At the End of the Day, or the Sermon on the Mount, We Have a Choice.

Well, with this week’s sermon on Matthew 7.24-29, we have arrived at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t know if you noticed this or not, but one of the dominant themes in Matthew 5-7 is that there are two alternatives people face. Jesus clearly makes the point that there is the old way and there is his new way. We saw this in chapter five where almost every sub-unit began with something like “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, but I say to you….” Or in chapter six, we saw Jesus saying something like “Your peers practice their religion this way, but I am telling you that you should do this….” And in chapter seven, Jesus very clearly lays out the two alternative ways by referring to broad and narrow roads, good and bad trees, good and bad fruit, talkers and doers and in today’s passage wise and foolish builders.

And the choice before us isn’t casual, like what should I wear to church or even what should I wear to the big job interview. Today’s passage leaves us with the impression that the wrong choice would be disastrous. The wrong choice is like a house collapsing around you. The problem is the choice involves change, and change is extremely challenging. To be honest change involves the unknown, and that is unnerving. And to move into the unknown you need energy, wisdom, and courage. And to be even more honest often change situations need lots of energy, wisdom, and courage. And sadly, we don’t always have the “right quantity” of those three elements. However, as we saw two weeks ago, Jesus reassured us in Matthew 7.7-12, the “Ask, Seek, and Knock” passage, God does and God wants to bless us with what we need to be faithful.

In Matthew 7.24-29 we read:
“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!” 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.

Let’s begin by looking at the last two verses, where Matthew sums up the crowd’s response to Jesus’ teaching: 28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. These two verses refer to his teaching style or methodology and not the content of his teaching. He taught on his own authority and not like the scribes. What does that mean? The Jewish teachers of the Law in the first century ALWAYS taught by referring to the previous teachers of the Law and the way they viewed it and applied it. They referenced the previous generations’ ways of understanding a particular aspect of Judaism. They looked to the past and “tweaked” it for their time. And that approach meant there were NO significant departures from the previous generations’ understanding of how to be Jewish.

But Jesus was different. He didn’t reference and build on the teachings of previous generations. In fact, as we saw in chapter five, he felt quite free to “set aside” what they said. That is the nice way to put it. Another way is to say he ignored them. Not surprisingly, Matthew tells us this “astounded” the people listening to Jesus. The Greek word there could be translated “panicked,” “overwhelmed,” or “shocked.” In other words, they weren’t ready for Jesus’ teaching method which simply swept aside hundreds of years of “how” the Jews were supposed to go about knowing what to do. While the scribes looked to the past on how to live, Jesus looked to the future and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. Big difference. Unnerving difference. Everyone should have been shocked, because they didn’t have the old ways to lean upon. The future was open to something new and very different.

To be honest it wasn’t only Jesus’ teaching style that scared people. The content of his teaching was rather unnerving as well. We have seen this for the past number of weeks. Jesus raises the bar so high at times, we sit there and wonder, “How? How can this ever happen? And if I try this, it probably won’t end well.”

Never mind avoiding murder…don’t even get angry at people.

Never mind not committing adultery…don’t even lust over another person.

Don’t limit your love to your friends and neighbors…love your enemies.

When you are trying to be religious and pious, do it for God and not the people around you.

Don’t worry.

Don’t judge.

Don’t rely on yourself. Ask, seek, knock. God wants to bless you.

To be fair, while Jesus does set the bar high, but remember in 7.7-12 he also says God is more than willing to help us live out what he calls us to be and do. And still we often lack confidence. We are normal. We find ourselves wondering if we can do what Jesus asks for. Moreover, we honestly don’t know what it looks like because Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom of Heaven is so very different and better than our limited human vision. In my family’s current life, we are dealing with a physical parallel to this “spiritual” challenge.

Having grown up in Africa and experiencing the harsh sun conditions there, my wife’s eyes have developed cataracts. She needs surgery, but for that to happen she must stop wearing her contacts so as to allow her eyes to “regain” their original shape. She has worn contacts for almost fifty years because her vision is so weak. So, for the immediate future, she will have to deal with eye sight which is far from ideal while she wears only her glasses. She won’t be able to see as clearly as she’d like. We are told that once the surgery happens her eye sight will be vastly improved. In fact, she should only need reading glasses. But for now, her vision is impaired. Similarly, when it comes to envisioning the Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus introduced us to, we have trouble seeing it as clearly as he did. It is as if we have cataracts. Additionally, we tend to look backwards to how we have “done our religious life” in the past, while he looks forward to the future and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. We don’t always see what he sees. And that makes it difficult to follow him.

I suspect Jesus knew that what he was asking of us is difficult and challenging. He also knew that our decision to follow him and his teachings will make a huge, and positive, difference in our lives, our church life and the world around us. And that is why he tells the short parable in verses 24-27. There are two builders. I assume they are both skilled builders. Perhaps they are not equally experienced or equally committed to proper and hard work, but we are not told one was a good builder and the other was shoddy. What sets them apart is where they decided to build. The one man took the more challenging route, and built on rock. I can’t imagine that would be easy in ancient Palestine. Maybe there was digging involved and lots of it until bedrock was located. Or maybe exposed stone had to be leveled and chiseled to have a relatively level foundation. Living the expectations of the Sermon on the Mount is like that man’s building project. It is difficult, but since it is God’s plan it will last because the Kingdom of Heaven will last.

