ASTOUNDED

Matthew 7:13-29

Jeff Davidson

This has been a tough sermon for me to write. That’s not unusual; sometimes sermons come easily but most of the time they are a struggle, to one degree or another. There are a few challenges with this sermon in particular though, a couple that were probably common to all of my colleagues throughout this series and one that is more particular to me.

One of the challenges that I think each of us faced on the sermons that we’ve preached in this series on The Sermon on the Mount is that there is just so much stuff here to preach on. The narrow gate and the wide gate. The hard road and the easy road. A bad tree cannot bear good fruit, and a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do God’s will. The house built on a rock versus the house built on sand. There are two or three or four sermons in each of those sections of scripture. That’s twenty or so different sermons that could be preached on our Gospel reading this morning. It’s impossible to do justice to each of those themes, and I think that’s something that each of us have had to work through as we considered what God wanted us to say on Sunday morning.

The second thing that’s probably common to all of us is that we have lives aside from our sermons. When I was a full-time pastor I could spend days and weeks thinking about a sermon, polishing it, adjusting it, sometimes tweaking a little here or there and sometimes starting over. It’s not that way anymore. I have one or two shots to get it done, and if it isn’t coming together I have to figure out with God’s help how to make it work.

That’s been a special challenge this past week or two with the sickness and death of my friend Dave Carroll in Ohio. That’s weighed on my mind and has kept me from thinking about this morning as much as I might have. While my colleagues may not have had a death like I did, they all have lives outside of here and all have challenges and events in those lives, large and small, that will sometimes distract them from preparing for Sunday morning.

The one challenge that is totally unique to me is that this is the last sermon in the series. This series was a good idea. I’ve really enjoyed reading and learning from Nate and Jenn and Micah and seeing how we have built upon one another’s thoughts and insights. I don’t want to say that this is the sermon that puts it all together; no sermon can do that, but this is the last sermon and so I think ideally there needs to be some kind of summing up of the whole thing.

Jenn started us off six weeks ago by comparing the Sermon on the Mount to the Constitution. It’s kind of the Christian Constitution, the framework for our lives together that guides us in our relationships with one another and with the world. The Sermon on the Mount sets some boundaries, offers some instructions, and lets us know ideally who we are to be and how we are to act as Christians.

The Sermon on the Mount itself concludes with a passage that really does sum it all up, a passage that in some ways brings together everything that Jesus has said in the last three chapters and talks about its application in our everyday lives. Let me read it again.  Matthew 7:24-27 – “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

These words, the Sermon on the Mount, are the foundation of our lives as Christians. They are indeed like a constitution, something imposed from above that provides order and direction and guidance. They are also like a foundation, something underneath us that provides a base of support for the structure of our lives.

There’s something about foundations. Ideally, you build them before you need them. When I was a kid we moved five or so times, and almost always to houses that were built new on land carved out from the family farm. I know that the ground had to be tested to be sure of its stability. They had to do percolation tests, since we were in the country, to see if the soil was suitable for a septic field. I watched as they graded the land, both before and after laying the foundation, so the water would run off in the right way. I remember watching the workers lay the blocks, and pour the slab, and only after all that preparation was done did they start to frame and build the house. When we built our houses, the ground was prepared and the foundations were laid before the builders did anything else.

It is difficult to prepare the ground and lay the foundation if you wait until the storm hits. Is it impossible? No, I suppose not. But who wants to do all that stuff, and then build a house to boot, in a storm? Have you ever tried carrying a piece of plywood in high winds?  

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man.” “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man.” Acting on Jesus’ words, acting on Jesus’ commands, acting on our faith in Jesus is what marks the difference between the wise and the foolish. Taking everything we’ve heard these past six weeks – not just from the sermons we’ve preached standing here but from the Sermon on the Mount, from Jesus’ sermon – taking everything we’ve heard these past six weeks and acting on it is the key. Not acting on it when we feel like we’re ready, not acting on it when we think we need it, not acting on it when the storm comes, but acting on it now. Every day. In all parts of our lives.

I’m not saying that we have to be able to put all of this into practice tomorrow. We can’t. None of us can. Whoever is the most spiritually mature and wise person in this congregation can’t ever live up to all of this. But we can start wherever we are. We can begin, even with baby steps, to try to put into action what it is that Jesus has commanded us to do. We can start, even if all we have is a plastic kindergarten scissors and a little rubber hammer or something, we can start to build a foundation. The storms will come, as they do for everyone. We will not be fully prepared – no one ever is. Our houses are never completed. For some of us, our foundations may never be completely done. But we can start where we are, and support one another, and move forward a brick at a time, and lay foundations of solid stone that will support us and keep us safe when the storms come.

And if we don’t have our foundations and houses ready when the storm hits? That’s okay – you can come and stay in my house. Or maybe I can come and stay in yours. Will you let me rely on you? Will you let me seek the shelter of your house, which may be better built than mine? Can I stay in your basement, as your foundation is further along than mine is? That’s a part of why we are the church. That’s a part of what we do for one another, and of what we do for the world outside the four walls of this building and even outside the four walls of our lives.

