Who in the World? – Salt and Light

Sermon on the Mount Series #3  Salt and Light, Matthew 5:13-16 for  January 26, 2013Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 5.17.59 PM

Matthew 5:13-16

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Who in the World?     Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 5.21.21 PM

We have probably all had the experience of being introduced to someone who does not know us, and feeling awkward about the introduction.  As we hear ourselves being described, we sense the gap between the person we know ourselves to be, and the kind words being said about us.   As a minister, I can tell you I get that a lot.

This awkwardness can just be caused by mis-interpretation.  When I was serving at the college in Croatia, I was often introduced as a “professor” which felt pretentious.  A professor, to me, has to have an earned doctorate and scholarly publications – which were not true of me.  Later I learned that even high school teachers are called “professor” in Slavic languages.  So the awkwardness of the introduction was just my mistake.

Being Identified

Nevertheless, we take it seriously when someone tells us who we are.  We are powerfully formed by the “you are” messages our parents gave us, both positively and negatively.   We watched a film in which a father told his son that he was worthless and would never amount to anything.   It can take a lifetime and great suffering to overcome that kind of message.

The more significant a person is to us, especially a parent, but also other relatives, and people who know us, like teachers, or employers, or lovers, or spouses, or even friends, the more weight we give to their “you are” words.  The more either affirming and energizing, or the more painful and damaging they are.

So, Jesus, in this very first major public address, takes a Moses-like teaching position in a Moses-like place on a mountain and looks at those unwashed Galilean peasants and pronounces two “you are” messages to them.

Those people are mentally prepared, as we should be also, to take this seriously: this is Jesus saying this.  It is even more important to hear who Jesus says we are than to have heard who our parents told us we were, or our spouses, or anybody.Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 6.34.07 PM

Context      

Jesus has just finished the Beatitudes – his statement of “congratulations” to the kinds of people who live the values of the kingdom, like the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, and now looks at the people gathered there and says “You are…”  I can just imagine them leaning forward a bit to hear how Jesus will identify them.

I was dean of students for a time when I was in Croatia.  In those days, an American man showed up fresh out of the French Foreign Legion (long story) who had a drinking problem too big to hide from anybody, but announced that he was done with hurting people and now wanted to help them.  He volunteered to work with our humanitarian aid organization serving war refugees.

But one night just after I had gotten ready for bed I got a phone call saying that Larry (not his real name) was outside the front gate of the school, completely drunk, yelling horrible things at the top of his lungs.  I, as dean, was the one for the job of dealing with Larry before the police came.  Sometimes when you are told that “you are the one for the job” it is both a blessing and not so much of one.   Larry had told me what he had done to people in drunken bar fights, and I was, frankly, afraid. But I was dean, so I went.  (He calmed down).

In a similar way, the two “you are” statements that Jesus makes both come with two sides to them.  They are both true about who we are, but both of them also come with a clearly evident risk of failure.

Being Indispensable

You yourselves are” Jesus says with as much emphasis as language allows, “the very salt of the earth.”  So far, so good.  Salt is indispensable.  Being told you are indispensable starts making you feel important and worthwhile. Your life has a purpose.  You are here for something that you, yourself must do – it’s crucial to the whole earth.

In the same way, the second: “You yourselves are the very light of the world” which sounds nice, but, like an awkward introduction, says way too much.  Nevertheless, he said it.  Light, even  more than salt is indispensable.  What could grow without light?  How could we manage life inside or outside without light?Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 3.12.23 PM

The Galilean peasants hearing this are asking themselves questions: What is it that we have that the world so desperately needs?   What future for us could Jesus possibly be imagining, that our role will be so important in that he stretches up to the sky itself and calls us the light of the world?

The Other Alternative

But the flip side of the coin has to be considered even before we can start imagining how good it is going to be.  The side that suggests failure as a real possibility.

You yourselves are indispensable: the very salt of the earth” Jesus tells us, but un-salty salt is as good for your body as eating gypsum.  In fact it’s the opposite of indispensable: it’s worthless.

The same with light.  “You yourselves are indispensable: the very light of the world”  Jesus says.  But on the other hand, it is possible to imagine conditions in which the most absurd and pointless thing happens: a lamp is lit, but instead of putting in on a stand to illumine the house, some fool covers it up with a basket.  How pointless would that be?

You are indispensable – that’s who you are: but it could all go wrong.  So, hearing this, the people are now saying to themselves, “Oh no!  Are we on a fools errand here?  Is this project of the kingdom of God doomed to failure from the outset?”

The Hope     Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 6.54.15 PM

The next thing Jesus says is beautiful and hopeful.

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In the same way” – picturing the guy in the house lighting a lamp and putting it on a stand – “let your light shine before others.”  It sounds so passive to say, “let it shine” – the word here is actually an imperative, which is why, in The Message version it is translated simply, “Shine!”

But that is exactly what a burning flame in an oil lamp does naturally: it shines.  Shining is the normal state; in fact it takes extra effort for someone to try to stop it.  He has to go get a basket and cover it up if he wants it to not have the effect it naturally has.

This is so hopeful.  The “You ares” are not “try to be” or “after 10,000 hours of practice you may finally manage to be something useful.”

No!  The opposite!  God made you.  You have a purpose.  You are indispensable.  You are as indispensable as salt is to mammals and as light is to the world.  God made you to be and to do good.  “Now,” Jesus is calling to us, “get on with it!”

This is a grace-based calling.   God has already given you everything you need to be an indispensable player in the Kingdom project.

What’s Next?           

So, what comes next?  What’s the plan for the salt and light crew?  What does Jesus say?  Is it:

– Get this doctrine down, know it, and condemn the heretics who hold a different view? or

– Build me a lavish building, in fact an institution?  or

– Go on a moral crusade against the kind of people whom your natural instincts tell you are disgusting?

– Or the many, many things the church, throughout the centuries, has become known and even famous for doing and being?

How indispensable would any of those things be to the world?