The other builder took the easy route and build on sand…seemingly without site preparation. He found a place with a view and easy access to supplies, and he built. Like the scribes who relied on their centuries of inherited tradition, he went with what was at hand. He did what was acceptable and easy. And Jesus warns his listeners that the former, the life in the Kingdom of Heaven, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, will last while the latter, the accepted traditions of people will eventually come crashing to an end. The one is hopeful and a source of joy. The other is simply a disastrous mess.

To be honest there is too much at stake for a “business as usual” mindset to be your, mine or our congregation’s way of living. As Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.” My friend Stephen Gallaher alters that line a little when he says, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be who you’ve always been.” To be honest, we can’t afford to “do business as usual.” And we can’t afford to do that because looking to the ways of the past aren’t helping us to live better lives. Look at the world around us and people’s lives all around us. Look at your own life. Things don’t change for the better when we simply repeat the same way of living that we have always lived. Repeating the old ways isn’t helping our neighbors to know there is an alternative to “business as usual.” Looking to the accepted ways of the past doesn’t give anyone hope that there is a better future known as the Kingdom of Heaven. Living the old ways will never help us live a life on earth that reflects the life to be found in heaven. And Jesus specifically called us to pray that that would happen.

Here’s the take away:

Look at your life and ask yourself: What would my life look like if I was more intentional about even one of Jesus’ teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount?

How might you creatively live that one teaching?

If you don’t know how, pray that God will show you how.

And when you realize how hard it will be, be resolved to build on Jesus the rock which we are called to build upon.

And pray that you have the strength to live the life here that will be lived in heaven.

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If Your Friends Jump off the River Bridge, Would You Jump Also?

While it may not be an obvious place to begin a sermon on Matthew 5.38-48, I need to tell you one thing about my family. The men have proudly served in the U.S. Army. My cousin Joe is a Viet Nam vet. My father was part of the occupation force in Italy when the Italians surrendered. His brothers Bill and Joe served in the Pacific and European theaters respectively. My uncle Leck was a career NCO, serving in WWII, Korea, and two tours of duty in Viet Nam. And my dad’s second youngest brother, Bob, died in a North Korean POW camp.

As you can see I am not a likely candidate to preach on a biblical passage which talks about loving enemies and turning the other cheek. I grew up assuming it was good to be in the military, and especially good to be in the Army. I was told there were times when you just had to use force to resolve disagreements. Moreover, I am not a pacifist by nature. In fact, deep inside of me there’s a problem…but more on that later. So, you must be asking, “How did he get here?”

The credit (or blame) goes to Reverend David Wilkerson. He is the author of The Cross and the Switchblade, the founder of TeenChallenge, and an evangelist in the Assemblies of God Church. He was the evangelist the night I was converted, and I prefer the word “converted” to “saved” because it hints at the importance of change in a person’s life once they become Christians.

I vividly recall that evening. When invited, I went “up front”, and Dave Wilkerson talked to me afterwards. I have no idea why he singled me out, but he did. I was rather confused…I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, having made this “decision for Christ.” He told me to go home and read the Bible starting with Matthew. So, I did. And it wasn’t very long until I knew I was in trouble because it doesn’t take long to get to these words of Jesus in Matthew 5.38-48:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What had I just signed up for? It looked as though I had a choice to make. Who did I believe: my family or Jesus? How should I deal with those situations where wrong is lived out? How should I look at others who do wrong? How should I look at myself? Although I loved my dad, uncles, and cousin, I concluded Jesus was right. Let’s see if I can begin to explain why.

Before we go very far I must point out that ultimately, this sermon isn’t about the military or pacifism. Those topics are related to our subject, and they are topics which I enjoy talking to people about. The real topic, however, is how do Christians live in a world riddled with evil, wrong, and injustice. I am concerned about the daily manifestation of evil and injustice in our lives. The chances are very slim you or I will ever meet a member of Al-Qaidia face-to-face. But the odds are very good that someone will treat you unfairly or violently, whether that violence is physical or psychological. And this mistreatment could occur today or tomorrow. Perhaps, this already happened yesterday or last week or last month or a year ago. How did you respond? How are you responding? How will you respond? And more importantly, how does Jesus want us to respond? Do we casually and thoughtlessly accept the age-old wisdom of treating others the way we have been treated and hating our enemies, while loving our friends? Or do we take Jesus seriously by looking at the evildoer differently? By looking at ourselves differently? By considering the fact that God treats everyone graciously, as noted in Matthew5. 45?

I have realized for a long time that Jesus, despite his popular image, was and is difficult to “get along with.” And it isn’t simply because he asks us to do difficult things like avoid retaliation or love our enemies. He’s difficult because he asks us to recognize this problem inside each and every one of us. He asks us to stop being naïve about who we are. One of his assumptions behind Matthew 5:38ff is the fact that we all have a capacity to do evil, to be evil, unjust, unfair, and unloving.

N.T. Wright, in his book, Evil and the Justice of God, argues that contemporary people are naïve and immature about evil. In particular, we are naïve when we believe the other person is evil and unfair, but I am okay. In Jesus’ day it was the Romans and Gentiles who were seen as evil, but many Jews believed they were okay, God’s special people. But Jesus says, “Really? They are bad and you are good? Is it that simple? If you act like them are you really better than them?” Jesus told his peers, and us, that there is a streak of evildoing potential in everyone.

