Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Christmas Blessings


This last month one of the scriptures for Sunday worship was the beatitudes – those teachings from Jesus that start out, “Blessed are . . . “ These teachings remind us that there are deeper joys and greater happiness in life that we dare not miss.

James Garrett in God’s Gifts shares a piece by an unknown author that does something interesting. It creates a set of beatitudes for Christmas. In other words, he points out the unfathomable blessings of the season that bring meaning and joy to us. Here it is:

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the age-old story of a babe born in Bethlehem. To them a little child will always mean hope and promise to a troubled world.’

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the Christmas star. Their lives may ever reflect its beauty and light.’

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the joy of giving lovingly to others. They shall share the gladness and joy of the shepherds and wise men of old.’

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the fragrant greens, the cheerful holly and soft flicker of candles. To them shall come bright memories of love and happiness.’

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the happy music of Christmas time. They shall have a song of joy ever singing in their hearts.’

“Blessed are they who find Christmas in the message of the Prince of Peace. They will ever strive to help him bring peace on earth, good will to all.’ (Author unknown)

What a beautiful and wonderful reflection! Yet, as I read it, it lacks one of the things that Jesus’ original beatitudes convey – that even the overwhelming difficulties we face can bring us the deepest blessings of God. So I created a couple of seasonal beatitudes of my own for you to add to the above:

Blessed are those who are having a Blue Christmas without one they love, for they shall one day join them in the angel choir with songs of greatest joy.

Blessed are those who have no presents under the tree, for Christ himself is their gift and justice and mercy will be theirs.

Blessed are you when you are overwhelmed by the rush of the season and all about you seems chaotic, for the hush of a Silent Night and the light of a single candle is yours.

I humbly add those three blessings to the prior list as a way of reminding us, that in the good and bad of the season, God is at work bringing us deeper joys and greater happiness that we dare not miss!

Merry Christmas, my friends!

Sermon: Sheep or Goats

Matthew 25:31-46

For the past two weeks we have looked at Jesus’ parables. We have read about young women who had extra oil ready for when the groom was coming, and refused to share their oil with others. We have read about a greedy master who punished one of his servants for failing to make him more money. And this week we hear a story that in many ways caps them off. Like the last two, this story is meant to start discussions and debate – it is meant as an opener for teaching, where Jesus will talk with people about what God’s kingdom is like.

It is meant to challenge us to think, to ask questions, to talk to one another! So are you ready to hear it?

“Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

This story like the prior two is a sorting story – a story where some people get rewards and some do not. Like the last two, this one also challenges the hearers to reconsider what God’s realm means and to contrast it with the world. So this week Jesus says, if you do it for the least of these you do it for me. When you fail to do it for the least of these, you have failed to do it for me.

This is a contrast from the values of the world that say, “if you want rewards you do things for people who can reward you. Help a rich person and you might get a reward, but help a poor person and what good does it do you?” The little guy or gal isn’t going to pay you back. They aren’t going to give you a big donation for your charity or political campaign. They aren’t going to help you climb in social status. So it is a waste of time. Help those who can help you in return. I scratch your back, you scratch mine. You do a favor for me, I’ll do a favor for you.

But, like the other parables, Jesus turns the norms of society on their head and says that the one who judges us and who ultimately rewards us, does so based upon what we have done for those who are most in need.

Interestingly, Jesus’ parable has had pretty far reaching effect on people’s values. Everyone from Mother Teresa who based her whole ministry on this passage, to Malcolm Forbes who said, “You can easily judge the character of a [person] by how [they] treat those who can do nothing for [them].”

But before we get into the things it teaches us, let me remind you that parables always have the potential to be misinterpreted. The biggest problem with this parable is that it suggests that people are judged purely on their works, that God has no sense of grace, and it makes it sound like Jesus doesn’t even know or pay any attention to those who haven’t done good works. But we know that none of us live out God’s will perfectly, and we know that God has deep forgiveness.

The parable isn’t trying to tell us that the only thing God judges us based on is how we treat the least of these; however it reminds us that Jesus clearly aligns himself with those who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are strangers, who are naked, who are sick, and who are in prison. These are Jesus’ people and he wants us to care for them. When we don’t, it is as though we deny knowing him – because we are standing against everything that is important to him. When we do, we demonstrate that we have sat at his feet and listened to his will.

