Seeing Easter, Practicing Resurrection

A sermon based on Isaiah 52:1-2, 7-12 and Matthew 28:1-10 preached on April 16th, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s stunning how sparse the gospels are about that first Easter morning. All four of the gospels tell the greatest story ever told, and each of the writers was free to use as many words, paragraphs, pages as they needed to do so. But they all tell the Easter story in 10 verses or less. That’s it. Maybe a half a chapter. I want more. I want details. There’s so much about that first Easter morning that’s left unsaid.

It’s not as if the writers of the gospels are impatient when it comes to details. They all devote more than half their pages to the last week of Jesus’ life. Details galore! We know more about those last six days of Jesus life and ministry than all the rest combined. But the Resurrection? What we have is bare bones. The language is sparse—void of any detail. If there was any story in all of scripture to write chapters upon chapters about, this is it! Tell us more about the empty tomb, the angel who moved the stone, the earthquake it all caused.

Why is the story of Easter told so sparsely—with plain, hurried, ambiguous, fuzzy language? Maybe it’s because the gospel writers had no words for what happened that day. Maybe the story of Easter is so insufficiently told because we have no words for resurrection. It isn’t something that any of us bump up against every day.

If our best language is honed from all the ordinary, everyday stuff of our lives, from our repetitive experiences—grocery shopping, folding clothes, making eggs, cleaning up after our children—then we’re going to be speechless here. Resurrection isn’t like any of that. The only one with words that morning was the angel.

Emily Dickinson once wrote,

The truth must dazzle gradually or else every person would go blind.

We’re still being dazzled, gradually, by the resurrection promise of Easter. The light of it is too much to handle all at once.

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Have you ever noticed that Easter is not as heavily commercialized as Christmas? Yes, there’s still a huge section in every store that’s full of Easter candy, baskets, eggs, and green cellophane straw, but Easter is not nearly the overly materialistic juggernaut that Christmas is. Why is that?

Presbyterian pastor, Frederick Buechner wonders about that on paper when he asserts that Easter is entirely different than Christmas. Christmas, Jesus is a tiny baby, and we’ve all held a tiny baby in our hands. We can comprehend such a thing as that. We know what cradles look like, so it doesn’t take much for us to imagine what a manger stall might be. There’s so much about Christmas that’s ordinary, every day. As Matthew and Luke tell their nativity stories, we can see it happen in our mind’s eye. It’s as familiar as life itself.

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At first the only thing the two Marys had to go on was an empty tomb, and there’s nothing about emptiness for us to hold onto.Easter is elusive. It escapes our grasp.

Matthew says that Mary took hold of Jesus’ feet, but that’s about all anyone in our story could handle in those first moments. And as Easter went onward, everyone who saw the resurrected Jesus had nothing to grab on to. Jesus raised from death to life overwhelms us. That’s why Easter can’t be stapled down by manufacturers of toys or electronics, clothes or jewelry. We have no idea what to make of resurrection. In order to talk about it, we have to borrow language from angels.

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Not only is our language and imagination too small to adequately describe the Good News of the empty tomb and Jesus alive among us. So is creation. With the truth of the empty tomb, the earth itself shook. That’s what happens when heaven invades earth. Earth is overwhelmed. The natural world loses its moorings. It has to make way for a thing this big! God’s news of resurrection cannot, will not leave the earth, this cosmos, or any one of us in it, unmoved. Resurrection is a Divine alarm clock that shakes us all awake—that stirs an inattentive world to life.

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The guards who stood watch outside Jesus’ tomb were to make sure everything stayed right where it was supposed to—but with one look at the angel descending from the heavens, they became like dead men. An interesting detail, isn’t it?! On a day full of new life, amid a moment when God invades the earth with Easter-vitality, the guards become like dead men.

We should all be stunned by the resurrection of Jesus, but it’s only the unbelieving among us who are stopped dead in their tracks, frozen in place. It’s the women, the ones who believed—as fearful as they were in that moment—who move into action, joy-filled, fear-filled action. Easter is that moment when we who believe are jump-started alive and awake—full of fear, yes, but also more alive than we’ve ever been!

And we’re not the only ones stirred to joyful and fearful action. All of creation is jump-started by the promise of resurrection. This news of the angels is enough to rattle heaven and earth. Even the stones shout out with joy. Absolutely nothing is unmoved by the promise of Jesus-alive! The earthquake is a message God sends: Not a single one of us can meet the resurrected Jesus without being shaken all the way down to our very bones.

To meet Jesus is for the ground to give way beneath our feet, for everything we thought was settled about our lives—not least, the notions we have about the way the world works, and the way that God works in the world—to be thrown out of kilter. Easter is the seismic center of God’s story and ours, and it jolts awake those of us who too easily become comfortable in our faith. That’s what God’s Good News does.

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According to Matthew, it’s only the two Mary’s who see Jesus that first Easter morning. None of the other disciples lay eyes on the resurrected Jesus that day. They’re left to catch up with what God is doing by traveling back home to Galilee.

Go to Galilee,

Jesus says to the two Mary’s.

There, the disciples will see Him.

The tomb is empty. We can look inside if we want to. But there’s nothing there. Yes, it was occupied yesterday, but if there’s anything for us to be sure of about Easter, it’s that yesterday—all of our yesterdays—don’t matter anymore. Easter brings an end to all of our yesterdays, and it sets us on our feet toward our tomorrows. Go to Galilee, Jesus says. There the disciples will find their Lord.

Do you know what that means, friends?  It means that we have been anticipated! By the time we have any clue about what God is up to on Easter morning, the tomb has already been emptied. By that time, He had already made His way to Galilee! And from now on, we who call ourselves disciples will spend our lives catching up to Jesus. That’s the message in all of this! Go to Galilee, He says. God always has a head start on us! Seeing Easter and practicing resurrection means going to Galilee.

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Galilee was home for those 11 disciples. That first Easter day, the followers of Jesus spent their afternoon walking away from Jerusalem and back home. That’s where Jesus wanted them—in their own neighborhoods, strolling the streets, in the shops along the dusty roads of their own hometown. With and among the locals. That, friends, is how we practice resurrection. By going to Galilee, which is a way of saying, “Take the news of Jesus-alive and resurrected back home with you!” Spend slow time making Easter and the reality of resurrection that comes with it a reality for everyone you see. And do it every day, in your coming and going, right where you find yourself the most. Practice resurrection while you work, and play; while you do the dishes, as you watch out your window at the neighborhood kids playing kickball. See Easter as you visit the sick in hospitals. As you go to work, or buy your groceries, or do your laundry.

Go to Barboursville, West Virginia.

If we were there that first Easter morning, that’s what Jesus would have said to us.