Given the right situation and circumstance it is all too easy to choose evil and injustice. Our nature seems to be oriented toward self and self-promotion and often wrong is the end result. Admittedly, few of us are murders, armed robbers, rapists, drug-traffickers, and so on. But haven’t you ever done or said something which killed another person’s self-esteem or stole someone’s good reputation or destroyed someone’s sense of security? Have you never hurt another person by your words or actions? I have. And I like to think I am “normal”, which means I am not alone in this matter. I am not the only one stuck with this internal problem. I want to take the easy path. I would like revenge for the times I am ignored, ridiculed, or belittled. I would like to follow the easy way of only loving the people who love me in return. There is something wrong with me.

The beginning of our salvation is our admission that we are no better nor any worse than anyone else. We, like everyone around us, have a problem: it is easy to be evil. At a very simple level, Donald Miller’s Christmas story illustrates this. In his wildly popular book, Blue Like Jazz, Miller tells of the very first time he realized he had a serious problem.

“This is how the bomb fell: For my mother that year I had purchased a shabby Christmas gift—a book, the contents of which she would never be interested in. I had had a sum of money with which to buy presents, and the majority of it I used to buy fishing equipment, as Roy and I had started fishing in the creek behind Wal-Mart.

My extended family opens gifts on Christmas Eve, leaving the immediate family to open gifts the next morning, and so in my room that night were wonderful presents—toys, games, candy, and clothes—and as I lay in bed I counted and categorized them in the moonlight, the battery-operated toys of the greatest importance, the underwear of no consequence at all.
So in the moonlight I drifted in and out of anxious sleep, and this is when it occurred to me that the gift I had purchased for my mother was bought with the petty change left after I had pleased myself. I realized I had set the happiness of my mother beyond my own material desires.
This was a different sort of guilt from anything I had previously experienced. It was a heavy guilt, not the sort of guilt that I could do anything about. It was a haunting feeling, the sort of sensation you get when you wonder whether you are two people, the other of which does things you can’t explain, bad and terrible things.

The guilt was so heavy that I fell out of bed onto my knees and begged, not a slot-machine God, but a living, feeling God, to stop the pain. I crawled out of my room and into the hallway by my mother’s door and lay on my elbows and face for an hour or so, going sometimes into sleep, before finally the burden lifted and I was able to return to my room.

We opened the rest of our gifts the next morning, and I was pleased to receive what I did, but when my mother opened her silly book, I asked her forgiveness, saying how much I wished I had done more. She, of course, pretended to enjoy the gift, saying how she wanted to know about the subject.

I was still feeling terrible that evening when the family gathered for dinner around a table so full of food a kingdom could feast. I sat low in my chair, eye-level with the bowls of potatoes and corn, having my hair straightened by ten talking women, all happy the holiday had come to a close.

And while they ate and talked and chatted away another Christmas, I felt ashamed and wondered silently whether they knew they were eating with Hitler.” (pp.9-11)

Are we like Hitler? Not exactly. But it is easy, as easy as spending money at Christmas, to act in ungodly, unfair ways when dealing with each other. As Miller writes a few pages later, “I think every conscious person, every person who is awake to the functioning principles within his reality, has a moment where he stops blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority, and starts to face himself. I hate this more than anything. This is the hardest principle within Christian spirituality for me to deal with. The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.” (p. 20)

There is a second reason why we find Jesus a little “off-putting.” It is the standard which he sets for us. You will notice he doesn’t say, “Everything will be okay, if you are slightly better than Hitler.” Or, “If you are less judgmental than that incredibly judgmental person at work.” Or, “If you aren’t as racist or sexist as your neighbor.” Rather, he says, “Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That is a rather tall order. He frustrates us when he sets the bar so high.

He tells us, and in the original Greek it is an imperative verb, not a suggestion, to love and pray for those who oppose us. And Jesus’ reasoning is simple: that’s how God, your Father, treats people. If you are truly a member of God’s family, you will live by God’s mores and values. Jesus is relying on very simple logic here. No doubt you have already figured this out when you started “hanging out” with other teenagers or went to college. If you are parents of pre-teen children this lesson is coming at you faster than you realize. You were raised with one set of values and expectations and your friends were raised with a different set. When I did something my friends viewed as “normal” but my mother didn’t I would hear this line: “If your friends jumped off the river bridge, would you jump off the river bridge, too?” That question was a not so subtle way of reminding me I have violated a family expectation.

Let me share one of my family traditions. My wife, two sons and I know exactly what we will eat at the evening meal on January 25: haggis, mashed potatoes and turnips (haggis, tatties and neeps). And we do that because January 25 is Robert Burns’ birthday. And Robert Burns was the national poet in Scotland. Every January 25, Scots and people of Scots ancestory around the world are eating haggis, tatties and neeps. Because that is what people who are proud of being in the Scottish family do. Similarly, Jesus says, if you are in God’s family you will love and pray for your enemies, because that is what our Father does. As God’s children, Jesus calls us to imitate God’s way of dealing with evildoers.

God treats everyone the same: all people receive the sun and the rain. I suppose this reference to the sun and rain could mean a number of things, but in an agrarian society like first century Palestine, I believe Jesus is suggesting that God gives people, all people, what they need to survive and live. He doesn’t ask if the person is evil or good. He knows they are both, and he gives everyone what they need.