I read this story of Riaz as I was getting this sermon ready. “In The City lived Riaz, a high school student in his last year. “The last year of high school is critical” the guidance counsellor emphasized.

“You can’t put ‘hanging out with your friends’ on your résumé, Riaz. You need to follow the program that we have created.”

Riaz was not sure how to tell his guidance counsellor why he didn’t make it to the various extra-curricular activities they had discussed. It had been an excellent week. On Monday, he meant to go to the yearbook meeting over lunch, but his friend (the one who never seems to have proper food) refused to go, and he knew that if he did not share his sandwich and juice with him, he would not eat or drink all day.

On Wednesday, he got into an argument with some of his band mates who were making fun of the new exchange student from the islands. He was so upset and confused by their words that he did not feel like hanging out with them; instead he went to the mall and got the exchange student a winter hat and gloves.

He missed student council because his sister was sick, and opted to skip chess club on Friday to hang out with his lunchtime friend in detention (since he never had the chance to see him on the weekends).

Riaz regretted that he did not make any of his extra-curricular activities for the week, but he did not regret any of his actions. He wondered what would be better, looking good on paper or doing good by his friends and family.”[1]

Riaz may not have literally sat at the feet of Jesus, but he understood the heart of the teaching. Each and every moment of the day is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to serve others or to serve yourself. You can help those who need it, or you can help yourself. But you can’t do both.

Like I said, this parable caps off the few we have read over the past three weeks. Each of them has asked, what gets us into heaven and what keeps us out?

Is it being excited and prepared so that we are ready on a moment’s notice, even if that means refusing to share what we have? Is it putting all of our effort into increasing God’s kingdom, or should we instead stand up to evil and refuse to be part of a system that is not godly? Is it giving to the poor? And the answer is all of the above. Ultimately it is about our choices – do we choose to do that which leads us closer to God, no matter what; or do we choose to do that which gains us the world?

Choosing one means rejecting the other. If we want to choose God we need to do that in every aspect of our lives – in our emotions, in our ethics and morals, in the people we serve. So where will you serve Jesus this week? In whose face will you see him?

A Jewish story goes: I went up to Heaven in a dream and stood at the Gates of Paradise in order to observe the procedure of the Heavenly Tribunal. I watched as a learned Rabbi approached and wished to enter. "Day and night," he said, "I studied the Holy Torah."

"Wait," said the Angel. "We will investigate whether your study was for its own sake or whether it was a matter of profession and for the sake of honors.

A Righteous Person [a Zaddik] next approached. "I fasted much," he said, "I underwent many ritual cleansings; I studied the Zohar the mystical commentary on the Torah day and night."

"Wait," said the Angel, "until we have completed our investigation to learn whether you motives were pure."

Then a tavern-keeper drew near. "I kept an open door and fed without charge every poor man or woman who came into my inn," he said.

The Heavenly Portals were opened to him.[2]

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017
[2] ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., The Jewish Way of Life and Thought, New York: KTAV Publishing Inc., 1981, p.177 , by Rabbi Aaron Leib of Primishlan

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sermon: The Wrong Hero

Matthew 25:14-30

The parable of the talents is one that on the surface seems pretty straightforward. When the master gives you money, make more. If you do, you will be rewarded. If you don’t, you will be punished. It is a very businesslike exchange. But what if the story isn’t about business?

You see, several biblical scholars say that we have for too long made the wrong people in the story the heroes. What they point out is that in classic storytelling, even in Jesus’ other parables (like the Good Samaritan) when there are three people responding to a situation – the first two are almost always the bad examples. We don’t start out with the hero and then end with a boring failure – that just isn’t the way you tell stories to build tension. You start out with the failures and then you hear about the hero.

I spent a couple of months reading 25 volumes of fairy tales collected by Andrew Lang between 1889 and 1913 from all around the world. What these bible scholars say is true. Always there are three brothers or sisters, or three men, and the first fails to do the task. Then the second fails in the same way. Finally the third does what he is supposed to do and wins the day. That is how these stories work.

