The Finale

Sermon on the Mount Series #11 for May 18, 2014, Fifth Sunday of Easter 2014

Matt. 7:24–29

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.47.50 AM

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

The Finale

We have had more than our share of rain and flooding recently. The power of rushing water is amazing. It can wash out a paved road that seemed as permanent as the ground we walk on in almost no time. Flood waters sweep away bridges, people’s homes, even whole suburbs and towns, leaving utter destruction behind.

Our hearts go out to the people who have suffered loss and damage. We are a part of bringing help and relief to many through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

So, it is a bit jarring that the text we read from Matthew is about a flood and the damage it can do. The images of all this destruction are fresh in our minds, so I guess, if we were ever in a good position to hear the warning in these words of Jesus, it is now.

The Grand Finale to the Sermon

He speaks of two houses; one remains standing. The other experiences total destruction. It is more than a little ominous. This is the grand finale to the Sermon on the Mount, the culmination of the great inaugural moment in Jesus’ ministry as presented to us in Matthew’s gospel.

The story of the wise and foolish builders is about looking at our lives from the perspective of the end. All of us will die one day; we are mortal. No one knows when the end will come for us.

This was brought home to us powerfully Thursday night. We were at the awards assembly at the high school. A family in the community created a scholarship to go to a promising music student, by which to honor the memory of their musically gifted son, who died before finishing his Sophomore year of college. Just over two years before his death, he was there at high school awards night, looking sharp, with a promising future ahead, or so everyone believed.

So, the question is, what will it all have meant? Why are we given these days? What will those who follow us, have to say about our lives when they are over?Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.50.40 AM

Wasting Life

A few years ago I heard a song about a person who so wasted his life that the writer wondered if he would also waste his death as well – what a horrible thought! He sang, “You wasted life, why wouldn’t you wast the afterlife?” Talk about a house built upon the sand! (Modest Mouse: “Ocean Breathes Salty”)

No matter how many days we are given, it is going to seem like a short life at the end. This is what everyone tells me; even people in their 90’s. “The time just flew by,” people say. “It seemed like only yesterday….”

So what is gong to make the difference? What will make the house we are building with our lives stand all the way to the end, despite the many storms, and even torrential floods we all face?Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.53.22 AM

The Wisdom Tradition Approach

Jesus answers the question with a proverb; a wisdom story. Using a well known Jewish approach, just as we find in books like Proverbs, Jesus tells a wisdom story. There are two builders, one wise and the other foolish. As in the wisdom tradition, there are only two paths, and you get to chose one or the other. One is the path of wisdom, the other, folly.

In the wisdom tradition, the path of wisdom may not be the easy one, nor the one taken by the majority, it may go through the narrow gate, instead of the broad one, but it is the only one that leads to life and fruitfulness in the end. The wise path is the one that withstands the floods and avoids destruction.Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.55.43 AM

The Jewish wisdom tradition grew out of a strong conviction that the world was not merely random and left to chance and accident. There is a God who is good behind this world, and so there are observable patters that reveal themselves to those who pay attention. We can learn from common sense observations.
So, even the lowly ants can teach us wisdom like about the necessity of preparing food in summer, and gathering the harvest ahead of the coming winter. The wise person is not the lazybones who avoids labor, but, even without a boss commanding, she prepares for the future. (Prov. 6:8)

So, Jesus asks us to look with wisdom at two builders and their different architectural strategies. Both are building houses. The difference is the foundation. One builds on solid rock, the other on sand. When the inevitable storms and floods come, as they did every rainy season in Jesus’ Palestine, as the do in every life today, the outcome was dramatically different, and entirely predictable. The house built on the rock stood firm, while the house on the sand collapsed in ruin.

A Covenant Renewal Moment with a Twist

It is important to pause here to notice something significant and powerful that is going on at this moment in the Sermon on the Mount. As we have seen in previous weeks, Matthew is making a lot of parallels between Jesus and Moses. Jesus is, like Moses was, standing on a mountain, delivering God’s instructions for the newly formed community. So it is a covenant renewal occasion.

Covenants in those times, typically included a list of blessings you would receive for keeping faithful to the covenant, and curses you would face for unfaithfulness. That is how Moses’ covenant renewal ceremony ends in the book of Deuteronomy: blessings and curses.

Jesus began his sermon with blessings: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, blessed are those who mourn, the meek, the peacemakers, and so on. So will Jesus, like Moses, end the covenant renewal ceremony with threatening curses?

No. Jesus taught us a new way to conceive of God. The God Jesus showed us is not like an easily offended, brutal king, but rather like a loving Heavenly Father who desires our very best, our human flourishing.Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.57.43 AM

Inevitable Consequences of Foolishness

But behavior still has consequences, even if God is not just a curse-happy king. The consequences are clearly observable to the wise. It is possible to live life in such a way as to end up having built a house of substance that stands, or one that falls.

But is the difference as common sense as it sounds? As simple as rock vs sand? Maybe not. According to Jesus, the difference between a wasted life and one that finally meant something meaningful is weather or not his his teachings were both heard and followed.

This is why it’s not as simple and clear cut as sand vs stone. Jesus’ teachings are often at odds with common sense wisdom. They are even sometimes the opposite of what observable common sense teaches.

For example, Jesus taught “blessed are the meek.” But the meek do not normally “inherit the earth.” In fact, as they say, “nice guys finish last.

Jesus taught “blessed are the poor.” But, The poor, even poor “in spirit” alone, do not seem at all blessed.

And Jesus taught “blessed are the peacemakers.” But, who wants to be a peacemaker, rather than the winner?Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 11.59.09 AM

What We Have Come To

True enough, Jesus’ teachings often ran counter to common sense wisdom. But the consensus view of common sense wisdom has given us — what? Common sense “wisdom” has given us the world as it is. How is this working out for us?

The way of the world is that the strong usually oppress the weak, the majority discriminate against minorities. The 1% rich dominate the 99% non-rich, and the gap between the two widens every day.

Money influences politics at absurd levels now, and is set to get exponentially worse, especially after the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates.

And even sixty years after Brown vs. Board of Education we have not solved the problem of the racial divide in our country – in fact it may even be getting worse in some respects.

Our prisons – the whole system is dysfunctional, ineffective, and horrific. And we still have not grown up and taken responsibility for protecting our fragile Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 12.00.43 PMplanet, since it might cost us money.

Getting Personal

It gets personal too. Common sense wisdom has given us what one person described as the conditions in the retirement community. One person there, reportedly, always arrives, thinking he needs to fill up the whole room with his own voice. Another only keeps playing card games as long as she is winning. Yet another almost continually purposefully irritates someone else while playing table games.

This is amazingly sad. Here are people filling their final days in discord. What a fallen house they have built.

The Jesus Alternative Way

Jesus taught the opposite way, the alternative path. The Jesus path is the life of trust in a good, loving Heavenly Father that cares for us so that we can live without anxiety or stinginess, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

He taught us the value of prayer, and of the absolute necessity of practicing forgiveness as we have been forgiven.

He taught us that money must not become a god, for it would surely displace God as God, with disastrous consequences.

He taught us that enemies were exactly the people we are supposed to love, and that true piety was never a matter of public display.

