Tuesday, August 30, 2011

August 28, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - Prayer: Lifeline for the Soul

Matthew 6:5-8

Continuing our journey through the Sermon On the Mount, this morning we come to the topic of prayer. As we did with the Beatitudes, we will take this topic as a series within a series. Today we will look at prayer in a general way, and in the next few weeks we’ll move through the Lord’s Prayer so that we can look at prayer with more specificity.

On any given day, I would imagine more people pray than engage in almost any other activity. Research and polls consistently tell us that almost everyone prays, regardless of their position related to faith. I have heard people with no religious belief whatsoever say that they pray, and pray regularly. It underlines the perceptiveness of William James when he wrote we pray because we cannot help praying.


Praying is simply innate to who we are as humans.

Listen to the words of Jesus about prayer -

But for something we do so often, I’m not sure we always understand prayer. We don’t always know if God answers our prayers, because it’s hard to tell what constitutes an answer. If I pray for patience, and then I experience a run of difficulties in life is it because God is teaching me patience or is it just coincidental bad luck? If we all gather together and pray that God would heal someone of a disease, and healing doesn’t come, did God ignore our prayer or is there something deeper happening that we may not be able to see or understand?

To understand all the workings of prayer is to try and peer into the mind of God, and we simply can’t do that. Why does God seem to act on some prayers but not others? I don’t know. How do we know the difference between an answered – or unanswered – prayer? I don’t know. If we ask God to do something that violates the very rules of nature that he created, will he do that? I don’t know. I’m not being very helpful, am I?

We cannot peer into the mind of God, nor can we fully understand the mind of God even when he tries to communicate with us. The human mind does not have the capacity to fully understand God, nor do we have the perspective of God to gain a deeper understanding of how he operates in relation to our prayers.

By way of example, it comes down to what may be the worst sermon illustration ever. Our family has a cat named Midnight. Midnight loves Nick and Tyler but I believe she has long been plotting to kill Tanya and me. Midnight is a fierce little cat that has held her ground against much larger dogs and generally seems fearless, except when it comes to our vacuum cleaner. Midnight is terrified of our vacuum cleaner. And I feel bad that when I run the vacuum cleaner I scare her. I don’t know what she sees when she looks at that vacuum, but I assume it seems to her as a spaceship from the far reaches of the universe would seem to us. It doesn’t matter if I pick her up and pat her gently and tell her it won’t hurt her; she will simply claw her way out of my arms and run for the door. It doesn’t matter what I do to try and communicate to her the vacuum won’t hurt her; she sees it as some noisy monster that will grab her by the tail and pull her in.

Neither can the human mind grasp the perspective of God. How do we, in our vastly limited understanding, ever hope to understand the mind that created this vast universe and its incredibly intricate governing laws?

Perhaps that’s why we have so many questions about prayer. And of all the questions we have about prayer, the question that looms the largest is do our prayers work; do they make any difference? Philip Yancey has written a book titled Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? I have read a lot of Philip Yancey’s work, and I like a great deal of it, but the inclusion of that question in the title of his book shows how pervasive is a mistaken perspective we have when it comes to prayer. We are very practical Americans. We like when things work. We believe in quid pro quo, there is a trade-off in our transactions. And, if something doesn’t work, we stop doing it.

But prayer is not about “what works.” When we talk about whether or not prayer works we run the risk of treating prayer as a magical formula that will deliver to us something we want, provided we use the right words or ask in the right spirit.

So what is prayer?

Prayer is, first of all, a conversation with God.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the affirmation that God wants us to join with him in a relationship. It is impossible to be in a healthy, growing relationship without communication, without conversation. If I never talk to Tanya our relationship is going to go downhill pretty quickly. Of course, considering some of the things I say, there are times I would do better to keep my mouth closed.

That’s why Jesus was always praying. All throughout the gospels we see prayer as a central part of the life of Jesus, because his relationship to God was central to who he was.

Prayer seeks to draw us beyond ourselves.

During the summer months, when I was young, I would often lay in bed at night and pray that it would not rain the next day. I wanted to be outside playing, not sitting in the house watching it rain. It never occurred to me that the farmer down the road might be praying for rain for his crops. What was God to do with those conflicting prayers? When I was young that was the contents of my heart and mind – I wanted nice weather to play outdoors. If the contents of my heart and mind don’t move beyond that depth, then heaven help me. Perhaps God listens to some of my prayers now and thinks Dave, you can pray for something bigger than that, something bigger than you!