But if we apply that method to this story, the first two servants who make money are the failures, and the lazy one who just buries it in the ground is the hero. And to most of us today, this approach to the parable doesn’t make sense to us. We are simply too business minded. We have bought into the idea that more is better, no matter how it is done, no matter what the cost, no matter who gets stepped on.

You see, there is a key phrase in the parable that tries to tell us that the last person is the hero. Near the end when the master is berating the servant, he says,

“You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested by money with the bankers and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.” Those lines would have made Jesus’ hearers know that the master was a bad man. He is unfair, he is greedy, and worst of all collecting interest was against Jewish law. Deuteronomy 23:19 says, “Don’t charge your fellow Israelites interest—whether on money, provisions, or anything one might loan.” In fact, in the bible there is not a single positive reference to collecting interest. None, zero, zip. When collecting interest is mentioned it is always a bad thing. Always.

So Jesus’ disciples and the people listening to him that day would have heard that and they would have had to consider the risks of resisting what their masters told them to do and instead doing what God wanted.

Believe it or not the fourth century bishop Eusebius actually tells the parable that way.

The parable goes like this: a master had three servants, one who squandered his master’s money with the wrong crowd, one who multiplied the money and made more, and one who hid the money. So what happens? Well, the first one gets what we expect, the one who wasted it all is thrown in prison for misusing the Master’s money.

But here is where things get interesting, the second one, who multiplied the money is rebuked. It might not make sense to us, but to Jesus’ listeners it made complete sense. We have to put aside our American ears, which have been caught up in Wall Street for generations, and instead hear things like 4 Maccabees 2:8 that say, “As soon as one adopts a way of life in accordance with the law, even though a lover of money, one is forced to act contrary to natural ways and to lend without interest to the needy and to cancel the debt when the seventh year arrives.”[1] So in that early bishop’s retelling, the one who multiplies the money is rebuked for loving money too much.

So what happens to the third servant, the one who hid the money? We are told that that one is accepted with joy. Yes, you heard that right, accepted with joy. The hider is the hero.

Why? What might Eusibius have really been trying to say, and what does it tell us about what Jesus was saying? It is likely that Eusibius is contrasting being a Christian with being a Roman. You see, Romans did collect interest. This was their normal operating procedure, like ours today. But as I have said the Jews did not.

And it is likely that Jesus was also challenging people to think about what practices they were going to follow – the outsiders, the Romans,– or the ways that are practiced in the kingdom of heaven, where there will be no collecting of interest. He may have been asking, “Will you follow the emperor who claims to be a god, or will you follow the God of Israel?”

Perhaps you will remember that last week, I said that when Jesus taught parables the idea was probably to get us started in discussion about all things Godly. If that is the case, then he has come up with a great story with which to do it. Clearly there will be people coming at it from all sides. Some people will be supportive of making money and listening to one’s master, some people will know the Jewish law, and want to emphasize that. His listeners would immediately enter into a debate. I found this retelling of the story that uses a mother with three daughters that could create a similar feeling.

“In The City, there was a mother with three daughters whom she loved very much. The mother had many gifts that the city relied on, so she entrusted these gifts to her daughters while she went to another city to share her gifts there.

To the first daughter, she gave the gift of farming. She taught her about the land and how to care for it. The daughter cherished this gift and taught anyone who would listen how to water and care for the earth. The entire city blossomed with the gift of farming and had a bountiful harvest of every good fruit of the earth.

To the second daughter the mother gave the gift of reading and writing. The daughter cherished this gift, and taught anyone who would listen, how to read, write and create beautiful stories of the city. Soon schools were built, and people of all ages gathered to read, learn and tell stories. The city created a library so that everyone had access to this amazing gift of reading and writing.

The third daughter received the gift of music. The daughter cherished this gift. She would go high into the mountains to practice this gift of music where she thought no one would hear her. She practiced singing and playing the harp day and night, but never felt ready to share her gift with the city, or with anyone but the birds.

One day, when she was up on the hill practicing, she saw her mother returning, and she started to cry. She looked out over the city and saw the lush and green farmlands because her sister had shared the gift of farming. She saw the beautiful library and people reading stories to each other because her sister had shared the gift of reading and writing. And she felt ashamed because only the birds were singing, and no one was playing music.