He told us “do not judge.” Take the log out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.Screen Shot 2014-05-17 at 12.02.12 PM

And to sum it up he said,

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

This is the solid rock to build on. This is the life that is truly meaningful; the life not wasted in self-absorbed narcissism, selfishness, apathy, nor the life squandered in domination and control. This house, based on hearing and putting into disciplined daily practice, his teaching is the truly wise choice.

I have said before here a few lines from a poem I heard long ago that made such an impression on me that I will never forget.

Some folks die in battle,
some go down in flames.
Others die by inches,playing silly games.”

Some build houses on the rock, others on sand. Some put into daily practice the teachings of Jesus; most, do not. The outcomes are dramatically, different.

One thing is certain: more storms are coming. There will be floods.

The question is, on what are we building our houses, today? Which outcome awaits us?

 

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WWIW

Sermon on Matt. 7:12;  April 6, 2014;  Lent 5, Year A

Matt. 7:12  

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.26.02 PM

WWIW 

When I was a child we used to get a magazine for children called Highlights Kids.  I always looked forward to the hidden picture puzzles.  There would be a hand drawn picture using black ink on a white background, which included a dozen or so easily recognizable objects hidden in plain sight.  The goal was to find them all.  They could be anything from a hammer to an ice-cream cone, from a toothbrush to a fork, all there to be found and colored.

Things  hidden in plain site is what this “Golden Rule” text is like.  Right here, towards the finale of the first teaching of Jesus that launches his public ministry, the way Matthew tells it, is this perfectly plain and simple teaching:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”

It is not just a simple and good idea; for Jesus, this is the boiled down essence of everything the whole story of God in the bible was all about.  He said,

“for this is the law and the prophets.”

In which situations does it apply?  He said, “In everything.”  No limits, no exceptions.

In some respects, this is nothing new at all. In fact this is the exact implication of a teaching that goes all the way back to Moses himself, Leviticus 19:18

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In another place, Jesus called this the second greatest commandment, right up there with the first commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

This simple teaching asks us to consider exactly one question as we interact with other people throughout our lives.  There is no mystery, no moral confusion, no secret knowledge or philosophical sophistication required. We are to ask ourselves, WWIW.  What would I want.Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.37.52 PM

Some people wear the bracelets with the letters WWJD, to remind themselves to ask, “What would Jesus Do?”  But for Jesus, it is even simpler than that: we only need to ask “What would I want?”

This is so simple and obvious, so “in plain sight” as a moral imperative, that neither Jesus nor Moses was the first to realize it.

Universally Known

If you were in Bible Study Thursday you heard as we read this same “Golden Rule” teaching, “do to others as you would have them do to you”  or the same thing said in the negative, “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other” said by people around the world and throughout history.

In ancient China, Confucius said, [these quotes are from the Wikipedia page on the Golden Rule]

“Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Lao-tze said,Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.46.23 PM

“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”

The ancient Egyptians have a text that says,

“That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”

In ancient Greece, Plato recounts Socrates saying,

“…it has been shown that to injure anyone is never just anywhere”

In Ancient Rome,  Seneca said,Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.47.14 PM

“expect from others what you did to them”

And yes, this teaching also appears in the Muslim’s bible, the Quran, written centuries after Jesus.

Hidden

So if this is such a clear and simple teaching, why would I call it hidden in plain sight?  In what sense is it hidden?  Only in the sense that throughout the history of the church from its early days to the present, people have felt so free to ignore it.Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.48.45 PM

I can illustrate it this way; most of our solid teachings of what is considered correct theology or “orthodoxy” are the result of theological controversies settled in ecumenical church councils.

We all know about the Nicene creed.  This was agreed to as the result of the council of Nicea in 325.  This council sought to end the “Arian Controversy” by affirming that Jesus, the Son of God, was “begotten” but not “made” and being of the “same substance” with the Father.

The church had split into factions over the issue of Jesus’ relationship to the Father, and whether he was of the “same substance” or only a “similar substance.”  So great was the conflict in the 4th century that there were street battles between mobs of Christians on opposing sides who used violence against each other. [see: Hellenic Heritage and Christian Challenge: Conflict over Panhellenic Sanctuaries in Late Antiqity, by Amelia Robertson Bown, chapt. 25 of Violence in Late Antiquity: Perceptions and Practices, edited by Harold Allen Drake]

The fact that neither Jesus nor the bible anywhere says anything about the essence of God nor of Jesus, and the odd question about how humans could ever know these things for themselves, should give us pause.  The fact that Christians were willing to use political force, threats, intimidations, banishment’s and even mob violence over  these esoteric imponderables should make us blush.

It was the Christian church, we will recall, that launched the inquisition, banned books and burned witches in its long dark history.  And all of this in the face of such clear, simple, teaching of Jesus.  Christian duty can be summed up simply as this:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

There it is; hiding in plain sight.

What Would I Want?

Asking this one question: “What would I want?” in other words, “How would I want to be treated?” can eliminate the need for the commandments: “Thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery, bear false witness,” and even the positive commandment to “honor your father and mother.”  Of course I would not want to be killed or stolen from, cheated on, or lied to.  Of course I would want my children to honor my parental role.

It even answers questions like “How should I treat the environment?  What kind of condition should I leave the world in for my grandkids?”

So, this is a call to have an active imagination.  All that is necessary to know how God calls us to live is to simply imagine what it would be like to walk in someone else’s shoes – or moccasins –  yes, the native Americans also had this concept.Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 7.53.56 PM

The Original Position and the Veil of Ignorance

What is true for personal issues is also true for public concerns.  A famous American philosopher, John Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves in the “original position” of getting to make all the rules for how humans will relate to each other; the rules of justice.  We get to decide everything about the rules for what is just and right, but with one condition:  we will have to be a character, living in the world whose rules of justice we make, but we are not allowed to know anything about who we will be.  We decide justice behind the “veil of ignorance.”

So how will we write the rules for this world, if we cannot know in advance if we will be a rich person or a poor person?  What rules will we make if we do not know if we are going to be in the world as a man or a woman?  What will justice be if we do not know in advance if we will be able-bodied or disabled, or mentally challenged, or diseased, or aged, or Congolese or Chinese, Muslim or Catholic, straight or gay?

The reason this imaginative exercise is so brilliant is that it simply asks us to do the same thing Jesus asked us to do: consider how the world would look if you were in another person’s skin.

Examples

Let’s try it.

An African boy

You are an 8 year old boy, full of energy and curiosity, both naive and mischievous, born into an African family in a village near the coast of Senegal in  1785.  How does justice look to you when the salve traders sweep into your village and capture your parents and your sister, leaving you watching from up in the mango tree?

A Pritchard girl

Or, you are a 13 year old girl, who did not ask to be, but who was born to an unwed, addicted mother who was still in high school in Pritchard, Alabama.  You watch how the string of men who come and go from the house look at you, and it scares you.  You already know that even if you are among those who stay in school until graduation, almost no one goes to college.  No one, besides fast food restaurants maid services and Walmart, ever hires people like you.  And when they do, even working full time you will still be poor enough for food stamps.