Prayer ought to draw us beyond ourselves and into the larger world and into the lives of others. When we pray and ask God to help someone, perhaps his answer is maybe you ought to help!

Prayer develops compassion within us for others.

This is the next logical step in prayer. If I am praying for someone will that prayer move me to action to express compassion for the person for whom I am praying?

Have you heard the kinds of prayers that are really more expressions of judgment than expressions of compassion? You know the kind – Lord, so and so really needs you to change them. You know they are no good. You know they are low down and sinful. Make them a good person, Lord, like me. It’s the kind of prayer the Pharisee prayers in the Temple as recorded in Luke 18:9-14. You remember the prayer – God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. That’s a pretty nervy prayer, isn’t it? The Pharisee should have been praying that he would have compassion for those people he so despised.

Prayer guides us into God’s perspective on life and the world.

This is especially true, I think, when we search for an answer to our prayers. Many prayers are only answered over a long period of time. Skeptics of prayer seldom understand this point, and sometimes we do as well. We present something to God and in our 24/7 mindset we think there ought to be a result like a drive-through prayer window. You drive up, place your order, pull forward, pick up your order. Frustratingly so, God doesn’t work on our time frame. In fact, sometimes I think God goes out of his way to ignore our time frame.

Prayer moves us into seeing the world and people as he sees the world and people. That is not easy to do, and without prayer, I don’t believe it is possible to gain this perspective.

Prayer draws us into love.

There are countless studies documenting the medicinal advantages of prayer and there are bookcases lined with volumes that have been written by prayer. But what is most powerful about prayer is when someone tells you I am praying for you. We can talk about prayer and we can discuss all the theological ramifications of prayer and we can study the history of prayer, but what is most powerful is to know that one of our grandparents, or our parents, or a friend prays for us.

To pray for another person is to express love for them. I hope you have a list of people you pray for each day. James implores us to pray for each other (James 5:16).

My junior high school teacher remains etched into my memory, and one of the reasons why is because she told us regularly that she was praying for each of us in her class. I knew she was praying for us every day, and I am grateful she told us so.

May we pray for one another. May we pray for those we don’t know. May we pray for our enemies. May we pray for those who would persecute us and falsely say all kinds of evil against us. This is what Jesus asks us to do. To be drawn into love by the power of prayer, that expresses some beautiful truths about prayer.

I will close with a Franciscan Benediction –

May God bless you with discomfort

At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships

So that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger

At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,

So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears

To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war,

So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and

To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness

To believe that you can make a difference in the world,

So that you can do what others claim cannot be done

To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.


(Prayer, Does It Make Any Difference? Philip Yancey, p. 105)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

August 21, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - Living Generous Lives

August 21, 2011

Matthew 6:1-4

The Sermon On the Mount

Living Generous Lives

A friend of mine told me about an interesting scene he witnessed in a church he visited. When the offering was taken he passed the plate to a man sitting next to him, and the man placed a gift in the plate. Evidently the man didn’t like something that came later in the service. When the service concluded the man got up from his seat and said I want my money back. He actually went in search of one of the ushers to say he wanted his money back. Maybe he didn’t like the sermon! I have thought about the fact that we take the offering after the sermon. Many businesses offer a money back guarantee. I have yet to see a church do so.

We are continuing our series of messages from the Sermon On the Mount. I don’t know if we’ll go through the entire sermon in one series. There is so much to absorb in the Sermon On the Mount that we might do well to break it up into more than one series.

Last week, as we studied the passage about loving our enemies, I thought that’s about as tough as it gets in the Sermon On the Mount. That’s a tough passage and a very tall order. But today we come to a passage that is also very difficult, because it speaks of generosity. We live in challenging times for generosity. The economic downturn has increased the need for generosity while also making less gifts available.

The challenging economy also generates fear and insecurity, and fear and insecurity tell us we should hold tighter to what we have. Fear and insecurity will tell us we work hard for what we have and to give some of it away is foolish. But we have a God-given impulse for generosity. When we are confronted by need we are moved by compassion to give of our resources.

Jesus begins this passage with the assumption of giving.

People often tell me a version of this statement – when I win the lottery, I’m going to give the church part of my winnings. I always offer the same response – first, the tithe on gambling is 30%, not 10%, and when I see your picture in the paper holding that big lottery check I will come to your house to pick up the check. Just a gentle reminder.

