Archive for June, 2008

Who are you calling Dungface? And, yes, I will take that as a compliment.

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

As we have heard this morning, evangelism is an issue for us. And in today’s story from the tenth chapter of Matthew, we get right into the heart of the matter, because it is a story about evangelism, spreading the word, making the good news of the Kingdom of God known.

This is the next logical step for Jesus as he has been giving the disciples his view of the Kingdom of God. Now he is looking for people to do something with it.

In my last couple of sermons, we’ve been talking about the Sermon on the Mount and how seriously Jesus took the Kingdom of God. We’ve been talking about how too quickly relegate such things in the Gospels as the rantings of a hopeless optimist while Jesus took it all quite seriously. We also talked about how in the Sermon on the Mount we found testimony to the kind of faith Jesus had, the God he believed in.

There have been all kinds of graduation ceremonies lately. I heard a story about some students who had just graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta, and they were all standing around congratulating each other on their accomplishment. A drunk guy came up to them and asked what was going on. They were very proud of their accomplishment and said they had just graduated from college. “So,” the drunk said, “now what?”

I don’t think he was drunk, but Jesus was ready for the
“now what?” part with his disciples. He had laid out his vision for the Kingdom of God. They had heard his words, they had seen his compassion, they had watched him heal others. Then one day Jesus said “see how great the need is. Everyone is lost and vulnerable just like sheep without a shepherd. So pray,” Jesus tells them, “for more harvest hands.”

As soon as they are done praying Jesus says, “Hey, your prayers are already being answered. God is faithful! You are the harvest hands.”

So, we get the list. There are twelve of them. And it is a motley crew. There is Matthew, a tax collector who is a collaborator with the occupation forces. And there Simon the Zealot, a member of the counter insurgency who would rather slit Matthew’s throat than join him at the feet of Jesus. There is Judas who betrayed Jesus, and Peter who denied Jesus and ran when Jesus needed him most. In fact all the rest of them men ended up running. It was only the women with Jesus who had the courage to stay. But these were the laborers that Jesus was praying for, and he was glad that God had sent them.

They don’t look like much to me, but they were good enough for Jesus. The gospel writer calls them Apostles, the only time that phrase gets used for them in Matthew’s Gospel. We assign such a significance to the word. All it really means, though, is that these disciples or learners were now ready to be Apostles or messengers, ready to take Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God to the lost sheep of Israel. Well, at least Jesus thought they were ready.

“You are going to be my messengers, God’s apostles by what you say and how you live. I’ve shown you and told you what this is all about. Now, it’s up to you.

“Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them the Kingdom of God is here. Bring healing. Bring life where there is death. Love the unlovely. Take what you have learned from me about love, mercy, gentleness, forgiveness, peace, humility, and trusting God and drive out the demons that are terrorizing all of us.”

This is why Jesus was so serious about the things like he talked about in the Sermon on the Mount and other places. He saw what he was talking about as what would bring healing and hope and life to this world. And he wanted the disciples, and all of his followers, to take that message and run with it, and eventually carry it to all the world.

Throughout the gospels Jesus was turning everything inside out and upside down, because that was the way to get things right side up. But he wasn’t going to do this all by himself. Now he had messengers. Now it was a movement.

“Tell them to love the Lord their God with all their heart, and mind, and strength, because that’s how God loves them; with all God’s heart, and mind, and strength. Tell them to love their neighbor because God loves their neighbor.”

Jesus knew this was not going to be easy. “If they are going to call me ‘Dungface,’ (as he says later in this chapter) what are they going to call you?” There would be opposition from political leaders, religious leaders, from the trend setters, and even opposition from family and friends. The message of God’s Kingdom that Jesus was trusting to the twelve, was too radical. It challenged society’s core at too many levels to not provoke a violent response, as Jesus knew all too well. 

But part of the message was don’t meet their violence with more violence. If they curse you, offer a blessing. If they run you out of town, go to the next town. If they hang you on a cross, forgive them and trust in resurrection. That’s the way of the kingdom of God.

And Jesus told his disciples, now turned messengers, that not everyone is going to get it. But that’s okay. Others will. Their charge wasn’t to convert everybody. It was to proclaim the message. Along the way they would find people who welcomed them and their message. “And when they welcome you,” Jesus said, “they are welcoming me and The One who sent me.” 

This passage gets at the heart of evangelism. Jesus has entrusted the message to us. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” he tells the disciples right before his ascension.

Part of the reason we get so uncomfortable with evangelism is that so much of what passes for evangelism seems to have very little to do with the message of Jesus that we read about in the Sermon on the Mount and in other places in the gospels.

We know of too much evangelism, though not all, that is overbearing, judgmental, exclusive, unloving, uncaring, and unthoughtful. But that surely wasn’t the way Jesus was, nor does any of that reflect his message.

