Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ready To Get Rid Of That Coat?

  MATTHEW 5:38-48
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Is this how the winter has felt to you? Are you ready to give it up? Are you ready to shed the heavy, bulky coats and hats and boots and walk around in warmer weather without feeling weighed down? Want to break out and feel the warm sun on your arms? Yes? Me, too.

This sermon of Jesus is encouraging us to get rid of our coats, to shrug off things like selfishness, anger and resentment. He's telling how we can break free of the things that weigh us down and hold us back. Jesus describes ways that we can live as God’s redeemed people. Ways of living that preserve the dignity of all of us who are made in God's image. Jesus reveals some of the most powerful tools in God's kingdom-- generosity, love and forgiveness--and calls upon us to use them in our everyday lives.

This part of Matthew's gospel is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount—a sermon given to a group of ordinary people who have gathered to hear the teachings of Jesus. These people are oppressed, not by winter weather, but by a political system that is not of their own making. The Romans have come in and taken control. These are people who long for justice.  Many of the people who are drawn to Jesus are going through hard times. They are trapped.

Jesus gives them a sermon that is odd to our ears. Jesus doesn’t charm them with promises of prosperity or an easy life. He doesn’t tell them they are going to get through this difficult time and have everything they want when it’s over. In fact, at first reading, it would appear to us that he says the opposite. The evil, the pain and the poverty may not end miraculously tomorrow. But what he is telling us is this:

We should persevere in goodness. The evil will be exposed and overcome.

Jesus is saying it’s not about rising up, but rising above. It’s not about rising up and defeating Romans or whoever happens to be oppressing us. It’s about rising above them. Rising above their tactics, their power plays and their sin. Rising above their slaps and forced labor. Rising above the powers and institutions that keep them down.

Following these teaching of Jesus gives us a way to keep our dignity and righteousness when those around us have lost theirs. It’s about trying to keep the moral high ground when the people around us spend time in the muck. 

Jesus begins this section of the sermon with the eye for an eye mentality and moves us to a way of thinking that is completely different. He starts with the idea that righteousness is based on equality and justice requires punishment. If I blind one of your eyes in a fight, you or your family can do the same to me. The offense and the punishment are equal. This is retributive justice.

Jesus starts with retributive justice, but that’s not where he ends. That's not what he's about.

He ends by telling us to love our friends AND our enemies. He says that God sends the sun and the rain to the good and the bad. Jesus takes this idea of equity in punishment and changes it redemption. Overcome the evil with love.  This is redemptive justice.

Retributive justice and redemptive justice look very different in the world. How do we live as the redeemed people that we are? How can we practice redemptive justice—Jesus’ justice? Like a good advice columnist, Jesus gives a few tips to live our best redeemed lives:

Do not resist an evil doer
Turn the other cheek
Give up your coat
Give to those who ask of you
Pray for those who persecute you
And the #1 way to live your best redeemed life: LOVE YOUR ENEMEY

Usually we let these teachings go in one ear and out the other. OR, we ignore them. We must think that if Jesus met our enemies and the people who persecute US, he’d be telling us to take a stand. But he doesn’t.

While it may seem that turning the other cheek and giving up our coats and cloaks are a way of passively opting out and letting evil win, they are not. With this list, Jesus is giving us the most powerful tools of God—generosity, love and forgiveness.  He’s giving us the tools of God as a way of honoring the image of God in which we are all made—the good and the bad, the evil and the righteous. When we choose the tools of generosity, love and forgiveness we are participating in the kingdom of God that is at hand. We overcome the powers of this world. We shed our heavy coats.

Jesus' whole life shows us where the true power lies. He’s showing that generosity, love and forgiveness are at the heart of eternity. They will always outlast and overcome evil. Jesus is showing us that when we are in difficult circumstances we have a choice, we can choose retribution or redemption. We can use the same evil ways and tactics as our oppressors or choose his way. We can wrestle that heavy coat of sin from our enemies, place it upon our own shoulders and declare victory, or we can let them keep it and experience God’s true freedom.

In several of Jesus’ examples, he’s telling his listeners to reject the coat of sin, stand fast in their goodness and expose the evil for what it really is. Understanding what Jesus is doing in this passage means understanding a little bit about his times. Jesus says:

If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also

It was common in Jesus’ time to give an inferior a back across the right cheek. It was part of the institutionalized inequality.[1]  It was culturally acceptable to do this to a slave or underling. However, there isn’t a culturally acceptable way to easily hit a person on their left cheek. The hitter would have to use his left hand—which was unclean and unacceptable. The hitter could also use his right open hand or fist, but that was unacceptable as well because it would be treating a slave like a peer instead of an underling. It’s complicated, I know. 

Turning the other cheek isn’t an invitation to be a doormat and take another hit. It’s literally a way of holding your head up and facing your adversary and showing him or her that they can't humiliate me. It is a way of standing up to evil.