A woman I know (true story)

Or, you are a professional woman with a college degree and a good job working in the technology division of a bank when suddenly you have a car accident that leaves you with a traumatic brain injury.  Now, even the slightest thing makes you filled with unbearable anxiety and fear.  Your impulse control part of the brain was damaged in the accident and so you say things you shouldn’t.  Nobody wants to be your friend, so you spend your days in loneliness and aimlessness.  You threaten suicide and while you are locked up in the mental hospital you miss a rent payment.  Upon release, you discover that they have changed the locks  of your apartment, having cleared out all your belongings and put them somewhere in storage.  What would you want to happen next?

In every case, the simple act of imagining ourselves in other people’s positions, asking “How would I want to be treated?”  tells us what we should do.

Excuses

But what about exceptional circumstances?  What if someone else strikes the first blow?  What if someone says something insulting or offensive, or intentionally hurtful to us?  What if their behavior is simply inexcusable?  What if they did wrong?  Then are we free to respond in kind?  Then does this mandate go away?  Then are we off the moral hook?   Well, how does it sound to you?:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 8.03.14 PM

Spiritual Maturity Defined

This, then defines spiritual maturity.  This is the test of our true condition.  Every time we treat others the way we would want to be treated, we demonstrate our true character.

This teaching expects us to be the adults in the room, even when others are behaving badly.   No double standards; one rule for everyone; ourselves included.  We are the ones who absorb instead of returning the wrongs.  In this, we are called to imitate Jesus himself, as Paul tells us:

“Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor.   For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” (Romans 15)

So we have gone from the personal to the public and now back to the personal realm.  In the kingdom of God, it is a seamless cloth.  We are to walk in this world, in both our personal lives and in our public and political lives as those who understand, believe, and put into practice the essence of the Jesus—kingdom—love ethic:

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”

This, then, is an act of trust in God.  If there is a score to settle, we leave it with God.  If there is a price to be paid in order to accomplish justice, then we trust that after we have paid it, we will still have enough, so it is okay to part with it.  If there is moral courage, patience, and strength we need, God, through the present Spirit will supply it in full measure.

Let us assert our trusting commitment to bring this command out into the light.  Christians, this is our calling:

 

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”

 

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Prayer and the Good Father

Sermon for Lent 4, Year A,  March 30, 2014, Sermon on the Mount Series on Matthew 7:7-11

Matthew 7:7-11
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Prayer and the Good FatherScreen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.28.32 AM

I want to talk about prayer today because there is one aspect of prayer that I am an expert in: I’m an expert in not getting what I ask for. I pray for peace, but the wars just keep going, and new ones pop up frequently. I pray for unity in the church, but churches keep splitting. I pray that our political leaders would be wise, just and compassionate, and look what we get instead. I could go on, but you get the point.

I know lots of the verses in the bible about prayer, like the ones we read today, that seem to promise quite a bit. We heard today that “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened,” but we know that lots of times nothing is received, the seeking does not end in finding, and the door stays shut.

Other times, though, prayer does seem to work. We pray for safe travel and we arrive safely. We pray for healing, and our loved ones recovered. We pray for our church’s future when things look bleak, and we are blessed by a generous bequest.

So, that leaves us wondering what to expect. This is personal to each of us. We have all been on hospital beds looking up at the ceiling lights, praying for good outcomes. We have all prayed many prayers for loved ones with cancer, and heart disease and all the other things that can go wrong with our bodies.

Promises and Caveats

Everyone who prays knows not to automatically expect to get what we want. There are these odd little caveats that come up in bible verses on prayer. Jesus once said “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” but before that he said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,” which puts an oddly vague condition on the “whatever.” (John 15).

He tells us that we will receive anything we ask for “in his name” – which again seems to make it possible to ask in a way that is not “in his name” – and we have heard sermons on what that could possibly mean.

Some verses, like in James, tell us to pray in faith, because if we doubt we will not receive anything. That one is particularly unsatisfying because if the very nature of prayer is that nothing is automatically guaranteed, how could we not have at least a measure of doubt.

In fact the more we are desperate for the prayer to work because the situation is dire, the more reasons there are for doubt; the cancer has spread, the breathing is worse, the medicine does not seem to be working.

The oddest thing is that sometimes, even when we have doubted, it seems the prayers were answered anyway.Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.30.57 AM

Jesus too

We cannot beat ourselves up about this, as if it is our fault for not meeting all the vague criteria when prayers are not answered: even Jesus himself experienced prayer requests that were refused. In the garden, on the night of his arrest, he famously asked for the bitter cup of suffering pass from him – but instead he had to drink that cup to the bottom. His request was refused.

Prayer has fundamental questions built into it. They are conundrums: we will never solve them. We could ask:
Why pray, since we are not telling God anything God does not already know?
Or, we could ask, does God need to be coaxed or begged to do good? Clearly not.Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.33.36 AM

Prayer Questions off the Table

But though there are mysteries, this teaching of Jesus on prayer does something extremely important. It takes some of our prayer questions off the table.
The most difficult question that we ever raise is the “why?” question. I just saw that twenty years after writing a book on prayer, Philip Yancey has a new one coming out entitled, “The Question that Never Goes Away” – and that question is “why?”

Why are our prayer requests sometimes rejected? Why do people we love suffer? Why do they die before reaching old age? Why do bad things happen, even when we pray.

The Fault Fear

The biggest issue for all of us is that we fear that we know the answer, and the answer is us. We fear that we are at fault. We fear that we are the reason the prayers were not answered. We were not good enough, or we were not praying in the right way, or the right quantity, or worse, we are being punished for past sins.

This is exactly what Jesus is taking off the table. These dark thoughts are simply wrong. It is not the case that God punishes us by rejecting our prayer requests, or holds out on us until we fulfill a list of vague requirements.

How do I know? Why am I sure? Because I would never do that to one of my sons, and Jesus invites us to make exactly that comparison.

Listen again:

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.35.01 AM

Once when my son was little we had just gotten an ice cream cone. As we were walking, he held the cone at an angle instead of straight up, and the ice-cream fell to the ground. Immediately he burst into tears. The look of despair he made I will never forget. It pulled at my heart! I bent down and comforted him and assured him that we would replace it.

If I, being evil, in other words a fallible human being, not good, as God alone is good, if I know how to do the right thing as a loving father, “how much more will our Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him?”

Yes, we are authorized to make the comparison. God is like us fathers, only much better than we humans can be.

God is at issue

So this teaching on prayer ends up really being a teaching on the nature and character of God. Sometimes to answer one question you need to put it in a broader context.Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.36.48 AM

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks his wife of 25 years, “Do you love me?” Golde responds, “Do I love you? For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, Cooked your meals, cleaned your house, Given you children, milked the cow.”

Every question about prayer is, in the end, a wider question about God. And it is a question about his love for us.

Here is the point: would even an earthly father give a child who was hungry for bread a stone instead? Would he withhold something good just to punish with a pay-back some insult to his ego?

A pompous, insecure king might, but is God like that?
No, Jesus tells us. God is like a loving father, only so much more than we humans ever could be. He is more loving, more kind, more merciful, more gracious, Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 9.52.52 AMmore generous, and infinitely wiser.

