Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Hardest Thing Jesus Ever Said

Matthew 5:38-48

        The Arban’s Complete Conservatory Guide for Trumpet is a pedagogical method for students of trumpet and cornet.  The original edition was published by Jean-Baptiste Arban in 1864 and it has never been out of print.  It is a trumpet player’s bible.  It contains hundreds of exercises, ranging from very simple to incredibly complex.   At the end of the book there are seven  variations on The Carnival of Venice.  Any trumpet player who learned to play the instrument using the Arban Method eventually finds themselves at the back of this tome, trying to navigate through each variation.  The first is easy, the second is fun, the third enjoyable but then the real players are separated from the rest.  I came to two conclusions. First, I would never be able to play anything beyond variation number three and second, there was no one who could flawlessly play all seven. 
        A few years ago I picked up an album by Jazz great Wynton Marsalis in which he covered many of the classical trumpet standards.  Carnival of Venice was among them.  The recording was magnificent, but not without flaws.  I shared it with a friend who said, “If you want to hear the real deal, listen to Maurice Andre.”  I took his advice and became a convert.  I had never heard the trumpet played with such absolute perfection.
        Why did I share this story? When one is brave enough to read the Sermon on the Mount, particularly the text we read this morning, I think it is best to remember the tenacity and virtuoso of folks like Maurice Andre.  I have to remind myself that although the impossible might seem beyond my reach that does not make it unattainable.   How else can one take seriously words like, “If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek.”  Or “If someone forces you to go one mile, go the second one.”  Or the hardest of all, “You have been told to love your neighbor and hate your enemies.  I tell you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  This calls not only for perfection, but for an endless effort correcting our imperfections, in the hopes of reaching a goal most folks would consider bizarre.   
        Remember when your child came home from school with a torn shirt and a bloodied nose.   You immediately ask what happened. Your son explained he got into an argument with his former best friend.  One thing lead to another and the ex-friend threw a punch.  Your response was, “What did you do next?”
        Your bloodied child looked up through his tears and says, “Jesus said to turn the other cheek.  That is exactly what I did and Eddie hit me again.”
        How do you respond?  Did you congratulate your child for his principles?  Did you grit your teeth and say something innocuous like, “Well let’s get you cleaned up.”  Did you call out Eddie’s dad? Did you visit the minister and ask what kind of nonsense is being taught in Sunday School? Regardless of the response, aren’t we constantly overwhelmed by the impossible demands of Jesus when his words stand over against the harsh and ever changing realities of life? 
        There are a number of ways folks have approach this text.   The first and the easiest is to just ignore it.  We are often selective in the biblical passages we claim to be sacred.  Many of the laws and customs of the Bible, such as the role of women or the keeping of slaves are no longer relevant.  Who can obey all the commandments?  If we are going to be selective, this seems like a great place to start.
        A second approach is to try to understand this text within the whole biblical message.  While Jesus said to turn the other cheek in Matthew, there are no parallel passages in the other gospels.  Perhaps the writer of Mathew was doing some creative editing.  Besides, the Book of Leviticus clearly justifies the legitimacy of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
        Third, maybe Jesus is referring to the way things will be when we get to heaven.  Perhaps Jesus is describing a place in the future where a hand will never be lifted in anger.  As we pray for that day, we somehow convince ourselves that Jesus was definitely not speaking about what happens to us today.