Jesus expresses an assumption of generosity in this passage. In the first verse of this passage Jesus uses the word righteousness in place of the word giving. Though he uses the word righteousness he means the act of giving. The two words are used interchangeably here, as giving is just something a righteous person does. Giving is not spoken of here as a requirement; giving is just in the nature of righteousness. Giving is a natural response to the love of God. A good example of this is in Acts 2:42-47, where Luke speaks of how the early church had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need (44-45). No one was compelled to give anything, and no one had to be asked; it was just a natural expression of who the church was. They simply responded in generosity.

This is also evidence, I believe, of how the Scriptures make it very clear there is not only an individual calling to help the poor, but a corporate calling as well.

The care for the poor is very strong throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament, we see it written into the Law. In Leviticus 19:9-10 we read When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. In Deuteronomy 24:19-21 we read When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Deuteronomy 26:12-13 says When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. Then say to the Lord you God: “I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have

given it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. In Matthew chapter 25 Jesus speaks in very strong language of the calling to care for those who are the least of these (Matthew 25:45). The first ministry of the church was caring for the poor, and Paul spent a good deal of time raising money for those who were struggling and in need.

There has been much talk in recent decades that charity should be the domain solely of churches and individuals, not the government, but I don’t believe it is a job that can be accomplished by the church or individuals alone. The need, not only in our society but globally, is far too great. One of the evidences, I think, of the influence of faith upon our government is the idea that we have a corporate responsibility to care for those who are in need. We are a generous nation, we are people willing to give when confronted by need and we can never back away from that generosity.

Jesus then speaks of the motivation for giving.

People sometimes ask me if I tithe, do I figure the tithe on my net income or my gross income? As tempting as it is for me to say your gross income, of course, that is really not the point. Give what you give; that is between you and God. But I will say that we have to be careful we don’t think of giving in terms of a balance sheet and God as an accountant, keeping track of everything in very specific ways. Is Dave giving the right percentage? Let’s see; I calculated last quarter and he was %0.05 of where he should be. That way of giving makes it more about rules and regulations than love, and Jesus is asking us to give out of love, not a sense of obligation. It is love that is the motivation for giving, as love is the foundation of everything Jesus teaches.

When you are in love with someone, you talk about what you would give to them. How many of you, when you were dating, said something such as I would give you the moon and the stars if I could. That sounds nice, doesn’t it? And no one would say in return Well, you can’t give the moon and the stars, so how much cash does that translate into? We know someone can’t give the moon and the stars but the idea they would give something momentous because of love is very touching, isn’t it? Love compels us to give.

That’s why the O. Henry Story The Gift of the Magi is so touching. It’s not advent, but it’s a great story, about a young couple with so little they cannot buy each other Christmas presents. She sells her hair to buy a chain for his watch and he sells his watch to buy her a set of combs for her hair.

The compelling power of love to be generous. The struggles of life, though, can quench that power of generosity, and we must guard against that temptation.

Giving is its own reward.

The irony of giving is this – the one who gives only for the reward will not receive much of a reward, but the one who gives without expecting a reward, will receive the greatest reward. If my motive in giving is only to try and impress others, impressing others is the only reward I will ever receive. And that is a reward of sorts, but it is neither a deep nor meaningful reward. But the one who does not expect a reward will receive the greater reward, because reward is a byproduct of our giving, not an end in itself. When we giving without expecting a reward we actually find a richer reward because we receive the joy in giving to others and making a difference in their lives, which is a much greater gift.

Scripture doesn’t talk in terms of giving in order to receive material rewards. This is the problem with the prosperity gospel, which promises a material blessing, which is a distortion of what Jesus teaches. The book of Job certainly presents a challenge to the prosperity gospel. Job loses everything and his friends assume he has done something wrong, but he hasn’t. Job didn’t do anything wrong; he was the epitome of a righteous and good man. The very idea that the “Book of Job” was written to contradict is that goodness and material prosperity go hand in hand (The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, rev. ed. by William Barclay). There is not an automatic connection between being a good person and being rewarded as a result. There are many, many people who have done the right things in terms of getting an education and working hard, but they have not been rewarded; in fact, many have lost their jobs. Their situation is made more painful because they wonder why, when they have done what is the right, they are not prospering.

Recognition isn’t lasting anyway. Years ago, while attending a camp on a college campus, I noticed a plaque in the lobby of the dorm where we were staying. It was several days before I even noticed the plaque. It was easy to miss because there was a big plant in front of it, the brass the sign was made from looked like it hadn’t been polished in years, and there was a coating of dust and cobwebs on it as well. Out of curiosity, I asked the student sitting at the welcome desk if he knew anything about the person named on the plaque. He said, what plaque? I pointed it out and he said I have no earthly idea. I’ve never noticed it before. It turns out the person gave most of the money to construct the dorm. At some point there was probably a nice ceremony recognizing the gift, but that was long ago forgotten. But then I wondered about the friendships that were forged in that dorm over the years. The discussions that changed a life. The lessons learned. Those are true gifts. The recognition came and went, but the effect of the gift lives on decades after the gift was given.