What I think the gospel tells us about the message of Jesus is that we are called to love God and love each other. Make peace. Work for reconciliation. Welcome the stranger and invite the marginalized into the center of things. Forgive each other. Cross boundaries and borders. Reject war and violence. Comfort the sorrowing. Bring hope. Care more about God and others than our possessions and pension plans. Give to those who ask. Turn the other cheek. Don’t substitute lust for love. Treat everyone fairly, just like you want to be treated fairly. Tend to the needy first. Set the oppressed free. Visit the prisoner and lonely and the sick. Look for what is eternal. Believe that God is a god of life, not a god of death. Make yourself more vulnerable, so others can be less vulnerable. Remember that in God’s eyes the last are first and the first last, and that God is planning on changing this world through people like us.

That is not a message we need to be ashamed of, because it is the message of Jesus, that he has entrusted to us. We don’t have to qualify it with phrases like “if we could only live that way,” or “or it’s only an ideal and that Jesus doesn’t really expect us to live like that,” or dismiss it as something for another age as the dispensationalists do. Jesus was serious and he sent out those first twelve, not to tell fairy tales, but to show people the path of life.

We just watched the film this week about the Christians in Le Chambon, France who rescued so many Jews and other refugees during World War II. That was Sermon on the Mount stuff they were doing. And they did it with little fore thought or discussion. They did it because it was the kind of thing Jesus told us we should do. They got the message.

We are celebrating in our own community, the 150th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington rescue. The abolitionist movement that was so strong here, that shook this nation, was built on the foundation of Christian faith. Rescuing slaves, challenging oppressive laws is just what followers of Jesus do, our earliest Oberlin ancestors believed. It’s a Sermon on the Mount thing. They got the message. It was the kind of thing Jesus believed we could do without extraordinary effort. The people of Le Chambon called it ‘a conspiracy of good.’ 

I don’t have to be super articulate, or able to respond to everyone’s objections and counter arguments to my faith. I don’t have to have everything figured out about God, life and the universe or even what I believe to be an apostle, one of the messengers of Jesus. All I know is I believe in the God Jesus believed in, and that the way Jesus lived and taught us to live, and his death and resurrection is what saves us. I can do no better than follow him and help build his church. 

The Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Heschel said ‘words create worlds.’ He said the holocaust didn’t rise magically from the ground. People talked about it’s possibilities and then began the work of making it into a reality. Their words built that world.

There are lots of messages out there. But our words, our message, can build other kinds of worlds, including the one Jesus talked about in The Sermon on the Mount.

If those twelve that Jesus sent out can be apostles, we can be apostles. Because it’s not about us. It’s about the message of Jesus that is not some kind unreachable ideal, but what can save us.

I would rather believe in the God Jesus belived in

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

Remember last week, those of you who were here, about how we said that maybe there’s another way to look at the Sermon on the Mount, other than the way we usually do. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talks about things like turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, choosing forgiveness and reconciliation rather than retaliation, and trusting God for our needs.

Instead of seeing Jesus as piling on what we consider to be all these hopelessly idealistic and unrealistic ways of living, one on top of the other, we thought that maybe we should take him very seriously. We talked about swallowing the whole thing, swallowing the Sermon on the Mount hook, line, and sinker and seeing how these things might work together, instead of trying to bite of a piece of it here and there.

Maybe loving our enemies, for example, helps us to trust God for the things we need. And trusting God for the things we need helps us to make peace. Maybe living humbly and meekly, will help us to forgive one another. And forgiving one another might help us to live less judgmental lives.

Well we are back in the Sermon on the Mount again this week, this time at the end of the Sermon. Let’s read that starting at Matthew 7:24. “‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise person who built her 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.”

There is, incidently, a very specific reference Jesus is making here. Remember that Israel is a pretty arid place. River beds dry up in the heat of the summer. What would happen is that folk would go out and find a piece of land to build a home. And if they were trying to get it done quickly, they would find a place where the foundation could be dug relatively easily, which would be in the sandier soil.

The problem was you didn’t realize you had built your house in a dry river bed until the next spring when the storms and rains came. Suddenly, the dry river bed, which had looked like a pretty decent front yard, you know, that kind of southwest desert thing, turned back into a river, and your house got washed away.

Jesus is telling the people his way of doing things is like building on the rock rather than the river bed. We also talked last week how about those ways of living that strike us as more realistic to the world as we know it, than what the Sermon on the Mount suggests, come with their own difficulties. So maybe Jesus isn’t being so unrealistic, after all. We choose to live in some pretty hard ways in this world with our need to prove ourselves, exact revenge, keep an eye out on those who are a threat to us, and meeting violence with more violence.

And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus isn’t offering a trouble free life. Jesus doesn’t say storms don’t come to houses built on the rocks. I think he is looking at this world in a very real way, and believing he has the alternative that will withstand the storm. Tomorrow will bring its own troubles, he said in this sermon, even if we live in the ways he suggests in the Sermon on the Mount. But it’s not like what we call the more realistic ways ward off trouble, either. I think Jesus really believed the what he said in the Sermon on the Mount makes sense.