What the World Needs     Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 6.55.40 PM

But how much does the world need people who are willing to be poor in spirit – recognizing our mutual dependence on each other, on the planet, and on God?

How much does the world need people who are so hungry and thirsty for justice that they do not stop working for it until justice is done?

How much does the world need people who mourn for every example of suffering and so, are motivated to respond with compassion and care?

How much does the world need people who are willing to be meek instead of aggressive with each other?  Who are forgiving, and who have learned do the hard work of living long in a community of other fallible people, instead of bailing out at the first offense or conflict?

How can humanity survive without people with pure hearts and motives who are willing to be merciful and to be peacemakers, and are even willing to suffer persecution for doing the right thing?

You are those people, Jesus is saying.  You are that indispensable.  Now, Shine, for goodness sake!

The world is watching.  It always watches.

The Sadness and the Hope

There is both a sadness and a remaining hope.  The sadness is that most of the world in the West does not think that the church is indispensable to them at all.  This is because it has been watching, and seeing.

The hope is that “it ain’t over ‘till it’s over” and, thankfully, it is not over yet.  As someone said, if you are still breathing there is more right with you than wrong with you – and we are still breathing.

In our deepest selves, because we have been made in God’s image and we have been baptized into God’s kingdom, God’s family, we all have the light of goodness to shine.  It’s there!

As long as we don’t smother it up with our false selves, our pretensions and pettiness, as long as we don’t hide the light behind walls of greed or hedonism, as long as we don’t extinguish it with violent words (or worse) it is there, to shine.

The world – starting with our families, our church, and our community, and including our planet itself – needs the light of us being good instead of making excuses.  Nobody has ever believed our excuses for not being good, anyway.   Nor should they.

So “shine!”

“let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

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Sermon for Feb. 20, 2011 “Blessed are the Meek”

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Matt. 5:5

Psalm 37

Matt. 5:38-48

I can imagine a scene like this: Jesus stands on the mountain, crowds of people listen

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eagerly to his words – he is like Moses 2.0.  He finishes his famous Sermon on the Mount and re-joins the disciples.  Peter approaches him; Jesus can see that something is troubling him. “What is it?” he asks.

 

Peter says, “I liked  your sermon; it was powerful; some parts almost lyrical.”

Jesus wants him to get to the point so he says, “But what?”

Peter says, “Well it sounded really good; nobel; high-minded and all, but I just wonder if people will believe it?  Especially the bit about “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” – it sounds like a pious fantasy to some people.”

Jesus can see in Peter’s eyes that he is among the “some people” having a hard time believing, so he encourages Peter to come clean, “What about you, Peter?”

“Well,” Peter confesses, “in my life, what I’ve seen is that the meek get pushed around.  They get taken advantage of.  They don’t look very blessed.”

How about Us?

I think Peter may be speaking for many of us here today.  We are Christians, so we want to hear Jesus and we want what he says to be true, but we have a sneaking suspicion that at times his head was in the clouds; that it’s not possible, in real life, to be “poor in spirit, merciful, pure in heart, a peace-maker,” and especially, “meek.”   So what do we do with this teaching?

I think the first thing we do is to hear what Jesus meant to teach, and not to hear distortions of what he taught.  As I have said before, this teaching is from the real Jesus, not from “Miss Manners.”  He is the one who was willing to confront evil face to face without backing down – even to the point of overturning the tables of the money-changers in the temple.  Whatever Jesus meant by being “meek” he did not mean – could not have meant – simply lying down and letting yourself be taken advantage of.

So what did he mean, and how can we apply what he said in the real world of our lives today?

First, to what he meant when he said

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

It starts, as almost everything Jesus said does, in the Old Testament.  In this case it starts in Psalm 37.  Five times this Psalm talks about the people who will “inherit the land” and once, specifically it calls them “the meek”.  Listen again:

37:9 those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.

37:11 But the meek shall inherit the land,

37:22   for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land,

37:29  The righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever.

37:34 Wait for the LORD, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land;

The Psalm and Practical Problems

This Psalm was addressing a real, practical problem.  The answer that it gives is that God is at work in the world, and despite present appearances, in the long run, he will insure that his faithful people will know his blessing.

The problem in the Psalm is that present appearances look the opposite.  The Psalm is all about the world in which it appears as though the wicked prosper with impunity.  They become wealthy by devious, evil methods; they take advantage of people and get away with it; they even plot against the righteous.   So the psalm keeps advising, “Do not fret” rather “trust in the Lord” and “wait for the Lord”.

Why?  Because God’s people know how to take the long view.  Yes, it may appear as though now, for the moment, the wicked prosper at the expense of the righteous.  But the game isn’t over yet.  There is more to come.  And God is watching, and he cares about the outcome.  In the long run, if you want to be around to “inherit the land,” then keep your head up: God is going to honor those who live faithfully, those who wait on him, those who walk in his ways; yes, those who are “meek.”

Jesus and Practical Problems

Jesus too was addressing a real, practical problem in his day, and additionally, he was also dramatically changing the way Psalm 37 should be read.

The practical problem was this: in Jesus’ day, there was oppression.  Under the Romans, there was no freedom of association, no freedom of speech, no voting bad guys out of office, and certainly no dissent against the rampant corruption.  People were tired of it – as tired as the Tunisians, Egyptians, the people in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and everywhere where tyrants rule.

And so, revolution was in the air.  There were already armed groups gathering for war.  They wanted to take back the land; the land God had promised them; the land that was supposed to be their “inheritance.”

For Jesus, this was wrong on two counts: first, because he knew that armed resistance was morally unacceptable and futile. And second because he had a radically larger vision of the kingdom than the geographical land of Palestine.

Jesus’ Changes on the Psalm

Jesus made a dramatic change in the way Psalm 37 should be read.  Instead of “ the meek shall inherit the land” referring to the land of Palestine, Jesus said, “ the meek shall inherit the earth.

I don’t have time to tell you the background here (which has to do with how 1 Enoch 5:7, a Jewish apocalyptic book, had already widened the meaning of the promise to the meek to mean wining the final cosmic conflict at the end of the present age: they literally would inherit the whole earth).

