Monday, October 31, 2011

October 30, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - Judge Not...

How many of you consider yourself to be a judgmental person?

In a moment you will see a series of pictures. I did not select these pictures to make a point about the individuals or to make any political or social statement. I chose images that would elicit a reaction. As you see the pictures take note of your immediate reaction. Most of them are familiar, but I will list the names beside each picture.

Barack Obama

George W. Bush

Glenn Beck

Whoopi Goldberg

Rush Limbaugh

Keith Olbermann

Gordon Gekko (as portrayed by actor Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street)

Bill Gates

Steve Jobs

Snooki (from MTV's show Jersey Shore)

(Benny Hinn - TV evangelist)

Joel Osteen

Mother Teresa

(Warren Buffett)

(A homeless man, whose name is unknown)

A man was eating breakfast and reading the paper one morning when his wife walked into the kitchen. She looked out the window and saw a neighbor hanging out laundry. It appeared to be very dingy and grey looking, so she began to criticize the neighbor’s ability to do laundry. Somebody needs to help our neighbors with their laundry. It looks terrible, she complained. A few days later the scene repeated itself. She looked out, saw the neighbor hanging laundry, and she criticized how dingy and grey it looked. A few days later, as she came into the kitchen, she looked out and saw the neighbor hanging laundry. This time, though, her reaction was much different. Someone must have finally taught our neighbors how to do laundry, she exclaimed. Actually, dear, said her husband, I decided to wash our window.

Jesus says, do not judge.

At this point in the Sermon On the Mount, I’m not sure why anyone would feel like judging another person. If you read through the Sermon On the Mount in one sitting, by the time you get to this part of the sermon it’s very easy to be overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy about who we are spiritually and the idea that we would sit in judgment of anyone should be pretty well wrenched out of us.

I must note Jesus is not ruling out every type of judgment. There are times when it becomes necessary to approach another person to offer a point of correction, and we do so out of love. That is a healthy type of judgment to make, especially if someone is engaging in a behavior that is damaging or hurtful to them or another person. It also doesn’t mean we can’t speak the truth as it becomes necessary. Jesus could be very pointed at times as he spoke the truth. But even within those examples we must be very careful. There are people who, while “speaking the truth in love”, are really just using their so-called love as a cloak for speaking hurtfully to another person.

The kind of judging Jesus is speaking to in this passage is a specific type of judging – it is when a person decides they are of such a high moral standing they are qualified to pass judgment upon others. It is when one believes they are in possession of such a high level of righteousness they are morally superior to others and they congratulate themselves for being morally superior. This was the mistake of groups such as the Pharisees. There was certainly nothing at all wrong with their desire to lead morally upstanding lives and to follow the law as closely as possible. That is a laudable effort, but they fell into the trap of congratulating themselves for being so incredibly righteous while they viewed others as having a much more inferior type of righteousness.

Jesus says very clearly that no one is in the position to judge another in such a manner. He warns very clearly do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

If I want to find fault with another person that leaves me open to fault-finding as well. If I want to point out the deficiencies of another person that leaves me open to others pointing out my deficiencies. If I want to point out the failures of another then others will no doubt point out my failures. The judgment we use on others, says, Jesus, becomes our judgment. The judgment we pass on others is passed on us.

Judgment is also unwise because we don’t know what is happening in the life of another person. You never know what is going on in the life of another person. You never know what combination of stresses, struggles, and pressures exist in the life of another. Schoolteachers certainly understand this. Teachers know that behavior is very strongly linked to a student’s environment, and if there are stresses and struggles in that environment they will be manifested in the student’s behavior at school. There may be times when we shake our head at the actions or behaviors of another without understanding what might be driving those actions and behavior. I am sometimes privy to some of those stresses and pressures in people’s lives and I can say without hesitation that we don’t always know what is happening in the lives of others.

There is also an element of blindness that exists in judging. Sometimes we can see the faults of others very clearly but are blind to the same faults within ourselves. Jesus says it this way – Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Some years ago I decided to add a specific point to a sermon in hopes that an individual would be present. I thought it was something they really needed to hear, so I put it in a sermon. It was the first and the last time I did such a thing. The person was in worship the Sunday morning that I preached the sermon, and on their way out of worship stopped and said to me, you know Dave, I’m really glad you made that point this morning (the one I wanted them to hear. It worked, I thought). I’m glad you made that point because so-and-so was here and they really needed to hear it. People see in others what they cannot see in themselves.

The ancient Greeks, when they faced a very difficult trial, would sometimes hold the trial in the dark, so the judge and jury would not be swayed by anything but the facts in a case.

(Barclay, p. 264).

I’m not sure we can control our instinct toward judgment. I’m not sure it is possible for us to put ourselves in the dark to the point that we are not influenced by things such as how a person looks or acts. We can, though, control how we deal with others, and we can control how we treat others, and we can control what we say about others, and that is a significant difference.

I believe people are so anxious to find a spiritual home where no mantle of judgment will be placed upon them. I believe there are many people who would love to be a part of church, but they have experienced the heavy hand of judgment in such a hurtful way that they just can bring themselves to step into a church.

We can be living expressions of the grace of God. We can show people there are churches that will not judge them. We can show people God is pursuing them with love and grace and not judgment.

May we pray.

Monday, October 24, 2011

October 23, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - What, Me Worry?

Matthew 6:25-34

The Sermon On the Mount

What, Me Worry?

Is anyone surprised we are here this morning? The world was supposed to end on Friday, did you know that? According to Harold Camping, who also predicted it would end back in May, we shouldn’t be here.

Back in 1988 a book showed up in my mailbox. Titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Happen in 1988 the author had selected a weekend in September that would bring the end of time. Next year I received the sequel – 89 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Happen in 1989. I didn’t receive a book the next near.