When the mother returned, she celebrated and congratulated her first and second daughter on the splendid work they had done. When evening came, she asked her daughters, “What is that sound coming from the mountains?” We do not know, there has been a beautiful sound coming from the mountains since you left, we assumed that it was the birds, but today it sounds different, it sounds like wailing.

The mother went up the mountain, and there was her third daughter crying so violently that she was gnashing her teeth. The mother was disappointed in her daughter, but clearly not as much as the daughter was in herself. She informed the daughter that she will be going to a new town, and will be bringing her two sisters. The daughter pleaded with the mother to go with them, but the mother said no. “Everyone in The City is in love with the music of the sky; you must remain and teach it to them.”[2] Who is the hero of the story? Who gives the most? The two who intentionally share? Or is it possible it is the one who gets no recognition for her work? You could have a great lunch time discussion on this story! Which is the most like God’s kingdom?

Parables are meant to make us think, to challenge us to find God and godly living. They are not meant to be easy. If the bible scholars are right, then in this parable God stands with the one who is given the least, and has the integrity to do what is right – even in the face of economic pressure.

God is not the harsh master or the greedy master. God does not reap where God does not sow. God does not reward people monetarily in heaven for what they have done one earth. The billionaires here are not super-billionaires in heaven. God does not cast out one who follows the Jewish law. Rather, God’s hero may be cast aside by the world, hated by the world, despised by their masters. The good news is that they are not slaves to money, instead they are servants of the Most High.

It is very possible that we have read this passage with the wrong hero and the wrong message. It is not about making more, or even about giving more to the church, but about serving God first even at the cost of our jobs.

So what does that look like today? When you step out those doors, where might following God put you at an economic risk? Where do Judeo-Christian values class with those of the business world? What would you need to change to put yourself in line with God’s ideals? Because we have a choice to follow the god of the greenbacks or the God of Israel.

[1] Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (p. 102-105). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Seasons of the Spirit, 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sermon: Not Enough Oil

Matthew 25:1-13

If you have ever read a bible passage and had as many questions after reading as you did when you started, you aren’t alone. Today’s parable from Jesus can leave us with lots of questions. The thing with parables is that they are teaching tools, to start discussions – they are not meant to be exact replicas of reality. So there are always ways that the parable is going to be like the kingdom of God and ways that it isn’t.

For example, in the parable of the bridesmaids and the oil, the wise bridesmaids refuse to share, and because of that the foolish bridesmaids are locked out. Does that mean in the kingdom of God sharing is bad? No, of course not, in kindergarten we are taught to share with others. It is one of the most important things that we can do. And other places in scripture affirm that, even the parables that Jesus tells right near this one in the bible, but in this story something else is happening. The point isn’t about not sharing. So what is going on here?

One thing that might help is to know that the word bridesmaid is really deceptive, the actual word means a young unmarried woman. So what we have here are 10 young unmarried women waiting for the groom.

So this could be a story about competition between the women to see who would get to marry the groom. Which explains their unwillingness to share – The stingy one won’t share with one who didn’t plan well, because then she might not end up getting married. They are rivals for the affections of the groom.

But again that is not what the kingdom of God is like. We are not in a competition with each other for God’s attention. God isn’t going to pick just one of us, but invites a whole multitude. So why would Jesus compare people seeking God with a group of rival women competing for a husband? It sounds like a bad comparison.

One possible explanation is offered by the Jewish Annotated New Testament. It reminds us that in Jewish tradition, oil is often a metaphor for righteousness or good deeds.

So it may very well be that Jesus is telling us to make sure that we have filled the lamps of our lives with the oil of good deeds, so that when the groom comes we can show just how brightly our lives burned. But that still makes it sound like there is a competition in life and that some of us have done enough good deeds and others haven’t. I think it lends itself too easily into the mistaken idea that we must do a certain amount of good deeds in order to get into heaven. Plus, how many of Jesus listeners would have been able to catch that symbolism?

While I was thinking about all of this I ran into that interesting retelling of the parable, that was read for you; where the planners and the last minuters are attending a protest.

This retelling reminds us that it isn’t the idea of sharing or not, and it isn’t that there is a competition to see who can meet with the mayor – the issue is whether or not the people were prepared for the long haul. Were they ready for whatever the situation called for? Pure and simple. I think what Jesus was trying to get his listeners to be ready, they don’t know the day or hour when the bridegroom will come. That’s the point. Ignore the other stuff, it just gets in the way.

