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How Are We to Act?

A reflection on Romans 7:15-25a and Matthew 11:25-30 by the Rev. Alisdair Smith

Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard, may there be peace.

I was inspired in part for my homily by Marnie’s sermon this morning, as she asked about whether our beliefs as Christians actually change how we act in the world? You see, at some level, action is an important element of the portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans we hear tonight and the words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel we hear. As Christians, how are we to act in the world.

So to explore this a little, I’d like to look through a lens of a famous American legal case. Perhaps you have heard of the McDonald’s Coffee case?

An elderly woman, named Stella Leibeck was awarded $2.86 million after she was burned on her inner thighs, buttocks and groin having placed a just purchased McDonald’s coffee between her legs and it spilled. Well, we might say, placing a hot coffee between your legs in the car is not the smartest thing to do, and so, why on earth would you sue McDonalds for $2.86 million?

Surely, there is a point at which we all have to take responsibility for our own behaviour and actions. That was certainly the media spin on the story when I broke and for years after. And as Christians, how are we to act in the world?

So let’s start by looking at the Paul reading. We can get a little hung up at first about the whole mind/spirit/body thing as we explore Paul. You know, spirit is good, body is bad, and we need to move away from things of the body and move towards things of the spirit. Frankly that thinking, a part of the church for almost two thousand years, is fraught with peril. That is another sermon, or 10. What Paul more often is trying to describe, according to many scholars, is the tension between what we might call today selfishness and doing the right thing? Here is Eugene Peterson’s translation of part of our text this evening:

“But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. (Romans 7:17-20 MSG)

I love this translation. I wonder aloud if he is describing what the Prophet Mohammed, Peace be Upon Him, some centuries later is talking about with the idea of an internal Jihad, the war within oneself between doing what I want, and doing what is right.

So let me tell you a little more of the McDonalds Coffee case. McDonald’s franchisees were ordered to keep their coffee much hotter than other similar restaurants because that meant that the coffee stayed sellable that much longer. Prior to Ms Leibeck’s sad accident, McDonalds had received some 700 complaints about how hot their coffee was. And with their coffee revenues of about $1.35 million a day, the company appeared to choose maintaining their revenue generation, over reducing the temperature of their coffee. (I’m attaching a link to the documentary Hot Coffee which provides more of the background to this fascinating case.

And so I wonder again, as Christians, how are we to act?

Now remember that McDonalds has shareholders, people who have invested money in the company to make money. So there is a legal, and from some perspectives a moral obligation for McDonalds to make a reasonable profit, and by generating higher revenues in coffee, they can add to that profit for the shareholders.

And as Christians, how are we to act?

So let’s now spend a moment looking at Jesus’ famous line in the Gospel text this evening.

29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:29-30)

I loved Marnie’s take on these verses from this morning, and I urge you to have a listen when it is up on the CCC website in the next day or so. Its good. I’m going to look at it from a different lens, that I hope will resonate as deeply.

If we look through a linguistic lens at Matthew 11:30 — “For my yoke is easy.” The Greek word translated here as “easy” is chrestos. It appears six additional places in the Second Testament and, in the NRSV, is variously translated as: “The old [wine] is good” (Luke 5:39); “for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35); “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4); “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33); “be kind to one another” (Eph. 4:32); “taste that the Lord is good” (1 Pet. 2:3). In short, everywhere else chrestos is translated as either good or kind.

So what might it mean to for Jesus to say, “my yoke is good” or “my yoke is kind?” My wondering is whether this word speaks to how we are to be with and for each other. The yoke of Christianity is kindness. The acts of Christianity are kindness.

What if our yoke with and for each other is to treat everyone we encounter with kindness? As Christians, how are we to act with each other? What if the answer is we were all simply kind to one and other?

Back to the McDonald’s case. Ms. Leibeck actually sued for $20,000, to cover her medical expenses; the third degree burns over 6% of her body, requiring skin grafts and about 2 years of post burn recuperative work. MCDonalds had refused to pay. Having heard about her simple ask, and the fact that McDonalds knew their coffee was hotter and had caused pain and discomfort to some 700 of their customers, and still kept it hot to last longer in the pot, the Jury awarded Ms. Leibeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. And then in a punitive award, they awarded her 2 days of coffee revenue from McDonalds, a little under $2.7 million. The actual amount was later reduced by a judge, and Ms. Leibeck was awarded about $640,000 in the end.

What might have been different for all concerned; for Ms Leibeck, for the employees and shareholders of McDonalds, for the media, and for those of us who got caught up in the whole, media storm of the time, if the company had acted with kindness? If the media, if we, had acted with kindness. What might some different outcomes in my relationships be if I had acted first with kindness?

And Paul is right, I might want to be kind, but I fail. I might want to act in the best way, but I miss the target. And so I come back to try again. Living within and breathing the Spirit of Love, that which we call the Christ, I am forgiven, I am learning, I am trying, I am being part of the Fulfillment, even knowing that it is not likely coming in my lifetime. But my work now, my yoke right here, right now, with the gifts and challenges I carry, and as difficult as it is, my yoke is to bring that much more kindness into the world in my actions.

Amen.