crucifixion and our text for today comes instead from the Book of Mormon. The BoM text wasn’t an obvious choice for me today, but after taking a look at the other texts on offer, which had some strange messages of “those people are bad” in the Psalms and the crankier parts of the Sermon on the Mount, it felt right to wrestle with a text that I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. And so I want to invite you into this wrestle with me this morning. I don’t know what your experience is with the BoM, but before we jump in, I will share a bit of mine.
I devoted a good chunk of my life to reading and re-reading the Book of Mormon. My preferred method in my adult life was to read it very quickly, following a schedule I’d worked out when Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the LDS Church from 1995 until his death in 2008, issued his challenge for church members to read the book in 100 days. After doing this once, I realized that I enjoyed binge-reading the Book of Mormon and the text grew with me as I worked my way through the church milestones of adult life. I also remember the growing unease I felt as I stopped recycling the 100 day challenge and vowed instead to read the Book of Mormon slowly, just one chapter per day, and blog my way through it all. I didn’t make it far into the text before the racism, which I’d always and intentionally rushed through, glared at me day after day in a way that I could not avoid. This newfound discomfort with my Beloved Book of Mormon was more than my faith could handle. I first read the Book of Mormon when I was 13, but I had to put it down at age 33. My heroic and prophetic Nephi had turned into an unreliable and bigoted narrator. Except for a few brave moments, I haven’t been able to pick it up again. The book of scripture I’d once loved, that had grown with me and helped me mark big shifts in my life and thinking about the gospel, left me feeling confused, betrayed, lost.
For the last seven years, I’ve wondered if the book could be redeemed or interpreted through a non-literal framework. I dreamed about an anti-racist commentary, a feminist commentary, and about hearing the book through a more intersectional lens. I daresay that hope has been realized in a new book by Fatimah Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming, called The Book of Mormon for the Least of These. In the conclusion, the authors state “Exegeting the Book of Mormon through a lens of social justice provides a salvific message that binds up the wounds of our faith community. The wisdom and strength of the Book of Mormon is an abundant feast, read and waiting for us to partake.”
Our text for today comes from Mosiah and while the specific verses are significant, but we also want to remember the broader context within the story that these verses are part of. Mosiah is the son of King Benjamin, who calls all of his subjects to him to hear him speak. It is Mosiah who keeps this record.
After building a special platform, King Benjamin gives a long preamble outlining the ways in which he has tried to be a good king. He worked to serve his people, he didn’t lay burdensome taxes on them, he didn’t imprison them, and he did not allow slavery in his territory. Benjamin tells them that he tried to follow God and encourage his people to follow God. He reflects on what he has learned when he says “I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom, that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God ” (1:49). That particular verse was one I was required to memorize as a teenager.
After being briefly sidetracked by some ideas inspired by the prosperity gospel, King Benjamin prophecies of Jesus and threatens damnation if the people do not follow God. Benjamin finishes his speech and looks around to see how the people will respond. The congregation is moved by his words, calls out in repentance, and professes faith in Jesus. I’m surprised by this response, but Benjamin seems to have been expecting it, because he’s got another speech. It is from this second speech that we get our text for this week. After speaking about the nature of God, Benjamin reminds the people that God is with them, offers forgiveness, and reminds them of the blessings of sharing what we have with those in our communities. The people then agree to follow God.
When I read this story in my teenage and young adult years and when we talked about it in Sunday school, the messages that were pushed were that this was a story about obedience to church leaders and to God. I learned that I should take Book of Mormon leaders and prophets on their word and hearken to those messages as if they were leaders and prophets in my own day. I don’t think that this is a terrible reading, but today this feels like a limited approach with narrow take-aways.
A social justice approach to the Book of Mormon, as described and used by Fatimah Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming, opens the text up to further analysis by asking us to use our scriptural imaginations to see the people that are not directly referenced in the text and to be continually curious about people and their relationships with power. Whether we believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon or see it as a collection of stories, we can use our scriptural imaginations to get curious about the text. We can also work to make our interpretations consistent with the message of Jesus, who asked us to “Be kind to each other.”
One of the big questions I have is why was King Benjamin calling the people to repentance? What had been going on in this community that made this necessary? It seems to me that King Benjamin is bringing to the whole congregation some charge of unneighborliness, some rift in the community, though Benjamin does not speak directly to it. I wonder who in the community was being harmed by being forgotten? What group was being scapegoated or victimized by a dominant group? Who from the marginalized group had been speaking publicly to this issue, probably long before Benjamin addressed the whole community? Who had been acting without accountability? Who had been using their dominant group status to oppress those deemed as “other”? Why does Benjamin, with his kingly status, get an immediate confession of sins and promise to turn toward God? Who had been speaking to this issue for years, but could not get anyone to listen or change?
In the spaces around King Benjamin’s speech I see a community torn by some form of bigotry and a denial that those without status deserve to have their humanity honored by the larger community. The community does nothing until their leader asks them to, at which point they declare their repentance in terms of turning away from God, but without even mentioning the people who have been harmed. There is no acknowledgement of the connection between God and the harmed neighbor. There is no description of the pain of the victims or the violent incident that no doubt precipitated this call to repentance. This text may or may not describe a historical event, but the conditions surrounding this story are playing out continually in our communities around issues of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, and class. Our broader communities are typically unable to hear the voices of the oppressed until enough violent things happen so that individuals in power take up their causes. And when Benjamin does this, he is not even able to name the issue or speak directly to it, opting instead to speak of embracing service and turning toward God. Benjamin tells us he is a good king, but I wonder if a wiser king would have spoken harder truths to his people and named their sin more directly.
What happens when the powerless in our communities try to seek justice? We deny the existence of systemic oppression, we harm them further with our insistence that their problems are their own and a result of their own moral failings, and we enact violence on them. In my own community of St. George, Utah I see this story play out again and again. I see it play out in national politics, and in every country, and in every community that is wedded to the idea that it is good while overlooking the ways in which is harmful to those at the margins. The hard lesson from our text this week seems to be that we can hear challenging news, good news, as truth only when it comes from the mouths of the powerful. And sometimes we hear false news as truth when it comes from the mouths of the powerful. But when we hear good news coming from people without status or power, we will not hear it at all.
This, I think, is the message at the heart of Jesus’ story. The man with no power sought justice and peace in a world that did not want to hold the powerful accountable for the harms that they committed against the powerless. Those who had been harmed by this system liked what he had to say and followed Jesus. And so those in power killed him.
“What did he say to make them so upset?” asked the demon.
The angel answered, “Be kind to each other.”
“Oh yeah, that’ll do it,” said the demon.
Do we have to make Jesus divine before we are willing to hear his good and challenging news? Again, Marcus Borg reminds us “If Jesus had been only a mystic, healer, and wisdom teacher, he almost certainly would not have been executed. Rather, he was killed because of his politics – because of his passion for God’s justice.” Let us open our ears to the prophetic voices in our communities that are telling us hard truths. Let us see them and hear what they are saying and feel the movement of the spirit in that work.
Pray with me.
God, help us to have the courage to open our eyes and see the world as it really is. Help us to shed defensiveness in the presence of hard truths. Give us the strength to stand with those at the margins of our communities and seek for justice and peace together. In the name of him who asked us to love our neighbor, amen.