The coat and cloak issue is similarly complex.

While many of us think of giving the coat off of our back as a way of giving to someone in need, this teaching was a little different for Jesus’ original audience. It may even have been funny or risqué. The people listening to Jesus were likely poor and in debt. Old Testament rules allowed for the debt collector to take the cloak as collateral. When Jesus says to give your coat and your cloak, he’s basically saying strip. In Jesus’ time nakedness was shameful not just to the person who was naked but to all the people who see him naked. Imagine standing in bankruptcy court and taking the clothes off your back and handing them to the debt collector and saying, “Here, you can have it all. I have nothing left.” It’d be shocking. And awkward. 

These teachings of Jesus encourage us to stay strong—to not become evil to defeat evil—to practice the redemption that Jesus brought to us. When we do this, we expose evil for what it really is— selfish, angry and resentful.

I was not alive for the civil rights protests, but I just recently watched the movie The Butler. In that movie, we can clearly see the evil of prejudice and racism exposed. How we are to handle injustice is the central theme of the movie in the same way that it is at the core of this teaching of Jesus. The evil was defeated not because the African Americans rose up against it, but because they and their supporters rose above it.  

The lunch counter scene was illustrative because while the racists were spitting and hitting and hurling insults trying to preserve the imbalance of power, the protesters maintained their dignity. In their lust for power, the racists lost their dignity. The protesters did not to resist the evildoer. Instead the evildoers showed the world what they was really in their hearts.

What I liked about the movie is that it showed that the turning of the cheek, the not returning evil for evil didn’t come easily for those involved. It’s not for the weak or the faint of heart. They had to practice their non-violent protest.  There is a scene that shows the black and white protesters hitting and insulting each other in order to learn that behavior. They had to resist the urge to fight back, just as Jesus did when he was ridiculed, spit upon and beaten.

Practicing redemptive justice and exposing evil is not a job for the weak, but for the strong. It’s for those whose hearts are strong enough in Christ not just to love those who love them, but to love their enemies. I’m not talking about sentimental love, I’m talking about the love that respects and validates the other person. Love that looks for the image of God in each human being.

This strength is the basis for our Christian hope, that as individuals, as a community, as a nation and as a world, we will take on these tools of Christ. We will follow Christ and walk through this world as generous people, loving people and forgiving people. We will act like the redeemed people that we are.

God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

In Christ, we are called to shower our love to others in the same way. We are called to live into our redemption. To live as Christ lived.

When we do, it can feel a little like those first really warm days of spring. We can get rid of that bulky coat and rejoice with the sun on our bare arms.  We can shed the burdens of selfishness, anger and resentment and live into the generosity and dignity of Christ. We can see the image of God, not just in ourselves, but in those around us. We can take off that coat and finally bask in the redemption that Christ was dying to show us. When we do this, that is the moment when we truly begin to live.

[1] Explanations of the turn the other cheek and the coat and cloak are taken from Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by Walter Wink (Augsburg Fortress, 2003).

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Commitment + Unity = Community

This week's sermon is audio only. Click above to hear the sermon.

15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

MATTHEW 5:21-37
21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Struggling to See

2When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God...
12Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 13And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.14Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. 
16  “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
Poor eyesight has been a problem for me most of my life. I got glasses in second or third grade and seeing the world through corrective lenses was a revelation.  I didn’t have to scrunch my eyes to see the blackboard because with glasses the chalk letters weren’t fuzzy. The words in my books stopped moving around on the page. Getting glasses made school a lot easier.

In this New Testament passage, Paul talks about a similar experience. He’s giving the people in the church of Corinth the lenses through which to see their life and faith.
Paul encourages his listeners to make sense of their lives through Christ. He’s preaching Christ crucified—that is Christ as his least powerful and seemingly most foolish. He’s advocating a new way of seeing the world that is not in line with the logic and rhetoric of the day. He’s saying: see the world, see your lives through the lens of Jesus’ cross.

In doing this he emphasizes that lofty words, impressive wisdom, and cultural power will not help us explain the mystery of Christ. It’s something that is beyond the sensory experiences of this world. Paul calls this a spiritual knowledge.

Many of us have experiences that transcend the ordinary. Things that happen that don’t seem possible.  Maybe it’s a feeling of overwhelming and inexplicable hope in circumstances that were difficult.

Or a suddenly sensing of direction and clarity when quietly praying in a bedroom in the dark of the night.

Or looking into the eyes of a child—or even a stranger—and known that there was something beyond what you could see.

Or feeling the weight of eternity descend upon your heart during communion.

Paul says these transcendent experiences are foolishness to some people.  My guess is that at one point of another you may have felt foolish about the things that you believe about Jesus or the things that Jesus teaches.

When we try to find the words to capture and define our God or spiritual experiences, we just can’t. We feel foolish. Our words can’t do justice to what it is we think we know about God or spirituality. As Paul says, our brains aren't up to the task of processing all that God offers. 