Living Generous Lives. We, who have been given so much, may we live generously. May we pray.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August 14, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - The Greatest Challenge

August 14, 2011

Matthew 5:28-38

The Sermon On the Mount

The Greatest Challenge

Some years ago a very skilled boxer gave up the sport to enter the ministry. He traveled to a town to preach a revival and as he was setting up his tent a couple of troublemakers came by and started harassing him. Eventually, one of them came over and challenged the minister to a fight. He said to the minister if I hit you, don’t you have to turn the other cheek? The minister said, that is what the Lord has instructed. The man took a swing, connected, and the minister dropped to his knee. He stood up, shook his head, and said the Lord has instructed that I turn the other cheek. Another swing came and the minister again dropped to his knee, but stood back up. As he stood up, he took off his coat, rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, curled his hands into fists and said, as the Lord has given me no further instruction…

And that is about as much humor as we can get from this passage.

We are continuing our series of messages from the Sermon On the Mount and today we come to what I believe is the most challenging teaching ever given by Jesus – the challenge to love our enemies.

Let’s read this passage.

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?

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I think there are a lot of people who would disagree with Jesus on this point, and some of his followers are among those in disagreement with him.

I’ll be honest with you – this is not a sermon I really want to preach. I like the ones like last week – talk about doing things for kids, that’s a good, easy message to preach. Who’s going to argue with that? But love your enemies? That’s one of the things that got Jesus crucified. These words are dangerous, and they ask much of us.

As I worked on the message I found I continued to be drawn toward wanting to qualify what Jesus says in this passage, to try and take the edge off of his words, to take the sting out, to find some wriggle room, some way out of what he is asking of us.

But there’s really no way to do that. I do believe Jesus meant just what he said in this passage, and that is what poses such a difficulty for us, because we begin to think about scenarios that bring us into great conflict with these words. Is Jesus saying we can’t defend ourselves? Is Jesus saying we can’t defend our families? Is Jesus saying we can’t defend our country? Is Jesus saying we should let people walk all over us? Is Jesus saying we ought to give away all we have without asking some legitimate questions of those who want us to give them our stuff? Should we lend money to everyone who asks of us? These are serious questions, and there are no easy answers.

This is what we call a very complicated passage, not because it’s hard to understand – actually, we understand it very well – it’s a complicated passage because we do understand it perfectly well. It’s the application, not the interpretation, which causes us great difficulty. When we read this passage we start looking for ways around what Jesus says in these verses.

So what is Jesus saying? He is affirming love as the absolute core of his ministry. Love was central to everything about the life and ministry of Jesus, it is the center of all he said and did, and in this passage he is showing how powerful and how outrageous that love is. Love, as defined and demonstrated by Jesus, is something that is far deeper and far more consequential than an emotion that can be expressed in a greeting card saying, or in compassion for kittens and puppies, or even as a way of describing the relationships we have with our friends and family. Love, Jesus says, is something that extends beyond the typical categories of love. Love is a wonderful thing, when it deals with people I already love and people who already love me. I find love to be fairly easy when it involves people who love me. I find love fairly easy when it involves people I love. But when I am asked to love those who do not love me, when I am asked to love those who work against me, to love those who seek to harm me – that’s when I begin to wonder if that’s the kind of love I want.

But that’s how Jesus defines love. In this passage Matthew uses the Greek word agape for love. Of the four Greek words for love it is the one that expresses a divine love, a love that is deeper than any other expression of love.

Anybody can love those who already love us, but Jesus is asking do you want that agape love of God? Do you want the kind of love that goes deeper than any other kind of love we have ever known? Do we want the kind of love that is more powerful than any other force in the world? If we do, he says, then we must be willing to love even those who hate us.

To show his audience how that type of love worked in daily life, Jesus begins by addressing the issue of violence. Violence was very well known to the audience of Jesus. They were people who were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire, an Empire possessed of a brutality where they would take you out and nail you to a cross if they suspected you even thought about questioning their occupation of your country. And the crowd listening to Jesus was probably full of people who had lost loved ones to the violence of Rome. What Jesus said would be totally outrageous to them. When Jesus said if someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles he was referring to something very, very specific. The Roman soldiers were allowed to grab any civilian and force them to carry their pack and equipment for one mile, but no more than one mile. It didn’t matter if you were late to get to work or to pick up your child from somewhere – when that soldier told you to pick up his pack and equipment and carry it for two miles you did what you were told or you suffered the wrath of Rome.