So I think Jesus is trying to get us to think of ourselves as young women, who very much want to impress a young man, and you don’t know when he is going to arrive. Clearly, the bridegroom is the Christ, the messiah, and Jesus is telling them, they never know when the Christ may come, and they should be ready. (The irony is that he was sitting there with them at that moment as he taught this – and some of them were clearly didn’t realize it). Consider what he must have been thinking and feeling as he said to them, “Keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.” Perhaps he smiled, perhaps he shook his head sadly as he thought, “Some of you don’t even realize the bridegroom is here. You aren’t ready, and soon it may be too late.”

In the little book, Laughter in Appalachia, Fred Park of Berea, Kentucky tells a story about a man named Quill. Quill lived way back in the woods where he hunted and fished all the time. Quill didn't pay any attention to the hunting seasons or laws or anything, and he knew the woods better than the game warden.

The game warden had been trying to catch Quill for a long time. Today was the day. He knew Quill would be up early to go fishing. So the game warden sneaked down there in the middle of the night and hid on top of Quill's house. This way he knew he had the jump on Quill. He'd let him head out and then he'd follow him. His plan was to hide in the woods until Quill had caught a large, illegal bunch of fish, and he'd catch him.

As it started to get a little bit of daylight, the game warden could hear Quill get up, start a fire, and put the coffee on. His stomach started growling at the smell of that coffee and those fresh smelling biscuits as they baked in the oven. He could hardly contain himself. Suddenly out walked Quill on the porch and hollered, "Come on down here and git some of this coffee and biscuits while they're hot! I know you're out there!" He went back in and shut the door.

The game warden could not believe it. He climbed down and walked up on the porch and into the house and exclaimed, "Well, how did you know I was out there?"

Quill said, "I didn't. I walk out there and say that ever morning, just in case ye are!" Quill may not have been a genius, but he knew enough to take precautions. He was ready![1] That is what Jesus is telling the people there sitting with him. “Come on down here. You should be looking every day for the Messiah, expecting him to be with you. Because you never know he might be out there in the woods, and if you aren’t ready you might be in a heap of trouble.”

But what does the story mean for us, who live in the days after Christ has come? Many think it is referring to Christ’s second coming, and being ready for that. But I wonder about that, because that certainly isn’t what he was thinking of when he shared it with the people sitting around him. He was there, then.

Rather, I think the message for us today has more to do with how we live our lives. Like young women wanting to impress the groom, our love for God should have a sense of eagerness of being in God’s presence, we should have a sense of striving our very best to please God.

After all, if you want to impress the handsomest hunk, you do everything possible to get ready. You don’t do it half-heartedly, and you certainly don’t wait until the last minute.

You still should be living every day with the expectation that you will meet the messiah, you might see him in the face of a person who is suffering, you might find yourself on your deathbed, perhaps he will come again in the clouds tomorrow, whatever the method of meeting him, you should be living with the expectation of it happening at any time. So you should be trying to impress God.

Here Jesus is not telling us to compete with our neighbors and try to keep them from getting into heaven, nor is he telling us that God is measuring the oil of our lives and will judge us based upon our works. No, it is more likely Jesus is telling us, be a like a young girl waiting for her boyfriend, be so in love with God that you are doing everything you can to show it, so that when the day comes that God calls you into heaven, your light is bright for all to see.

Of course, there is one other possibility. And I save this for last because it is so counter to our normal reading of the passage. What I am saying here will make more sense over the next couple of weeks as we look at the next two parables of Jesus.

But it is possible that Jesus is actually critiquing the women who won’t share their oil. The bridegroom has been sighted, he is right there before them. How much oil do their lamps need? Honestly, not much, just enough to burn for a short time. If they had shared their oil, everyone would have gotten in. Jesus may be critiquing those who are afraid to be generous, whose selfishness prevents others from getting to see the Christ. This is an interesting twist that Jesus may have hoped would come out in discussion as they talked about the kingdom of God. So I would add it as a second thing to consider, after first reading it as a reminder to prepare ourselves, read it also as a reminder to help others prepare themselves for God as well. They also need oil for their lamps, and quite honestly you have it. The message of God’s love is that oil, give it to them, so that they can enter in as well.