Now there were times when my sons cried for something that I refused – like staying up later than bed time, or an ice cream cone before supper. I’m sure God feels put into that position by our many silly, selfish or self-indulgent requests.

We have all sung a long like, “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” – right?

But we have also prayed for healings, for someone’s survival, for all kinds of things that we did not receive. We knocked but the door stayed shut.

One Question AnsweredScreen Shot 2014-03-29 at 10.16.54 AM

This teaching does not answer the why question that never goes away, except that it takes one answer off the table. God does not use rejected requests as punishments. No good father would do that. God is good. God would never do that.

This teaching invites us to consider God our Father

  • not as an impersonal spiritual force,
  • not like a capricious, moody Zeus,
  • and not like an easily offended and vengeful monarch.

Those ideas are simply immature and mistaken. God is our heavenly Father as Jesus repeatedly called him. God, as Father, longs for our relationship to him, which includes frequent, honest, open communication. Ask, Seek, Knock. He is listening.

So, when you are on that bed, or beside that bed in the hospital, when you are still awake at night because of concerns that will not let you sleep, even when you are in doubt that anything good could happen, know this: you are not being punished by God.

Rather, do this: pray. Ask. Seek. Knock.

The one you are asking is your heavenly father, so keep asking.

The one you are seeking something good from loves you.

The one on the other side of the door is the father who has invited you to knock, so keep knocking.

And then trust your Heavenly Father with the outcomes.

The mystery will not go away, and the questions will not be answered. But we can at least know who it is we are praying to; our Father is Good. He loves us. Trust him.


Practical Implications

The personal is political and the political is personal.

If we can imagine God caring for us as a good Father, how could we not imagine his care for all of the human begins on this planet whom he made “in his image?”

If we can imagine that God does care for each person, whom are we free not to care for?

If we can understand our own personal needs and ask the Father to meet them – for financial security, for decent wages, for reliable affordable housing and health care, for a decent education, to be treated fairly, humanly, and justly, how could we not see that these needs are shared by all people and work to achieve them?

If we can pray for the safety of our sons an daughters in uniform, how can we not see that our enemy’s soldiers are sons and daughters as well, and to work, pray, and vote for peaceful solutions?

If we can pray that our children and their children are able to live on a planet which sustains them with clean water, air, and uncontaminated soil, how could we not set ourselves to working to promote policies that protect our environment?

 

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The Log and the Moral High Ground

Sermon on Matthew 7:1-6 for Lent 3 A, March 16, 2014

 Matthew 7:1-6

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 

 “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 10.22.19 AM

Once, Michelle and I were invited over to another couple’s home for dinner.  When we walked in we both noticed a brown blotch on the dining room wall at about at eye level.  It looked like a coffee cup had been thrown.   The atmosphere between the host couple was icy.  We could tell that it was not going to be a fun time.

We have all had that experience of being in a place in which the relationships have become toxic.  It happens between couples, married or not, between siblings, in families, in organizations, in churches – in fact, no place where people gather is free from the danger of toxicity.   When it happens, it sucks the oxygen out of the room.  The joy is gone.  People turn to all kinds of coping strategies that range from pathetic and immature to down right destructive and harmful.

There is an Alternative

It does not have to be that way.  There is another way to be.  Even toxic relationships can be healed and transformed.  It is easy.  But it is hard.  It is easy to know what needs to be done.  It is hard to do it.Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 10.34.26 AM

This teaching of Jesus that we have read is about how to have relationships that do not become toxic.  Why is it here?  Jesus is not a marriage and family therapist nor an organizational consultant.  But here, in the Sermon on the Mount, the first major set of teachings of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is laying the groundwork for his new community.

We have noticed how Jesus is being presented to us by Matthew as the new Moses, teaching from the new mountain the new Torah.  Think about it for a moment: what was the occasion when Moses went up Mt. Sinai and came down with the tablets of Torah?  It was the exodus from slavery to freedom.  That was the formative event for the people of God, the Israelites.

Moses was forming a new community with a new identity.  The Torah told them how they were to live together as a community bound together by covenant.

Now, Jesus is forming a renewed community, bound together by a new covenant, and giving us instructions about how to live together.  This new community is supposed to be a radically alternative to the way humans often function together.  Instead of power and wealth, this community values meekness and poverty of spirit.  It values peacemaking over tactics, games and strategies.  It values purity of heart over devious schemes and duplicity.   This is supposed to be a healthy and health-giving, community; a joy and pleasure to be a part of.

So what is to keep it from becoming just another toxic group of frustrated, angry, bitter people?  This teaching is how.  We can sum it up easily: don’t be judgmental, and be hard on yourself before you find fault in others.

The Problem of High Ideals

But it starts with a big problem.  A community that has high ideals and high standards like ours is even more vulnerable to becoming toxic, precisely Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 10.32.09 AMbecause of its high standards.  We know what kind of life  is congratulated as “blessed” and what kind is not.  A high-standards community is uniquely vulnerable to becoming a judgmental community as we hold one another accountable to those high standards.

We in the church have to face this squarely.  Most of the world that surrounds us believes that we are experts in being judgmental.  We have a well-earned reputation.  We have, in the past, made people wear scarlet letters.  We have shamed people.  We have, for example, looked down our noses at tattoos and body piercings, as if they were signs of inner darkness, and we have been blind to our own pettiness and arrogance.

So, this is going to be a difficult one for us to handle.   Our own high standards make being judgmental feel appropriate, like we are holding the moral high ground.

The Key: Holding Ourselves to the Standard

The key, according to Jesus, is that our high standards should be the standards we hold ourselves to.  Our attitude towards others has to be tolerance and forgiveness, as Jesus has already taught.

Every time we feel the urge to wag the finger we should remember what they told us as children: at least three other fingers point back at ourselves.

People of the Log

But here is the problem.  We do not see ourselves as we are.  We all have a log in our eyes when it comes to sober self-awareness.  All of us.Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 10.30.13 AM

When I was in seminary we were having a discussion, probably theological, I do not recall, but at one point my friend said you me, “You really like to argue.”  I said immediately, “No I don’t!” I wanted to argue with him about it.  He was a counseling major so he knew what to say when people were being ridiculous, so he told me, “You may wish to check out that perception.”  In other words: “wrong!”  What was obvious to him and probably everybody, I was blind to.

It happens all the time.  This is part of what being married is for.  Michelle tells me I don’t open doors normally, I burst into a room – I never knew that about myself.  She tells me often that my tone of voice is too sharp.  It doesn’t feel sharp to me.   She tells me I look angry sometimes – to me, concern of all kinds makes me frown.  I talk too fast – but it doesn’t feel fast to me. This list could go on and on.

We are all like this; we are simply unaware of aspects of ourselves that are blatantly obvious to everyone else.

Judges, All

And, we are experts at finding flaws in other people.  We people of high personal standards are better at holding other people to those standards than holding ourselves to them.  And so, we judge people.  We criticize, we complain to other people, we fire off sharp emails, we punish with stony silence or glares or sharp retorts, or leaving, or worse.  And our relationships become poisoned and toxic.

It does not have to be this way.  We can have healthy relationships.  We can have health-giving relationships which are a joy and source of life to us.