There you will see me.

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Go to Galilee. Because that’s where resurrection happens. Go to Galilee! Because that’s where eternal life begins. Right here, right now. As in heaven, so on earth. Go to Galilee! Because Easter is underway, and it unfolds right where we find ourselves. Go to Galilee! Don’t wait for the future before you find abundant life. It’s all right here. In front of us! Go to Galilee—all those tens of thousands of Galilees around us!

So don’t stay here. Go. If there’s anything true about Easter, it’s that Jesus never stays put. Even tombs with big boulders blocking the entrance can’t keep Him penned in. We will not find Jesus where we think we will. He’s ahead of us. He’s made our way for us, and we will have to leave a day’s worth of footprints in order to catch up to Him. So, keep walking. That’s the Easter life. That’s also the life of discipleship.

May we pray to be dazzled by the Truth of Easter, not all at once but gradually—slowly stirred awake and alive by the resurrection promise of this and every day! May we, too, make our way to Galilee, for there we will see Him.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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A Christian’s Footing

A sermon based on Psalm 31 and Matthew 7:21-29 preached on April 2nd, 2017

Sermon audio

Throughout Lent, we’ve been traveling our way through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s sketch of the countercultural ways of discipleship. Jesus himself teaches His people how to follow Him.

All of the Sermon on the Mount adds up to create one picture, one snapshot. This is our value-system, our rule of life, our compass pointing the way in a world that wants to give us a million different ways to walk. All these words add up to a direction-giving, disciple-making manifesto. If you want to know what Jesus is up to, come back to these words. If you’re ever unsure what the heart of God looks like, cares about, is filled with, what God yearns for, come back here to these 3 chapters of Matthew’s gospel. But don’t simply read them. The Sermon on the Mount is not a constitution, it’s not a set of guidelines; it’s not a rulebook or an owner’s manual. It is a Way to walk. A way to talk, and live, and breathe. A way to hear and see. Watch and discern everything. If we treat what we’ve heard over the course of this Lenten season as merely sound advice that we may or may not take, depending upon our circumstances, then we’ve misheard Jesus. Jesus doesn’t come to us as just another voice among many other voices, with suggestions about how to get along day by day. Discipleship is a take it or leave it affair. It’s all or nothing. Jesus is the Way, and with Him, there is no halfway.

We should confess that many of us get really uncomfortable with that idea. That “all or nothing, take it or leave it” language from the Gospel. Jesus saves the hardest part of His message for last. This idea that maybe one day we might call Jesus Lord and His reply will be,

I’m sorry, do I know you?

That’s terrifying.

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All the way through this Lenten season, coming back again and again to the next parts of this Sermon on the Mount, I tried to keep in mind who Jesus is teaching these words to. He’s talking to His disciples. These words are for them. For us.

I imagine that as Jesus made his way through this 8-minute long sermon, folks gathered around Him and His circle of 12. Maybe they were interested to some degree or another in the ideas that He had about the way the world works. Maybe they stood within earshot of Jesus and leaned in a bit to hear Him a little better.

I can picture a crowd slowly gathering around. Maybe some of them paced along the periphery, too scared to come any closer. The closer an onlooker came, the easier others might mistake them as one of His disciples, so, for the timid, it was best to keep some distance, to appear nonchalant; yes, interested and curious, but not too interested or curious. Let’s just play the casual observer. One can hear or even consider what Jesus has to say and still walk away. One can even agree with what Jesus has to say, ponder all these things in their minds, thinking He makes some good points, but still remain uncommitted.

Good ideas, Jesus! Maybe you should write an opinion piece with all these ideas of yours and put it in the local section of tomorrow’s Galilee Times.

But the disciples weren’t listening from the periphery. The disciples were gathered in a tight bunch, circled around Jesus as he told them all of these things.

Try to put yourself in their position. Try to imagine Jesus staring straight into your eyes as He talks to you about murder, adultery, divorce, loving your enemies, judging others, asking, seeking, knocking. What would you be thinking? How would you feel by the end of it all? Would you wonder if Jesus was giving you advice or simply passing along some new ideas that came to Him. Was He expecting you to take all of this on and live in these ways? No, that can’t be. It all sounds too hard! Would you think it was all too much?

Slow down, Jesus, I need time to digest some of this!

What if being one of Jesus’ disciples meant you and I had to accomplish all of this—to stick to this narrow path that we heard about last week? Imagine how glazed over the disciples’ eyes were getting. They had no idea what they had gotten themselves into. Do we even? And if all these things He’s had to say wasn’t enough to knock you over with a feather, certainly the ending is:

Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a man who builds his life on unsteady ground.

How high is this hurdle, Jesus! And who could ever jump over it! Who stands a chance here?!

I wonder if the disciples were thinking something like that.

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Two wonderful families build two houses. They build them out of the same material. Good solid wood. Only the best will do. They go down the local Home Depot: Galilee’s Home Improvement Warehouse. Then they go down to the local blacksmith and with the same exact amount of money, they buy all the nails they need—really solid ones. They draw up plans, they learn them inside and out—pored over the blueprints more times than they can count.

Their houses are going to be the best on the block! These two families, they’re all really hard workers. They’re ready to pour their blood, sweat, and tears into this project. Both see their houses as lifetime investments, and they have made all the right choices along the way. But, no matter how costly or well-built a house may be, it can never out-last its foundation. If the foundation gives way, the house will give way right along with it.

One family takes that into consideration; sadly, the other does not. That’s the parable Jesus tells. It doesn’t matter how well you have it together. All of it will crumble into a pile of splinters if it’s not founded upon something solid underneath. Something sound. Strong. Storm-proof.

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Oliver Wendell Holmes said of the Sermon on the Mount:

Most people are willing to take these words as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer.

It’s not what’s over your head that counts. What matters most is what’s under you. The exact wrong way to respond to Jesus’s words in Matthew chapters 5 through 7 is to lift them up and worship them. To gaze up at them once in a while, to make some sort of symbol out of them by which we define ourselves. That’s not discipleship; that’s mere observance. It might even be idolatry. Jesus’ words frozen into a collection of principles we simply align ourselves with, gather ourselves under, pledge our allegiance to with hands over our hearts as we do so. Jesus, as well as His sermon, is no emblem.

The only right way to respond to the Sermon on the Mount is to live into it. To jump inside of it. To let it carry you. Animate you.  Jesus as well as all the words He says are the Word of the living, breathing God who is here to steer you and I in all our directions. The right response to Jesus isn’t observance; it’s movement. Let Jesus be the power underneath your feet. Allow Jesus as well as His words to take you places.