This was the enemy of the Jewish people, the empire of Rome who had taken over their country, and Jesus says that when they forcibly require you to carry their gear for a mile you should continue on and carry it an extra mile. Can you imagine how that was received? This is not the kind of message you bring to an oppressed people. There were some in the crowd who were, no doubt, quite incensed, saying who does Jesus think he is to ask this of us? He knows how we our treated by the Romans! They occupy our country! How dare he ask something so outrageous of us!

The Roman Empire would be seen in the same way we see these characters –

Now we can imagine how the audience of Jesus must have reacted. There were people who heard Jesus that day that got mad at what he said, because their loved ones had suffered at the hands of their enemies, just as some of us know people or have loved ones whose lives have been impacted by those two men.

Jesus does this to make a couple of points. First, he is saying that violence is the path of weakness and it is never ultimately victorious.

For all their might and power, the Roman Empire has long ago fallen. What remains of the mighty Roman Empire? Well, there’s some pretty good literature, a language that we still study, and some concepts we have found worthy of adopting into our system of government. A there’s a bunch of rocks. They’re impressive rocks, forming aqueducts, the Coliseum, the Forum, and other structures, but it’s a bunch of rocks. It’s a lesson that power and force have the illusion of strength but they never, ever have a lasting strength. Power and force may conquer people, but it will not win them over. The Roman Empire conquered the known world but it didn’t last. Love proved greater than the power of the Roman Empire. And the love of the church is one of the reasons why the Roman Empire persecuted the church. The Romans understood that if people really took these words of Jesus seriously it would weaken the Empire, and they couldn’t stand for that happening. In spite of the violence inflicted upon the church, though, the love of the church outlasted the Empire.

But this is a lesson the world doesn’t seem to learn. Violence continues and even though violence begets more violence people and nations continue to turn to violence and power as a means to an end.

The second lesson Jesus is teaching is that revenge is futile. Revenge is the fuel for violence. Interestingly, the command of an eye for an eye was originally meant as an act of mercy, because it was designed to limit revenge. It was a way of saying if someone does something that costs you an eye or a tooth, you cannot do back to them whatever you want. Without some limit retaliation only escalates violence, so this command sought to limit retaliation and to restrain it. There’s certainly a logic to that idea, but it doesn’t do what Jesus is seeking to establish in this passage, which is to give a real answer to violence and its escalation that comes because of a desire for revenge.

Jesus says the only way to stop violence is to refuse to participate in it, even if it means to give up what seems to be a legitimate reason for retaliation and revenge. How do you stop the cycle of violence, revenge, and hatred? By not participating in it.

To hold onto anger and resentment will eat you alive. I’m not saying it’s easy to offer forgiveness; it’s the hardest thing we are called to do. What I am saying is that it gives us a freedom where bitterness and hatred and a desire for revenge with only bring bondage.

When I was a Student Minister in the late 70s I led a Wednesday evening Bible study. One of the girls in the youth group asked me whether I believed Jesus really meant what he said in this passage. I said, unfortunately, yes, I believe he meant exactly what he said. And that was the end of the conversation. On Sunday someone told me her father was looking for me. It was more of a warning than just to pass on information. A few moments later I saw him coming my way, and it was obvious he wasn’t happy. He walked straight to me, skipped the greeting, put his toes almost to mine, his finger right to my nose and said, don’t you ever, ever again tell my daughter to be anybody’s doormat. I teach her to stand up for herself and defend herself and I don’t want you to go against that. I didn’t know I told her any of that, actually. All I did was read what Jesus said, she asked if I believed Jesus really meant that, and I said yes.

That father made the mistake many people make when reading this passage, and that is, he thought to love your enemies makes you weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus was anything but weak. Jesus challenged power, he spoke the truth regardless of the cost, and he was strong enough to give his life. There is nothing weak about love, especially loving one’s enemies.

This is a huge challenge, the greatest challenge, but one that Jesus extends to us daily.

August 7, 20011 - A Kid Friendly World

August 7, 2011

Mark 10:13-16

A Kid Friendly World

We completed Vacation Bible School on Wednesday, so I want us to turn our attention this morning to kids. Next week we’ll return to the Sermon On the Mount as we look at loving our enemies. That promises to be a lot of fun.