It starts with the person in the mirror.  We are the ones required to turn off the judgmentalism.  We are the ones required to take the log out, because it is in our eye.

Starting with the Self

But it hurts because this is all about ego; it is all about our pride.  It is all about our need to be right and to prove to everyone that we are right.  This is what Richard Rohr calls our false self, or our small self.

The false self wants to look good.  It wants to win.  It gets all ego-invested in its own ideas so that it becomes protective and defensive.  Alternative points of view are threatening.  The small self sees the world dualistically, as either-or, black or white, all or nothing, win or lose.  There can be no compromise, no gray areas, no ambiguity or uncertainty.  It has to hold the moral high ground.  The judgmental person is operating out of this false self.

This is how we all started.  This is characteristic of what is supposed to be, as Rohr says, first half of life issues.  But we are supposed to grow out of the false self in the second half of life.  The true self is who we are in God – beloved, precious, forgiven, found, non-dual.

The Two Paths to the Second Half of Life

So how do we get from false self to true self?  What pushes us from judgmentalism to open-heartedness?   What helps us go from the dualistic first half of life to the non-dual second half of life?  Rohr is right, I believe, to suggest that there are only two means: suffering and contemplative practices.Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 9.33.04 AM

We will all suffer.  That is a given.  That is what it means to be a mortal human being.  All of us have experienced suffering, and all of us will.  For many, the suffering will become our teacher.  We will learn what is important and what is ephemeral; what is of lasting significance and what is the thin veneer.  We will learn to see the ego for the small sham that it is, and let go of its petty pretensions.

The other path to the second half of life is the path of contemplation.  This gets us back to the theme of Christian spiritual practices.   In contemplative or centering prayer, we are silent.

In silence, we say no to the constant chattering of our internal monologue.  We take a break from the continual judgments we make as we narrate our experience to ourselves – telling ourselves why we like this color and not that one, or how this driver is bad or how that facial expression was meant to hurt us.  We turn off the ego-centered voice, and put in its place a sacred word that anchors us in the present moment, non-judgmentally, letting it be just as it is.

It Works

I can tell you that this practice of silent, contemplative prayer has had an effect on me.  I can tell you also that Michelle wishes it to be much quicker and more effective – transformation takes time.  I have a long way to go, but I can tell it is working.  Now when I hear her tell me that my tone was sharp, I am sometimes able to listen and consider it, whereas before, I simply “knew” she was mistaken.  I cannot see the log in my own eye, but I can slowly become open to learning that it is there.

Jesus is forming us as a new community.  A non-toxic community.  In fact a healthy and health-giving community.  It is a community of high standards.  It knows what is holy and sacred, and protects its values from being cast aside and trampled.

But  the members of this community know how to hold ourselves accountable to our high standards without being judgmental and fault-finding of others.  We know how to forgive, and we do it, even seventy times seven if needed.

We daily grow and mature in faith by taking time for daily spiritual practices like silent contemplation.  The world is not used to us being this kind of community, but is desperate for us to be so.  It needs us to be this kind of community as much as it needs salt and light.  For if we become toxic, is there any hope?

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Jesus Meets Fibber McGee’s Closet

Sermon on Matthew 6:19-34, Lent 2, Year A, March 16, 2014

Sermon on the Mount Series

Matthew 6:19-34

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;  but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light;  but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

“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?   Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?   And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?   And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,   yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.   But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?   Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’   For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.   But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.03.36 PM

In the summers between years of college I painted houses, which gave me a lot of time to listen to the radio.  The public radio station in Cincinnati played old time radio shows like “The Shadow,” “The Great Gildersleeve,” and “Bob and Ray,” but one of the best, to me, was  “Fibber McGee and Molly.”   The show was about depression-era married couple whose domestic life provided an endless stream of jokes.

The best running joke was Fibber McGee’s closet, which he claimed to have arranged “just the way he wanted it” – meaning absolutely haphazardly.  It was so stuffed with junk that each time he opened the door, an avalanche buried him.  The sound effects were so good I could picture everything falling out, from the rusty horse-shoe to the ten-foot pole.

The scene is funny because, like all good humor, it is based in pain.  We all identify  with it.  We have closets full of clothing we do not wear.  We have junk drawers full of things we will never use because we do not even remember what is in them.  We have attics, garages, sheds, and even storage units full of stuff.

But we still get our heads turned by the garage sale merchandise sitting out in the yard as we drive by on Saturday morning, as if there was something more we needed.

Jesus and stuff

As I was reading a book on the Sermon on the Mount this week, I found a quote that summed up Jesus’ teaching here better than any other.

Jesus’ message can be reduced to these ideas: Live simply. Possessions are mysteriously idolatrous. Trust God.” –  Scott McKnight, Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary) (Kindle Location 4993). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Mysteriously idolatrous” is the phrase that jumped out.  It is so true.  It is not just that possessions have the capacity to become idols, but that that power they have is mysterious.  It us up there in mysteriousness with the power of sexual attraction and the fear of death.

Getting Practical

Bible Study, this past Thursday was about these same verses.  As I was finishing my preparation on Wednesday evening, I had a thought about how Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.07.49 PMto apply its teaching immediately in a practical way.  If you were there, you heard me suggest that we all go home and find something to throw away.  Go to that closet or that drawer or the shed, and find something we know we do not need, perhaps something we have not touched in the past two years, and get rid of it.

I suggested that if there was any resistance we felt, any inner tug to keep hanging on, we should make a mental note of it.  We should look at that feeling of resistance, and see how mysteriously attached we are to our stuff – even to stuff that our minds tell us we have no need of.

My Experience

Well, that idea came to me on Wednesday, with no time to practice what I was preaching.  But Friday morning, I got a couple of plastic bags, and headed for the closet.  One bag was for the thrift shop, the other for the trash.  In no time the thrift shop bag was full.  Of course it was.  There were shirts and pants I would never put on again.

But the clothes were still good.  They had value.  Styles had changed and I no longer wanted to wear them but they were still perfectly wearable.  Maybe I should hang on to them?  I felt that mysterious tug.  I told myself it was ridiculous to hesitate.  But the hesitation mysteriously remained.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.18.07 PM

Then I went to the junk drawer.  Tubes of glue and rolls of tape were there, along with screwdrivers, screws, plumbing parts and twist ties; a lot of potentially useful stuff.  But a lot of junk to throw away too.  At the bottom was an old dirty and corroded penny.

When I looked down at it I got the oddest feeling.  What do you do with an old dirty corroded penny.  I generally don’t even carry pennies around.  It’s not worth the time it would take to clean it.  But you don’t throw away money!   Mystery noted.  I put it in the coin jar in the closet.

How much is enough?

We have all heard sermons on these teachings of Jesus.  We know all about how Mammon is god-like, and how impossible it is to serve both the real God and Mammon at the same time.  We have heard about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, but we still feel that mysterious anxiety.

The age-old answer to the question, “How much is enough?” is still, absurdly, “a little  bit more.”