If we approach the Sermon on the Mount the first way Holmes suggests: as our flag, we assume control over Jesus, continuing to live our lives in first place, in all the ways we would like. But, if we let Jesus’ words become the rudder by which to steer, then we give up control.  The power won’t be ours anymore, it will come instead from something underneath us, something bigger that moves us. Jesus, our direction-giver. Someone who guides us. The One under us that carries us in the Jesus Way.

If we look at the Sermon on the Mount as a list of things to pay attention to, Jesus remains an icon like a flag; some self-righteous statement we make; some personal slogan of ours. But Jesus doesn’t belong on top of a flag pole, as a word on a bumper sticker or as something shouted into a megaphone. Jesus isn’t a position we take. We don’t use Jesus. Jesus uses us. Jesus is a moving, living breathing person who has the power to breathe new life into us.  And discipleship is a choice we make each and everyday to have Jesus be the very bedrock that upholds, giving shape and integrity to everything we are, do, and say. That’s the life of discipleship. It’s a life where we come in second place, because Jesus always claims first place.

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The word obedience comes to us from three different languages: Middle English, old French, and Latin. It literally means to hear in the direction of. By now, we’ve figured out that the Sermon on the Mount is a direction-giving message from a direction-giving Messiah.

Having faith in Jesus isn’t about standing in one position and declaring it as the right place to establish ourselves. It’s a movement forward. If we think being Christian is a place to plant ourselves, we will quickly find ourselves alone. Jesus is a mover, and the Way of Jesus is a chasing after Him in every aspect of our lives. As Presbyterian Pastor, Eugene Peterson, puts it, discipleship isn’t about building monuments. It’s about leaving footprints. Discipleship is a travel song we sing to give witness to our God along our way.

Poet William Faulker once said something like that. The way of Jesus, he said, is not filled with monuments but with footprints. A monument says, “At least I got this far,” while a footprint says, “This is where I was when I moved again.”

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All foundations sink after a while. All ground gives way. That’s why we build our traveling faith upon Jesus—the Rock that’s never in one place but also never fails, never gives way.

May we build ourselves upon this Jesus, so that our journey will be carved along pathways made strong and sure by the One who always goes before us. And because this pathway is steep and demanding, because it asks us to hand over every bit of who we are, may God be gracious and merciful as we stumble along. And when our legs shake and the ground gives way, may God become our help. May God be our solid footing.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Way

A sermon based on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 7:13-20 preached March 26th, 2017

Sermon audio

I learned a new word yesterday: Funambulist.

A man named Jean-Francios Gravelet, born in 1825, was perhaps the greatest of them: he was a tight-rope walker. His most spectacular feat was walking a three-inch thick tightrope across a 1,000-foot chasm over Niagara Falls.

Newspapers from all across the country followed him to the Falls that day—most of them speculating how bad his inevitable plunge into the raging water would be. It was a vertical drop of 165 feet. Right before he began his 1,000-foot dare-devil walk, he offered to carry a volunteer over on his back. Surprisingly, no one took him up on it.

He made it across. The walk took him a little over 17 minutes. He stopped to rest at one point. He also decided it would be fun to stand on one leg for a bit, which drew cheers from the gathered crowd. It was almost as if he was playing around out there. Loving every minute of it. Like what he was doing wasn’t a matter of life and death, but more like child’s play. As he was planning his walk, he said once that he considered it an easy task. By all accounts, he made it look easy, too.

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As we make our way through Matthew chapter 7, the final chapter of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, let’s not forget where we started.

That first step we took, those first words we heard from Jesus. The Beatitudes, that series of blesseds, spell out a decisively new way of walking. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is a fleshing out of the bones that are the Beatitudes. Since we’re weeks and weeks along now, with only the closing words left to go, it would be very easy for us to divorce these words about wide and narrow gates, false prophets, and good and bad fruit from good and bad trees, from the very first words of the Sermon, the ones about meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and how we should be glad when the rest of the world persecutes and insults us for not living in the world’s ways.

We started our sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount on a fifth Sunday. We were gathered in the Chapel that morning, and we went from one Beatitude to the next. And when we got to that last one: Blessed are you who are insulted and persecuted, I said that this last beatitude doesn’t really apply to us because we don’t suffer persecution for our faith. But, I think I might want to change my mind. Or at least respond to it in a more nuanced way.

It’s easy being Christian in America. The word not only doesn’t get any of us in trouble. It actually makes our way easier. We trust a Christian. All a politician needs to do is call them self a Christian, and all the sudden we stop asking hard questions about what they believe and how and why it matters to them. Being a Christian is easy. But following Jesus—that another matter entirely.

We live in a time when being a Christian and following Jesus are two different things. Anybody can call themselves whatever they want, but like Jesus declares in another translation of this passage, even wolves can dress themselves up in sheep costumes. You can dress yourself up as a healthy tree, but it’s the quality of the fruit you bear that will give you away. Calling ourselves Christians—that’s easy. Following Jesus is hard.

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Some people talk about a flash moment in their lives when all the sudden they were saved. A moment when time split into two—before Christ and after Christ. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a conversion like this. I have a story that goes a bit like that. Maybe you do, too. But if these words from Jesus have anything to do with it, a moment is not what matters. There may or may not be a moment in your life when you became Christian, but these words from the latter part of the Sermon on the Mount put much more emphasis on what happens after that. How we follow is much more important to Jesus than anything we call ourselves.

Following Jesus isn’t a one-time choice. It isn’t an event. It’s a movement along a path. It’s a step forward, and then another, and then a million more after that. And each step is a choice—a choice about how we will walk through this world, this life, this hour, this minute. It’s a call to look at the right things while we take this journey. A choice about what we will carry in our hearts, in our minds, in our mouths along the way. The words we use, we direction we move. And at the heart of this journey, this constant following after Jesus, step by step, is holy discernment. This is what separates followers of Jesus from those who merely call themselves Christians and leave it at that.

Being Christian takes a decal for the back of your car. Following Jesus takes discernment. The way of discipleship—the Jesus Way—is narrow. It’s a 1,000 foot walk across a tightrope. Every step a measured one, a prayer-filled one. According to Jesus, the Way isn’t safe. It’ll be treacherous, and hard, and confounding. You might lose your balance and fall down and have to get back up again, but maybe falling is exactly how you know you’re on it—because walking this Way is not easy.

If Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as He calls Himself in another part of scripture, and if the Way is narrow, then it cannot be up to us to walk it. If we choose to give ourselves to the Way—a way of speaking and thinking, imagining and praying—we cannot follow Jesus any which way we like. There are many ways to walk these days. Lots of paths to give ourselves to. Is the route we take, the way we talk, the way we treat each other—the way we do everything—is it congruent with the Way of Jesus?