The promise and the purpose of God was never simply limited to the Jewish people and Palestine.  God’s promise to Abraham was that through him, God would bless the whole world: the earth.  Jesus was asserting that God’s purposes would come true.  The meek, those who lived faithfully, trusting God and waiting on him in hope, would live blessed lives, contrary to current appearances.

An Alternative Community

Jesus was not only rejecting armed conflict with Rome, he was doing something more.  Jesus

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was intentionally creating an alternative community of people whose common life would be an anticipation of the “new heavens and new earth.”

 

Jesus was laying down the standards and values of people who lived life together as if God was in charge of the world, not as a tyrant, but as a loving Heavenly Father.  This new Jesus-community would live the kind of quality of life together that would reflect their core commitment to each other.  In their life together they would exhibit the blessings of being “poor in spirit, merciful, pure in heart, a peace-maker,” and especially, “meek” towards one another.

Now, to us

How do we apply this to our lives?  We face the same basic problem as the psalmist and the people in Jesus’ day in this respect: it looks as though good is punished and evil is rewarded.   Nice guys finish last, as they say.  We can easily be seduced into believing that it is the aggressive, the demanding, the conniving, and even the mean-spirited who get what they want, whose needs are met.  We are tempted take this essentially god-less perspective with us into our politics, our economic habits, and even into our homes and churches.  We share the same problem.

The Solution

The solution is first to confess that this perspective is perfect for a world without a God in it – it is a perfectly appropriate a-theistic perspective, but is not an option open for believers.  We are here to assert that despite current appearances there is a God and he is in control.  We are here to assert the radical belief that living faithfully, in the end, is far more blessed than living the opposite.

We are here to affirm that Jesus was not just teaching pious impracticalities when he gave us the vision of the blessed life, but that the new community that he was bringing into being, the church, could experience common life on an entirely new, transformed level, by following his teaching.

We are here to commit ourselves to being that community.  We are here to affirm our trust in a God who is able to bless us as we live lives faithful to him.  We are here to assert that Jesus is Lord – of our politics, our economics, our ethics, and of our common life together.

We need his help.  We cannot live lives of faithful obedience on auto-pilot.  So we will pray, relying on the presence and power of his Holy Spirit to transform us into the people he made us to be.  There is no better prayer to begin with than the model that St. Francis gave us:

The prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”  Matt. 5:5

Sermon for Feb. 13, 2011, Gluttony and the Persecuted, Matthew 5:10; 6:19-34

Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Gluttony and the Persecuted 

enough?

The Beatitudes of Jesus, which is how his famous Sermon on the Mount begins, are Jesus’ fundamental, central, bedrock teaching.  This is where spiritual growth begins for people, like us, who want to be disciples of Jesus.

But following Jesus has never been easy.  As the church as reflected on the root causes of our failures to follow Jesus, she has developed a list of seven primary obstacles to effective discipleship called the Seven Deadly Sins.

I was introduced to the idea of pairing one of the beatitudes of Jesus with one of the  Seven Deadly sins that corresponded to it by Jeff Cook’s book.  Most of the pairings looked intuitively obvious – except this one.  In fact, pairing the beatitude in Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” with the deadly sin of gluttony seemed, not just awkward, but contradictory.  But the more I reflected on the relationship between the way we think about persecution and the sin of gluttony, I saw relationships that I believe are powerful, and which we need to consider.

Both gluttony and persecution bring up desire and fear; pleasure and pain; the use of our bodies, and the way we think about the good life we all long for.

Gluttony – millions of varieties – one thing in common

First, let’s be clear that gluttony is not only about over-eating – though of course it  is included.  We sometimes use the term “glutton for punishment”  – there are a million things we could be gluttons for – work, entertainment, sleep, esteem, money, pleasure, hobbies, television, talking – all of them have one common characteristic: gluttony is failure to recognize when we have had enough.  Gluttony always wants more.

A newborn baby will cry when she feels hunger pains.  Then, when she is fed, she will drink until she has had enough, and then, she wants no more.  We were all born with this switch that is turned on when hungry, and off when we are satiated.   Even though eating is the first pleasure we ever knew, nevertheless, we had an inborn sense of how much was enough, and when he had enough, we were willing to forego any more of that pleasure for the time.

Pleasure and Brain Chemistry

Pleasure, we know know, is a function of brain chemistry.  When endorphins are released – either naturally or through drugs – we feel pleasure.   I have recently learned that companies that produce snack foods or desert foods – chips and cookies and such, have studied brain chemistry intently.  They have now learned that just the right combination of sugar, salt and fat will produce a pleasurable response in the brain – that never stops – that does not get switched off.   “No one can eat just one.”

So now that they are messing with our brain chemistry, it is even harder; but people have always had trouble saying “enough is enough; no more.”  And as I said, food is only one of the million ways in which we fall prey to the self-destructive sin of gluttony.  Most of us here are in a position to have more than enough of almost everything we need.  Most of us here have more than most humans who ever lived on this little planet have had of nearly everything.  And we want more.

Why We Want More

more

 

Why?  Why do we keep wanting more, when our whole life experience tells us that more of the same does not fix us.  More of the same doesn’t make us happy after the first few moments.  More of the same – whether its clothes, vacations, entertainments – never fills the empty places in our hearts.  The essential ache that is part of the human condition is spiritual; nothing else fits the shape of that gap; nothing else works to fill it, regardless of the quantities.

This problem is as old as humanity.  Thousands of years ago the prophet Isaiah asked his fellow countrymen the question:

2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Though it does not work long-term, gluttony does do one thing: it distracts us, at least momentarily, from facing the inner vacancy.  Fixating on another helping, another spree, another round, another episode, briefly takes our minds off the scary truth that none of it has ever been successful before.   And that’s what is behind our gluttonous quests for more: fear.