Twice in my life I have left nearly all my stuff behind and started over – not because I am a saint in this area, but out of sheer necessity.  The first time was  in 1991 when we had our own garage sale before going overseas with only our luggage.  It felt powerfully liberating.  The other time was a dozen years later when returned to the States with only our luggage.  Again, the feeling was amazing.

But, I have been home from overseas ten years now.  Now I have a house full of stuff.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.10.20 PM

Attachment and Needs

Many of us are near the time in our lives when down-sizing is necessary.  And yet we resist.  Why?  We need to sit with that question and let it sink in.  We need to ask about attachment, because that is what this is about.  We need to ask about our sense of security because that is what this is about too.

And then we need to ask the God question; the trust question: what would it mean to live in a way that demonstrated my attachments were not misplaced?  What would it mean to live trusting that my security is in the God of “the birds of the air and the lilies of the field”?

It is not as if we can live without food, clothing and shelter.  These days, we need all kinds of things from cars to medical care.  Life is complex and expensive.  There is frank realism in Jesus’ teaching.  He says,

“indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things”

But there are also many many things that we do not need that we keep spending money on.

The Mystery and its Effects

This is a profoundly mysterious issue.  In the wealthy Western world where we live, charitable giving, even by people earning over $60,000 averages only 2% – 3%.  And that amount includes donations to universities, to research and to all charitable organizations, not just to churches.  With all the money we have, we still believe we need to spend 97 or 98% of it on ourselves.

We even keep spending beyond our means as well.  The average US household credit card debt in 2013 was $15,252.  It is very hard to hear an appeal to help the hungry or the homeless when the credit card interest keeps accumulating.

Jesus’ teaching here is simple:

“Live simply. Possessions are mysteriously idolatrous. Trust God.”

Practical SuggestionsScreen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.14.33 PM

And yet this is about as hard as it gets.  So, I am going to offer some practical suggestions.

First, for those of us who are needing to down size but finding it difficult to let go of things that have sentimental value and memories associated with them, perhaps you might consider taking some thoughtful pictures.  Our phones have great cameras on them now.  Take a picture of the big dining room set, the couch, or whatever has the memory.  Keep the pictures, and then let the stuff go.

For all of us, whether downsizing now or not, I want to give us the same challenge that I gave in bible study: go home today and find something to throw away.  Let it go completely.  Don’t sell it, just treat it like trash.  The choice of what you throw out is completely yours.  Do this at least once each Sunday in Lent as a spiritual practice.  Practice intentional letting go.  Simplify.  Un-clutter.  Detach.

Next, go to the places where this stuff sits, year after year, and start thinning down.  Make a pile and take it to the thrift shop.  If you have not worn it or used it in the last two years, why do you still have it?

If you do have things of value that you no longer need, then give them away, or at least, sell them.  Put them on eBay or Craigslist.  Have a garage sale of your own.

And if any of this makes you struggle, if any of it puts a feeling of resistance or regret in your heart, notice it.  Acknowledge it for the powerful force that it is.   And then refuse to be a slave to that feeling.  It comes from Mammon, not from God.Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.15.55 PM

Give Away Money

Finally, give some money away.  Most of you have churches that you are members of up North.  When you go home, incase your pledge.  Even if it’s only by $10 or $20 a month, increase it.  Increase it every year.   It is not only because your church needs it; you and I need to give more of our money away.  Confront its mysterious power.  You have a choice.

Then, after you have increased your tithe, look around.  You and I have more than most of the world will ever imagine.  Where can you do some good with your money?  Find a cause, like literacy, or a problem, like malnutrition, and be a part of the solution.  Invest in a  micro-finance project t through an organization like Kiva.  Use your money to do some good and make a difference in the world.

Become the generous person God made you to be.  This is exactly what Jesus meant by “storing up treasures for Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 7.31.33 PMyourselves in heaven.”  Become liberated from the tyranny. Let loose; release; detach. You will feel better, less stressed, less anxious and less fearful.

Finally, let us hear this as a call to look at ourselves as we are, and to have a good laugh.  We are all Fibber McGee’s.  When you think about it, it is comical.  So, let’s open the closet door, cue the sound effects of the avalanche, then let’s do something about it.  Let us be followers of Jesus, determined to live simply, to say “no” to the mysterious power of possessions, and trust God.

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Reorientations and Ultimatums

Sermon on the Mount Series#6 The Lords Prayer and Forgiveness, Matthew 6:5-15, Feb 23, 2014

Matthew 6:5-15

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 9.27.15 AM
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;   but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Reorientations and Ultimatums

I met Michelle in college at a Christian student organization party.  She was the prettiest co-ed in the room, but as I started talking to her, I kept hearing her say a bad word.  She said, “we” – not referring to me.  She said things like, “We live off campus…we drive to campus in an old pickup truck.”

About whom could she be speaking?  I concluded that she was referring to her husband.  I thought she was married until she said another word; a wonderful word: “brother.”  The “we” was Michelle and her brother who were still living at home and commuting to campus together.  That radically changed the picture.  By the next weekend we had our first date.

Radically changing the picture is exactly what Jesus is doing.  And it is as thrilling as learning that the prettiest girl in the room is available.

Priority of Place

That’s why Matthew put it here, in the front end of his gospel, in the very first teaching that Jesus is doing – what we call the Sermon on the Mount.  After going around saying to the people, “repent” or “change your thinking” because “the kingdom of Heaven/God is here”  Jesus climbs up the mountain, just as Moses had done so long ago.  And, like the new Moses that he is, gives the new Torah or Instruction to the new family of God’s people, gathered there.

Blessed” he says, or “congratulations belongs to” the people who have Kingdom of God values – the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice.  They are the ones who “get it.”  These kinds of people, with these kinds of values, are as indispensable to the world as salt is in the diet and as light is to everything.

Last week we reflected on the sad fact that the world does not consider us indispensable.  Rather, they consider us church people judgmental and hypocritical.  We were reminded that it is only the habit of regular, even daily faith-practices that can lead to the kind of transformation we are all hoping for, especially the daily practice of meditation and prayer.

We noted that one-day-a-week, Sunday-only Christianity is incapable of producing transformed lives.  Sunday-only Christianity may be why non-church people expect so little of us.

But that is exactly why Jesus taught us to pray, and today we heard Jesus teaching us to regularly recite the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer.

Question: did Jesus make up this prayer from scratch?  Answer: No.  Jewish people in his time prayed a prayer as part of their daily practices.  They called it the Kaddish (or Qaddish) prayer.  Jesus took this prayer and radically transformed it.  It changes the whole picture for us in an amazing and powerful way.

I want to read the Kaddish prayer for you, and as I do, listen to the way God is conceived of, and listen for similarities with the Lord’s Prayer.  The first part will  be the Rabbi’s part, then there is a people’s response:

The Kaddish Prayer    

Magnified and sanctified be His great name in the world which He created according to His will. And may He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future, and say Amen. Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 9.40.06 AM

“Response: May His great Name be blessed forever and ever. 

Blessed, praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded by the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all blessings and hymns, praises and songs that are uttered in the world, and say Amen.”