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Deuteronomy is one of the greatest books of the bible. All thirty chapters of it is Moses, Israel’s leader, preaching his last sermon to his people.

Moses brought them out from the way of slavery in Egypt and then through the desert, and now to the Promised Land. Their way had been difficult. At many moments, the Israelites—thirsty, hungry, and tired—wanted to give up, go back to Egypt, willingly give themselves back to the way of slavery. If it hadn’t been for Moses, they might have done so. Deuteronomy is Moses’s last moments with his people. His time has come to an end. He will ascend a mountain, look out at the vista of the Land God has promised, and die. But before that, Moses reiterates the Way. He says to the Israelites,

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. Choose.

Choose not once, but over and over again. If your hearts turn away, if you leave the narrow Way, destruction is certain. So, pick your way carefully.

The wide way, according to Moses, is a way filled with death and curses, but it’s more enticing, and it’s certainly easier to walk. But don’t do it. You might not get lost, but you’ll certainly lose yourselves in it. Instead, hold fast to God. Love the Lord your God. Listen to His voice. Hold on for dear life to the narrow way. Prayerfully discern each and every step forward.

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Friends, we can find salvation anywhere. It’s offered to us a million times a day in a million different ways. One thousand new religions bloom every day. But all of them are a part of the wide way—the way leading to destruction. If we give ourselves to those ways, those voices, we will quickly get lost, but the dangerous thing is we’ll never know we’re lost. We might even think we’re found. That we’ve figured out salvation. But really, we’ll be far from it.

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So, how do we know where we are? Which way is the right way—the narrow way—and how do we find it? For that, we should turn to 1 John chapter 4.

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and even now is already in the world.

The author of 1 John goes on to say that most people speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them, and they listen to the world. This is the wide way.

Test each and every spirit, discern everything you hear, everything you say, everything others say and do—compare it to the Way of Jesus. Hold it up to the Way of Jesus, and if it doesn’t fit, if it isn’t cross-shaped, reject it. Run far away from it. Do not give yourselves to it. Not only will it be a waste of your time; it will also lie to you, unravel you, bully you into conforming to its ways. And its ways may be far different than the Way of Jesus.

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The way of Jesus has certain qualities to it. We need to know those qualities in order to discern our way—to test the spirits.

The litmus test to it all is the Cross. The cross is the way of Jesus We are to walk the way of the cross. This is the Way of death that leads to real life. Death to self leads to life in Christ. It’s completely counter-cultural and lop-sided, but the Way of Jesus is the way of servanthood and humility, that will lead us to true freedom. Freedom in Christ.

Try convincing your next-door neighbor of that one!

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The truth is we will constantly mistake the wide way for the narrow way—life on our terms is much easier than life on God’s terms.

But for every one of our missteps on this high wire act of walking the Way, may God’s grace be there like a net below us to catch us, make the landing a soft one, and set us back on the Jesus Way.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Attention

A sermon based on Matthew 6:19-34 preached on March 12th, 2017

Sermon audio

I’ve been pondering this passage all week, rolling these heavy words about treasures and eyes, light and dark, talk of worrying and lilies and God and the Kingdom of Heaven—it’s all been tumbling around in my head, like a cement mixer. These words about worry can feel preachy and demeaning. We’ve been trained to hear these words from Jesus as a piece of advice.

There was a song that was popular years back called Don’t Worry; Be Happy. And I’m afraid this passage is often whittled down to something that silly. What we hear Jesus saying is, simply drop your worry and everything will be better! But when has that advice ever helped us?

If ever I’m worried about something, the last thing I want anyone to do is pat me on the shoulder, and tell me to stop worrying because worrying is never helpful. Although that may be true, but it’s a terrible thing to say. Most likely, it’ll make me worried about the fact that I’m worrying. In the words of that annoying Bobby McFerrin song, that’ll make the worry double. It would be cruel of Jesus to preach these words if this is what He means. Jesus knows better than we do how our minds work.

We too often read this passage thinking of Jesus as some sort of self-help guru—someone with a huge smile on his face trying His best to sell us the idea that we can be free from our worry in 4 easy steps. We read this passage assuming that Jesus is scolding us for being worried, or worse, dispensing advice, for how to live a worry-free life. But, I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. Perhaps we should listen deeper. I don’t think this is Jesus patting us on the shoulder, saying,

There, there, cheer up! There’s no need to worry! Everything will be just fine!

Jesus was just as human as we are. He knew better than to say such a thing.

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Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, tells a story about a time when she took part in the blessing of a friend’s house. That day, many people pitched in to get this friend of hers moved in, and the plan was that by the end of the day, she would be settled enough in her new place that they all could come back that evening for a housewarming party.

Everything went off without a hitch, and that night everyone brought over a dish. They gathered in the living room in a big circle to start the party off by blessing the house. They read several passages from scripture. Some Barbara Brown Taylor had picked out. The last scripture passage was this one from Matthew’s 6th chapter. A surprising passage for an occasion like this. Why this passage to bless a house with? Why not a passage from the Gospel that was more along the lines of, “You will be warm and safe now, here in this house.” A passage like that would have made sense. But these words,

Do not worry about your life.Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will drink. Don’t worry about how you clothe your body. Living is about more than merely eating, and the body is about more than dressing up.

These words surprised everyone gathered. They fell deep inside of every houseguest and deep inside their host, too. And as they sunk in, she said,

Oh. Oh! I get it. Or at least I think I do.

Jesus preached to that new homeowner that day. And His words startled her and moved her. Through these words, Jesus was telling her she was safe.

You are safe. But, not because you have a house. You’re safe because the God who made you has made a promise never to abandon you. And that promise is your home. And it’s something no one can take away from you.

That’s what she heard that day.

And the same is true for us. Worry not! You are safe. You are home. Already. Jesus does not want worry to be our home address. Worry is a money pit of a place to live. It’ll take from us everything that we feed it. It’ll suck us dry. Like a thief, it’ll break in and steal from us everything we’ve got.

Worry is type of attention, it’s also a place we can reside. Don’t give yourself to it in either way. Don’t live there,

Jesus says.

Do not reside in its rooms. You’ll never be able to rest your head.

Worry not. You are safe.

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Jesus warns us about the split life. He tells us that we cannot serve two masters.

In older translations of this passage, Jesus says we cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon refers to a Syrian deity, a god of riches. This Syrian deity is closely related to the Greek god, Plutus, the god of wealth. They sound to me like the same god.

The Greek god Plutus was the hungriest, emptiest god there was. Plutus is the god who constantly craved the praise of the people. He demanded unending attention from his subjects. He was never satisfied. His need to be worshipped was insatiable. The word Plutomania is the excessive desire for wealth. A Plutocrat is someone whose power derives from their wealth.