Our Scripture passage for this morning is the well-known passage from Mark’s gospel, where Jesus blesses the children. Let’s read that passage –

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

Some years back I clipped a column out of the paper that was written by Ellen Goodman. Listen to a portion of what she wrote – At some point…it becomes clear that one of your main jobs as a parent is to screen the culture…Mothers and fathers are expected to screen virtually every aspect of their children’s lives. To check the ratings on the movies, to read the labels on CD’s...All the while keeping in touch with school and in their free time, earning a living…Parents see themselves in a struggle for the hearts and minds of their own children. It isn’t that they can’t say no. It’s that there’s so much more to say no to…it’s not just that American families have less time with their kids, it’s that we have to spend more of this time doing battle with our own culture. It’s rather like trying to get your kids to eat their green beans after they’ve been told all day about the wonders of eating a Milky Way.

(“Battling Our Culture Is Parent’s Task,” Chicago Tribune, August 18, 1993).

I clipped that article back in 1993. Things have not improved in the ensuing eighteen years. Every generation wonders what kind of world will be inherited by our children and grandchildren? If you’re a parent or grandparent, have you asked yourself that question? It’s a question asked for generations, but it seems we are now at a very critical tipping point in history. The stakes are now so high when it comes to the future that we have entered a truly unsettling time. What are the environmental consequences facing our children and grandchildren? What are the financial consequences facing our children and grandchildren? What are the spiritual consequences facing our children and grandchildren? It seems that the scale of the problems has increased dramatically in recent years, to the point where we have great anxiety about what the future will hold for our children and grandchildren.

Mark tells us in this passage that people were bringing children to Jesus, but the disciples rebuked them and were seeking to send them away. It’s too easy, sometimes, to pick on the twelve disciples, but I wonder what on earth caused them to believe Jesus wouldn’t be interested in children? The disciples were, I think, acting in what they thought the best interests of Jesus. Things were difficult for Jesus. Opposition was increasing daily and he is very close to Jerusalem and the cross. Though the disciples did not yet understand about the coming cross, they had an instinctual desire to protect him from the difficulties he was encountering.

The problem with instincts, especially protective instincts, is that sometimes they are wrong. I know of a church that built a playground, but they were so worried about kids in the community coming to use it they actually considered putting up a six-foot tall chain link fence around it with razor wire atop the fence. That’s a badly misplaced protective instinct. One of the greatest instincts of a parent is the instinct to protect their child. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there? But it can be damaging as well. Protection can become so smothering that it harms the child rather than helps. There are so many dangers that we certainly want to protect children from, but at the same time we must allow enough freedom to a child that they can learn how to deal with the realities of the world. To protect a child from every heartbreak and every disappointment in life does not protect them; in the long run it brings them more heartbreak and more disappointment because they have not learned how to face those challenges. How hard it is to step back and watch our children deal with hurts, but we know that sometimes it’s the best thing a parent can do.

Mark says Jesus was indignant about the reaction of the disciples. Indignant isn’t just being mildly upset; indignant is being really hot under the collar about something. Jesus was upset with his disciples for two reasons – misunderstanding his nature and being callous in their attitude toward children. The kids were brought to Jesus for a blessing.

A blessing wasn’t just a kindly pat on the head; a blessing was a very deep expression of love and care toward another person. Think about the blessing Isaac gave to his son Jacob (Genesis 25:19-34). Jacob deceived his father in order to steal away the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau. Jacob so desired the blessing that he was willing to deceive his own father and brother in order to take that blessing. A blessing was a really, really big deal.

The kingdom of God, Jesus said to his disciples, belongs to such as these. The kingdom belongs to those who are not the ones in power, not the strong and the mighty, not the ones who own everything; the kingdom belongs to the children and those who have the characteristics of children.

Children exemplify the greatest characteristics of the kingdom. They are –

1. Trusting.

Before I had a driver’s license I used to hitchhike to get where I wanted to go. I don’t remember thinking much about it. I would hitchhike late at night sometimes. If I ever discovered Nick and Tyler hitchhiking I would lock them away in their room and ask are you crazy? What were you thinking? I was far too trusting, and today it would be absolutely foolish to get in the car of a stranger.

It is innate in a child to trust other people. It doesn’t occur to them not to trust. Trust is the default position of humanity. Distrust is a learned response, and it is one of the tragic realities of life that we have to instill a certain level of distrust in kids for their safety and well-being. Be careful of strangers; don’t trust everyone we tell them. How many heartbreaking stories do we hear about tragedy that results because adults took advantage of the trust of children? It’s so tragic.