The more I have read and thought about the Sermon on the Mount these past couple of weeks, the more I have realized that it’s not simply about laying out a way of living for us, but it’s showing us what Jesus believed, what his faith was like.

This was reinforced when I discovered this week that some theologians and Biblical scholars have begun to look at the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the faith of Jesus. One of them, N.T. Wright, who is appreciated by evangelicals and more liberal folk alike, says we need to, for example, correct what he and others believe to be a crucial mistranslation in Romans 3:22.

That verse is in the middle of one of Paul’s famously long theological arguments, and it has been customarily translated to read that “the righteousness of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ for those who believe.”

The crucial translation error that Wright and others claim is that the verse should really read that “the righteousness of God comes through the faith of Jesus Christ for those who believe.”

Suddenly righteousness or salvation isn’t a matter of our faith, but a matter of Jesus’ faith, if these folk are right. And we see his faith laid out for us in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus believed that through his mission, God was leading us to a new world where peace prevails, where we choose forgiveness over retaliation, where the meek inherit the earth, and all those other things in the Sermon on the Mount that we dismiss as hopelessly other worldly are what this world is going to become. Jesus believed God was bringing a new creation, and we were called to build that new world with him.

Richard Hayes in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament writes this about The Sermon on the Mount. “…its directives must be read through the lens of the image of new creation. Otherwise, ‘Turn the other cheek’ becomes a mundane proverb for how to cope with conflict. But this is ridiculous: if the world is always to go on as it does now, if the logic that ultimately governs the world is the immanent logic of the rulers of this age, then the meek are the losers and their cheek-turning only invites more senseless abuse. As a mundane proverb, ‘Turn the other cheek’ is simply bad advice. Such action makes sense only if the God and Father of Jesus Christ actually is the ultimate judge of the world and if his will for his people is definitively revealed in Jesus. To use Matthew’s own language, turning the other cheek makes sense if and only if it really is true that the meek will inherit the earth, if and only if it really is true that those who act on Jesus’ words have built their house on a rock so that it will stand in the day of judgment. Turning the other cheek makes sense if and only if all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus.”

That’s what the faith of Jesus was. And some suggest that the Apostle Paul argues that it is in Jesus’ faith that we become righteous.

The verses right before this passage we read from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, go like this. ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of God in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

Even if we lived in all the ways The Sermon on the Mount suggests, that doesn’t mean that we’ve still figured out what Jesus was about. Here is something else from Richard Hayes.

“Let it be said clearly, however, that the reasons for choosing Jesus’ way of peacemaking are not prudential. In calculable terms, this way is sheer folly. Why do we choose the way of nonviolent love of enemies? If our reasons for that choice are shaped by the New Testament, we are motivated not by the sheer horror of war, not by the desire for saving our own skins and the skins of our children (if we are trying to save our skins, pacifism is a very poor strategy), not by some general feeling of reverence for human life, not by the naive hope that all people are really nice and will be friendly if we are friendly first. No, if our reasons for choosing nonviolence are shaped by the New Testament witness, we act in simple obedience to the God who willed that his own Son should give himself up to death on a cross. We make this choice in the hope and anticipation that God’s love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this is possible. That is the life of discipleship to which the New Testament repeatedly calls us. When the church as a community is faithful to that calling, it prefigures the peaceable kingdom of God in a world wracked by violence.”

The Sermon on the Mount is not the ultimate self-help guide to better living, nor is following its precepts what saves us. It’s about trusting the faith of Jesus and his belief that his cross and resurrection leads to a new creation. The Sermon on the Mount is about his faith becoming alive in us.

It says at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that people hooped and hollered when Jesus was done because they had never heard anything like it, not from any of the priests, or Pharisees, or anyone else. Maybe they saw it as not some religious treatise Jesus was trying to put on them, but as his testimony to his faith. 

The crowds reaction is also a sign that his faith comes alive in the context of the community of faith, the church, on whom God has poured out the Holy Spirit. The new creation doesn’t come because some people here and there believe in Jesus, but because the church has let the faith of Jesus come alive in it. Together we are building this new world with the living Jesus, a world he saw so clearly in The Sermon on the Mount. It does leave you amazed.

When we come to the Lord’s Table and are invited to remember Jesus. We are invited to remember his faith. But the invitation isn’t just to each one of us, but to the church to remember why we are together and what Jesus’ faith was about. And his faith is pretty well laid out for us in The Sermon on the Mount. Is it possible that redemption comes not simply in the way Jesus died, but also in the way he lived and that it is his faith that just might save us?

Before we come to the Lord’s Table this morning I’m wondering what you think about the faith of Jesus. What did his faith look like? What did he believe God to be? What did he imagine faith requires of us? And are we comfortable taking the emphasis off ourselves and instead of claiming that our faith in Jesus saves us, that it is the faith of Jesus that saves us? Can we believe that “the righteousness of God comes through the faith of Jesus for all of those who believe.”