[1] Laughter in Appalachia by Fred Park

Friday, November 10, 2017

Sermon: Shocked By a Blessing

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus teaches on the mountain, he has a whole group of people sitting around him. And he begins to talk to them about people who have troubles: the hopeless, the grieving, the hungry and thirsty, the harassed and the insulted. But what follows is a shock – Jesus tells them that they are blessed by God for what they are going through.

That normally isn’t our attitude when we are going through things like this – much more likely people ask what they did to anger God, or why are they being punished – but that is not how Jesus frames the situation. He says that they are actually favored by God, beloved of God because this trouble that they are facing leads to blessing. And look at the blessings! Jesus tells them that they will be given heaven, happiness, fullness, mercy and more. They will be rewarded. He turns what they have been feeling as a negative in their lives, their suffering and he turns it into a positive.

I wonder what people were thinking when they heard this for the first time. Did they try cleaning out their ears to see if they heard him correctly? Or did they think that Jesus was crazy? Did they think he was an optimist who not only saw the glass half full, but insanely thought the water in it could be transformed into the best wine? Or did they hear the deeper promises of God that Jesus was conveying and did it fill them with hope?

I pray that it was the latter. You see, one of the most powerful things that Jesus does throughout his life and his death is reframe the way we see the world.

Treasures are not as important as things that don’t rust. The first shall be last, the last shall be first. Don’t worry about what you shall eat or what you shall wear. Love your enemies.

In fact, this is the same thing that Jesus does on the cross. When Jesus suffers and dies, it appears to be a horrible and awful punishment. But God transforms that suffering by producing life from it – suddenly Christ’s death is about being set free from the limitations of our humanity. Sin and death no longer have a hold on us. Forgiveness is offered for our past, and promises laid out for our future. His resurrection reframes the horrific image of crucifixion into a source of salvation. And with it, we are reminded that all suffering including even death is not the end. Instead there is a shocking blessing which follows, eternal life.

So perhaps Jesus does really get it. Perhaps he sees our suffering more clearly than we do because he has a wider perspective. So let’s look at this teaching again, and try to open them up like a stubborn oyster and find the pearls of wisdom inside. Remember, these are just my thoughts, I encourage you to look at them and come up with ways you see the blessings in each as I go through them!

The first one is Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. The blessing of hopelessness is that despite the fact that they have broken spirits, heaven is theirs -- even if they have given up on the promises of God. They will be surprised when the blessing they had stopped hoping for happens for them!

The second is Happy are people who grieve because they will be made glad. The blessing of grief is that joy comes. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. In fact, the situation may be like the previous one, it may be that they have grieved so long that they have given up hope that joy will ever come, but then comes the day when heaven’s blessed reunion is theirs, and they will be shocked when God wipes the tears from their eyes and joy is restored!

The third says, Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth. Those who don’t think they are worth a damn are shown they are worth a blessing. For those of you who think I just swore and are shocked, I used that phrase on purpose. Being damned is being condemned by God, right? So people who feel like they aren’t even worth enough of God’s time to be condemned by God are given the world. They will be shocked to discover they are valued far beyond their own self-assessment.

The fourth says, Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full. Righteousness in Greek is the same word as justice. It is a word meaning that everything is right and good: internally and externally. So the blessing is that those who are desperate to see good done, will discover so much goodness, that their souls will be overflowing with it, and so will our world. Those who desire this will be shocked when they discover God the immensity of God’s goodness.

The fifth of Jesus’ statements is, Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy. This one breaks the pattern of most of the others because being merciful doesn’t really seem like a situation of suffering that the prior ones have been. But I suppose it could be, if the person is the type that all around sees wounded and hurting people in a merciless world. So perhaps the blessing is that God shocks them by showing that ultimately mercy wins, and they experience the healing of everything around them.

Jesus’ sixth statement is Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God. Once again, this one doesn’t really seem to be addressing a group of people that are obviously suffering, unless it is that their innocence is stained by the impurity of the world. Like a child, the pure of heart are traumatized by foul things done around them, and perhaps even to them. God will bless them with the purity of God’s presence, which may truly overwhelm and shock, and a realization that God has cleansed and purified everything.