But we can’t life without some level of trust. But as we age and suffer disappointments we tell ourselves I can’t afford to trust. I don’t want to be hurt again, and trusting people will just bring hurt.

Trust is not being naïve. Trust recognizes there are very real dangers in the world and we have to be careful, but losing trust begins to build a protective wall around our hearts. Maybe just a little wall at first, but then it becomes like the church that wanted to fence in their playground. We build a bigger fence around our heart, and then we add the razor wire to is to no one can break through and we can stay safely ensconced behind it. Losing trust means we lose so much of the richness and love that life brings to us.

2. Full of grace.

Kids are very forgiving. Kids are willing to give a second chance, and a third chance, and a fourth chance. While we as adults can be quick to hold on to our hurts and withhold grace, kids just offer it up.

Grace is one of the absolutely central tenants of the kingdom of God and grace is one of the central attributes of God. Jesus talked about grace all the time. Sadly, grace is not what people see from a lot of churches.

I had another minister ask me, some years ago, what I thought about how he was handling a difficult situation in his church. He didn’t like my answer, thinking I was being too easy, where he wanted to be, in my opinion, harsh and judgmental. He told me I was wrong and my response was if I’m wrong I’m happy to err on the side of grace. I don’t know how to handle every situation, and I’ve proven this many times over the years, but I believe grace is always to be our guiding light. Not judgment, not criticism, but grace.

Jesus was a powerful corrective to the disciples as they wanted to limit access to Jesus that day. There are still people who want to limit access to Jesus, and I believe we are called to tear down those walls that are built by others as they seek to keep people away from Jesus or as they seek to attach all kinds of conditions one must meet before they can access Jesus.

A friend of mine told me a story from his childhood years. He and his friends played basketball in a friend’s yard. They played basketball so often the grass in the yard was worn down to dirt and was packed so tightly that nothing could grow. Wearing out that grass really bothered one of the other neighbors, who thought it improper to let kids ruin a good yard by playing in it. She came out one day and told the mom she shouldn’t let those kids ruin a good yard and started a long speech about how it would take a long time to get the grass growing again. The other mom listened patiently and said I’m not raising grass, I’m raising boys. Isn’t that a great response?

Jesus taught his disciples such a great lesson that day. He took those kids in his arms, he loved them, and he blessed them. May we always be people who will embrace kids, and love them, and bless them.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

July 31, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - Living Honest Lives

The Sermon On the Mount

Living Honest Lives

Jim Carey starred in the movie Liar, Liar, which has an interesting premise. He plays a lawyer who continually disappoints his young son by making promises he doesn’t keep. His son, on his birthday, wishes his father could only tell the truth, and when the wish comes true the humor of the movie comes from showing how telling the truth complicates the father’s life. The movie makes some interesting points about deception and dishonesty, and how deception and dishonesty can easily slip into our lives.

As we continue our series of messages from the Sermon On the Mount, today we come to a passage where Jesus says we should not take any oaths. Hear the word of the Scripture this morning –

Does Jesus mean we are not to take an oath in a courtroom? Does he mean an elected official should not be sworn into office? Some people have taken Jesus quite literally on this point. Quakers and Mennonites, for instance, refuse to take any type of oaths because of this passage. President Herbert Hoover, who was a Quaker, did not take the oath of office when he became president; instead he “affirmed” his presidency.

(http://www.classroomhelp.com/lessons/Presidents/hoover.html. You can watch a very grainy version at this link – http://tvcoliseum.forumotion.com/t1216-herbert-hoover-takes-the-oath-of-office-1929)

I don’t think Jesus was forbidding people from taking an oath of office or being sworn in as a witness in a court case. What Jesus is speaking about is the importance of living honest lives, both in our words and our actions.

Four students decided to skip their first class of the school day. They arrived just as the class ended and told the teacher they were late because they had a flat tire. The teacher said, that’s fine, but they missed a quiz that morning. The four said they must get to their next class but the teacher said it would only take a moment, as there was only one question on the quiz. The teacher gave them each a piece of paper and a pencil, had them sit in the corners of the room and said here is your question – which tire was flat?

Honesty. What an important word.

In my hometown we had a movie theater, and the concession stand had a sign that always had an inspirational saying. The only one I remember is no one has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.

So many things in life depend upon honesty and a person’s commitment to keeping their word. If you are negotiating to buy a car from someone and they tell you they only drove it to church on Sunday and to the store once a week you are counting on their honesty. If someone says you can confide in me, I won’t tell anyone, you trust the person to be honest about keeping their word and not repeat what you have spoken to them in confidence.