I’m sure you heard similar concepts, like the hallowing of God’s sacred name and the expectation of the coming kingdom of God.  Those are like the first half of the Lord’s prayer.  “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Father Addition   

Jesus makes two changes that put everything in a radically new perspective.  First Jesus begins by addressing God as Father.  Yes, for Jesus, the One whose name is “blessed forever,”  the One who is “praised and glorified, exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded” is, at the same time,  “Abba,”  “Father,”  or “Daddy.”  It is almost embarrassingly intimate.

And now, the one praying is not like a peasant, groveling before a threatening monarch; but is rather the prince or princess; a child of the king.Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 9.53.37 AM

The People Addition

The other radical, picture-changing innovation that Jesus made to the Kaddish prayer is that he adds people.  The whole second half of the Lord’s prayer is about humans.  It talks about “us.”

Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

The prayer to the King who is also Father mentions common daily needs: enough food for the day, forgiveness from daily sins, a request to avoid times of overwhelming trial and rescue from the temptations to do evil.

This is amazing.  The Kaddish is oriented totally vertically – up and down – it’s about venerating God.  The Lord’s prayer adds to this vertical axis, a horizontal axis.  It is also about the daily common needs and concerns of people. Now the prayer is cross-shaped.

Jesus is going to do the same thing again.  He will radically transform the Jewish daily creed, the recitation of the greatest commandment to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, mind and strength” by adding the second commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  God and neighbor; cross shaped.  This is central to Jesus’ whole perspective.

As Jesus stands Moses-like on the mountain he is not only teaching like Moses, he is re-defining what it means to belong to the family of Abraham.  The people of the kingdom are people who have come to know the Holy God as Father, or Daddy.  And they are the ones who know how much God loves them – down to the daily bread concerns of life; down to forgiveness of daily lapses.

God’s Kind of Communities

This gets very specific: the God who cares about us humans, down to the daily-bread, level wants desperately for us to live in the kind of community that nurtures us spiritually.  But he knows that this is not likely.  It is not common.  It is not the default condition of a community of humans.

Rather, toxic communities are common.  Communities of alienation in which the well is poisoned, in which there is bad blood, broken relationships, bitterness and grudges and resentment is the rule.Screen Shot 2014-02-22 at 10.02.38 AM

The Forgiveness Mandate    

And so, to be a part of this new Jesus-movement, to be a kingdom person, it is required that we are forgivers of the wrongs of others.  “Forgive us our debts,” we pray, “as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

This is so fundamental, so essential, so basic, that Jesus breaks off the prayer right there to go in to deeper, detail.  He continues:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

How serious is this?  John Calvin got it completely in his comment on this text:

we are not to ask the forgiveness of our sins from God, unless we forgive the offenses of all who are or have been injurious to us. If we retain any hatred in our minds, if we meditate revenge, and devise the means of hurting; nay, if we do not return to a good understanding with our enemies, perform every kind of …endeavor to effect a reconciliation with them, we by this petition beseech God not to grant us forgiveness….” – Calvin’s Institutes,  Book 3, Chapter 20, sec. 45

It’s so clear.  It’s just what St. Francis prayed: “it is in pardoning that are pardoned.”

The Scary TruthScreen Shot 2014-02-22 at 10.04.28 AM

This is scary.  Think of all the people who would be in this room today if it was our  common practice to offer forgiveness.  Think of the relationships in your own life right now; can we claim to have forgiven all who have wronged us?  If not, when we pray this prayer, we are asking that God also to withhold forgiveness from us.

Now, one word is necessary: the subject here is normal community and family life.  The subject is not about extraordinary situations of abuse or neglect.  There is much to say about forgiveness in those situations, but time, today, restricts us to considering the kind of interactions we have with those around us in our families , churches and communities.

The honest truth that we must confess is that we Christians have been no better than anyone else at offering forgiveness when we feel wronged.  We get offended, we hold grudges, we seek vengeance, sometimes by passive aggressive means, sometimes by simply cutting off relationships.  And the sad truth is that this is so common and ordinary it seems normal.

Let us be clear.  According to Jesus, something has gone horribly wrong. Let us hear him say it again:

if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

What to do

Okay, assuming everyone in this room is feeling badly right now, myself included, we must ask, what can we do differently?

First we have to acknowledge that being a forgiving person is not our natural, default position. It is the result, not of our natural inclinations, but rather of the transformation from our natural tendencies into spiritual maturity.

In other words, we are back to what we learned last week.  Spiritual transformation is never achieved by once-day-a-week Christianity.  It is the fruit of the daily work of spiritual practices over a long time.

Prayer, the key

This is especially true of daily prayer – which is why Jesus brought up the subject of forgiveness in a lesson on prayer.   In order to have communities that are health-giving to the people in them, instead of toxic, the people in them have to be spiritually healthy,  instead of being toxic.

Most people who write and teach on the subject of spirituality say that we need 20 minutes a day of centering prayer to experience this kind of spiritual transformation.  Some call it meditation, some call it contemplative prayer, but all agree that this one daily spiritual practice is essential.

Centering prayer is a basic practice.  Also essential are the other normal Christian practices that Jesus taught: generosity, disciplined abstinence from apathy and neglect of the common good (that is, acceptable fasting, according to Isaiah 58), and of course heeding his words which are now written in our scriptures.

I believe it is the absence of these practices that have produced the Christian communities that our young people have walked away from.

It is never too late to begin.  We know that real substantial change can begin in as little as eight weeks of daily contemplative prayer practice.  In fact even smaller amounts of time help, but dosage matters.  More is better.  You will need help and encouragement.  That is what we are here for.

Feel the Thrill

Let us end by going back to the story I told at the beginning.  When I learned that Michelle was not married but available, it changed the whole picture for me, and I was thrilled.  Right now, maybe the picture has changed for us in an alarming way.

Let this be said: it should be thrilling for all of us to be shown a path towards authenticity.  It is wonderful to know the key to unlocking our community’s potential to be the kind of kingdom-community that Jesus envisioned.  It is the path of forgiveness.

It is within our grasp.  God has given us his Spirit to help us every single day as we repeat the practices of Christian spirituality.  We can experience transformation.  Let us be thrilled that our Heavenly Father will hear our prayers for help.  Let us rejoice that we have been given this moment to begin anew.

Religion Worth Practicing

Sermon on the Mount Series #5, Matthew 6:1-18 for February, 16, 2014

Religion Worth Practicing

Matthew 6:1-18

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.   But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,   so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.   But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.30.17 PM
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;  but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,  18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Religion Worth Practicing   

Our theme today is authenticity, so I want to start with this. “Judge Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. was, according to Wikipedia, “a judge, law professor, and state representative in Mississippi, notable for his 1952 speech on the floor of the Mississippi state legislature concerning whiskey.” – source: Wikipedia

“My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.20.29 PM

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

“But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; …, then certainly I am for it.

“This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

That is as brilliant as insincerity ever gets.  What a great politician he must have been.

Today, insincerity and lack of authenticity is practically expected of politicians.  They are easy targets.

Unfortunately, so are we – Christians.  We have a reputation in the wider world now, which survey after survey keeps showing.  When 18-25 year olds are asked why they do not attend church, there are two reasons that jump to the top: 1) the people are hypocritical, and 2) they are judgmental.