The seventh statement, is Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children. Like the last two peace-makers don’t strike us as people who suffer. And yet those who make peace must see conflict, they must open their eyes and be witnesses to war and hatred. And such sights do not easily leave the heart and mind. One could come to believe that conflict is the only reality. But God promises that it is not, and one day peace will be the ultimate reality, and I suspect that will be a shock for us all.

Finally Jesus tells us that Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, who are insulted and have bad and false things said about them because of Christ. They have suffered the harsh condemnation of others. But the blessing is that they will find the complete and utter acceptance of God.

Each and every one of these statements reminds us that what is now the current situation, is not what will be. So the sufferings, the difficulties of this present age, are not part of the age to come.

Jesus is trying to encourage us to see beyond the present, to look into the future, and remember that God is still at work. If we could but see what he sees, we would know it. He wants us to reframe what we experience in life and know that the worst of what we go through can be transformed into something new and beautiful. God is always at work recreating, reshaping and reforming our world and our lives. The suffering of today is the blessing of tomorrow.

When we have lost hope, we need to know that the reign of God is very real and never gives up. When we grieve, we need to know that the deaths that we have witnessed in the last year are the reunions that are planned in heaven. When we are hungry, thirsty, insulted, harassed, merciful, humble, and stepped on by the world, we need to know that God plans to fill us, love us, lift us up, show us mercy, until the very kingdom of heaven is ours. And just knowing that gives us joy.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Sermon: Summarizing the Law

Matthew 22:34-46

A few weeks ago we looked at the 10 commandments and we talked about how they summarized the law, and brought the community of Israel together. But now the question is brought to Jesus – what is the greatest commandment? What is the most important thing that we are supposed to do? And Jesus answers with what some call the vertical and the horizontal rules. Love God (the up and down law) and love each other (the side to side law). Jesus then says that all of the law and the prophets hang upon these two things. What is interesting about these two particular statements is that they don’t sound much like rules or laws; rather, they sound like statements about our heart.

Which is interesting because normally we would say that you can’t command people’s attitude. For example, that little asterisk in the bulletin that asks you to stand up during certain parts of the service – we could make a law about that – we could create a command that says, “Thou shalt stand during the hymns.”

But we could couldn’t really make a law that says “Thou shalt stand reverently during the hymns.” Because you can’t really command that internal state, you can suggest it, you can encourage it, but that doesn’t mean it will happen. In fact we have no real way of knowing if it is happening, because we can’t see what is going on inside the person. All we know is that they are standing – the heart and mind are invisible to us. In fact, “Directing a person to be reverent in no way assures that they will or are even capable of doing so. Reverence is not something you can simply conjure up in yourself at will, your will or that of another.”[1]

And we would probably say that the same is true with love. Imagine that two of you break into a fist fight after church. I can run up to you and tell you to stop. I can command you to shake hands and make up. But I can’t really command you to shake hands with love in your hearts. Truth is, you would probably be too angry to do so, even if commanded. And yet, Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are not about our actions, but about our attitude and our hearts. He has the audacity to claim that God commands love. Even after a fist fight.

I find that pretty fascinating for many reasons. First it seems to suggest that we as human beings can actually control who we love.

Love is not some mystical force beyond our understanding and outside of our control, but that we have the ability to say to ourselves, “I will love that person, I will love my enemy.” When I shared this with praise team on Thursday, Emily said that she imagined Jesus saying that in the way our parents told us to try broccoli. Try loving them you might like them. And I replied, I don’t want to love them, they’re yucky. But you get the idea, Jesus is saying that such an emotional and irrational act is possible for us.

I admit, this is relatively new thinking for me. For a long time I have read this command to love, and what I have interpreted Jesus saying is that we must treat people with love. That when we do the actions eventually the heart follows. But I believed that Jesus wasn’t really talking about or commanding our emotions.

However, having recently been reading various books, I have come to realize that our emotional state is much more under our control than we normally admit. That we can actually change our own feelings, but it takes practice and work. With training, you can teach yourself to be more joyful. With training, you can teach yourself to be more compassionate. And so perhaps, what Jesus is saying to all of us, is that with training, and with God’s help, we can be taught to be more loving: to love God and love people at will.