        Fourth, maybe Jesus didn’t mean to be taken literally.  Maybe he was speaking in the abstract.  Jesus has been known to use poetic language to make a point.  Perhaps Jesus was saying in a perfect world this is the way life should be, but life isn’t perfect.  Besides, isn’t that why Jesus came, to be a sacrifice for our imperfections?
        Finally, some folks will argue the gospel of Matthew was written in a time that fully did not understand the complexities of the 21st century.  In Jesus time Pax Romana kept the peace and it was suicidal to lift a hand against the Roman Empire.  We live in a democracy where people have the right of free expression.  Sometimes keeping that privilege can get a bit messy.   Perhaps The Sermon on the Mount can only be understood within its own historical setting.
All of these are worn out and over used responses to the complexities of the Sermon on the Mount.  It is nice to have them in our back pocket should the text come up in a Sunday School Class.  The problem is, none of the above deal adequately with verse 48, “Be perfect, even as your heavenly father is perfect.”
        Our temptation is to homogenize the hard sayings of Jesus into a mushy, domesticated faith that resembles a Hallmark Card.  Jesus will have none of it.  The commandment is to love our neighbors and our enemies as we love ourselves.  The rational for this is, as disciples of Christ, we are called to imitate God, who blesses both the righteous and unrighteous.  Why are we called to do this? Because, as disciples, God demands that our behavior should be different from everyone else.  Imitating God is not just an option.  It is the very goal of discipleship.   
        The Sermon on the Mount was Jesus’ commentary on the Holiness Codes of the Old Testament. In our text this morning Jesus was clearly speaking about Leviticus 19 which expands on the cultic requirements and ethical obligations of the Ten Commandments. You shall not murder; You shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud another; you shall not render unjust judgment; you shall not take vengeance; you shall love your neighbor. Why were the people of Israel expected to act in this way? The answer is found in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.”
        When Jesus calls for perfection, this must be taken with the utmost seriousness but also with the understanding that any attempt to attain literal perfection is beyond possibility. In Matthew’s Greek world, perfection was viewed as impossible because of the ambiguities and flaws of creation itself. Plato claimed in order to become perfect one would have been perfect from the beginning. He reasoned perfection assumes always being without flaws. Since we are all flawed, human perfection cannot be achieved.
But in Jesus’ Hebrew world, perfection is understood within the context of what one can become. Therefore despite the imperfect nature of creation we are called to aspire to wholeness within that same creation. We are called to be holy.
        Jesus says to us, “You are human, created in the image of the God.  When you clench your fist, you become less than human.  Work hard on the traits God implanted in your soul from birth.  Learn how to love as God continues to love you.”
        Those are wonderful words, but they are difficult to remember when our child’s nose is bloodied, or a co-workers has started a vicious rumor, or even when someone steals our parking place. We live in a world filled with tension and it is our human nature to react.  Yet, Jesus calls on us to act in a way that just doesn’t seem natural.  What are we suppose to do?
I’m smart enough to know that nothing said from this pulpit is going to get any of you to change a lifetime of practiced retribution.  Truthfully, I struggle with this just as much as you. So I am going to ask you to do something different.  I want you to go home, turn on your computer, and google Maurice Andre playing Carnival of Venice.  Listen to it, and then ask yourself, “Did he do play it that way the first time?” 
Of course not.  He practiced until he got it right.      Go and do likewise.       Amen.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Light in the Valley

Matthew 5:13-16

        Two years ago when I was being interviewed by your search committee, I was making the usual phone calls, talking to some old friends, and taking a long hard look at your website and newsletters. I heard so many things good things about you from folks in the Presbytery, from David Cameron and of course from Mary Jane. But I think what impressed me the most were two phrases used to describe your church. The first was, “Christ makes no distinctions; neither do we”.  The second identified Rockfish as, “The Light in the Valley.” That was the clincher.
        The concept of the light on a hill has been used by everyone from Jesus to Ronald Reagan. It is a nice image that plays well in the forum of public opinion.  It creates a picture of what the church and its inhabitants should be; a shining example for everyone to see. And yet you set your sights a little lower. You chose the image of a valley rather than a hill.  I am sure the casual observer takes your slogan to mean, “The Light in Rockfish Valley”. But you can’t fool me. Our motto goes much deeper than that. The promise of being a Light in the Valley is a radical assertion of transformation for anyone captured by the daunting abyss of hopelessness. 
        Most churches, for very good reasons, want to be a light on the hill.   Most churches want to set a standard, a goal of exceptional behavior. There is nothing wrong with that. We all should set such high standards. But then a problem arises. Meeting Godly standards is not always easy. When others fall short of our expectations, difficult choices must be made. Remember a long time ago when many of us were parents. We wanted so desperately for our kids to have friends. Of course once they started to bring their friends home, we began to narrow our definition of who qualified to cross our threshold. There were certain kids we labeled as bad influences and we did our best to steer our angels away from those malcontents. Then our children started dating. Be honest, if you had a daughter, didn’t you have some fairly high expectations of who would be allowed to take your daughter out?      
        Churches are no different. First, a church claims to be the light on the hill to everyone with no exceptions made.  But then we discover some folks are a lot more desirable than others. More than once in my years of ministry I have had a church member point out a perspective member by saying, “We need to go after them. They are one of us.” That is the exact moment our shining light begins to dim.
        In the Middle Ages, hilltops were the preferable place to build a castle. If the king didn’t live on a hill, the next best alternative was to a build a mote around the castle. This made it quite clear that folks inside the castle had no real desire to intermingle with outsiders. Sometimes churches who claim to be a light on the hill build motes to keep from being contaminated by those of lesser spiritual quality. They might sing, “We are one in the Spirit”, but have no real desire to mingle with folks of questionable religious pedigrees. Eventually the “light on the hill” churches formally proclaim themselves as the “real” children of God, leaving anyone else to be satisfied with the role of imposter.     
        But you choose to be called, The Light in the Valley. From a biblical point of view, a valley is more than a geographical description. It is a state of mind. The Shepherd David wrote, “Though I walk through the darkest valley, you are with me.”  David understood the valley as a place of danger. Valleys are filled with twist and turns. A predator could be hiding behind the next rock, rain could turn a gentle stream into a raging river, or one path leading to danger could resemble the path you thought led to safety. David the Poet metaphorically wrote about all the dangers David the Shepherd and King experienced as he lived a life filled with surprises and disappointments. Isn’t this why we are so easily drawn to Psalm 23?  We have been in the valley and we know it can be a dark and lonely place.
        Many of you have walked the trail around Lake Monacan just below my townhouse. During the day if offers a beautiful view of both the lake and the mountain. If you happen to be near the water spill at sunset, the reflection on the lake resembles heaven.
I like to go down to the lake a little later in the evening. I will often venture out in my kayak after dark and sit in the middle of the lake. You can imagine the glory of this scene when there is a full moon. But I think I like it best when I only have the stars to guide me. Sitting alone, just me and the universe, I am reminded of my insignificance. But perhaps more than that I am also reminded of another astonishing thought; if one desires to see the stars, darkness is necessary. 
The world does not lack for darkness. I suspect each of us has spent some time in David’s valley of death for death comes in a variety of forms. It might be the loss of someone dear or it could be the loss of a dream.  Sometimes it is the loss of vision, the loss of energy and even the loss of hope. Christ came to give hope to the hopeless and life to those who have given up on life. In order that God’s light might be seen, I believe God commands us to go into the darkness and the valley of others discontent. Hope comes one prayer at a time, one load of wood at a time, one quiet ear at a time, one bag of food at a time, one tear at a time, one back pack at a time, one open heart at a time, one word of hope at a time, one ray of light at a time.
William Temple observed, “The church should be the only organization that exists for those who are not its members.”
Imagine what might happen if a church’s primary objective was to offer light to those who have only known darkness. Imagine becoming a church with the faith to bring its light off the hill and into the valley. Imagine existing for those who lift their eyes to the hills and the skies looking for any kind of help. Imagine who we are and who God has always intended for us to be.
Imagine, and then strive to fully be The Light in the Valley, to the glory of God and for the sake of anyone and everyone we might encounter.                            Amen.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

What Does the Lord Require?

Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12

        A wise person, after having heard these passages          would say, “Blessed be the word of the Lord,” and sit down. I have seldom been accused of such wisdom.
        Micah 6 begins with an interesting question, “What does the Lord require?” This is not the only time this question is asked. The answer we receive from the writer of Deuteronomy is, “Love the Lord with all you heart, soul, and might.” Jesus later adds, “Love you neighbor as yourself.” The Apostle Paul states, “Let your love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold on to what is good.” The author of I John writes, “The love of God is that we obey God’s commandments. And they are not burdensome.” Are you kidding me? The Grace of God is only necessary because of the difficulty we have with the Commandments of God. 
        Then we have the Gospel of Matthew.  A casual reading of the Beatitudes would make it appear that God requires us to embrace poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger, mercy, purity and peacemaking. I would not discourage you from striving toward any of the above but that is a pretty comprehensive and multifaceted list. To further complicate matters each characteristic might be considered a strong point for one person and a character flaw for someone else.
        This morning in order to go a little deeper into these texts, I want us to place our full attention on three words. They are: require, with, and blessed. Two are obviously crucial and I would like to convince you that tiny preposition is equally important.
        Let’s start with the word “require”. That is a powerful word. Micah did not proclaim, “What does the Lord suggest.” He doesn’t say, “What does the Lord recommend.” Micah has carefully chosen a word which brings with it all the trappings of obligation. If tomorrow my beloved convertible should die, I would regrettably find myself at a car dealer looking for a new means of transportation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the loan officer would say, “We would suggest that you make payments of x number dollars once a month, but only if it is convenient.” With all the cars I have purchased no one has offered that deal. Imagine how we could be transformed if our obligations to God were treated with the same seriousness we give our lending institutions?
        What does the Lord require? What does God place as most important in the way we conduct our lives. You might be surprised with the answer. First, God requires justice.  That seems fair. If a person breaks the law they should be punished for their failure to meet the standards of the legal system. If only that was what Micah was saying? He picked a particular word, “mishpat”, to define justice. “Mishpat”, in the Hebrew tradition is a transforming virtue that seeks to establish or restore community. Its focus is to balance the common good. “Mishpat” calls for a justice which focuses on relationships, a justice which ensures equitable distribution of goods, benefits, and burdens on a community.  “Mishpat” affects the social order by calling on the hierarchy to be responsible for this distribution.   
        The second requirement is to love kindness. As you might expect this entails more than kissing children and rescuing stray cats. Again Micah picks a particularly combustible word from his Godly vocabulary. The word is “hesed”. To do “hesed” calls on one to recognize and respond to the condition of the poor and helpless. “Hesed” is a word most often found in the books of Jeremiah, Isaiah and Amos. It is a word of action, and not so surprisingly, it is the word used to describe God’s relationship with Israel when they have been unrighteous. God shows “hesed”, kindness and mercy, toward those who do not deserve it.
        Finally we are required to walk humbly. As you have now guessed this implies more than the obvious. Humbleness or “hasnea” has nothing to do with self-effacement, but everything to do with the way we approach others. One of the tough things about being a generous church is we often run into people who don’t seem to fully appreciate the sacrifice we have made. We wish they were a little more humble.  We get no sympathy from Micah “Hasnea” focuses on how we are supposed to walk.  “Hasnea” implies an attitude of openness, personal integrity, candor, and honesty. “Hasnea” is worried solely about our attitude, and our relationship with others.
Micah dares to put “mishpat”, “hesed”, “hasnea”, doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly, into the same sentence. How can we be capable of that?
        I told you there were three words. The second is the proposition “with”. What a wonderful word. It implies community.  Its sole purpose is to link us with someone else. There is a term that is becoming quite popular in the world of football. It is called, “being out on an island”.  For much of the game this afternoon the cornerbacks of the Seahawks will have one on one coverage against one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. They will be by themselves with no help. If they make the play no one will remember because that is what they are supposed to do. But if Manning beats them for a touchdown, all of America will know who failed.
Mishpat, hesed and hasnea put us on an island. What is required by those three words is impossible without help.
        Thanks be to God the writer of Micah knows the power of a preposition. We don’t have to be alone. We are required to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly, WITH God. With God’s help we can DARE TO BE ENGAGED in radical ethical behavior particularly as we re-imagine the difficult language that confronts us in the Sermon on the Mount.
        I promised you three words and the last word is “Blessed”.  We are  used to hearing that word in connection with the phrases blessed are those that mourn, blessed  are meek or blessed are those who hunger after righteousness. I have struggled with this word “Blessed” for a long time. Jesus spoke to a people who were still guided by the Hebrew text. Psalm 1 begins, “Blessed are they who do not follow the advice of the wicked but delight in the law of the Lord.” It is quite logical that Jesus would chose the same word to begin his sermon.   Many of our modern translations have substituted happy for blessed. But again, if we are true to the Hebrew language the word we find in Psalm 1, “Asha” not only means blessed but also means to be in relationship with someone. Quite simply it means, “included”, or “to be with”.  Imagine if we had learned the Beatitudes in this way, “Included are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; included are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy; included are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the kingdom of God.
        Pete Seeger, who died this week at the age of 94 tells the story of the song most close associated with him. In 1903 Reverend Charles Tindley of Philadelphia wrote, “I’ll overcome someday. If in my heart I do not yield, I’ll over come someday.” Lucille Simmons remembered her mother singing the song and one day in the late 1950’s she sang it to Pete. Only she changed the words from “I’ll overcome” to “We shall overcome.” Seeger changed “We will” to “We shall” and the rest is history. Pete said, “When I sing this song, the most important word is “we” because the human race is either going to make it together or we are not going to make it all.”
Micah and Jesus understood what Pete was talking about because they said the same thing long it long before he did. Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God is best done as an exercise that is inclusive of us all.   Therefore, let us, the sons and daughters of Micah, Jesus, and Pete Seeger, engage ourselves in the serious work of caring for God’s community.               Amen.