While we can’t control the sun and rain, we can provide love and prayer, the vital ingredients for healthy relationships. In fact, Jesus tells us that in a sick world where evil is the norm, people who follow him inject two crucial antidotes: love and prayer. His followers are God’s constructive agents for the healing of the world. In a world which so often seems driven by hatred and destruction, Jesus’ followers live loving, constructive lives. We forsake the ways of the non-believers. And when we live lives driven by love we model alternatives to “business as usual”, we provide hope for a better world and we point to how the world will be when God is fully in control. We reject hatred and retaliation because they leave the world mired in evil. We reject hatred and retaliation because the God we worship is loving and calls us to do the same. It is how we live in God’s family.

Not only do Jesus’ followers live loving, constructive lives, we are specifically told to pray for our enemies. To be very honest we can only begin to theorize as to why this was important to Jesus. Here is my theory: the prayer Jesus has in mind is intercessory prayer, where the person praying “stands between” God and the person for whom we pray. Intercessory prayer is designed to benefit the person for whom the prayers are offered, in this case the enemy. I suspect Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies so that they may be changed from doers of evil to doers of good. But there is more: we, too, benefit from praying or interceding for our enemies. By standing between them and God, we are continually reminded of how God sees and loves them. By praying for them, we are humbled and reminded that, without God’s help we, too, can be doers of evil. With less evil in the world, God is honored and his creation is moving forward to its full redemption.

I want to close with two stories and a few questions. My uncle Leck was, as I mentioned already, a career NCO in the U.S. Army. I knew him as an incredibly gracious, kind, and ironically, peaceful man. I assumed that was because I was family and a kid. I further assumed he was different “at work”, after all he was a master sergeant. He had to be a tough guy. But one Thanksgiving morning I learned just how wrong I was. My family was visiting him and his family at Fort Bragg. Uncle Leck took my dad and me with him when he went to check in on how the meal preparations were going at the base. As soon as he walked into that large busy kitchen, everyone turned and shouted, “Hey Sarg, Happy Thanksgiving.” Everyone was grinning and smiling at him. It seemed clear to me, that they really liked him. And then I saw why that was. He walked around the kitchen, asking various soldiers how things were going, he encouraged them, and even asked if they had or would be able to talk to loved ones back home. And he treated every soldier the same, whether he was black, white, or Hispanic.

I also remember his funeral. I was shocked at the two scripture passages he specifically requested. Both were critical of war and hatred; they spoke of the hope that someday there would be peace on earth. This man, who served in World War II, Korea and twice in Viet Nam, had seen enough. I suspect he knew there were better ways to overcome evil. In fact, I know he knew there were better ways. After all, I observed him first hand that Thanksgiving morning.

How are you going to respond to the evil and challenges in your life? The public figure who drives you crazy every time he or she opens his or her mouth? The aggressive and dangerous driver? The troublesome co-worker? The annoying and bothersome neighbor? The family member you have come to despise? Will you take the easy way of retaliation and hatred? Or will you step up to Jesus’ challenge to be loving and prayerful?

“Murder, Anger, Name calling & General Mayhem: This isn’t What the Kingdom of Heaven is Like”

To be honest as I was working with today’s passage (Matthew 5.21-26), I had some difficulty locating the focus. These six verses range over topics including murder, anger, name calling and being embroiled in a court case. What was the connection? And while I wasn’t initially sure what held these verses together, I knew it was something important. There is talk of “liability” in at least four places and two entire verses are about being drug into court and being thrown into prison…which is slightly better than being thrown into Gehenna or “the hell of fire” (verse 22). I am thinking, “There is some really important law being talked about here, I better get it right. There is a lot at stake.” However, the very last commentator I read, Douglas Hare, Matthew, p. 51, pointed out that this passage (and the next five passages) are not about Jesus making new laws; rather it is Jesus talking about a new life: the new life in the kingdom of heaven. It is Jesus beginning to unpacking how we live as salt and light in a world desperately needing alternatives to business as usual. The passage reads:

5.21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But 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. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court[g] 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. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5.21-26)

This unit and all the units in chapter five begin with something like “You have heard that it was said….” And then they refer to some Old Testament laws that Israel was not to violate. Those passages cover moral actions like murder, adultery, divorce, lying, retaliation and hating enemies. They are all specific boundaries not to be crossed by people who called themselves the “People of God.” Jesus says, in essence, in the old days people told you never, ever cross this or that line, and they happily allowed you to wander right up to it…so long as you didn’t cross it. But I want you to know, Jesus continues, that every specific boundary is merely a particular point on a dangerous trajectory. And, so you need to be careful about the trajectories upon which you find yourself.

What does that mean? Good question. Let’s put it this way. No one I know wakes up the first thing in the morning and suddenly thinks to themselves, “I believe I will commit adultery today…or maybe tomorrow.” Instead they were lying there yesterday or last week thinking, “That new person at work is kinda attractive. She was really kind to me. Or he went out of his way to be helpful. I wonder if s/he is interested in me. I could be interested in her/him.” Or no one I know wakes up the first thing in the morning and suddenly thinks to themselves, “I think I am going to lie to my colleague today.” Instead we are laying there thinking, “It was great Mary loaned me her car yesterday when mine was in the garage. I don’t know how to tell her I put a dent in it backing out of that parking space. I think I will tell her it was dented when I came out of the grocery store.” Jesus says when you start thinking along those lines you are already on a dangerous trajectory, which may end up breaking the law. But you have already started living out a pathway which doesn’t end up in the kingdom of heaven.

In the opening two verses (21-22) Jesus warns his followers about the trajectory which potentially ends in murder. Ultimately, murder is the end result of someone deciding that another person’s life has no worth. The victim is, in essence, disposable. And he or she can be done away with. Jesus says remember there are a number of steps you have to take before you arrive at that terrible point. The next-to-last step is being incredibly angry at someone. If you are angry enough, out of control enough, you could lash out and do serious harm to a person. But before that, you have to make a huge assumption about them, and that assumption is this: they are useless…at least to you they are. The word raca (v. 22, translated “if you insult”) is almost impossible to translate, but it is an abusive term of contempt. It means you have no time or respect for someone you see as hopelessly incompetent. It means you think the world would be better off without them in it. And the word moro (also in v. 22 and translated as “you fool”) is a slanderous term calling someone’s moral character into question. It is a way of assassinating someone’s character or ruining their reputation.

At the end of the day, when you are lying in bed you might be able to say, “Well, today I didn’t actually murder anyone and I feel good about that.” But Jesus says his followers also need to ask themselves, “Did I even wish someone was dead because I think they are useless?” Ask yourself, “Did I assassinate someone’s character?” We aren’t faithful only when we avoid the last stop on the murder trajectory, while casually moving through life creating interpersonal chaos and ill will. We are successful when we get off that destructive trajectory all together.

If that isn’t challenging enough, Jesus ends this passage by reminding us of something we’d rather not hear: sometimes, we are the raca or the moro. It is one thing to have to live with useless people or morally suspect people, but somedays we are another person’s loser, and Jesus reminds that this is a real possibility in verses 25-26. There Jesus creates a scene where you or I are the “offenders.” He depicts it as a court scene, where someone (me or you) has done something to upset another person enough to call in a third party to make a judgment about our bad behavior.

As much as I would like to deny this has ever happened, I must admit is has. I like to think I am an “average guy” which means I am not unique on this aspect of life. And that means you have probably found yourself in the same situation…having done something incredibly hurtful, intentionally or unintentionally, to another person. We don’t want to, but we must, admit to ourselves that some days we are the raca or the moro in another person’s life. And that reality should humble us, and remind us to be gentle with the racas and moros who cross our life paths. And don’t forget: when we looked at the Lord’s Prayer two weeks ago, Jesus reminded us that forgiveness was foundational to the kingdom of heaven. I assume it foundational in getting off the murder trajectory as well.

Now if you have been following closely, you will realize I skipped two verses: 23 and 24. And these verses are a subtle, but important, suggestion for how to get off the murder trajectory. On the face of it, Jesus’ advice looks simple: if you are going to worship and remember there may be “issues” between you and a “brother or sister” go home and take care of the conflict, the raca/moro “stuff,” and then go back to worship. We think, “Oh, our religious life with God should somehow connect to our lives with each other, and that is true. Jesus seems to be saying God isn’t especially interested in your worship if you are running around calling people names or giving people a reason to call you names.

But there is more to these verses than that. The context is making a sacrifice in Jerusalem…verse 23 says, “…when you are offering your gift at the alter….” But when Jesus said this he was in Galilee where he delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Jerusalem, where the temple is located, is a three day walk from Galilee. Essentially, Jesus’ advice looks something like this: after you spend three days walking to Jerusalem, once you have changed your money to purchase your sacrifice, and then you remember you have a bad attitude toward someone at home, just let your sacrifice there, spend three days walking home, work out a reconciliation, and then walk three days back to Jerusalem to make that sacrifice. Of course, this will actually take a week, because there will be a Sabbath in that time span and you can’t walk very far on the Sabbath. I am sure your sacrifice will be waiting for you.

Admittedly, that advise is bizarre and overdrawn. I doubt Jesus expected anyone to do that. What he probably did expect was for people to be very careful about how they treated each other every day. And they certainly should never leave for Jerusalem without attempting to resolve conflict with fellow believers. In fact, his words at the beginning of verse 25 would reinforce this: “…Come to terms quickly with your accuser….” That expression looks like a legal term, doesn’t it, given the following context? It kinda looks like Jesus is suggesting we “settle out of court.” But the essence of the Greek text isn’t legal at all. In fact, Jesus is literally saying, “make friends with your accuser.” And that “make friends” advice also applies to the situation when you are tempted to accuse someone of being a raca or a moro. I suspect it is almost impossible to tell a friend that he or she is utterly and totally useless, and it is even more unlikely you will assassinate a friend’s character. Ultimately, working at being a friend to people is the first place where we get off the murder trajectory and on to the kingdom of heaven trajectory. Befriending people is one of the alternative hopes Jesus’ followers can offer to people who are unfamiliar with the kingdom of heaven.

Do Not Be Afraid.

I realize this is an odd way to begin an Easter sermon, but what are you afraid of? Confined spaces? Lightning? Long tall bridges without high safety barriers? Personally, I don’t do well with heights or snakes. The heights thing is real. The snake thing is more like a “preference.” And that preference makes mowing a slight challenge at our home. The front yard is pure suburbia complete with a lovely manicured lawn. The “back forty,” which is what I call the back ¼ acre, is surrounded by woods. There is a pile of brush. I try to mow it only four or five times a season because I am sure there are snakes there. Actually, I saw one once. Every time I am about to mow back there I warn my wife about my plans. I tell her that if the mower stops and she hears me screaming like a small child she should come help me. You see, she grew up in Africa where there are cobras, both black AND green mambas, and boom slangs…all of which are deadly. I reckon that kind of experience puts her in a good place to deal with the garter snakes at our house.

In ten short verses of Matthew 28.1-10, the word “fear” is used twice and the phrase “do not be afraid” appears twice, as well. Obviously, today’s passage is disturbing…or should be disturbing to the reader. And that may baffle us. It is Easter. We are supposed to be happy and excited…in a good way, right? Yes. Yes, indeed. Sometimes, however, even good excitement makes us tremble.

Matthew 28.1-10

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

On that first Sunday morning, I suspect it was “back to business” as usual for Jesus’ followers. Admittedly, it wasn’t technically “usual.” After all, they had just lost a very dear friend. And their hopes and dreams were crushed. And I assume they all were unbelievably depressed about what had just happened. Moreover, they all had to face a few nasty realities. First, they weren’t as brave as they thought…after all they all had abandoned Jesus in his time of need. Secondly, Rome didn’t roll over and die just because a rural prophet, as impressive as he was, said the kingdom of heaven was near. In fact, the emperor still had all the power. All that talk of the “kingdom of heaven being at hand”, was just that: talk. And so, the two women named Mary went to Jesus’ tomb to look at it. Perhaps, they went hoping-against-hope it was all a bad dream. Perhaps, they went simply to continue quietly mourning their loss. Perhaps, they wanted one last look before returning to their mundane and difficult lives in Galilee.

They may have thought they were going to quietly and properly mourn Jesus’ passing, but that isn’t what awaited them. As Paul Sokolofsky pointed out on our church sermon discussion page: “Raising from the dead, lightning, moving boulders, fear, joy, people running…this is just craziness!!” I would point out that he forgot the earthquake. But yes, it was craziness. It was anything but “business as usual.” I wonder why they didn’t expect something out of the ordinary. Jesus, after all, had mentioned that the kingdom of heaven was near. He had promised them a new world was about to break into their sad reality. He had mentioned that God was about to redeem them and creation. Jesus had promised that the world they knew was going to be turned upside down. He specifically said, “the first will be last and the last will be first” (19.30). And he suggested that the ways of the powerful won’t last (20.20-28). There was a new world coming.

And it began on that Sunday morning. I love the way Matthew makes this very point. In the midst of all of this chaos, the people who should pass out, don’t. And the people who shouldn’t pass out, do. The women, weakened from grief and restless and sleepless nights since Jesus’ death, should be on the ground. The Roman soldiers, strong and burly and perhaps battle-hardened, should have been there defending the tomb. But as it turns out, the Romans are on the ground totally unconscious and Jesus’ female followers are awake to witness his resurrection. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, indeed. The new world, the kingdom of heaven, had arrived. They didn’t have to wait very long for that prediction to come true. Easter is the day the world turned upside down, and it began that very first Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion.

I don’t know about you, but if everything I knew was falling apart, even if those things were terrible, I would be afraid. Not knowing what you can count on makes you a little apprehensive. The women at the tomb knew what they could count on. Romans executed people. Those people were buried. End of story. And here they were in front of an empty tomb, surrounded by Roman legionnaires who were scared-to-death and passed out. I would be afraid, too. What kind of world were they living in?

Obviously, it is one they were not ready for. And that is more than a little unsettling. In verse 8, Matthew tells us they were afraid. But we are also told they were twice told to not be afraid. First in verse 5 the angel tells them, “Do not be afraid” And then he adds, “…indeed, he [Jesus] is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” In fact, the women saw Jesus earlier than that. In verse 10, The risen Jesus himself, tells them, “…do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The world they were NOW living in was one in which God had just “undone” everything they had known. The Romans had sealed a tomb. God unsealed it. The Romans had executed Jesus. God had raised him from the dead. Everyone one and all of creation was subject to sin and death. God had just set us and all of Creation free.

Is it even possible that the Kingdom of Heaven had arrived that first Easter morning? We look around ourselves today, and we ask that question. And it is a fair question. We watch the evening news, and it isn’t hopeful. We look at the relationships all around us, and many are either strained or broken. We have some days when we just have no clue as to how life can be so fouled up. And we are tempted to say, nice story, but I am not sure.

We forget that for roughly 300 years, the early church, our spiritual ancestors, believed that because of the resurrection of Jesus they had been set free from the power of sin and death and even the oppressive power of Rome. And because of that first Easter Sunday they had the audacity to live like it was true, despite the world around them telling them otherwise. And not only that, but the first Christians continually reminded their friends and neighbors, and themselves, that Jesus promised to return in the future. They lived their lives in a way that lined up with the kingdom of heaven which began with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and would come fully with his return. And eventually, the world around them stopped and took notice because their lives were convincingly different. We, however, have forgotten that we live in the “in between times.” We have forgotten that the “business as usual” world is passing away. And even more importantly, we often forget that we are God’s agent to facilitate that “passing away.” We forget that we are witnesses to what God has done in the past and will do in the future. We forget.

Or maybe we are simply afraid. Afraid of the tension between the old and the new world. Afraid of what we might lose when the “business as usual world” passes away. Afraid of who knows what? And our fears help us forget the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid…he is going ahead of you.” And we even forget Jesus’ own words, “Do not be afraid.”

Rituals or repeated actions help us to remember and overcome our fears. They provide us with a mooring in a life of upheaval and turmoil. Of course, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gave us an action which is designed to help us remember who he is and was, who we are, and the fact that we live “in between.” From the very beginning of the Church, Christians celebrate this ritual as an act of thankfulness, hope, and remembrance. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 11.26: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” When we take communion we look back to his death and resurrection as well as forward to his return. We remember that God began the new world, the kingdom of heaven, in Christ and we look forward toward the day it comes in its fullness.

When my wife and I lived in England in the 80s we worshiped with a wonderful Anglican congregation. Every Sunday when we observed the Lord’s Supper we said three sentences, as a part of the Anglican liturgy:

“Christ has died.”
“Christ is risen.”
“Christ will come again.”

Every Sunday these sentences were said prior to participating in communion. Every Sunday.
Thirty-five years later I still remember those three sentences. They are good words to say or think when taking communion. Even more importantly they strike me as fundamental to our faith. They are good words to remember, period. Moreover, they are good words with which to frame our lives. And they are good words to use when we find ourselves afraid.

I Wish it was Different. Thoughts on Matthew 21.1-11

jesus-on-trialWe are one week away from Easter. In reality, Holy Week begins today with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem. On the surface, it is a wonderful story which we read in Matthew 21.1-11. People’s longing, centuries of longing, are about to be fulfilled. They hoped for a messiah king, and it looks like it will finally happen with Jesus. This story is full of hope and joy. At the same time, it is a deeply sad story. Not everyone is pleased that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. Moreover, those who sing his praises today, won’t be singing his praises come the end of the week. In fact, by the end of this story they are already waffling.

A classic way to pray using the Bible is to read a short passage and think about which character you identify with. Sadly, there don’t seem to be many positive role models apart from the disciples who initially obey Jesus’ directions to “liberate” that donkey. But if I am honest with myself, far too often I look a lot like both the crowd and the residents of Jerusalem. And that isn’t a good thing. But it is honest. I wish it was different. But it isn’t.

There are a few oddities in this story which tempt us to distraction. Isn’t is strange that Jesus tells his disciples to enter a village and take a donkey and her colt…and if challenged they are only to tell the owner that “the Lord needs them.” Also, there is that odd expression, “he sat on them” in verse 7. However, we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by trivial items. Despite these oddities there is the positive factor that the disciples are faithful and obedient, even to the point of some very sketchy behavior. And Matthew makes the point that this action is a fulfillment of scripture. In particular, verse 5 is a mix of Isaiah 52 and Zechariah 9, which speak of Israel’s hope that a king would come to rescue them. And that kingship motif dominates the storyline.

As Jesus and his disciples make their way into Jerusalem we are told they are accompanied by a “very large crowd.” What the crowd does makes it is clear they thought Jesus was a king arriving in the capital city. Some people in the crowd seemingly knew their Bible. In 2 Kings 9 Jehu’s followers spread their cloaks on his path when they heard he was to become king. Other people knew Israel’s history. Two hundred years before Christ, a man named Judas Maccabaeus defeated a pagan army and when he entered Jerusalem people cut palm branches and covered the road with them. Once in the holy city Maccabaeus established a royal dynasty lasting one hundred years. Clearly, by these two actions, the people are gladly and happily proclaiming Jesus is their leader and king. Additionally, they are singing his praises using a passage from Psalm 118, which proclaimed their belief that Jesus was the Son of David…coming to claim his rightful role as the kingly heir to Israel’s throne. Finally, after centuries it was all coming together for the Jews. People couldn’t be happier.

Well. Not all the people were happy. In fact, the residents of Jerusalem were a little disturbed by all this kingship talk. The NRSV says “the whole city was in turmoil.” The word used for “turmoil” is σειω…we know it from the English word seismograph. Jerusalem and its residents were shaken as if an earthquake had hit them. Panic was in the air. They didn’t need another “royal pretender” coming to town…because the Romans took note of things like that. And since it was Passover there were more Romans in the city than usual. In fact, there may have been two or three legions there. They were there because Jerusalem always got a little crazy at Passover, and Rome wanted to keep a lid on the activities that boiled during the week as pilgrims from all over the empire arrived. Because of their collective nervousness and fear of the Romans, the residents confronted the crowd: who is this man? I doubt they asked because they wanted to follow him. I suspect they wanted all this excitement to end. And end now!

What I find rather shocking is the crowd’s response. I would expect their excitement to lead to a bold exclamation and praise of King Jesus. But when confronted, they seemingly begin to back down: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Just a prophet. From Nazareth, that small backwater town in Galilee, the place no one respects. No talk of kingship. Just a prophet. You won’t have any trouble from us. Contemporary readers of Matthew’s gospel know that this is just the beginning of the shift of how the people, even his closest friends, turned their backs on Jesus. Most of the stories between this one and the death of Jesus in chapter 27 are incidents of the Jewish leaders resisting and confronting Jesus. They plot his death. One disciple betrays him. Another denies him. The rest desert him. And the crowd which is loudly cheering him on in the first part of this story? We are told in chapter 27:15ff, that the leaders convinced them Jesus was to be crucified. And they shouted for his crucifixion…not once, but twice.

I would like to think I wouldn’t be like them. I’d like to think I wouldn’t back down at the first confrontation…switching from saying he was a king to saying he is a prophet. But….
I’d like to think I wouldn’t fear the powers-that-be more than rejoicing at finally having a real leader in my presence. But….
And I certainly would like to think I would never be swayed by the leaders and call for his crucifixion. But….

But, I know that isn’t true. I wish it was different. If I was there, I would waffle. If I was there, I would falter. If I was there, I would fail. And I know that is the case, because I waffle, falter and fail now, and no one really challenges me about what I think regarding Jesus.

The painting at the top of this entry is entitled “Ecce Homo” or “Behold the Man.” It was painted by Antonio Cisceri in 1871. Cisceri was an okay painter, but he was fantastic at knowing himself. You see,  he painted himself into the picture of Pilate before the angry crowd calling for Jesus’ death. He is the fellow casually leaning over Pilate’s chair. He stands there merely observing, not intervening. He stands by as Jesus is condemned to die.

As we enter into this holy week my one hope, our one hope, is that Jesus was utterly and totally resolved to do for us and all of Creation what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

Thinking about Christianity in Light of Two National Championships and Vice Versa (12)

This past weekend Messiah College’s Men’s and Women’s soccer team won their respective Division III national championships.  This isn’t anything new.  In fact, this is the fourth time they have “done the double” with both teams ending up champs in the same year.  It was the men’s ninth title victory and the women’s fifth.  People around here throw out the word “dynasty” rather frequently.  Others use the word “hate”, as in “I hate Messiah.”

I know this is true because as I watched the game on the NCAA website, there was a Facebook chat room available.  During our game against Loras on Friday a number of people felt free to share their dislike for the MC men’s program.  On Saturday, someone asked a simple question: how does Messiah keep competing at this level with this consistency.  Someone responded: they recruit players who were wanted by Division I schools.  And, yes, that is true.  Coach Brad McCarty even said so in an interview with the Harrisburg Patriot News published on Friday morning.  But, he was quick to mention there is more to the program than that.  Another person typed: “They are psychologically tough, they find a way to win.”  Well, yes, that is true.  Josh Wood came back from two years of injuries to compete in this recent campaign.  His mental outlook was greater than his pain.  Luke Helmuth worked hard to move beyond an injury earlier in the season to play in the finals.  His mental outlook was greater than his pain.  And Mike Kovac played injured on both Friday and Saturday to score the game winner in both contests.  His mental outlook was greater than his pain.  However, there is more.

In the same newspaper article quoting Coach McCarty, the women’s coach, Scott Frey, said, “We’re a christian [sic] college that intertwines faith with soccer and academics….The faith aspect, that’s the key part.”  Coach McCarty echoed his counterpart, “The players are more interested in the culture and environment of the program…we play a great style of soccer.  More, importantly, the guys are mature christian [sic] kids.”

And that line of thinking gets us in trouble.  It causes trouble because Christians have this reputation of being arrogant, self-righteous, hypocrites.  If you don’t believe me read David Kinnaman’s book, UnChristian.  So when the coaches suggest we play well because we are Christians, people are tempted to roll their eyes and exhale loudly.  They have seen this silliness before.  You know what it looks like.  It is those people claiming they do well or are blessed because Jesus is on their side, as if he is some petty tribal deity who can be controlled for our advantage. In fact, in response to my Facebook status pointing out the teams had done the double, a friend wrote, “How can you lose when you have Jesus on your side?”  I wrote back, “If that is the case…why don’t the Jewish colleges win national championships?  Jesus’ Dad is on their side.”

It was meant to be tongue in cheek, but serious as well.  I really don’t like the idea that Christians do well in sports, or any other field of life, simply because they can claim Jesus is on their side.  I don’t know all the guys on our men’s team and very few of the ladies on the women’s side.  But the fellows I know would NEVER claim they do well because Jesus is for them.  Just the opposite would seem to be the case.  They have a sense that they play for Jesus.  Jeremy Payne, the sophomore attacking midfielder, updated his Facebook status writing, “Let us not forget who we play this beautiful game for…” prior to the championship game on Saturday.  And Jake Berry, goalkeeper, wrote, “Win or lose, my identity is found in Christ alone” before the kickoff.

But here is the “real” zinger: even in the midst of a hard fought competition for another national title and honor, our kids don’t forget who they are.  You don’t see the same foolishness you see from other teams.  Sure fouls are committed but not the serious fouls that result in yellow cards.  And red cards are unheard of…at least I can’t remember one of our players ever being red carded.  There is very little intentional tripping, throwing of elbows, and the other teams’ shirts are never torn because they are rarely pulled to hold a person back.

And if that isn’t enough, sometimes one of our guys does something truly bizarre in the middle of a game.  Like what Logan Thompson did Friday.  It was hot in Texas.  And the game with Loras was extremely intense for 90 minutes.  As regulation time drew near, people were beginning to cramp up.  In over time, one of the Loras guys dropped like a rock with a calf cramp.  His trainers were about to come onto the field to assist him.  However, if they did that, according to the rules, he would have to leave the game and would not be allowed to return.  Logan, himself, walked over to the guy in extreme pain lying on the ground, waved the Loras trainers off the field and worked the cramp out of his opponent’s leg.  It struck me as a NCAA Division III contextualization of Jesus’ commandment, “…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”  It may have been the contextualization of “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”, but good hard competition probably shouldn’t be confused with persecution.  So, yeah.  Jesus isn’t on their side.  That isn’t the reason they win.  The fact that they play FOR Jesus, is another matter. They play as if his name, not theirs, is on the line.  And they play in a different way than many of their peers.

I am tempted to think the world would look a lot different if everyone who called themselves Christian went about their lives as if they were living for Jesus.  I know my little section of the world would improve, if I improved in this area.

By the way, Logan Thompson was named the tournament’s Defensive MVP.  Knowing Logan, he would probably be a little embarrassed I put the spot light on him. All I can say is, “Sorry, it is my blog.  And beside, I am not convinced me tooting your horn is wrong…so long as God gets the glory.”