We confess, We hope

Confession is required, and so, as a person who is professionally a representative of at least one slice of the Christian church I want to say: Yes, we have been so; it was wrong of us to be so, and we are sorry for all the damage it has caused.

But there is good news for us here.  It is that God wishes and works for our transformation.  What Christ commands of us, God’s Spirit is at work in us to perform.  So, we approach these texts with both humility and with hope.

There may be some who think that speaking of transformation in a congregation of people like us, the vast majority of whom are well beyond retirement, is pointless.  Who can change, at this point?Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.25.17 PM

Well science helps us here: our brains keep changing all the time, right up to the end (they call this neuroplasticity).  The changes are caused by experiences we have – thoughts, words, what we see and hear, and what we do.

There is no one in this room that cannot grow spiritually and actually be transformed.  Just as the daily drip in the cave forms magnificent stalactites, so we too can be transformed by the steady drip of grace.

The transformation process comes by regular Christian practices, spiritual disciplines that form us as they are repeated day after day and week after week.

Jesus is going to challenge us, as people of faith, to examine our practice of the faith.  For Jewish people in Jesus’ community, the three expected spiritual practices were acts of charitable giving to the needy, or alms giving, prayer, and fasting.  We will see how Jesus’ teaching applies directly to us.  It is all about authenticity.

The ContextScreen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.26.34 PM

Where are we in the Jesus story?  This is Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew, his inaugural Sermon on the Mount.  After saying “repent – change your thinking because the kingdom of God (or Heaven) has arrived.”  Jesus ascends the mountain as Moses had, so many years before, and like Moses, delivers the new Torah for the new family of God.

Jesus has given the beatitudes, his congratulations for people who have kingdom values, and has told his followers that they are indispensable to the world – every bit as indispensable as salt and light.  The world is desperate for kingdom-people.

Last week we heard as Jesus spoke of the contrast between the Old Commandments and the New Commandments which fulfill them: “you have heard it said” contrasted with “but I say to you.”

In each case Jesus coached us to think beyond the words of the law of Moses as we find them on the page, words like “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, Divorce requires merely a certificate”.  For Jesus, those words lead us to think of the ethics behind them, which push us to go beyond them.  And in every case, the care and protection of people was the driving force.

Jesus pushes us all the way to perfection.  Love is the key.  Love for friends, family and nation – yes.  But more.  Love even of enemies is what is required.  It is a high calling – one that should drive us all to prayer.

Now, we look at more contrasts: the contrasts are about practices: bad practices vs. good practices.  Practices we should not do, and practices we should do.

The Role of Practices of the Faith

First, the bird’s eye view.  This section is about Christian practices – the how of living as a follower of Jesus.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.27.49 PM

Practices are essential. For Jewish people, the practices of charitable giving, prayer and fasting were taken for granted as simply normal and expected of everyone.

So too, a Christian life not sustained by regular practices is impoverished and fruitless.  Relying on Sunday morning alone is hopeless.  It will never be enough because it was never meant to be enough.  Imagine an Olympic hopeful who trained only once a week!

A life of Sunday-only Christianity has never transformed anyone.  Perhaps imagining that Christianity is a once a week activity has led to the very kind of churches that the young have walked away from, and left the people inside feeling disappointed.

On the other hand, a life of Christian faith-practices is transformative.  It is never too late to begin or renew regular practices, and it is never time to stop.   Regular practices, or disciplines, form and shape us as Christians every bit as much as daily rest and exercise change us physically.

But today we hear a warning.  There is a right way and a wrong way.  Transformation follows correct practices correctly practiced.

There are three topics as examples on the table: charity, prayer, and fasting.  All three contrast practices done insincerely for show; performances for the crowd, and practices done “in secret” for the view of only one, the Heavenly Father who “sees in secret.”

The theme is summed up in the first verse:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” 

God as Father

Another bird’s-eye-view concept we must see is the God-concept Jesus teaches.  God is able to be conceived of as our “Heavenly Father.”  Now, we are adults: we get it that this is an analogy.  God is not a man in the sky – God is, after all, beyond gender.  And we get it that God is both like and un-like earthly Fathers, with all our faults and limitations.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.28.58 PM

But this way of picturing God is essential.  God is not the angry judge waiting to smite and punish people, as the medieval paintings suggest.  God is not a cold, impersonal, distant spiritual force in the universe.  God is not like the nature gods of the pagan world, arbitrary and capricious, psychologically needy and arrogant.

No!  God is to be thought of as a Father – and we, his children.  Love is what motivates him.  Love for each of us, by name.  And so the “reward” that the Father gives us is not like “stars in my crown” but rather the affection and approval of a loving father who rewards his children with hugs and smiles.  This is a family story we are in.

So what is it that gets the hugs and smiles?  It is Christian faith-practices done out of authentic, sincere hearts.  The opposite of religion done for show.

Money

First Jesus brings up money.  Money is important to Jesus – he speaks of it a lot.  It is deeply connected with our spiritual lives.  There is, in each of us, a generous person who delights to give.  And in each of us is a selfish person that wants to keep.  One of these will grow stronger, over time, and the other will weaken.

The generous person gives because there is a human need – and if no one sees the giving, big deal.  God sees.  An authentic disciple does not care if anyone else ever notices.

Prayer

Next, Jesus speaks of the central Christian practice, which is prayer.  Here authenticity is essential and transformative.  Jesus teaches a model prayer, which we will look at more, in the future, but today let us simply notice that the relationship to God in prayer is, again, a family relationship.

We do not need to inform God, convince God, cajole God, or grovel before him.  In fact, scripture says that we should be still, wait in silence, go in to a quiet room undisturbed.  Contemplative prayer without any words at all, besides the one sacred word that anchors us in the present moment, has great transformative capacity.  Authentic Christians practice regular prayer for the sake of allowing God to transform us.

Fasting and Desire

Finally fasting.  Fasting is all about desire.  It is about saying no to desires – even good ones – for the sake of spiritual training.  Just as our daily physical exercises push us to say no to the desire for rest, so fasting trains us to control our appetites.

But fasting done so that other people will notice is inauthentic.  There is no transformation in that.  Jesus says, in effect, when you fast, act normal; look normal.  It’s between you can God, your Heavenly Father.

Jesus was a big fan of the prophet Isaiah – quoting from him often.  So Jesus knew well Isaiah’s long reflection about the kind of fasting that the Lord found acceptable.  It went way beyond limiting our desire for chocolate or for meat on Friday or in Lent.  For Isaiah, the fast that God found acceptable was the fasting from the desire to live in happy ignorance or apathy about the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed (Isa 58).   Obviously, show-off fasting would not help them at all.Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 7.30.17 PM

Call to Authenticity

The point of this teaching from Jesus is this:  the world is desperate for authentic, kingdom people.  As much as the world needs salt in the diet and light for living, the world needs kingdom disciples.  People who practice kingdom faith practices from pure hearts, for the approval of no one except their Heavenly Father.

He longs to give hugs and smiles all around.  So let us hear the call to authentic Christian practices: regular generous giving, daily prayer, and disciplined desires, that we might be daily transformed.  The world is no longer expecting our authenticity, but it desperately needs it – and so do we.

 

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