But we live in a day and age of great skepticism when it comes to honesty. We are becoming increasingly skeptical about whether or not we are hearing – and seeing – the truth. And, to be honest, our skepticism is sometimes justified. Our financial system, which is based on trusting those who make the financial deals, has been greatly damaged because of a lack of honesty about some of the financial instruments that were sold and some of the deals that were made. We assume that some advertising is misleading, and some of it is. Did you see the news story about two ads being banned in England because they used digital enhancing and were thus deemed to be misleading? There’s some irony there, isn’t there? Buy this product so you can look like this digitally enhanced picture, which is the only way anyone can really look this way!


And the past few weeks have made us even more skeptical about what we hear out of Washington.

Remembering that the Sermon On the Mount is in the context of relationships, Jesus moves into this discussion about taking oaths. It was a discussion prompted by the rampant dishonesty in his time. Jesus seems to be speaking against taking an oath when he Jesus says to simply let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no,” “no.”

It would be nice if that were possible, wouldn’t it? Imagine handing over a large sum of money to someone who promises to invest it for you. Instead of signing a contract they simply take the money and say trust me. We would want a stronger guarantee of honesty, wouldn’t we?

Jesus was calling attention to the rampant dishonesty in his day. In the time of Jesus many oaths were designed to give the appearance of professing honesty, when in fact the oath was really a way of appearing to be honest without actually having to be honest. Most oaths were actually designed to give one a way out of being honest. It was the perfection of a nonbinding oath, of appearing to be genuine without really being genuine.

When Jesus says you have heard it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord” he was condemning the twisting of the law to allow for dishonesty. The idea was, any oath that did not invoke God’s name was not really binding. So I could say to you I solemnly swear I will not tell anyone about the private matters you just shared with me, and because I didn’t mention God it would by acceptable for me to break my promise and tell everyone what I heard. It was a religiously sanctioned way of being dishonest.

Jesus is saying that honesty should underwrite what we say and what we do. When he says let your “yes” be “yes,” and your “no,” “no” he is saying that honesty should be so evident in our lives that our word is a sufficient guarantee to people. But that level of trust is not earned overnight. It takes time and it takes proving to people that we can be people of our word.

And it’s not just words; it’s the general presentation we give of life. The great temptation we face is to present a life that appears to be very together when it’s really not very together. And when enough people do this, the impression is given that if your life is not together you are the one who is out of step and unusual. The truth, brokenness in life is the norm. If you have brokenness and struggle in your life you are not unusual – you are normal. Every life has brokenness and struggle and I understand that we don’t always want that broadcast to everyone but pretending that it doesn’t exist removes us from the power to heal that struggle and brokenness.

One of the important parts of the gospel is that it helps us to be honest with ourselves. Part of the purpose of worship is in helping us to be honest with ourselves. This is one of the reasons why I’m not a fan of the idea that we can worship by ourselves out in the woods or in a fishing boat. I’m not saying you can’t, but we are called to be part of a community of faith in part because of honesty. If I’m sitting out in the woods by myself or in a boat by myself it’s very easy to avoid being honest with myself. But if I am part of a community of faith I am going to be challenged to look very hard at my life and to be honest with myself, with others, and with God.

It’s not to condemn, though; it is to heal. Jesus never minded the brokenness and struggle and failure in people’s lives. Jesus loved people whose lives were full of brokenness; he embraced them, he dined with them, he hung around with them, and, he died for them.

What Jesus didn’t like was dishonesty and deception, especially the kind of dishonesty and deception where one seeks to present a false picture of who they really are, which is the textbook definition of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is trying to get people to believe you are someone you are really not. It’s distasteful and people can generally see right through it.

One of the great tragedies is that even in church it’s difficult to maintain a level of honesty about our lives. It’s just easier to talk around many of the difficulties in life, and besides, we don’t want people to think less of us because they find out we have struggles in our lives.

When I took a preaching class years ago one of our textbooks was the book Dress for Success. Having a neat appearance is one thing, but we spent so much time on how to properly present ourselves and on lessons about our appearance that it seemed there was a greater emphasis on appearance than reality. The line between being our genuine selves and an illusory self seemed to be blurred, and if there is one place we ought to do away with illusions about who we are it is within the Body of Christ.

Jesus said I am the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6). The truth. The truth is that Jesus will take us as we are, with all of our failures and our struggles. Come, and embrace the truth of Jesus.