Then we have the last verse of this passage. This verse isn’t actually part of the Sermon on the Mount, but it’s included because it sums up the crowd’s reaction to what they have just heard. Verses 28 and 29: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” I like the way Clarence Jordan puts it in the Cotton Patch Gospels: “When Jesus finished speaking, the people were simply amazed at his ideas, for he was teaching them like he knew what he was talking about. He didn’t sound like their preachers.”

Over these past six weeks, have we sounded like we know what we’re talking about? I hope we have, at least a little bit. None of us can ever fully live out of the Sermon on the Mount, no matter how much effort we put into it. None of us can ever keep lustful or hateful thoughts from our minds. None of us can always turn the other cheek, or go the extra mile. We’re sinful people. We’re not perfect. None of us can do that.

But what we can do is try to speak and live with integrity about what we are called to. If I were to talk to you this morning about the benefits of a vegan diet and how that was something that all Christians are called to do, you might be astounded – and not in a good way. You might wonder about my credibility. Sure, you might make some allowances because no one is perfect in all things all the time, but you’d say to yourself, “Huh. I remember at Ad Council meetings he always brought meat and cheese and stuff, and when we had that pizza he liked the one with the pulled pork on it. And didn’t I see some Wendy’s bags on the floor of the car when I walked by it this morning? And a wrapper from a McGriddle? I’m not sure that Jeff is the guy to be talking to me about how I need to adopt a vegan lifestyle.”

You’d be right. You’d be right to be astounded, and to doubt me and to kind of give the side-eye to the advice I was giving. If I’m not able to live out of what I say others should do, even if I am saying good things and making good recommendations, it casts doubt on my credibility and it makes you wonder if I really mean what I am saying. It makes you question my authority to speak.

The crowds were astounded in a good way, because Jesus spoke as one with authority. Jesus was gaining a reputation as someone who backed up his words with his actions. He didn’t encourage people to do things that he would not do. He did not hold people to standards that he was not willing to meet. His foundation was strong and firm, his house was sturdy and complete and ready for the storms that were to come. That is what astounded people about Jesus and his teaching.

Are people astounded at what we say? Are they astounded at what we do? If so, in what way are they astounded? People should be astounded, if we are living lives of integrity, if we are doers of the word and not just hearers.People should be astounded, if we are making the Kingdom of God real in our lives and in the lives of those around us. People should be astounded when we live lives of justice, of mercy, of compassion, of holiness, and of grace. People should be astounded when we bear the cross, love the sinner, and stand up to the rulers of this world in all their power.

People should be astounded at us. If we have built the foundation of our lives on the solid rock of Jesus’ teaching, on the firm foundation of the risen Savior, of the truth and reality of God’s’ Kingdom as shown in the Sermon on the Mount, they will be astounded. And then once they get over it, they will begin to live that way too. Amen.

What if Everything I Think I Know is Wrong?

Psalm 36, Matthew 6:19-34

Micah Bales

 I’m going to start with the heresy and work back to the gospel this morning. Because reading on the sermon on the mount reminds me of what a tough time I have with the Bible. The Bible, for me, is pretty uneven in terms of how it impacts me. So this morning I want to talk a little bit about three broad categories of scripture and how they impact my life.

The Bible has a lot of rough parts to it. There are the parts that make me uncomfortable because they don’t seem to reflect the character of the God I know. I’m thinking of the genocide passages in Joshua and Chronicles, for example. Or the parts of the New Testament where Paul seems to be getting pretty negative towards women. These sections of the Bible are difficult for me. As a Christian, I want to trust the text, but some of these texts seem to run against the grain of what I know from the life of Jesus, the great cloud of witnesses, and my own lived experience with the Holy Spirit.

So there’s this other category of scripture, that hits me in a different way. One way of naming it might be the “warm fuzzy scriptures.” Now, we all have our own warm fuzzy scriptures – they’re not all the same for different people. A great example might be 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul writes about love. This passage is so beautiful and moving that it’s commonly read at weddings, even though Paul is speaking about God’s agape love, rather than human romantic love. Another scripture that comes to mind is John’s first letter, in which he writes about the tangible reality of God’s light and love.

With these passages, and many others, I’m ready to shout “Amen!” They affirm who I know God to be, and they encourage me to more fully live into the radically open, deeply loving presence of the Holy Spirit.

There are some parts of the Bible that don’t fit into either one of these categories. It’s a kind of scripture that I find deeply disturbing. It’s not like those uncomfortable passages from Joshua or Paul’s letters, that I can simply dismiss or bracket as not meaningful for me.

When I read about God ordering the destruction of whole cities in the Old Testament, or when I find passages where Paul seems to deny women equal dignity before God, I feel a basic wrongness with these writings. They don’t line up with who I know God to be.

But then there are passages like the ones we’ve heard this morning. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount are truly startling. I hear Jesus saying, “Don’t worry. Sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me.” I know that Jesus’ words are true, but I can’t quite accept the teaching. Something within me resists.

With scriptures in this third category, like the ones we’ve heard this morning, any resistance, any dissonance, any sense of wrongness that I feel is rooted in myself. It’s not a problem with the text. It’s not a problem with Jesus. It’s a problem with me. I’m drawn to the teachings of Jesus. I can feel their truthfulness. Yet I hesitate to fully embrace his teaching. It seems impossible. I’m afraid that if I were to follow him completely, it would destroy my life.

So I’m caught in this strange place. Not brave enough to fully embrace Jesus’ teaching, but also unable to walk away. This feeling reminds me of what the first disciples experienced. There was a time when Jesus said some really crazy things and many of his friends were abandoning him. And Jesus asked the twelve, “You don’t want to leave me too, do you?” Peter responded this way: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

That’s my feeling when I encounter Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t really like what he’s saying. His teaching threatens my whole way of life, and part of me would rather run away. I’m tempted to avoid this wild-eyed teacher who wants to turn my whole world upside down.

But where would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life. His words simultaneously disrupt my life and heal me. I can’t escape his message. Even if I were to flee across the sea like Jonah, I know that his words would find me. They’d swallow me up like the fish and spit me onto the dry land, and I’d have to go to Nineveh anyway.

Jesus has the words of eternal life. We heard in our psalm this morning, “With you is the fountain of life. In your light we see light.” Through the words that Jesus speaks to us this morning, he is en-light-ening me. He’s shining light into places that I’d rather not see. His light shows me places I’d rather not go. He’s calling me.

Jesus is inviting us into a life free from worry and fear. Casting aside all the wealth, status, and possessions that we spend our lives accumulating. Jesus calls us into a life that refuses to defend itself. Right now we’re trapped in a death spiral of anxiety, consumerism, and self-defense. But Jesus illuminates a whole different path we can walk.

Jesus reveals a way of joyful abandon, one in which we can live freely and simply. Like the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. We don’t have to be afraid anymore. We don’t have to burden ourselves with guilt and worry. We can abandon the fiction of self-sufficiency. That’s what it means to accept the bounty and goodness of our Creator.

This whole Sermon on the Mount pushes me really hard. From chapter 5 to chapter 7, Jesus is laying down a heaping mess of truth. No one can hear his words from start to finish, take them seriously, and not be moved to repentance and action.

In the passages we’ve heard this morning, I think Jesus’ message is for the most part very clear. He tells us that we’re going to have to make a choice between God and wealth. We can’t serve both of them. We’re going to have to pick sides. Will we seek after God and the web of loving relationships that he wants to establish? Or will we choose the way of clutching anxiety that accompanies our obsession with wealth, possessions, and status?

We cling to these things because they provide us with an illusion of control. An illusion that, somehow, we can cheat death altogether.

There’s a movie I really love. I’ve watched it many times. I’m willing to admit it’s a Tom Cruise movie. It’s called Vanilla Sky. Have any of you seen it?

In Vanilla Sky, the main character, played by Tom Cruise, is a man who has everything. He’s ridiculously wealthy. He’s powerful. He can have any woman he wants. As much as any human being can, he lives with the illusion of complete control and freedom. Yet, as we come to find out, he’s a deeply unhappy person.

Cruise’s character lives in an illusion of youthful immortality. In the opening scene of the film, he finds a gray hair and plucks it out. He refuses to grow old. He will not acknowledge his own mortality. Later in the movie, during a moment of introspection, he says: “Isn’t that what being young is about, believing secretly that you would be the one person in the history of man who would live forever?”

Despite all his power, wealth, and fame, Tom Cruise’s character is living a lie. He can’t see what’s right in front of him. He’s living in darkness, and he doesn’t even realize it.

That’s the part of our scripture reading today that is really intriguing to me. Jesus’ clear commands about what our relationship to wealth needs to be – I get it. It’s incredibly challenging and I don’t live up to it, but I get it. I understand, at least conceptually, how the life of freedom Jesus promises us can work. When we let go of our need to be in charge, be in control – when we become simply flowers in the field of God – things change. The world opens up. We don’t have to hold onto our anxiety and dread anymore. We can live in joy.

But Jesus also talks about the light and darkness. And these words of Jesus have always struck me as enigmatic. Not just challenging, not merely convicting, but mysterious. He says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

So. The eye is the lamp of the body. If it’s healthy, we’re full of light. But if not, the whole body is full of darkness. And if the light within us is darkness, how great is that darkness!

This takes me back to Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky. This man is trapped. He’s living in a miserable, isolated, narcissistic fantasy world. The light within him is darkness. He is so deeply invested in his own illusions – his power games and toys – that he’s lost track of what reality consists of. For him, darkness really is light. How great that darkness!

And I wonder about myself. I like to think I’ve got a solid grip on reality. I want to imagine that what I value really is worthy of my time and energy. That my relationships are real and meaningful. That my love and care for others is genuine. But what if the light in me is darkness? What if my eye is unhealthy. What if I’ve become so used to my deformed condition that now darkness looks like light to me, and real light is a terror?

How great the darkness!

I’m in need of a regular reality check. That’s probably the biggest reason I keep coming back to the Bible, to this community, to our Christian tradition. My own perceptions of the world are so subjective. I need a regular dose of reality to make sure that the light in me isn’t actually darkness.

Each one of us alone is in real danger of developing unhealthy eyes and losing track of what’s true and important in our lives. As a community gathered by the Holy Spirit around the person of Jesus, we have a better chance of keeping our eyes open and alive to the light of God. When we gather together. When we hold one another accountable. When we read the Bible together and weigh what’s being said. When we come closer to Jesus together.

For with him is the fountain of life. In his light we see light.

So I want to leave us with a few queries, a few spiritual questions to consider:

What are the ways that we hold one another accountable as a community? How do we encourage one another to have healthy eyes, so that the whole body is full of light? What does it mean for us to live into the radical, fearless, joyful life that Jesus offers us? And what will it cost us?

WAIT! WHAT?!

Matthew 5:21-48

Jeff Davidson

Last week Jenn introduced our six week series on the Sermon on the Mount. I thought it was an excellent sermon, and if you weren’t here I encourage you to go to the church website and give it a read. Jenn talked about the Beatitudes as nine values that define us as Christians, as people who claim Jesus Christ as both our savior and our Lord. The section of the Sermon on the Mount that I’m dealing with this morning talks about some of the practical application of those values in our everyday lives.

When I read Matthew 5:21-48 and started to think about an example of the kind of life it calls us to, I thought about ultramarathons. I know this is something that Jenn and Nate both do, although I haven’t asked them about it in a while. For those of you who are not familiar with it let me give you some quick background.

As you probably know, a marathon is a foot race of 26.2 miles. It follows, then, that an ultramarathon is a foot race that is substantially longer. There are two kinds of ultramarathons. One is based on distance. You set a distance, say 100 miles, and then see who can run it the fastest. The other is based on time. You set a time, like 24 hours, and see who can run the farthest in that time. In case you’re wondering, the record time for a 100 mile run is 11 hours and 28 minutes, and the record distance for a 24 hour run is 303.5 kilometers, or about 189 miles. Another way to think of it is that the world record holder ran the equivalent of 7 marathons in 24 hours.

The name “marathon” comes from the ancient Battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians. The story is that after the Greeks won the battle, the courier Philippedes ran from the battleground at Marathon to the Greek rulers in Athens. Philippedes arrived at the court, said “Joy to you!  We’ve won!” and then collapsed and died.

When I first heard of ultramarathoning, I said to myself, “Wait.  What?! You mean that someone will run 100 miles at a time if they don’t have to? Someone will run 100 miles at a time just for fun, just because? What kind of sense does that make? I mean, the guy who ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens died; isn’t that a sign that this is not a good idea? Isn’t that an indication that perhaps God doesn’t want us running 26 miles at a time?”

Here’s why I thought of ultramarathons when I started reading our scripture passage today. Let’s just start with verses 21 and 22. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Let’s read through this a piece at a time and just pick out the sentences with specific actions. I’ll let you listen in to my internal monologue. “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” I’m okay with that. That makes sense to me, and I think I can live up to that. I have so far, and I hope that doesn’t change. 

“…Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Wait, what? What? I’m not sure about that. I’ve been angry with my sister lots of times. She lives in Ohio now, but I still get angry with her once in awhile. She’s made a lot of mistakes; she would say that herself if she was here. Of course I was angry.

Wait, what? Jesus isn’t talking about just my sister like in my family, it’s more than that? So it’s like my brothers and sisters in Christ, my brothers or sisters in faith? Well, if that’s what Jesus says then I guess that’s what he says. I may not be able to do it, but I will try my hardest not to be angry with any other Christians, and I will confess my sin as soon as I am aware of it.

Wait, what? Look it up in another version of the Bible? Okay. Hmmm. The New Living Translation says, “But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment!” The Contemporary English version says “someone” too. What!?! What happened to “brother or sister?” If I’m angry with anyone? That’s impossible!

I guess that “someone” makes sense, but I don’t like it. I mean, I can’t look into someone’s heart. I can make guesses based on their words and their actions, but I can’t look into their hearts. I don’t know what their relationship is with Christ. And even if they say straight out that they are not Christian, that they are some other religion, does that mean that they’re not my brother or my sister in some way? I remember that hymn.

Brothers and sisters of mine are the hungry,

who sigh in their sorrow

and weep in their pain.

Sisters and brothers of mine are the homeless,

who sit without shelter

from wind and from rain.

I guess maybe it’s more than just family or church.

Okay. Let’s move on. What’s next? “Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court.” That “brother and sister” part goes away again in some other translations doesn’t it. I thought so. And “raca” – what does that mean again? According to dictionary.com, it means “vain, empty, worthless” and the Jews used it as a term of contempt. 

Wait. What?! Vain? Oh, no. Oh, no. Is there anyone in US politics these days that I might have said is vain or narcissistic or an “empty suit”? There are lots of people who I might say that about all over the political spectrum. But the guy I’m thinking of, he’s not homeless. He’s not hungry. He doesn’t count as a brother or sister of mine.

Well, yes, I did write on Facebook once that he seems like a guy who always wants approval, who seems insecure. I guess that’s a form of emptiness, isn’t it. And even if it’s not, I do think he’s vain. I think that about a lot of people, though. I know, I know, that doesn’t make it better. I don’t like to think about him as my brother, but I guess maybe he is.