No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, 
     what God has prepared for those who love him

Our most lofty words and deepest wisdom can’t capture the mystery of God in our hearts. The best thing we have is Jesus. Jesus as the Word made flesh, the heavenly that becomes earthly, or as author Anne Lamott likes to say, God with the skin on. We can point to Jesus’ teaching and life as examples of what we experience and what we should do. The cross becomes a corrective lens—our spiritual glasses, transforming the way we see the world.

When we look at life through the cross of Christ, we see what God’s love looks like in the world. Paul’s “Christ crucified” is the symbol of a Godly, righteous life. With it, Jesus shows us how to live—and die. 
  • Christ crucified shows us how to turn the other cheek. 
  • Christ crucified demonstrates that Jesus was serious when he said to that foolish thing about praying for our enemies.
  • Christ crucified looks like defeat and death. 
  • Christ crucified is a foolish revolutionary who lost his fight against the Roman Empire.

But, But…As foolish as it might have been, we are still talking about it. We see something in Jesus' death that is real and true and inspirational and eternal. We can’t always explain to our friends or neighbors, but we know it’s there.  

Of course, the fact that we can't really explain it doesn't stop us from trying. People have been trying to explain Christ crucified for thousands of years. Some say it’s the final blood sacrifice tying it to the Old Testament practices for appeasing God. Some say Christ is the ransom—the payment of a debt that we as humanity cannot afford. Some say it’s Christ taking on the punishment that is due to us as sinners in the hands of an angry God. Some say it is Christ getting us out of the ages-long cycle of sin and punishment by showing us what happens when we really follow his teaching, transcending the violence with true forgiveness and prayer.

Maybe they are all right. Maybe none of them are right. In the end, we have to rely on the grace of God and this foolish gift of spiritual insight to figure our what the Christ on the cross means to our hearts and minds.

But, when we admit the foolishness of Christianity, when we embrace the foolishness, we can see God at work most powerfully. What does it mean to live into the foolishness, trusting God’s gifts?  Living into the foolishness is more than just believing things about death and resurrection. The foolishness can and should impact the way we deal with money, time and people.

Trusting God’s gifts can mean tithing or giving generously.
Think about: How do you feel when you give? Are you a crisis giver or is giving a habit?

Most of us want something for our money. We like to see results of our spending. This means we are happy to open our wallets when there is a crisis or like to give to special projects. Sometimes, though, don’t always give as generously as we could to the general fund of the church. It’s the week over week giving that keeps the lights and heat on.

Living into the foolishness means being willing to go with God’s plan instead of your own.
Think about: Are there parts of your life separate from God? Do you pray about not just what you give to the church, but your whole budget?

There is a saying: show me your checkbook and I’ll show you what you really value.  It’s easy to feel like our spending is beyond our control. We have bills to pay, mouths to feed, a future to save for. Trusting God means going for God to guidance in all areas of life. Not just giving what’s leftover.

Trusting God’s gifts means doing less with our time, not more.  
Think about: Are you a good steward of your time? Do you set aside enough time to refresh yourself and to serve God?

We are a busy culture. Finding enough time to refresh ourselves is a way of honoring God. It’s a way of saying that you care for one of God’s greatest creations—YOURSELF! When you do nothing you practice sacred rest (or Sabbath keeping). Out of this nothingness often comes something. We are better able to love God and others. Out of that refreshment we get the energy to serve others.

Trusting God’s foolish gifts means being a little foolish when it comes to people. It means that we are to love not just those to love us, but love our enemies. We are to pray for those who persecute us. We are to care for people who cannot return the favor because they are too poor or too sick or in jail.

Trusting God’s foolish gifts means trusting that the crucifixion is a way to life instead of death. It means trusting that foolish line in the Apostle’s creed about believing in the resurrection of the body. Not the soul flying into the clouds for a happy ever after, but some sort of bodily transformation out the ashes or a corpse filled with embalming fluid. Talk about foolish.  

Tithing—giving away our money, Sabbath keeping—taking time to do nothing, helping people who cannot help themselves—these are not the ways to get ahead in the world. But they are exactly what the Bible tells us to do. To our ears, it’s crazy. It’s foolishness.

So is the idea the Jesus dies so that we may have eternal life. The idea of resurrection and afterlife is difficult to make sense of in our world. Our coming to God after our breath stops is foolishness, but it is our story. It is our hope.

Paul reminds us that in the midst of all this foolishness we have the mind of Jesus—the mind of Christ crucified. We have the mind of a man who loved his neighbors and enemies.  We have the mind of a man who prayed for the people who killed him. We have the mind of a man was not afraid to appear foolish and defeated. We have the mind of a man who knows firsthand the mystery and power of God and was not afraid to live it for the world to see. 

Some call it all foolish. I call it God.