It was said that the god Plutus always left faster than he came. Isn’t that true for money, too?! The love of money and the excessive desire for wealth take everything from us but they never leave us satisfied. They demand everything from us, but give nothing in return. They give us very little satisfaction, and leave us chasing after nothing. We might wonder what the wealthiest among us have to worry about, but it turns out that it’s the rich who worry most about money. It’s proven time and time again that the super-rich are also the super anxious.

We have a planet—or maybe it’s a moon—named after this empty god, Plutus. Pluto is the tiniest planet out there. Completely void of atmosphere. It’s a remote place to be. No way to breathe. Our airways would be constricted there. It’s an empty planet. Empty of life and any life-giving substance. By referring to money as Mammon, Jesus is telling us,

Don’t live there.

Life out there is hollow. Making a life that way will take everything from you, and give nothing to you. It will empty you. The life dedicated to serving Mammon is a far-flung life on a far-flung planet. Don’t live that way, because you’ll find yourself frozen, way out in space, far away from God. Cold and all alone. Almost out of orbit. Pay no attention to those things that will take you so far away from God. And certainly, don’t try to make your home out of those things. They will make for a very inhospitable place. There’s no room to breathe there.

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In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is talking about where, and to what, we’re to give our attention. He starts out saying,

Do not give your attention to treasures on earth. Focus instead on those heavenly treasures.

Pay attention to eternal things. Then He moves to talk about where our eyes are focused. Don’t give yourself to the dark. Darkness is empty. There’s evil in there. You’ll lose yourself if you stare too long.

Instead, pay attention to, give your life to, what gives light. Move into those spaces. Then he finishes up by telling us,

Don’t give your attention to worry, because it too is corroded by rust and moth-ridden. It too is all darkness. Don’t live in that room called worry. It will swallow you.

In verse 31, Jesus declares, ‘Do not consume (or perhaps, ‘Be consumed by’) questions like ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’

Don’t fear those things. Fear is the ugliest way of paying attention. We give ourselves away when we worry, when we grow anxious, when we fear. The only thing we should fear isn’t a thing. It’s a person. Fear God. Fearing God is the only type of fear that doesn’t cost us, that doesn’t pull us away from ourselves. Fearing God means paying attention to the one right thing. The only thing that’s worth giving our whole selves to. A Christian’s attention belongs only to God. Earthly treasures, dark, worry. Those are lesser things. Don’t give yourselves away to them. We are what we pay most of our attention to. We also worship what we pay attention to. So, first and foremost, pay attention to God.

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I’ve called Lent a disappearing act. Here we are, two weeks in. During Lent, we practice disappearing so that God appear in and around us. God wants to move into the most central place inside of us.

Most of the time, if we’re honest, we assume the central place in our own life. We live our days at the center of our own universe. Most days, we attend to ourselves, and that’s how we get by. Preoccupied. The rooms of our hearts and minds are filled with our own efforts and questions about how we will eat, pay the bills, how we will get by today and tomorrow. The day after that, too. But, in what ways do our lives end up owning us? How much of our day are we giving ourselves to that greedy god, Plutus? Giving ourselves away to that thing inside of us that feeds on worry and is never satisfied?

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Lent is the season of enough. It’s an invitation to practice enoughness. To confess that God is enough, satisfying, sufficient. Until we rest ourselves in Him, we will spend this life, each and every one of our days, and every one of our efforts paying homage not to God, but to minor gods like Plutus. Lent is when we let go of the empty notion that we have it in us to be our own answer to the question of what will ultimately satisfy.

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If we let it, Lent can move into the rooms of our hearts and minds, and drive out the Plutomania. If we let Lent do its work in us, it can throw us into a new orbit. One where God becomes our Center—the Center of our lives, the Center of all our days, hours, and minutes. And the Center of our attention. And this God wants nothing more than to be all those things for us. Than to call Him ‘Home.’ No matter where we find ourselves.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Authenticity

A sermon based on Amos 5:21-27 and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 preached February 26th, 2017

Who are you being for Lent? That’s not the usual question we ask each other in these days just before Ash Wednesday, is it? That’s the kind of question we ask in the weeks leading up to Halloween.

Who are you going as?, we might put it. What costume are you wearing? Who will you turn into? What mask will you wear? Those are Halloween questions.

When I was in seminary, the student counsel threw a costume party in the student commons. There were other meetings going on in the building that evening, and our Dean of Students, Edna Baines, walked in wearing her pants suit and her name tag. One of the party-goers walked up to Edna, pointed to her name tag that said Edna Baines on it, and said,

Wow, you look just like her!

Who are you being for Lent? I think that’s the right question after all. Our habit is to do something during Lent. That’s what we’ve been told, anyway.

So, we ask each other: What we you doing for Lent? Or even more specifically, What are you giving up for Lent? But I think the Lenten invitation is much bigger than giving something up or taking something on. As we make our way into this first week of Lent, with Ash Wednesday in just a few days, I think this passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has something to speak into us. Something specific to tell us about the message at the heart of Lent. The invitation of Lent isn’t at all about doing or not doing. It’s about being. For now, let that question tumble around in the back of your mind: Who are you being for Lent?

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Hypocrites, back in Jesus’ day, were play actors—performers on stage. The word had a different meaning than it does today. In any given play, there were more parts than there were actors, so at the end of a scene, the actors rushed backstage, threw off one mask and put on another, then walked back on stage as different character.

Jesus’ first lesson for His disciples in this part of the Sermon on the Mount is, when you give to the needy, when you do something for someone else, don’t make a stage play out of it. Don’t cause a scene! Keep a low profile. Don’t be so dramatic about it!

Back then, though, that wasn’t the norm. In that day, if you gave a quarter to a leper, they might throw a parade in your honor. Buy a few bricks for a new building, and they might name the whole thing after you.

Jesus stomps on the customs of His day and ours when He asks us to turn the pride parade down a notch whenever we give from our wallets or from our hearts. Practice a bit of humility. See that your giving goes unnoticed. God cheers whenever we do these sorts of things, and that’s all the attention and reward we should need.

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The same should be true about prayer, Jesus says. Back then, people were cheered on for making a great show out of their prayers, if we can imagine that. The louder you prayed, and the more you contorted your face while you did it, the better. It was prayer for show! Street theatre each and every time. People cheered. I have a hard time imagining all that, but then again, I’ve flipped channels on a Sunday morning and found TV preachers doing something similar.