If that is true, then most of us have work to do! It means that we need practice in compassion, that we need to work on ourselves so that when God commands us to love, we can actually change our hearts and love will come forth from us. Not just actions, but actually deep and real love.

Having thought about it, I think it is true. As I look around the world, I see people who have learned that. They clearly have spent years working on their ability to love others. When you are with them, the compassion in their hearts is evident. You know they care deeply about you. And when they go to the next person, they love that person fully and completely too. They have cultivated that ability. The suggestion is that we can learn that—let me take that back, it isn’t a suggestion, the commandment is that we learn that kind of love.

So if these are the commandments, to love God and love each other, and it is possible to actually do it, why don’t we? I mean, if these really are the most important two laws in the church, why don’t we act like it? Why does it seem like we are often more concerned with other things?

Those questions led me to my second interesting observation from the passage. That Jesus has told us that our faith is about love, and for some reason we don’t believe him. For example, In the book Churchless by George Barna and David Kinnaman, 3 in 5 Christians said that the most important thing in follow Jesus is following the moral rules of God; in other words, the law (p. 80). They didn’t say it was about loving God or loving others, but about moral rules. Now maybe they say that because they think that the way you love God is that you follow God’s rules, which makes a little sense. Unfortunately that then gives people outside the church the wrong impression that the church is about legalistically following the laws, and not about a real change of heart toward God and toward other people.

And so if you were to ask people outside of the church what the two most important laws of the church were, do you think they would answer these two: love God and love one another? I doubt it. I would guess based upon what is in the news and the public arguments that they would respond quite differently than this. They might answer closer to what is in the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou where she tells us Momma’s two most important rules were Thou shall not be dirty and thou shall not be impudent! Yep, the church is often more concerned about dirtiness and impudence than love. We get all fussy over moral dirt, because we can see that. But we forget about the state of our own hearts.

Now, I don’t want to diminish the importance of these other laws, because quite honestly, the rules are often intended to help us do the right thing. And our arguments within the church on how to apply the rules often center on what is the best way to show our love for God and our love for others. Should we be accepting or should we show tough love? Should we emphasize grace or holiness? But the fact of the matter is that we are not communicating the underlying principles to others the way we should. We aren’t communicating it well enough to ourselves if 3 in 5 Christians didn’t realize that loving God and loving others are the most important things in following Christ.

We are a church built upon love. Love that sees the way God sees, love that cares the way God cares, and love that reaches out to help and strives to be the very hands of God in service of the world.

As much as we like to talk about getting rid of dirt, as much as we like to cure impudence, those are secondary to the change that comes in here. [point to heart].

So why don’t we want to believe Jesus when he tells us that our faith is about love? Honestly, I think because changing our hearts is harder than changing our behavior. It is easier for me to stop punching my neighbor in the nose than to love him or her. It is easier to obey a list of laws than it is to truly and deeply fall in love with God. In a recent book, James K. A. Smith writes that, You are what you love. Not what you believe, not what you think, but what you love. This has profound implications for us as Christians – suddenly it isn’t about our head or our intellect, but about our deepest desires as human beings. Advertisers know this. They don’t try to change our minds, they try to change our wants. Likewise, in the end, love is what God wants and expects of us. “Jesus is a teacher who doesn’t just inform our intellect but forms our very loves. He isn’t content to simply deposit new ideas into your mind; he is after nothing less than your wants, your loves, your longings.”[2]

Because love is what God has for us. Our commands are to love God and love others because God loves us and God loves others. God only expects us to do what God is already doing. We are to love because God loves. God is capable of loving us when we are dirty. God is capable of loving us when we are impudent. So God says, “Love others when they are dirty, love them when they are impudent. If you struggle to do it, let my love fill you. Learn to love like I do, learn it from me. In fact, I command it. All of the law and the prophets hang upon this. So love me, and love others.”

So unlike other times when I have read this and thought Jesus meant act lovingly toward others, this time I read it and I thought, Jesus really is calling us to change our hearts not just our actions. And it is time we acted like we believe him.

[1] Mark Radecke, In Christ a New Creation, CSS Publishing Company
[2] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit