It is John’s gospel that tells us that if all the things that Jesus did while on earth were written down, the whole world wouldn’t have been able to hold all the books. Nonetheless, God chose to give us four books, not so that we could hear more stories, but so we could learn different things, sometimes from different versions of the same story. The resurrection story is like that. Four different versions of the story each teach us different aspects of what the resurrection means to us. Continue reading “Living Resurrection—A Sermon from Mark 16:1-8”
Growing up, I got the sense that when the church talked about being “different from the world”, that was more or less code for a fairly defined set of behaviors, things like cussing, drinking, and sexual activity. (Maybe smoking, but that was on the fence, at least for anyone over 35 years old.) Those things represented something like distinctive marks of christian nonbehavior, another layer in addition to the other marks of good people generally agreed upon by society at large: honesty, respect for other people’s property, etc. I don’t honestly know that anybody was really saying that, or if it was just the way my immature mind heard it all, but for a long while I felt like this was a pretty good summary of what people thought it meant be “different than the world” as a Christian. The back half of James 1:27 would have been given that idea words in my young mind—it was a text I often heard in church.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
In my understanding, this text gave a kind of summary of faith, with two main ideas. Do positive things (care for widows and orphans), and don’t do negative things (“keep oneself from being polluted by the world” Read: don’t drink, cuss, or have sex.). Such was my youthful understanding of holiness. For a preadolescent kid, before fermented or sexual opportunity presented themselves, the bar was admittedly low. Still, resisting the small amount of pressure I got from wanting to fit in with my friends in the neighborhood who skillfully cursed while we played basketball and kick the can generally made me feel like I was doing what God wanted me to do. As I grew older and was able to generally fend off the other two behaviors in the unholy trinity of worldly behavior, I reinforced within myself the idea that being a Christian person really wasn’t all that tough. And truthfully, unless you have some addictions or at least some deeply grooved habits, that brand of christianity really isn’t that tough. I mean, when it really comes down to it, you can do whatever the heck you want, as long as you say heck instead of hell. I suppose I could have lived like that for a long time without much problem, except maybe boredom.
When I started really listening to the Bible, though, I started getting a radically different kind of idea about what God wanted me to be like. Take that verse in James, for instance. That earlier line of interpretation of what it means to be polluted by the world is pretty easy to understand in the context of our american church culture. But it doesn’t really ask the important interpretive question, “What did James mean by polluted by the world?” And when you really ask that question, you don’t just get an ambiguous idea of what it means, because James spends a good part of his letter describing what he seems to see as the influence of the world. Indeed, the section right after this verse, in James 2, rails against viewing rich people as more valuable than poor people. At the end of chapter 3, he talks about wisdom that’s worldly as being marked by envy and selfishness. That discussion that trails into the beginning of chapter 4 where being covetous about physical wealth (and perhaps the honor and respect that came with it) sparks James to ask, “Don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God.” His rant goes throughout that chapter, and in the back half of chapter four and the beginning of chapter five he uses some pretty flaming rhetoric to talk about the wealthy who presume to set their own agendas without concern for God’s authority over their existence or concern for the needs of the poor! (Seriously, that language in chapter 5 is smoking hot. No wonder it is probably the least publicly read part of James.) When you read all of that together, you can begin to put some content in James’s phrase “keep oneself from being polluted by the world”. It’s not just a few nitpicky behaviors that James is concerned about. James critiques the whole assumption of the world that we have no responsibility for other people, that our wealth is our own to do with as we please. To the extent that I adopt that mentality, I have allowed the world to pollute my faith.
James’s statement about true religion here isn’t a divided concept. Widows and orphans were an important group of “the poor” for the Jewish mind, people who were defenseless and vulnerable without the financial or legal help of other people. Caring for them is a specific expression of what people who are unpolluted by the world do. It is a way people show that they don’t think of their possessions as truly their own.
See, true religion is inconvenient. Not because of all those church meetings that keep us from sleeping in on Sundays, or it might refine my beverage selection. It forces me to reevaluate the way I think about stuff, and my relationship with it. It forces me to take responsibility for the poor and the way they are treated in my society. It keeps me from just doing whatever the heck I want. It challenges my “wants”, my desires, my greed, as motivations for my life.
It raises the bar.
There are certain behaviors that we have come to think of as producing something like a moral stain, a sin grease mark that has to be dealt with, and we often think about the biblical language of defilement in those terms almost exclusively. But we could take a significant step forward in understanding our faith if we can grasp that the real stains on our souls are not just behavioral slip-ups. They are the deep stains of materialism, the deep stains of our thought patterns and habits, colored by the assumptions of the world around us.
The opposite of being polluted by the world is precisely what James mentions in the first half of 1:27, the care for the widows and orphans. It’s what the Hebrew Bible refers to as “justice and righteousness”, a way of living in the world that respects the dignity of each of our neighbors as an image bearer of God. In the spirit of James, the practice of justice and righteousness is not just the maintaining the absence of evil—it is about the active love of our neighbors that goes beyond words and is fulfilled in action.
I told somebody this past week that the sermon for today could really only last a few seconds. Don’t get your hopes up, it’s going to be longer than that, but it seems like I should be able to just say something like, “Jesus says, ‘Do not judge.’ So, stop doing it. Amen, let’s stand and sing.”
It’s not as though the command is unfamiliar to us. The text we’re dealing with is in Luke 6:35-42.
“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” And he also told them this parable: ” Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will not they both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brothers eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”
It’s one of the most popular passages in the Christian Bible, well known among Christians and nonbelievers alike. In fact, I don’t know if there is any Christian ethic as respected by the outside world as “Do not judge.” Of course, the world is also acutely aware of our failure in following this command, and knows that while Jesus tells us not to judge, we are quite practiced in the art. Unfortunately, it comes quite easily to us.
Judgement against our friends, family, neighbors and strangers simmers deep within our hearts. Occasionally it might pop out as gossip or a sharp word, but we try to police ourselves about that, because we know it sounds bad. We don’t want to be known as judgmental people, but truthfully, even when we don’t actually say what we’re thinking, it is just so easy to harbor our verdicts, the bitter condemnations of people around us, deep in our hearts. We don’t want to judge. We know we’re not supposed to, but it just comes so easily to us.
One of the problems here is that we try to avoid judgmental behaviors without really working on judgmental attitudes. We try to catch that stuff before it gets out of our mouths, but really, by the time we get to that place we’ve really already lost the battle. The mouth is just speaking out of the abundance of the heart, and it’s the fact that all that condemnation is in our heart that is really the issue. Our morality begins with our identity, or at least our understanding of our identity. The way we understand ourselves controls the way we interact with other people and perceive them in powerful ways. That said, there are two significant things I have come to understand about myself that, the more I internalize them, the more they help me escape my tendency to judge. I want to share and confess here in the hopes that they can help you out as well.
1. I am not God. I know, it’s a shocker. But, seriously, it’s helpful for me to get in touch with the fact that I am not the sovereign lord of the universe. I believe people are accountable for the good and evil things they do in the world—but most of them aren’t accountable to me. I didn’t create anybody, and I’m not supremely powerful. Beyond that, my failure to be God also means that I have a limited amount of knowledge and insight into people. I don’t understand the whole of anybody’s situation, don’t understand the different things in people’s backgrounds that make them act the way they do. I don’t even understand why I do half the stuff I do, much less what’s going on in anybody else’s heart! So I will never the authority or information I need to pass judgment on anybody else.
2. Not only am I not God, but I also know that I am not perfect. Far from it, in fact. Most people I know can confirm this, but of course I know it more truly than anybody else could possibly suspect. After all, they can’t see what’s inside my heart. I am, like the rest of you, a broken human being, a person whose heart has been twisted by sin and who is powerless to recover except for the grace of God.
This is an important nuance to the world’s criticism of the church as being too judgmental. It wants to believe everything is alright. It’s as if the world wants refuse our right to judge on the basis that everyone is basically equally good. But we refuse to judge on the opposite basis, because we know that everyone, including ourselves, is broken and sinful.
I know, that because I’m not God and I’m not perfect, that I need grace from God. I need the grace of forgiveness and the grace that God gives to change and purify me. Truthfully, I need all the grace I can get. And that self-awareness really heightens the shock of this text for me. How I give grace to people around me can actually affect how God gives grace to me? Whoa. That is an absolutely stunning idea, and as it becomes more firmly lodged in my mind, it has the power to really shape the kinds of things I harbor in my heart towards other people.
Gratefully, though, I’m also aware that I receive grace from God! It’s not like I’m merely aware of my sin, awaiting some pending judgement and trying to butter God up before he makes his decision. I live in the joy and awareness that God has already acted decisively to extend grace to me.
Many of us live fairly aware of those two things, our need for grace and how we receive it. But, we stop there, not realizing that those who need and receive grace from God are also called to learn grace from God. I want God to teach me how to treat others like Jesus treats me.
For our community of faith, that really is the critical turn. So much of our worship and conversation revolves around what we need and receive, and how valuable it is to us. But how much value do we place on what we are called to become? How much do we value a gracious spirit? May God help us to honor those among us who cultivate that spirit, who become people of heroic forgiveness, who turn back any effort to condemn others from taking root in their own hearts. May we value those who work hard to become merciful, just as our father is merciful, and may we become a place of grace for those who—like us—need to receive it.
(This is part three of a series on the Sermon on the Plain. A list of the sermons and the audio recordings are here.)
Everybody knows the sermon on the mount. Unfortunately, if I got up this morning and started reading, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who [yawn] mourn, for they will be…”, it wouldn’t be long before I’d see your eyes glaze over, and we’d have to have a coffee break for everybody to stay awake for the rest of the sermon.
Everybody knows the sermon on the mount. It is familiar, beautiful, and powerful. It is full of language that is burned into our conscious consciences, a part of our ethical core as disciples. And it should be well known! It is, after all, the living and powerful word of God! It deserves a place in our ethical core! But unfortunately, like is often the case, familiarity breeds contempt. In our familiarity with the Sermon on the mount, we have lost something of our ability to really listen to what it really says.
But, what if the sermon on the mount had a little brother? I have a couple of little brothers. They’re both tough as nails. They don’t mess around much, say what they mean and mean what they say. To top it off, they’re stubborn as all get out. If you can get that mental image in your head—the little brother, fists up, ready to get nasty if need be—I’d like to introduce you to the little brother of the sermon on the mount. It’s name is “the Sermon on the Plain”, and it waits for us in the middle of Luke 6. (The sermon doesn’t even get its own chapter! It shows up here just after Jesus has named his twelve apostles. It almost seems to function as their introduction into what being a disciple of Jesus is really going to be about.)
The Sermon on the Plain is really a distilled version of the sermon on the mount. They have a lot in common, but the sermon on the plain is shorter, tougher, punchier. Maybe it’s just because it is less familiar that it feels a little more stubborn and unrelenting than its big brother does. But instead of talking about it too much in generalities, let me show you what I mean, and let’s read a little bit of it together. It starts out with a set of beatitudes, just like the sermon in Matthew. They read a little bit differently, though. We’ll start in Luke 6:20. These are the “other beatitudes’.
And He lifted his eyes to his disciples and said, “Blessed are the poor, because yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who are hungry now, because you will be filled. Blessed are those who are crying now, because you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you and when they exclude you and insult you and throw out your name as something evil because of the son of man. Rejoice in that day and jump for joy! Because, listen—your reward in heaven will be greater, because their ancestors did the same sorts of things to the prophets.
On the other hand, [this might be a good time to pull your toes in] cursed are you who are rich, because you have received every bit of your comfort. Cursed are you who are full now, because you will go hungry. Cursed are you who laugh now, because you will mourn and cry. Cursed are you when everyone says good things about you; because that’s how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
I find these “other beatitudes” to be intense, raw, and inescapable. I look into them, and I easily see myself. Unfortunately, I see myself on the wrong side, not among those who are blessed, but among the cursed. Jesus paints two pictures. One is of a group of people who are poor, hungry, saddened. They are outsiders, and everyone talks and thinks badly of them. Jesus looks at that group and says—you are blessed! In his eyes, they’re the lucky ones!
and then there is another group. They are rich. They have full bellies. They are happy and laughing, and everybody likes them because they’re easy to get along with. Doggone it, that’s a pretty good picture of just the kind of guy I’ve wanted to become my whole life. Isn’t that just a cup of cold water to the face? The very kind of person I’ve spent my whole life—Jesus says they’re cursed. He looks at them and says, “Man. Gotta feel sorry for you guys.”
This set of beatitudes says that in Jesus’ eyes, the reality of the world is the opposite of everything I’ve ever known. He takes all my assumptions about the world, and politely blows them to pieces.
Anybody else bothered by that?
If we’re really reading it, we’re bothered by it. It’s so unrelenting and demanding. It’s so physical that it won’t let me spiritualize it and shoo it away. no “poor in spirit” here. It’s the poor that are blessed. No hungering for righteousness in this sermon, only the really physical feeling of hunger that comes from not having enough food to eat.
Faced with such a demanding text, I think two options present themselves. “Option 1” is that we take these simple sayings and tease them out, dissect them down, gradually interpreting them in ways that dull their sting a little bit. In option 1, we interpret them away, and I have to admit that this is a pretty compelling path. I would love to do that, to employ whatever sophisticated exegesis and interpretation methods might promise to soften the blow a bit. I wish I could take these things that Jesus says and turn them into what I think he should say. I would love to somehow transform these beatitudes and woes into something interesting. But they aren’t that, are they? Not on their own. This text isn’t interesting—its dangerous. It is sharply critical of my vision of my very life.
Option 1 is to interpret them away. In Option 2, we let them interpret us. What if we could let these words diagnose us? What if I could let them shape me into the kind of person that Jesus admires? What if I could let them really challenge my idea of what the good life is really all about, and provoke me into letting Jesus teach me about his way of life, his vision of life.
This week, sometime when you’re by yourself in front of a mirror, I want to ask you to take a few moments and let these other beatitudes challenge you with a couple of questions. Stop and look, literally, into your own eyes and ask yourself a few questions.
First, “Who am I becoming?” What kinds of things characterize who you are, both inside and out. What dominates your life?.
Second, and more interesting, “Who gets to decide who I am becoming?” Looking at where you’re headed is a good start, but for people who claim to be disciples of Jesus, a more basic question is whether or not we are really letting him determine the vision for our lives. The guy who said these beatitudes is really painting a radical vision, but am I willing to let that vision really affect me. Drive me?
Finally, “What about everybody else?” It’s not just about me. These beatitudes not only change the way I see myself, but the way I look at almost everyone I see. People aren’t good or bad, lucky or unlucky, blessed or cursed in the same ways I normally think about it. My ideas of status and value just don’t hold up in the face of these beatitudes. But, it’s not my ideas of value that really matter anyway. It’s what Jesus values that really matters. After all, he is the master. I am the student.
I’ve got a lot to learn.
This past Sunday’s sermon was our introductory foray into the sermon on the plain, an extremely distilled dose of Jesus’ vision of what his disciples are like. Part of the challenge of this past week’s sermon was to get in a mirror, eyeball to eyeball with ourselves, and think about three questions:
1. Who am I becoming?
2. Who decides who I become?
3. How does Jesus’ message change the way I see other people?
I shot a little video of some Cedar lane folks reading through Jesus’ sermon on the plain, as a way of helping us hear it. I want to invite you to settle in, hear these words, and spend some time meditating on those questions. May God bless the hearing of his word.