Jesus says prayer for show isn’t really prayer at all. It’s dead before it even hits your lips. Prayer like that never gets off the ground. As the Prophet Amos declared in our first passage for the morning, God doesn’t want to hear it. The problem with it, of course, is that none of it was authentic. Whether one gave a quarter to a blind man or said a prayer at the top of their voice out on the sidewalk, it’s not the action that makes it right or wrong, authentic or counterfeit. It’s the motive behind it. Want to give a few quarters to a poor man? That’s great, but make sure they don’t clink when they hit the bottom of the jar.

Prayer isn’t a soliloquy made for the stage, but a dialogue made for the dressing room. That’s what Jesus thinks. It’s not the action that can go wrong, it’s the disordered reason behind why we do it that usually makes a mess of things. Motive matters. It’s the over-inflated chest that needs bursting. It’s the overly-proud thoughts that sometimes come with these good deeds that need to be chased away.

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I have a friend who told me the story about what happens to one of her co-workers every Ash Wednesday. She says that every other day of the year, her co-worker stays in his office and keeps to himself, but he’s a completely different person on Ash Wednesdays. Those mornings, he goes to his Catholic church before coming to work to have ashes imposed on his forehead, and he spends the rest of the day going around from one office to the next, sticking his head into each door, making sure everybody takes note of the black smudge on his face. My friend says he’s only annoying on those days. I have a sneaking suspicion that this co-worker of hers completely misses the point of Ash Wednesday. It’s this sort of look-at-me-ism, this “take note of my super abundance of piety,” this “check out how modest I am,” that gets in our way of being in real, authentic, relationship with God. God can spot insincere faith and disordered motives from lightyears away.

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If these stage-almsgivers and performance-prayers from Jesus’ day and ours are the height of hypocrisy, then who might we look to as a model of its opposite, authenticity or genuineness? My thoughts go first to John the Baptist. John the Baptist’s whole life can be seen as a prelude to Jesus’ life. His entire existence and vocation was nothing more than an opening act for Jesus. John was no stage actor, he was a roadie for Jesus. He pointed the way. John was a street sign, a direction-giver, a lamppost to light the way to Jesus. And when Jesus came on the scene, John took his curtain call. He bowed out.

After me,

John declared,

comes the One more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.

In turn, Jesus spent His entire ministry as a street sign, pointing past Himself to God. Jesus was the light of the world who revealed God, the Way itself who gave way to God. And in the end, and all along, it was the cross Jesus was hung upon that pointed the way to the power of God.

All this should tell us that the first sign of authentic Christian living is humility. Pastor Max Lucado said as much.

True humility is not thinking lowly of yourself, but thinking accurately of yourself.

When we’re full of ourselves, there’s no space left for God to fill. But when we empty ourselves, God has a vessel He can use.

Living a life of Christian authenticity means forever and always pointing beyond ourselves and toward Jesus. There’s the desire to be noticed, and then there’s the desire to be known. Our desire to be known by God and to have others know God should be much bigger than our desire to be noticed. Every day and always, we must let go of ourselves more and more, so that Christ might be displayed in us more and more. This is what it is to live an authentic Christian life.

At the heart of this passage is the question of motivation. Those religious people who, in Jesus’ day and ours too, make a show of their piety—who love to point out to others how faithful they are—who pray for applause, aren’t so much interested in the holiness of God, as they are in their own holiness.

The truth of the matter is that our actions can be both hidden and revealing. We can live our faith out loud without making a show of it. We can live and speak in such a way that we reveal to others—family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies alike—the God who wants to be Lord of our live and theirs. We can give voice to our faith, speak to others about, and live it out in public without making a spectacle of it all. As long as all the glory points away from ourselves and toward Christ. Our faith is authentic when we’re willing to get out of the way and point the way to Jesus.

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Wednesday marks the first day of Lent. And we start by marking ourselves with ash. If it’s understood rightly, that smudge of ash placed upon our foreheads will make us disappear.

Lent is a 40-day disappearing act. A 40-day pointing away from ourselves and toward God. But it’s really no act at all. Throughout these 40 days, we are invited to tell the truth about ourselves: that we are a people called toward a cross. Called away from ourselves and toward a more Christ-like life. And in the Christ-like life, the cross is central. All of Lent is a journey of body, mind, heart, and soul toward the cross. That’s the way of Jesus. Crossward.

This Lent, you and I are invited to live into the Christward and Crossward life. To trade our motivation that so often points toward ourselves for one that points toward Jesus. To undergo a motivation transplant.

Part of what those performance-pray-ers from our passage got wrong was that they were so much more concerned about how their words sounded than with what their words meant. Can we relate to that? If we’re asked to pray aloud in front of others, doesn’t that become our first concern—let’s try to make it impressive-sounding. What should be our true motive for prayer? Should it be to make them sound good? Or is it to stay in conversation, and share space, with the God who made us? Prayer that’s a part of authentic Christian living is always truthful, stuttering, down and dirty conversation with God, never slick performance art. The same goes for how we give. It’s never for show, but always for God.

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So, who are you being for Lent? I’m not interested in what you plan to do for Lent. I’m interested in who you want to be for Lent. How about being authentic for Lent? How about living in such a way that every single one of our words, our actions, our relationships is a way that points not to self but to Jesus. Crossward.

How about living in such a way that when people see us, they recognize Jesus and say to themselves,

Wow! You look just like Him!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen

A Christian’s Love

A sermon based on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Matthew 5:38-48 preached on February 19th, 2017

Sermon audio

For the last several weeks, we’ve been feeling our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this world-defying, upside-down, backward-seeming collection of Divine wisdom that, on the surface, sounds a whole lot like foolishness. But that’s exactly why we’re spending so much time in it: because it is only with careful and deep attention to each word of it—every Divine notion in it—that our hearts can be reshaped into this new likeness, that our very lives, and every aspect of them, stand a chance of being recast into God-shaped form.

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Nowhere in the entire Sermon on the Mount is the challenge greater than in this passage.

If we think Jesus asked too much of us last week when he recast the meanings of murder, divorce, adultery, and oath-making, then what He has to say here should seem to us nothing less than superhuman.

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Pastor Jason Byassee pressed the voicemail button on his phone as he was stumbling into his kitchen with armfuls of groceries after a long day at work. His daughter, Erin, then 10-years old, had left a message:

Dad, I’m the liturgist at church Sunday, and I have the passage where Jesus says, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ You know that passage, right? …Do the other gospels have that same passage? Is it different in the other gospels? Could you let me know, because… well, no offense, Dad, but I think Jesus is wrong.

Erin’s objection to this passage is quite like our own, isn’t it? We go through all sorts of efforts to finagle our way out of what we know it says. The mental gymnastics we do to excuse ourselves from practicing the way of love described in these words would earn all of us a gold medal at the Theological Olympics.