I’m going to stop with this verse by verse internal monologue thing, first because if I keep it up through the whole passage we’ll be here until supper time and second because you can see where it’s going, can’t you. These commands are impossible. I’ve been condemned and thrown into the pit several times, and we’re not even through the first few verses.

There are dozens and dozens and dozens of sermons in this passage. We could literally spend an entire year working through this part of the Bible and there would still be stuff left to talk about. Murder. Adultery. Divorce. Oaths. An eye for an eye. Loving your enemies. And it concludes in verse 48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

“Be perfect.” That’s good advice. There’s a sermon for you. “Everybody, go and be perfect.” My very first thought when I read this passage was, “How in the world can I cover all of this stuff in one sermon?” My second thought was, “How can anyone actually do what this passage says?” And it was then that I thought about ultramarathons.

How does one run an ultramarathon? I’m sure that Nate and Jenn will tell you that they didn’t just do it one day. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes work, it takes practice. You start out at a much shorter level, maybe a 5k race, and you work your way up slowly from there. You keep putting one foot in front of the other for longer and longer distances, but you have to start wherever you are.

          You may have noticed that I wear a Fitbit.  It tracks a lot of different things, among them how much I walk in a day.  The first day I wore it, it said that I walked about 400 steps.  That’s not much.  I kept building until it said I was doing 1,000 steps a day, then 2,000, then 3,000.  My high has been 10,000 steps but I average somewhere between 2,500 and 5,000 a day depending on whether I’m at work or not.

My Fitbit told me on Friday that since I’ve been wearing it, about five months, I’ve walked 250 miles. Wait. What?! I’ve walked 250 miles? I liked that. It’s about 400 kilometers. I know, it took me five months to do it, and the world record ultramarthoner has done it in less than 48 hours. Still, I felt good about it. One step at a time.

Our job as Christians is to seek to live the way this passage describes. Wait, what?! How do we do that? How can we possibly live up to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, particularly this passage where even our thoughts – things over which we sometimes have no control – can get us in trouble?

First, we wait. We don’t let ourselves be overwhelmed by the task. We stop, and we take a deep breath, and we remember that we aren’t alone. We have brothers and sisters here and elsewhere supporting us, praying for us, loving us. We have people here and in other places in our lives that have the same doubts, the same fears, the same uncertainties, who feel just as overwhelmed by the challenges Jesus puts before us as we do.

We wait. And as we wait, we reflect on what defines us. I like the way that Jenn put it last week. “As a church, the Sermon on the Mount is our Constitution. It shapes our life, empowers us, and guides us as we discern together how to seek justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.” The Sermon on the Mount is our Constitution, as a church, and as individual Christians. It helps to define us, to make us the people that we are.

And then what do we do? We walk. We walk one step at a time toward the goal of living as Jesus calls us to live. There are areas of what Jesus calls us to where may not be able to walk, where we are still spiritual babies. We may need to toddle, or to crawl, or even to roll to get someplace. We may take a couple of steps back from time to time. We may need to rest. It took me five months to walk 250 miles, and the guy who did it in less than 48 hours didn’t do it the first time he tried. He worked up to it by starting small, remembering his goal, and putting one foot in front of the other.

I know that I’m going to say “Raca,” whatever it means, to someone, either out loud or on Facebook or in my heart. I know I’m not always going to turn the other cheek. I know that I don’t always pray for my enemies. I’ve got a long way to go. I need you to help me to do it.

Wherever we are in our journey, let’s wait and figure out our resources and our possibilities. Then let’s decide what we can do, and start doing it – one step at a time. Amen.

What Defines Us?

Matt 5:1-20; Psalm 1; 1 Cor 1:18-31

Jennifer Hosler

            On Friday (1/20), we had about 100 people in our fellowship hall as I co-led a training on being an active bystander. You may have heard that incidents of harassment have increased over the past two months: more people are being targeted because of their skin color, sexual orientation, religion, language, or immigration status. The goal of the training was to equip people as active bystanders, people who not only witness situations of harassment but take steps to de-escalate the situation and support the targeted person.

Before people came to the training, the organizers directed them to several resources in advance preparation. One resource was a “Nonviolence Pledge” that all trainers and attendees were asked to adhere to. I’ll list a few of them: “1) While engaged in actions associated with our movement we will refrain from violence in deed, word and, as far as possible, even in thought. 2) We will remain aware that our opponents are systems, not people; that our goal is wherever possible to awaken people to the justice of our cause even while resisting what we see as their unjust acts. Therefore, we will not indulge in abusive language or threatening gestures toward anyone.”

I am grateful for these and other principles that guide the training movement, called Swamp Revolt (www.swamprevolt.com). It was helpful to know that everybody was on the same page. We were agreeing to act and train by these values together, and there were core principles to guide us as we prepared for difficult situations. We could think about scenarios and potential actions, then look back and think about whether the potential actions aligned with our values.

During my sermon preparation, I researched nonviolence pledges and found another version, one used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the 1963 Birmingham campaign (Van Hook, 2016). It reads as follows:

1) meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus;

2) remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory;

3) walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love;

4) pray daily to be used by God in order that all [people] might be free;

5) sacrifice personal wishes in order that all [people] might be free;

6) observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy;

7) seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.

8) refrain from the violence of fist, tongue or heart;

9) strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

10) follow the directions of the movement and of the captain of a demonstration.”

It is striking to me that there are principles for meditation on scripture and prayer combined with principles that guide words and actions. The Civil Rights Movement needed active nonviolence that flowed out of marchers’ inner spirits and into their words and deeds.

Many of us here marched yesterday, a march that was a significant and powerful demonstration of the values that we want to see the US defined by: justice, equality, dignity, diversity, and protection for the vulnerable. This is a moment where many of us are asking, “What are our values? How can I be ready to stand up for what I believe in, for what we believe in?”

At Washington City Church of the Brethren, we believe that following Jesus is a way of radical love, service, simplicity, and peace. Like the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. King, we look to the life and teachings of Jesus to transform us and empower us for God’s work of reconciliation in this world.

Today marks the first of a six-week series on the Sermon on the Mount, a section from the gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. The ministry team—pastors and worship leaders—thought it was particularly important and relevant to spend time on this core teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In the life and teaching of Jesus, we see what defines us. Meditating on the life and teachings of Jesus inspires us, guides us, and provides the space for the Holy Spirit to shape us in love and courage.

Sermon on the Mount Series

What are the values that bind us together? As citizens (and permanent residents) of the US, values of religious freedom, freedom of speech, and civil rights for all people—these are values that bind us together. During naturalization ceremonies to become US citizens, immigrants renounce allegiance to other countries and swear/affirm to uphold the US Constitution and protect those values from enemies foreign or domestic. A constitution describes what is to define our lives together in the US.

One theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, sees the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first recorded message to his disciples, as a “Constitution” of God’s people.  He writes that the Sermon is “not addressed to individuals but to the community… of the disciples.  The sermon is not a heroic ethic. It is the constitution of a people” (2006, p. 61). The values defined in the Sermon on the Mount are the ones to guide the life of the church.  What’s more, the Sermon shows us the values and demonstrates the power needed to enact them. Hauerwas says, it’s clear by the standards the Sermon sets that “You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point.  The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another” (p. 61, citing Hauerwas, 1993, pp. 63-72). The Sermon on the Mount “is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus” (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 61).

The Sermon on the Mount is not a set of rules that we fail to live up to but the illustration of how our lives begin to look as we walk together, empowered by the Holy Spirit.  We are people who follow Jesus together, we work through Scripture together, we choose to belong to a community that lives by the difficult words of Jesus, like being merciful or being a peacemaker or loving your enemy.  We figure out what defines us, together.

The Beatitudes

The Sermon on the Mount begins in Matthew 5 and Jesus has just started his ministry. In the chapter before, we see Jesus preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus calls Simon (Peter) and Andrew and James and John, away from their lives as fishermen, to come and follow him as a teacher. Jesus then goes throughout Galilee with them, teaching in synagogues and proclaiming good news of the kingdom, curing people of illnesses and diseases. Great crowds start following him everywhere. When we enter the scene in Matthew 5: Jesus is surrounded by crowds, and heads up to the top of the mountain to teach. His disciples join him and, presumably, some of the crowd does as well.

Jesus starts with nine statements that are called “Beatitudes,” which comes from the Latin word for Blessed. The NT was written in Greek, but Christians used Latin for a long time and some of it stuck. Each of these statements begins with the same Greek word, makarioi.  This word can be translated as “blessed” or “happy.” The French translation of the Bible that I read uses heureux, or happy. “Happy” here is more objective than subjective. It’s not material blessings. It ties back to a usage in the Hebrew Scriptures, “expresses the happiness which is the result of God-given salvation” (DJG, p. 741).

In Psalm 1, one of our other readings this morning, we see a similar usage. “Blessed or happy” are those who don’t head down the same path as the wicked, who don’t tear down and scoff, but who take delight in the law of the LORD and, on his law, they meditate day and night.” They are like trees planted by streams, nourished and healthy, yielding fruit when they are supposed to. Not so the wicked, they are dried up and brittle; they will not endure, but be blown away in the wind. Those who delve into corruption and mocking will eventually be blown away like the dry grass. Those who dwell on God’s word are blessed, finding wholeness and meaning, rooted deep down, nourished by streams of living water.

Nine Values That Define Us

Moving back to the Beatitudes – there are nine in total. The first reads, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!” Poor in spirit? Does that mean the depressed? The discouraged? This one has always been a beatitude that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, though I surmised something about repentance. As I dis some research, I found some insight in the words of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a Catholic peace activist: “Poor in spirit means that we understand a profound truth about ourselves – the truth that none of us is responsible for our own existence and our own continuance of existence. Poor in spirit means we understand our need for God and who God is and who we are. Poor in spirit means we understand that without God and God’s gift to us of existence, of life, [that] we would not be” (Gumbleton, 2014). Poor in spirit is an orientation to the Creator, acknowledging the gift of life and the need for loving power beyond what we ourselves can muster. Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven!

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted!” Blessed are those who mourn – not just those who are sad, but those who mourn and recognize the injustices in the world; those who recognize their own hatred and prejudice and seek to transform it. In the end, those who mourn will be comforted because God will bring justice. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted!”

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth! Meek isn’t a word that we typically use today. In grade 10 careers studies, we had to write a resume and include several characteristics that define ourselves—which we wanted to share with prospective employers. 10th-grade Jenn chose meekness. Slightly nerdy, I agree. During my mock interview with my teacher, he was like, “Tell me about this word you chose: meekness. Some people think being meek is weak. Why would it be a good characteristic?” Since I had heard in church that meekness meant humility, I explained why I thought humility was a good thing.

The meek are those who endure injury with patience and without resentment; who don’t choose violence in deed, word, or thought. This isn’t saying to be a doormat, but to not fight hatred with hatred; the goal is reconciliation. In the end, those who don’t return hate or violence with hate or violence are those who will receive the inheritance of the Kingdom. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth!

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Fulfilled are those who seek to be the change they wish to see in the world. Blessed are those do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Fulfilled are those who, in the face of hate and anger and wrongdoing, choose forgiveness, choose mercy, choose love. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Pure in heart here doesn’t mean perfect, but those whose motives are not self-seeking, who work for the good of others without considering what they will receive in return. This is what makes God manifest in our world, selfless giving love. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God! God is in the business of reconciliation; we are taking part in the family business by seeking to build understanding, to love those whom we disagree with, to love our enemies. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. Fulfilled are the people who get in trouble—not for being arrogant jerks or having the right answers or being the smartest—but who get in trouble for living lives of integrity and justice, who get in trouble for doing the right thing. Rep. John Lewis for a while has been using a hashtag #goodtrouble to tag pictures and comments about nonviolence and his work in the Civil Rights Movement. Getting into good trouble coincides with the Kingdom of Heaven being near. John Lewis got beat up for marching for integration and civil rights. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven!

Finally, the last beatitude has a pronoun aimed at Jesus’ disciples and, by extension, at us. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Jesus explains that it’s likely that the disciples will face resistance for their Jesus-values, the values in the other 8 beatitudes. When you are reviled, and persecuted for following the Jesus who says all these things, you are blessed—you’re not wasting your life, but testifying meaningfully to God’s presence and light in the world. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on Jesus’ account.

What defines us?

There are a lot of tools and tactics that go into resisting evil. We saw some of them this weekend. Training, pledges, media, posters, voices, and getting your body together with other bodies to visibly demonstrate a message. Another tool, a source of strength, courage, and power, is to “meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.” As a church, the Sermon on the Mount is our Constitution. It shapes our life, empowers us, and guides us as we discern together how to seek justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.

How does our witness, our protest, our signs, our tweeting or facebooking, reflect the values the Beatitudes? What defines you and where do you get your source of strength? If you’re looking for something to sustain you in the push for justice these next four years and beyond, I invite you to keep exploring the Sermon on the Mount with us, meditating daily on the teachings and life of Jesus, praying daily to be used by God in order that all [people] might be free.

Sisters and brothers, as a community of faith, we are committed to “seeking justice, wholeness, and community through the gospel of Jesus.” As we do this work, let us be guided by the beatitudes: blessed, happy, and fulfilled are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. Blessed are you when you model these values of Jesus and face resistance. Amen.

 

References

Gumbleton, T. (2014, Feb 6). Blessed are the poor – but what does that mean? National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/peace-pulpit/blessed-are-poor-what-does-mean

Hauerwas, S. (2006). Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.  Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

Van Hook, S. (2016, Jan 18). Why Martin Luther King’s pledge of nonviolence matters today. Waging Nonviolence. Retrieved from http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/why-martin-luther-kings-pledge-of-nonviolence-matters-today/

 

 

Continue to Live Your Lives in Him

Nathan Hosler
Colossian 2:6-15, Luke 11:1-13

Over the past weeks and, indeed years, it seems that there is has been a near ceaseless string of the notably bad. We often call these notably bad injustices, or perhaps unjust acts. We are now several years into a seeming endless and unfathomably tragic Syrian war. Nigeria and our sister church there has been wracked by violence by Boko Haram. Young unarmed black men and women killed. LGBTQ community targeted. These are of course notably bad and though we now hear about them quickly and regularly because of technology they are also not new. As the Teacher in Ecclesiastes states—“there is nothing new under the sun.”

While big and notably bad events internationally are on our minds and more local—that is, within this country—events have interrupted our lives we have also gotten notably bad news from even closer to home. A few Sundays ago Jess texted saying her boyfriend’s six year old son was in the hospital and it was discovered he had a large brain tumor. Since then it has been determined that this is not only present but that it is an aggressive form of cancer. This is notably bad. It is bad and we want to respond—but how? While we need to find ways to support them generally, this morning I am particularly interested in considering how we understand such events and how we relate to God about this.

How does one think about a child getting brain cancer? Even if one could explain it, it still is present. An explanation, if one were possible, does not undo the notable badness of the situation. Indeed it certainly feels that such a situation is unjust. How could it be just for a child to have such a sickness? But to say this makes us want to blame someone or something. If a doctor had done something wrong then we have a culprit. If the government had allowed something to go uncared for then we could assign blame. In the instances of the notably bad—the injustices mentioned earlier in the broader world, we may be able to pinpoint a cause and hold the party accountable.

In the case of this sickness, we could also blame God. This is of course a normal response. How could God allow something like this to happen? This was a question posed by the child. He said he didn’t want to come to church because he was mad at God. This possible accusation seems to become even more tenable when we read our Luke passage. It begins with Jesus praying and when he finishes his disciples ask for instruction in the matter. His response is two-fold. An example and then a bit of commentary and explanation. The example prayer goes:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Jesus immediately tells a story to illuminate this prayer.

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

The story and lesson seems pretty straight forward. Jesus, without a lot (or perhaps any?) qualification seems to imply that if you ask—at least if you ask persistently—God will answer. He doesn’t say if you ask in just the right way or with the right formula or right state of mind or spiritual state. He just gives the direction to ask with persistence. Now, we know things don’t happen quite this straightforwardly—in fact it has always been like this. Even Jesus, when praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion prayed that the “cup” (meaning his suffering and death) would be taken from him. Christians have, as a result, wrestled with this since the beginning.

In Matthew, as part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus includes a similar teaching to pray. The Matthew version of the example prayer is longer but bears a similar resemblance. After the Matthew version Jesus expands some themes from the prayer—one seems to exhort not to worry.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,[j] or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?[k] 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God[l] and his[m] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

A theologian writes,  “[T]o be a ‘forgiven people makes us lose control. To be forgiven means that I must face the fact that my life actually lies in the hands of others. I must learn to trust them as I have learned to trust God. Thus is it is not accidental that Jesus teaches us to pray for our daily bread. We cannot live to insure our ultimate security, but must learn to live on a day-to-day basis. Or, perhaps better, we must be a people who have learned not to fear the surprises as a necessary means to sustain our lives. For, ironically, when we try to exclude surprise from our life, we are only more subject to the demonic. We become subject to those ‘necessities’ that we are anxious about because without them we fear we lack the power to control our lives” (Peaceable Kingdom, 89).

I want answers. I would like to be able to explain why this child has cancer. Why that child is caught in a war zone. If we suffer when we are older it may be easier to explain it away as part of our complicity in sin or evil or at least our complacency or minimally that we have experienced life and are thankful for it. If I were to explain it, however, would it make it any better? If I were to explain it, however, would it make it any better?

The cancer would still be there in a person who obviously doesn’t deserve it. In the book of Job, Job suffers. The book begins with a heavenly scene in which the angels are passing before God—trooping up to the throne of God. One angel is Satan. We witness his proposition to challenge Job’s faith in God. Saying surely Job worships you because he has it so good. Who wouldn’t be thankful? After a back and forth Job experiences a series of devastating catastrophes—destruction of family, property and his own body. Job’s friends visit him. For the better part of twenty chapters they essentially say—God is just you must have done something wrong. Job resolutely says I haven’t done anything wrong. Eventually God speaks. It says, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.”

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings[a] shouted for joy?

Note that this does not really answer the question. It doesn’t explain the suffering. Even if it did explain it would it help? Perhaps what we really want is for suffering to mean something. If I work hard on something and put in the struggle and the strain I want something out of it—I want to succeed at my job, want to stop violence, want to fix my plumbing, want to end hunger, want people to benefit from my sermon. This, however, is not fully in my control. Perhaps only the smallest sliver is in my control. If I want to end hunger, I could, for example volunteer, at our soup kitchen. If I want sermon to be meaningful I can reflect on the community, read scripture, pray, and put in the work. This isn’t guaranteed to succeed though.

In Luke we see Jesus instructing to ask. He says seek, knock, ask. “And it will be given to you.” The main point of this though is persistence. Jesus teaching is to persist in prayer. Persist in prayer. He says even though the friend might not give because he is a friend he will give because the neighbor keeps on knocking.

In Matthew we read “Do not worry about tomorrow.” Don’t worry about tomorrow because today has enough worry. This is not “don’t worry” or “there is nothing to worry about.” This is not a brushing off of worry or the things we are prone to worry about but don’t get ahead of yourself and take on more worry than you should.
Persist in prayer and don’t get ahead of yourself and take on more worry than you should.

“We cannot live to insure our ultimate security, but must learn to live on a day-to-day basis.” In this there is a type of freedom. Since we cannot guarantee anything we might as well live in the freedom of the knowledge of the love of God. We experience the knowledge of the love of God and in fact, the love of God found in the community of the body of Christ.

Honestly I would like everything to work out—for it to be made all better. Many—likely most times when I am actually thinking about it—I feel desperate for this. Out passage in Colossians read, “6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

Filled with the Spirit we can make a response that brings good. This can be the spot where the love of God is made manifest in our world. This love is shown in the Body of Christ in the power of the Spirit for the Glory of God. Let us pray. Let us persist in prayer. Let us love. Let us love well.