The Cure

And that is why the cure for the soul-disease of gluttony is not, at root, a strict budget or a healthy diet, it is trust.  Trust can push back from the table, or the register, or the screen and say, that was nice, that was enough, there will be enough tomorrow.  This is what our Lord taught us from the sermon on the mount:

6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Trust is knowing that we will be taken care of tomorrow by a God who knows, who sees, who cares, and who provides.  And it is deeper than that.  Trust is knowing that asking “what will we eat and what will we drink?” are really surface questions.  Deeper is the question “what will fill the gap, and stop the ache, after we have eaten and drunk our fill?”  Trust says, I will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, because only God can fill the God-shaped vacuum of the heart.

Persecution: us?

The glutton is running from the pain of an inner ache.  The persecuted are willing to face pain without turning away.  Jesus pronounced a solemn blessing, saying,

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In Jesus’ times, his followers would have to face the prospect of real, physical persecution – physical pain – maybe even death – as the price for following Jesus.  Christians around the world throughout history have had to endure physical persecution.  Thanks be to God, most of us will never even get close to that prospect.  Let us then apply Jesus’ words to our own circumstances.

Maybe it is because we have lived with so much prosperity for so long that we are soft (probably so) but it does not take the threat of a baton crashing down on our heads or the prospect of jail time to dissuade us from seeking the kingdom of God.  For most of us, the threat of being out of step with our culture is enough.  The thought  that we will be derided by our peers is sufficient to turn on the fear-response.

The Persecution of the Soft (us)

Once we feel that fear, our sense of moral outrage at injustice starts to soften.  We will not speak of poverty or discrimination, because in good company, bringing it up is like rain on the parade (“buzz kill” as the young people say).   For us, sometimes a dirty look across the table is enough to shut down our passion for the righteousness of the kingdom of God.   Maybe what we are truly gluttons for is peer approval.  If so, we will never have enough.

The Blessed Life

But that is not the path to the blessed life.  Blessed, Jesus said, are those who are willing to face persecution, to stand up for what is right.  Blessed, are those who do not fear the consensus view, but who take God’s view even if it costs something.

Blessed are those who stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, even if they are persecuted for it: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who champion the causes of the powerless, even at the expense of social approval, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who are willing to speak truth to power, in government, in industry, in the justice system, and everywhere, even at the cost of ridicule or of being misunderstood, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who know that “different” does not mean “bad” and who will welcome those who are different – by race or by ethnicity or by any condition that others use to exclude them, even when they become excluded too, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who trust that our Heavenly Father has provided enough – enough for the birds of the air, the lilies of the field and for everyone, so that there is no fear in working to ensure that everyone has enough, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who know that the aching gap in the heart will never be filled by the gluttonous quest for more, but that the God of “enough” is able to make cups overflow when his kingdom is our highest hunger, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

We will be disciples of Jesus.  We will not be gluttons for bread which cannot satisfy; we will seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness!

Sermon for Feb. 6, 2011, Wrath and the Peacemakers,

Matt. 5:9, 21-26

Wrath and the Peacemakers 

Egyptian protester kisses policeman: peacemaking

Matt. 5:9   “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

The Downward Plunge into Violence

The bible begins in a perfect world, a garden paradise where a man and woman are in perfect harmony with each other and with God.  But they want more: they want to be god-like, so they choose evil over good, and the downward spiral begins.

First, they play the blaming and blame-shifting game: he says “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree.”  She says, “The serpent tricked me,”  Then, as the story moves on, there is a rapid sequence of scenes that depict a head-long plunge downwards.  Brothers have a conflict; one feels shamed; he gets angry.  God watches – even steps in to give a warning:

Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.  6 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  7… sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  8 Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” (Genesis 4)

Lamech’s Boast

The story descends further.  Cain’s descendants learn his ways.  We hear of Lamech; he comes home with a proud boast to his two wives:

23 Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. 24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4)

Lamech was the father of the famous ark-builder, Noah.  Genesis sums up the world that Noah was born into this way:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen. 6:11)

Down and down and down; anger, vengeance, murder, violence; it’s enough to make you want to destroy the whole thing and start over.

Beatitudes and Deadly Sins

Is there a word from God for a world like this?  We are in a series in which each week we are examining one of Jesus’ Beatitudes which he gave in his famous Sermon on the Mount.  These are Jesus’ fundamental, central teachings; the starting point of true spiritual growth.

We are also pairing one of Jesus Beatitudes with one of the “Seven Deadly Sins.”  This pairing was suggested to me by a book by Jeff Cook.  The Seven Deadly Sins are the church’s best thinking, over many years, of the primary obstacles we face as we try to live the way Jesus taught us to live.

Today we are looking at the deadly sin of wrath, paired with the beatitude,   “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt. 5:9)

Wrath

We don’t use the word “wrath” much anymore.  Wrath is anger, but more so.  Anger may be what we feel when someone hurts us, either verbally or physically; our faces flush, our blood pressure rises, we feel the desire to strike back by some means.  This is our biological inheritance.  It served us well when we were running around in loin-cloths with bones in our noses and with much smaller brains in our skulls.  Now it mostly just gets us in trouble and makes matters worse.

Wrath is more than an initial anger-reaction.  Wrath nurses the anger.  Wrath blows on the coals of anger until they become red-hot.  Wrath indulges in the seductive self-deception of righteousness indignation, and self-justification.  Wrath, as Cook says well, “is not concerned with restoration, but with revenge and dominance.”

Wrath is spiritual immaturity.  Wrath on display is not just a momentary failure, it is more: wrath is the sign that there has not been spiritual growth over years.  We no longer have bones in our noses, but the question is, how far have we developed spiritually?   The assessment is still true:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen. 6:11)

The Blessed Peacemakers

There is an alternative way to be.  Jesus said,

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Let’s clear away some brush so that we can see this beatitude accurately.   The one who said this was Jesus, not Miss Manners.  Jesus was the one who was capable of saying things like:

“Woe to you blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”  (Matt. 23:24)

Jesus neither avoided conflict nor backed down in the face of opposition.  He is the one who took a whip to the animals in the temple and drove out the money changers who were desecrating it.

So, for Jesus, being a peacemaker is not the same as being a docile door-mat, a  spineless “peace at any price” person.  Jesus was passionate – about God, about justice, and about people: suffering people, poor people, and excluded people.

But he never used his passionate opposition to evil as an excuse for vengeance.  He was not seduced by “righteous indignation.”  He did not give-in to wrath.

Jesus’ Vision

Instead, he held up the vision of the world as it was made to be, the world as it should be, the world as the prophets say it will be, when, as Micah said,

“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;” (Micah 4:3)

Jesus’ vision of the world as it should be was multi-layered and richly complex.  It was both internal and personal – individuals made right and at peace  with God and each other, as well as public and political – nations and structures made right and at peace with God and each other.

The Personal

On a personal level Jesus got very specific about how God expects his children to live.  It seems that perhaps he had the story-line of Cain and Able in his mind when  later in the same Sermon on the Mount he said:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;”  (Matt. 5:21-22)

Yes, there is some hyperbolic over-statement for effect, which Jesus used a lot – but it’s meant to wake us up.   Anger is like bacteria:  give it nutrients and it will explode in volume.  Yes, it feels good to be all “righteously indignant” – that should be the first danger sign.  Everything that feeds our pride easily seduces us into self-deception, the essence of spiritual immaturity.

The Political

There is another layer beyond the internal.  Jesus was not just a personal-trainer.  His vision of the world put right and at peace was profoundly political every bit as much as it was personal.  He specifically opposed the movement of violent revolution that was gathering steam in his day.  He saw the zealots and knew of their plans to overthrow their Roman oppressors.  He utterly rejected that violent path.  When push came to shove, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the sword came out, he said,

52“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52)

Peter did put his sword away that day, but not too many years afterwards the swords did come out, and Jesus’ prediction horrifically came true.  It is still coming true today – all around the world.

Judas Iscariot, the zealot, betrayed Jesus because he would not take up sword and embrace “the myth of redemptive violence” (as theologian Walter Wink’s famously called it).  Jesus has been betrayed constantly throughout history and down to today in the same way.

War as Horror

Are we required then to be pacifists?  I wish I could be a pacifist, but I cannot.  Evil is too powerful.  Police have to be prepared to stop bad guys, nations need armies for protection.  Genocide must be stopped.  But I also believe what I have been told.  I have never had to go to war, but every last person I have ever spoken to who has been there, including some here today, have told me the same thing: war is horrible.

Even when it is justified and necessary, it is always horrible.  What happens in every war is horrible – the intended and (hopefully) justifiable parts of war are bad enough – but every war has always had unintended victims, piles of innocent bodies.

And yet, what happens when the topic comes up?  It is not with agony and horror that many of us consider the prospect of war, it is more like with bravado and glee!   How our Heavenly Father must grieve!

Our Mandate from Jesus

Jesus pronounced a solemn blessing on peacemakers.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

If we want to call God “Heavenly Father” and be his children, we have been given our mandate.  It does not matter that our culture loves violence; we have been called to an alternative way of living, on every level.

We have been called to be peacemakers in our homes and personal relationships.  We will not nurse grudges.  We will be the first to offer forgiveness and reconciliation because we are children of God, followers of Jesus.

We have been called to be peacemakers in our society.  We may disagree with one another over taxes, health care, the role of government, or even over human sexuality, but we will respect each other’s dignity and right to differ.  We will require our political leaders to act with civility towards one another, or loose our votes.  We will be peacemakers as our Lord requires; we are children of God!

We have been called to be peacemakers in our world.  We will demand that there is never a rush to conflict by our political leaders.  We will demand that if there is ever a need for war, that it be the utterly last resort, after every means of avoiding it has been exhausted, and we will never ever enter it with anything but agony over the failure of our efforts to keep peace.

No matter how small a minority we are, we will not betray our Lord; we affirm Jesus’ words:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Lust and the Pure in Heart, Matt 5:8 and Matt. 5:27-30

Lust and the Pure in Heart

Matt 5:8   “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

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Matt. 5:27-30

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

I want to get one thing clear, right from the start.  When Jesus said “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”  he was NOT speaking exclusively about purity in relation to sexuality.  That is a mistake.  Purity of heart is far broader than that!   In fact sexuality is not even the primary area in which purity of heart is required of us.  It is important, and it is addressed by Jesus, but to limit purity of heart to sexuality is a huge mistake that we will not make.

Very likely Jesus took the phrase about purity of heart and the idea of seeing God from Psalm 24:

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?

And who shall stand in his holy place?

4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,

who do not lift up their souls to what is false,

and do not swear deceitfully.

Here, lifting up your soul in worship to what is false and swearing falsely are  both ways of speaking about idol worship.  A pure heart is one that is exclusively devoted to the one true and living God, the God of Israel.

Nevertheless, we are in a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus, his central, fundamental teaching which he gave in his famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.  In this series we have been pairing one of Jesus’ Beatitudes with one of the 7 primary obstacles to living as Jesus taught which, through the centuries, the church has identified as the “Seven Deadly Sins:” Pride, Envy, Sloth, Greed, Lust, Wrath, and Gluttony.  And so, if we had to choose which of the deadly sins is an obstacle to having a pure heart, certainly lust would apply.

And even though purity of heart does not exclusively apply to sexuality, certainly it is included, and in fact Jesus does go on to address lust in his Sermon on the Mount as we have just read, also from Matthew 5.

Beginning at the Beginning

We need to begin at the beginning.  “Good, good, very good” is what Genesis tells us was God’s evaluation of the physical world he created.  He made humans, male and female, both, it says, “in his image” (or in Greek, in his “ikon”) and said they were “very good.”  Sexuality was God’s idea.  In the Genesis account, God places the first man and woman in a perfect garden and says to them, in their state of perfection before they bit the apple, “be fruitful and multiply.”  (Gen. 1)  Human sexuality is God’s idea, it is good, and blessed.

The original sin was not sex.  According to Genesis, the original sin was “wanting to be like God.”  The first result of sin was shame.  Shame was not the original state we were meant to live in – it is a fallen condition from which we need deliverance.  Nevertheless, sexuality itself is one of God’s good gifts.

In my Sunday School class we are studying the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon, which is a celebration of the goodness of human desire, attraction, and love.  The Song acknowledges how powerful a force it is, as the lover exclaims:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,

as a seal upon your arm;

for love is strong as death,

passion fierce as the grave.

Its flashes are flashes of fire,

a raging flame. (Song 8:6)

How true – a raging fire; wonderful in a fireplace or an oven, but horrible when the house catches fire and is destroyed.  Love, desire, attraction, human sexuality is very much like a fire, both good and dangerous.

The Heart is the Issue

The connection between purity of heart and lust was made by Jesus himself.  He located the origin of the single most powerful marriage-breaking action, adultery, in the heart.   Let us be clear, Jesus is not condemning sexual attraction, which is built into our genes.  Literally translated his words are:

Whoever keeps looking, (or) whoever is staring at a woman in order to lust after her, has already broken his marriage in his heart.”  (see F. D. Bruner, The Christbook, p. 183)

If love is a fire, then indulging in lustful fantasy is throwing kindling on the fire.  The opposite is required of disciples of Jesus.  In fact there is no such thing as passivity as an option.  Love is too strong a fire, as the Song of Songs says; “passion is as fierce as the grave.”  And so concerted resistance is required.   Even though we all know that gouging out an eye and cutting off a hand is hyperbole, exaggeration for effect, we should take it’s intended shock-value to heart.

In order to resist the raging fire of passion, bold resistance action is necessary.  We do not fan the flame; we avert our eyes.  There are places we will not go, media we will not watch, internet sites that we reject.  We take Jesus’ warning with all the strength his dramatic words intend.  This is serious business.

In this respect, we are called to be dramatically counter-cultural.  But so were the early Christians.  Roman mores were as loose as Western values.  Sex was available everywhere then as it is in our culture.  Nevertheless, we are called to a higher standard.  We are called to have pure hearts.

The Blessing

Jesus pronounced a blessing on the pure in heart; he said “for they will see God.” What could he have meant?  One of the fundamental facts every good Jewish person knows is that no one can see God and live.   Israel’s God is invisible.  He is not allowed to be represented visually in any form, according to the second commandment.  All images of God are forbidden.

Except one.  There is one image of God that is allowed.  Listen to this text, which may need to be heard again, for the first time:

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them. (Gen. 1)

The closest we will ever come to seeing God is when we look at people that he made in his image.

What does it mean that humans, male and female, are made in the image of God.  Of course it does not mean that we look like God physically, that God has arms and  legs; but then what does this image consist of?

Dominion over Creation

The Genesis text does not leave us guessing; it says precisely what this means.  God, as Creator, has dominion over all that he has made.  He has control.  He is able to use his Creation as he wishes.

He has granted dominion, like his dominion, to his human creations.  He has allowed men and women to use his creation for our benefit.  He has given us “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

We humans, have the God-like capacity of dominion over creation.  We are able to use God’s physical world for our benefit.  Does this give us license to abuse God’s creation?  Are we allowed to harm this good world God made?  Of course not; how absurd an idea that would be.  As if having created this good world God lost interest in its welfare.   No, we are responsible for how we use his world, but we are allowed to use it.

Limits to Dominion

But where does our dominion stop?  What part of God’s world are we not given dominion over?  What is left off of the list of the biosphere that we are given god-like dominion over?  Each other.  We were never granted dominion over other people.

In fact it is only after Adam and Eve sinned that we hear about humans dominating other humans.  After they sinned God lists the negative consequences of their choice of disobedience. Adam is told of the difficulty he will have producing food from the ground; it will cost him the sweat of his brow. Eve is told that now she will have pain in childbirth.  If that were not bad enough, she is told:

“your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16).

Now that the world has become corrupted by evil, now that innocence has been lost, one gender, made in God’s image, exercises dominion over another gender, equally made in God’s image.  Now in this corrupted state, one treats another as something useful; one treats another as a means, rather than as an end.

What the Pure in Heart See

The pure in heart see what is true, as God sees.  The pure in heart do not look at other humans as means to their ends, to use for their own purposes.  The pure in heart look at other people, regardless of gender, or race, or any condition, and see the icon of God, the most God-like creature God made.

And so the pure in heart cannot look at each other as objects, useful for our own gratification.  This is why purity of heart includes sexual purity as well.  The pure in heart do not look at others as kindling wood for their own raging fire.

And this is why purity of heart is not limited to sexual purity.  The pure in heart do not look at humans as means to ends in any way, economic or political or in any way.  Rather the pure in heart see the icon of God in each other.

We are compelled to treat each and every human on this fragile planet with dignity and respect.  We care about how each one is treated.  We are saddened to hear that some of these icons of God are hungry.  We are alarmed when we see poverty and suffering.  We are horrified when some are dominated and abused by others.  We decry violence and discrimination as if there were levels of the image of God and some the right to dominate others.

But we are disciples of Jesus.  We affirm the counter-cultural belief that the pure in heart are blessed, because they have their eyes open, they see the world as God sees.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

Sermon for Jan. 23, 2011, Matthew 5:7 Greed and the Merciful

Matt. 5:3-10

Greed and the Merciful

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Matt. 5:7   “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Someone once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.”  That about sums it up.  For us, as Christians, the “main thing” is Jesus.  We are followers of Jesus.   Why is it so hard to keep this the main thing?

Because of an intractable conundrum; some would call it a riddle.  It is possible to “worship” Jesus without “following” Jesus; that’s the conundrum.  It is possible – in fact common, to find Christians who will come to church, sing songs of praise, say the creed, pray, and yet live lives that show little of the impact of Jesus’ teachings.

I’m not just talking about the famous religious leaders who are caught doing terrible things – though they are included – I’m talking about ordinary people like us.  And the reason is simple once you think about it.  It is a whole lot easier to worship than it is to forgive people who hurt you.

It is easier to sing a hymn than to  let someone else’s opinion win the argument; it is easier to say a creed than it is to turn the other cheek.  It is simply a whole lot easier to perform acts of worship than it is to put into practice the teachings of Jesus.  In fact it seems that there is little correlation between how important many folks feel worship is and how mature they are as followers of Jesus.

Jesus himself anticipated this conundrum.  He says, later in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matt. 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

So, yes, while it is possible, even common for Christians to find worship a lot easier than following Jesus, it is clear how Jesus feels about it.  For Jesus, “the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.”

The Beatitudes and the 7 Deadly Sins

We are in a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ central teaching.  This is the essence of what he expects of us; the “main thing”.

But we are human; we do not find it easy to live as Jesus requires.  So we are also, along with the Beatitudes, looking at the list of seven fundamental obstacles we face; what the church has identified as the “Seven Deadly Sins:” pride, envy, sloth, greed, lust, wrath and gluttony. This pairing of a Beatitude with a Deadly Sin was suggested to me by Jeff Cook’s book.

Greed and the Merciful

Today we are looking at the Deadly Sin of Greed, paired with the Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  – Matt. 5:7

Did you notice the implied threat in this beatitude?  What if we do not show mercy; will we then not receive any?  It’s frightening to consider.  It reminds us of the implied threat we repeat each time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  What if we don’t forgive?

The whole basis of our Christian lives is that God has chosen to be merciful to us.  Is it possible to worship God sincerely, to praise him for his lavish mercy, and at the same time withhold our mercy from others?

Jesus says: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

It turns out that it is of utmost importance to keep the main thing, the main thing.

I have a question: did it strike you as odd that we would pair the beatitude of the blessing on the merciful with the deadly sin of greed?

The Good Samaritan

Remember Jesus’ most famous parable, the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We all know it well.  It begins with a man trying to limit the circle of people he is responsible for.  He asks: “If I am required to love my neighbor, who exactly is my neighbor?”

Jesus tells the story of a victim of random violence and of the two men who saw his need and refused him help, and of the one man who did stop and help him.

Jesus asks the question at the end: which one was a neighbor to him?  To which he replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”   In other words: “You go and be merciful in this way as well.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

How is mercy such as this the opposite of the deadly, soul-killing sin of greed?Think of the men who refused mercy to the victim in Jesus’ parable.  Why did they fail the test?  At least in part because of the sin of greed.

What is greed?  Greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given.  Let me say that again: greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given.

Greedy for Money

The priest and the Levite in the parable both know that to stop and help is going to cost money – and for the Samaritan it does.  Who will pay the fee at the inn?  Who will pay for the care?  Someone has to.  The greedy person withholds the mercy that is required because he sees the costs involved.  Yes mercy costs money.  That is one of the reasons why Jesus told us that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon; Mammon is against mercy – no one can serve both.

But this is shallow thinking to this point.  I honestly do not think the dollar costs were upper most in the minds of the priest and the Levite, though they must have added to their resistance to showing mercy.  I believe that both of them were greedy for other things as well.

Greedy for Security

They  were both probably greedy for their safety – if a man has been a victim of robbers, then there are robbers around.  If you stop to help, you become an easy target; best keep moving lest there be two victims lying together.

Wrong!  Mercy requires that our own security cannot be our highest concern.  Mercy requires some risks as we get involved with people in need.  Mercy runs toward the burning building from which the cries are coming.  Mercy sits with people who have become desperate – with all the uncertainty that state implies.  Greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given. Mercy gives up total security; it goes to places where those greedy for security would never venture.  Places where people are suffering.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Let’s go even deeper, because it was not just greed for money and security that made the priest and Levite fail the test.  It was greed for something else – how do you put this in words?

Greedy for Self

The priest thinks of himself as a priest.  It’s who he is.  He is a man of dignity and honor.  But more than that; he is a person who takes his role seriously.  He is responsible to handle holy things: holy books, holy sacrifices, the holy instruments of the temple.  He is required by the law and he requires himself to keep from contamination; to keep from impurity.  It would simply not be in keeping with his whole personal sense of himself to go over and touch this victim.

The man who was robbed and beaten must at least be bloody, if not already dead.   Either way, touching him would defile a priest and make it impossible for him to fulfill his function for a while.  He is greedy for this sense of his own dignity and importance; for his clean hands.  No way he is going to give all that up for the sake of some man who didn’t have the sense to travel in a protective group!

And the same with the Levite.  What if someone saw you doing humanitarian work?  It’s simply beneath you.  Greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given.  Mercy requires that we let go of our personal pretensions in the face of suffering.

If we extend mercy, won’t we be taken advantage of?  Yes; maybe; sometimes.  Being merciful means we give up the idea that the height of virtue is to never be taken advantage of, never be played for a fool, never become the victim of a scam.  We will be as wise as we can be; we are not called to be fools, but if there is a risk involved in being a person of mercy, so be it; we accept it.  We will not be greedy for what mercy requires be given up.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

The Blessed Life

This is what we believe, as followers of Jesus.  The blessed life is not the life that walks by on the other side.  The blessed life is not the life that keeps all the coins safely in the purse.  The blessed life is not the life that risks nothing.  The blessed life is not the life that keeps hands clean and reputations intact.

The blessed life is the mercy-giving life.  We all, like the priest and the Levite,  are presented with tests: will we be greedy, or will we show mercy?  As followers of Jesus who know that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, we commit ourselves, not just to worshipping, but to the harder task of following Jesus, who taught us:

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Sermon for Jan. 16, 2011: The Slothful and the Hungry; the Beatitudes and the Seven Deadly Sins

Proverbs 6:6-11

Matthew 5:3-10

The Slothful and the Hungry

I was in a conversation recently when the topic of trusting God versus working hard came up. I mentioned the Proverb about the hard-working ant, which my friend had not heard of. When I was growing up we used to read the Proverbs, so I was familiar with it. It thought you would like to hear it.

The first line is great: “Go to the ant, you lazybones” (Prov. 6:6)

by Ojforce

In the old King James it said, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard.”

We are in a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, paired with the Seven Deadly Sins (suggested by Jeff Cook’s book). The Beatitudes of Jesus define for us “the life well-lived,” the “blessed life.” The Seven Deadly Sins are the church’s best thinking on the fundamental obstacles we face as we try to live the way our Lord Jesus taught us to live. We all confront our natural tendency to engage in pride, envy, sloth, greed, lust, wrath, and gluttony.

So far we have looked at the deadly sin of pride as the opposite of the beatitude of being poor in spirit, and the sin of envy and the beatitude of mourning for the missing pieces in a world of suffering and pain.

Today we focus on the deadly sin of sloth, paired with the beatitude:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matt. 5:6)

Sloth? Us?

We don’t use the word “sloth” any more – it’s archaic now. We are more likely to use words

sloth?

like “laziness or indolence” today. We normally use words like that for people who won’t get up out of bed or off the couch and go out and get a job or go out and cut the grass when it needs cutting. That kind of sloth is clearly wrong; and like the Proverb about the ant said,

10.  A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,   11. and poverty will come upon you like a robber, (Proverbs 6)

In a different setting I might spend some time on that topic, but I don’t think that’s our problem here. Most of us are people who have worked hard all our working lives. We take care of our homes and our automobiles, and a great number of us work in the church and our community. So, we can check “sloth” off the list of sins that we deal with, right? Not so fast.

If we think about sloth, not as “not doing anything” but as “not doing the things that need to be done” we may open the door to new rooms that need some cleaning out.

Sloth as Trivial Pursuits

In our culture we have endless opportunities to spend most of our lives in trivial pursuits, to the neglect of doing things that need to be done. A life spent in trivial pursuits is a life of sloth.

Now, of course I am not against entertainment in general, or sports, or shopping or festivities – even Jesus took time out for fishing and for wedding celebrations (which were multi-day events in his time). He even supplied the wine for the party.

But I am talking about a life in which there is little or no time for making a difference in the world, or in the community, or in the life of the church because trivia is given first priority.

Just as in stewardship season I challenged us to examine our giving compared to the amount

hours

we spend on entertainment and travel, so I think we are called to examine the amount of hours we give to entertaining ourselves compared to the time we spend making a difference in the world. Sloth is letting meaningful things remain undone because our time is consumed with trivial pursuits.

I’ll never forget the rhyme I heard as a young person at a camp one summer:

“Some men die in battle, some go down in flames,

others die by inches, playing silly games.”

I do not want “silly games” to sum up my life. That is not the blessed life that Jesus taught us to live.

Sloth as Apathy

There is another kind of sloth besides trivial pursuits: it is the sloth of apathy. One of the

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worst words of the modern world (said with a dismissive sigh) is, “Whatever.” People say, “whatever” when they hear about something they don’t want to be bothered about. It literally means, “I don’t care.”

“There are people without homes.” “Whatever.”

“There are families who cannot afford both food and utilities and medicine” “Whatever.”

“There is genocide in Africa.” “Whatever.”

“There is a great injustice in our home-owners insurance system.” “Whatever.”

A person may be a workaholic but care nothing about poverty, hunger, access to health care or the horrific state of many of our prisons – and this apathy is the sin of sloth. It is wrong not to care.

Sloth as Spiritual Laziness

Besides trivial pursuits and apathy, there is one more way in which we all struggle with sloth: spiritual laziness.

Something that is often harder for us to do than cutting the grass, doing the laundry or grocery shopping is prayer. It takes discipline. It takes motivation. It takes time. It’s not obvious right away that anything comes of it. The same with reading scripture with attention to it’s message for our own lives. And because it is not easy, we make excuses for not doing it, and then we believe our own excuses.

How is this compatible with the greatest commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matt. 22:37)

The Seven Deadly Sins are real obstacles. Our natural, default way of living, unless we consciously, daily work on our spiritual lives is to be people of pride, envy, sloth, greed, lust, wrath, and gluttony. To neglect the spiritual battle is sloth. And this is why there are so many Christians who have made so little progress. Sloth.

Hunger and Thirsting to be Put Right

The alternative to the life of sloth is the beatitude:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matt. 5:6)

Righteousness simply means being “put right.” Blessed are those who long for things to be put right, for their hunger and thirst will be filled.

Hungry to be Personally Put Right

This hunger and thirst to be put right starts with our longing to be put right personally. No one gets through life without damage. All of us have our dark sides, our weaknesses, our wounded parts. All of us have developed bad habits, inappropriate ways of relating to others, dysfunctional responses to the pain in our lives. We all need to be put right.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to be put right personally. Blessed are those who care that there is a gap between who they are and who they should be. Blessed are those who discipline themselves daily – with the same dedication that they make sure they get daily food and water – to be put right. Blessed are those who do not follow the path of least resistance, the slothful path, but who hunger and thirst to be transformed by God’s Holy Spirit in that incremental, daily way that the Spirit works as we daily submit ourselves to him.

Hungry for the World to be Put Right

But our Hunger and Thirst to be put right does not stop with ourselves. Blessed are those who

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hunger and thirst for the world to be put right: for wars to end, for corruption to cease, for human rights to be upheld, for justice to be done.

Blessed are those whose hunger and thirst for a world put right is so strong that it motivates them to think, pray, organize, vote, and act to make a difference. Blessed are those who volunteer in organizations working to put right things that are wrong, such as hunger, poverty, injustice and discrimination and intolerance.

Blessed are those who refuse to live the slothful life of trivial pursuits, apathy and spiritual laziness, but who hunger and thirst so much to be put right themselves, and for the world to be put right, that they respond with action and dedication.

Blessed are those with this kind of hunger and thirst, for they will be filled. They will know the deep satisfaction that comes from living a life of meaning and purpose. They will know the joy and peace that comes from a day spent giving of oneself. They will know how God’s presence is more real to those who “love the Lord with all their heart, soul and strength.”