I don’t disagree with 10-year-old Erin. This business about turning the other cheek, giving away the clothes off our back, and walking the extra mile sound like the worst advice ever, and if that wasn’t enough, then comes the part in the middle where Jesus asks us to love our enemies, and the part at the end where Jesus encourages us to become perfect, both of which sound reckless and stupid. Who can actually love their enemies? No one does that. And who can be perfect? No one stands a chance. Besides, if we did any of these things, wouldn’t we be doormats? Is this what Jesus is getting at? Are we supposed to be doormats for Jesus? We live in a cruel world. Is Jesus saying that we’re supposed to stand there and take it?

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A thousand or so years before the time of Jesus, the law on the books was referred to as exact retribution. This was the Old Testament law that clearly stated that what was perpetrated on others would be the punishment right back at the perpetrator. You poke somebody’s eye out? Your eye is coming out, too! Tooth for a tooth. Life for a life. Exact retribution. A few hundred years later, the Israelites did away with the exact part of retribution, and established a system of penalties and payments for damages inflicted upon others. Here, in this part of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks against both methods or retribution. Forego retribution altogether, Jesus declares. Renounce your right to retaliate. Do not ask that revenge be exacted upon your opponent. Don’t fight fire with fire. Entire civilizations are burned to the ground that way. Instead, fight fire with water.

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The march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery, Alabama was the turning point of the black Civil Rights Movement. On March 7th, 1965, a day now referred to a Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked an estimated 500-600 unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas after they passed over into Dallas County.

Televised images of the brutal attack on unarmed citizens presented American and international audiences with what was, for most of them, the first images of such brutal violence. The TV audience that day was in the millions, each one of them safe in the sanctuary of their own living rooms. They saw the protestors throw no punches—not even for their own protection. Gunfire was not returned for gunfire. Brutality was not inflicted by the Civil Rights marchers, but inflicted on them. And an entire world sat staring at those images, horrified. It seemed like the heart of an entire nation was changed that day. Eight days later, on the evening of March 15th, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson held a historic, nationally televised joint session of Congress to introduce his Civil Rights bill, and ask that it be passed into law. The violence, as we know, did not end that day. But due to the marchers’ commitment to non-violent action, an entire nation woke up to injustice.

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Some say that non-violent action, the kind that Jesus speaks of in this part of the Sermon on the Mount is some sort of strategy. Some kind of peaceful weapon wielded against an opponent. It is not. It isn’t the point of non-violent action to humiliate, or degrade a violent adversary. Love is not a weapon. It does not have ulterior motives. Refusing to hit a person who has hit you may show heroic restraint, but that heroic restraint isn’t a method. Love is not a strategy; it’s straightforward, it’s a way of life, a choice we’re asked to make over and over again. We cannot and do not hurt the ones we love, it’s impossible.

So, when Jesus asks us to love those who oppose us, He’s not talking about implementing a strategy, or practicing a non-violent defiance. He’s actually telling us to act and react with love. And love does no harm, even to an enemy. Love is a power far greater than any other. And love’s commitment to compassion speaks far louder than any form of retaliation. Responding with love is a wordless way of saying to our opponents,

I do not fear you, therefore I refuse to engage you in your violence.

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Fear is the real opposite of love, by the way. So often we think love’s opposite is hate. It is not. We will not understand what Jesus means by love if we think of it as the opposite of hate. Pastor William Sloan Coffin, ordained as a Presbyterian minister but serving the United Church of Christ, had this to say:

Fear destroys intimacy. It distances us from each other; or makes us cling to each other, which is the death of freedom. Fear has so many ways to destroy life. Love alone can hold onto and recreate life…Love, and you are a success whether or not the world thinks so. The highest purpose of Christianity—which is primarily a way of life, not a system of belief—is to love one another.

And then he quotes the first letter of John chapter 4, verse 18:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

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Pastor Kerry Bart down the way at First United Methodist Church had a sign last week that read:

Love your enemies. It will confuse them.

Exactly. Love diffuses our enemies. It sends our opponents away stewing in their own frustration. Spinning in their own webs of irritation and annoyance. But in all that stewing and spinning, we hope our love might wake them up to a better way. There’s nothing more defiant than a commitment to the way of love. But, at the same time, we don’t love in order to confuse, frustrate, irritate, or annoy.

The love that Jesus is talking about isn’t the passive aggressive sort where we put a smile on our face that’s only there to hide a belligerent and stubborn underside. This isn’t an “I-told-you-so” sort of showy love. The love that Jesus is talking about is authentic, straightforward, and complete. It has no ulterior motives. We love for the sake of love itself. Because, when it comes down to it, that’s the only kind of love there is. And this love is not easy. It’s never a feeling. It’s not passive. It never comes easy. It’s not a natural notion. This kind of love is of the unnatural sort. It takes effort and discipline, practice and determination, every bit of our energy and every bit of our courage. And finally, this sort of love is culture-defying. It makes no sense to the world. You will not find it out and about. It’s not a part of our everyday cultural vernacular. That’s because our culture doesn’t understand why anyone would dedicate them self to a way of being and doing that ultimately costs or compromises, inconveniences, or willingly puts their self in 2nd place.

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When Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, His disciple Judas Iscariot was leading a band of Roman soldiers to arrest Him. That night, Jesus was insulted in every single way imaginable. Betrayed by His own, beaten, mocked, stripped, and later hung out to dry. But all the way, He loved. There was not one moment when Jesus lost His self-control. He held His peace even though He was treated so violently. Throughout, He maintained His dignity, displaying at every turn a total refusal to retaliate, to trade blow for blow, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, insult for insult.

Friends, love, this Divine love that Jesus challenges us to undertake, it has a surprising dignity to it. It defies human nature. It’s a love we have to learn. It does not come naturally. This sort of love takes all of our moral strength.

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This teaching on retaliation-defying love is the peak of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is challenging that part of our human nature that would rather be rightunyielding, proud and headstrong and out of relationship than amicable, merciful, humble, and soft-hearted and in relationship.

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So, the question for you and I, friends, is this: when others look at us—family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies, all—what do they see? Do they see a person scared to death, willing to trade blow for blow, insult for insult, fire for fire; or do they see Jesus inside, a disciple who at all costs and in all circumstances is willing to forego their pride and place to show forth the costly love of Jesus? Will we have the courage to love?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

A Christian’s Relationships

A sermon based on Psalm 119:1-8 and Matthew 5:21-37 preached February 12th, 2017

Sermon audio

For most of this week, I’ve wondered what do with this part of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve wondered many things, really: Jesus preaches the soaring words of the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, which speak of ideal Christian character, and then after that He surprises and astounds and challenges us by saying that we should take our faith in Him and use it to become influencers, salt and light in and for the world.

What a wondrous and spacious image for us to grow into! Then all the sudden, the tone of His sermon shifts to His thoughts about some very specific things. He starts into some very touchy subjects: murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths. Jesus, why the tediousness of these loaded subjects all the sudden?!

The words of the Beattitudes—they are soaring! Awe-inspiring! The metaphor of salt and light—brilliant and breath-taking. Jesus, so far your sermon is taking us to new heights! Keep going in that direction! Give us another image to astound us! One that will unleash our Divine imaginations. Overwhelm us with another sky-high oratory that will unleash the wonders of Heaven upon us! But Jesus doesn’t do that.

This part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount sends us right back down to earth—into the slog of complicated, everyday lives, into the thick and dense matter of our broken relationships. These are words about how we treat and have been treated by others. They remind us of how we’ve fallen and failed, how we’ve hurt and been hurt, how we’ve disappointed and been disappointed by others. And, honestly, most of us would just rather forget all of that.

Why’d you have to go there, Jesus?!

This is why: how we treat or regard others—family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and enemies—matters to God. It matters deeply. We cannot live into Jesus’ words about Christian Character in the Beattitudes, nor can we become salt and light in and for the world, if we refuse to live in whole, honest, right, and true relationship with others.

How we treat and regard our fellow human beings tells the truth about us. It speaks louder than any words we use. This is where the rubber meets the road. Where the wonders of heaven meet the very specific aspects of this life on earth. And God cares about it all! Throughout the Gospel, Jesus teaches us that being in right relationship with God is predicated upon being in right relationship with others. We cannot have one without the other. 1 John 4:20 reads,

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

Those two loves, love of God and love of our fellow human beings are tied up in one another. If one falls short, the other will fall short, too. Love of neighbor is love of God; and love of God is love of neighbor. And a need to mend one is also a need to mend the other.

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So, can we begin with confession? Can we begin by admitting to ourselves and one another that we’ve all failed in these ways? That not a single person among us can stand tall in God’s presence and claim that our love for God and our love for our fellow human beings is full, complete, or whole.

We have deprived other people of their full humanity, either by our action or inaction, and we’ve done so on both a personal level as well as on a global level. Human beings do these sorts of things to other human beings. We live in a world filled with alienation and distrust, and that allows us very easily to treat large groups of people in ways we ourselves would not want to be treated. And a denial of any person’s humanity, or a denial of God’s grace at work in them, is ultimately a denial of God’s grace in our own lives.

But let’s not use these words to shame ourselves. I don’t think Jesus preached this part of His Sermon on the Mount to beat us over the head with our own shortcomings. I think these words are here to lure us and lead us, to help us imagine, and practice, and then establish a more loving way to live.

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So, let’s consider each of these teachings, unpack them one by one. And if we do that well, we’ll be able to see how in Jesus’ treatment and redefinition of each, He’s really just speaking one overarching truth into our lives.

What Jesus does with the 6th Commandment, Thou Shall Not Murder, is surprising. It’s not enough, Jesus says, simply to avoid committing homicide. Most of us have that down. It’s really not a lot to ask of us. But Jesus steps things up a few notches. Evidently, that commandment means more to God than we ever realized before. According to Jesus, whenever we act, say, or think in a way that diminishes, disregards, or overlooks the humanity of a person or an entire group of people, or in any way clouds our ability to see or regard them as the full and beloved children of God they are, we’re committing murder.

Ouch, Jesus! That’s harsh! Treating another human being as anything less than a beloved child of God is tantamount to murder.

Jesus says that when we’re out of relationship with our brothers and sisters, we’re out of relationship with God, and the burden of bringing ourselves back into right relationship with God and our fellow human beings falls upon us. Depriving another their full humanity or denying them the thought that God’s grace is working in them is a denial of God’s power as well as a denial of God’s grace in our own lives. If we show up to worship or prayer holding any part of ourselves back so that we can hold onto our anger or bitterness, God does not want our worship, because it’s not whole.

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Let’s move on to what Jesus has to say about adultery.

We know the legal definition of adultery. It’s the same now as it was in Jesus’ day. But, again, Jesus expands the definition. It’s not enough to say we’ve stayed out of bed with another person’s spouse.

God sees it in a much broader way than we do, because God knows what happens inside our hearts. Our eyes lead us in directions that can get our hearts lost. And if we keep at it, we’ll not only find our hearts lost, but ourselves lost inside of wrong relationship. And before we know it, we’ll find ourselves outside of relationship with our families. Jesus’ words are simple: Don’t go there!

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Divorce. Men in Jesus’ day could write their own divorce papers, hand them to their wives and send them out of the house for any reason they wanted. There are records of husbands who divorced their wives because they burnt a loaf of bread. We must realize that the culture of that time had reduced women to the status of property. Women were regarded as objects for a man’s satisfaction.

We must also realize that in our culture, there are way too many men who still treat women as objects of their own gratification. Then as now, Jesus is confronting that injustice. Jesus recognizes a woman’s humanity because He knows the God who formed them into being and calls them His own. For Jesus, the inherent value of all human beings prohibits our discarding or devaluing of them. Rather, we are to treasure and nurture one another as sisters and brothers, as equals—each us of worthy of honor and protection. In effect, Jesus is saying,

Men, step up. Treat the women in your life with integrity, and by doing so, you will stay in right relationship with God.

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And what’s this thing about oaths?

We live in a time when we can hardly trust the words coming out of peoples’ mouths. Truth has become something relative. It doesn’t matter how many bible’s a person swears upon, we still can’t trust anyone to give the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Here, Jesus asks us to work for strong, authentic, and trustworthy relationships with each other. Then we wouldn’t have to swear on a stack of bibles. We would speak true and genuine words to each other because that’s what real and right relationship means. No hint of distrust or suspicion in the way. No reason to say “So help me, God.” Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No.

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Jesus’ re-worked definitions of, and teachings about, these things: murder, adultery, divorce, and the swearing of oaths—they all point us in the same direction: together they paint a picture of what human relationship looks like when it’s built upon and pervaded with divine integrity. Jesus is asking us live every aspect of our lives being utterly trustworthy, transparently honest, and dependably truthful.

When we do this, we live into our vocation as salt of the earth and light for the world, reflecting Jesus in everything we say and do. This is the vision that God has for the living out of each and every one of our relationships. Let us live into this vision until the day when we who call ourselves Christian stand out from all the rest because of how we love, when we regain our 1st Century reputation as the people who value and protect human dignity, who uphold, fight for, and celebrate the God-given integrity of every human life.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.