Why are people drawn to such predictions? I think much of it is because the anxiety of the present drives an almost insatiable desire to peer into the future to find a sense of hope. That desire to know the future allows people to be taken in by these predictions. People want to know the future because they are looking for assurance. It is no coincidence that these sorts of predictions come during troubled times, because people are very anxious, and they will grasp at what will provide evidence that God is in control.

As we continue our series on the Sermon On the Mount, this morning we come to a passage that speaks powerfully, I believe, to all of us. It speaks to our fear of the present and the future. It speaks to our worries and anxieties, which are very real struggles for all of us.

Would you like to live a life free of worry and anxiety? Is it really possible to live such a life?

Let’s read what Jesus has to say.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Piece of cake, right? Everybody okay about the worry and anxiety now? None of us are ever going to worry again, right?

Worry and anxiety are very real elements in life, and they are very difficult to overcome. Would, for example, unlimited wealth ease all of our worries? No. It matters not how much or how little we have, worry and anxiety are a very real presence in our lives.

So how possible is it for us to do what Jesus recommends in this passage? Well, let’s take a look at what he is recommending in this passage.

First, Jesus is not saying we should be irresponsible in our approach to life.

A few weeks before I graduated from college, a friend and I were talking about what was coming next for us and discussing our plans. I made a comment about needing to get a life insurance policy and he told me I was wrong to do so, which surprised me. I asked him what could possible be wrong with buying a life insurance policy. He used this passage as support for his position, saying that Jesus told us take no thought for the morrow.

The King James translation begins verse 25 by using those words, take no thought for the morrow. I don’t think that’s a translation that adequately captures what Jesus is saying. When Jesus says we shouldn’t think about tomorrow, or the next day, is he saying we shouldn’t make any plans or preparations for our future? I don’t think that’s what he’s recommending. It’s really more along the lines of do not be distracted.

Jesus is not recommending a cavalier approach to life that never takes into account the things that are needed to live. Jesus uses the birds of he air to make his point. It is not that the birds do not work; it is that they do not worry. Jesus is not saying don’t work and don’t plan; he is saying we must not be consumed by a level of worry and anxiety that distracts us from life. So we would next say,

Worry and anxiety should not rob us of the joy and beauty in life.

I have spent countless hours in hospitals, nursing homes, and funeral homes over the course of my ministry. It is often a corrective to me, as I worry about so many things that do not matter.

Jesus says that we cannot add a single hour to our life by worrying. In fact, excessive worry and anxiety will take time away from our lives. Stress is one of the worst factors to act upon our bodies. Stress is, quite literally, a killer.

We lose so much of life to worry. One of the tragedies of worry and anxiety is the way in which they rob us of the ability to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of life. Yes, there are many, many things that are legitimate causes for worry, but there is also great joy and beauty in life.

Look at the lilies of the field, Jesus says. They bloom in beauty on one day and the next day they become little more than fuel for an oven, but there is beauty there.

I overheard a conversation the other day in which someone said I have this to worry about, this to worry about, and this to worry about. What an interesting way to speak. It wasn’t I have this to do or I have this to consider or I have this to solve, but I have this to worry about, as though our only option in life is to worry.

The real option is to say I will not allow the worry of so many things to steal away the beauty that is in life.

One of my favorite Wendell Berry poems is The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what

my and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake rests

in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.

I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

Waiting with their light.

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I think those are beautiful words, and carry the thought of Jesus to avoid the danger of missing the beauty and joys of life.

Enjoy the beauty and richness of life. Resist the temptation to allow the worry and anxiety of life to steal away your joy.

Worry about the right things.

One of my favorite Biblical stories is that of Jonah. We are familiar with the part of the story of the great fish but often forget the end of the story, where God chides Jonah. Jonah was angry that God had compassion upon the city of Nineveh – imagine someone being upset that God would demonstrate compassion – so he goes outside of the city for two reasons. He goes to pout over God’s mercy, and he goes to watch and see what would happen to the city, in hopes that perhaps God will relent of his compassion and destroy the city.

As Jonah sits and waits, God provides a vine that gave Jonah shelter from the hot sun. The next day God takes away the vine and Jonah becomes very hot in the blazing heat of the sun, and he becomes angry about his discomfort. God asks him if he has a right to be angry about the vine and Jonah, in a very petulant and rebellious manner, says he does have a right to be angry about his discomfort. And then God says you have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city? And that is the end of the book of Jonah.

Jonah’s mistake was that he was worried about the wrong things. His anger over losing his comfort betrays his failure to be worried about the fate of more than a hundred and twenty thousand people.

One of the dangers of worry is that it can so easily be the wrong kind of worry – the kind of worry that diverts our attention and our compassion away from people who need us, it can be the kind of worry that turns us inward and keeps us from being able to see the needs of those around us. If I worry about what I will wear tomorrow and what I will eat tomorrow, when I have no shortage of clothing or food, that worry can keep me from remembering those who have inadequate clothing or nothing to eat. If we aren’t worried about such things, then we aren’t paying attention to what is happening in the world around us.

This kind of worry – the worry over the wrong things – not only afflicts individuals, it afflicts groups as well. It affects churches, who can become so worried about what is happening within their walls that they fail to see what is happening in the community outside of their walls. It can happen to countries, who become so concerned about what is happening within their borders that they fail to see the tremendous need outside of their borders.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd president, gave his inaugural address on March 4, 1933. It was during the depths of the Great Depression, and he said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I think that’s a great saying, but I don’t really agree. There are some things to fear in life, but he does point to the truth that fear, which comes from our worries and anxieties, will paralyze us.

Faith will never do away with all uncertainty and the worry and anxiety that come with that uncertainty, but faith helps us learn to overcome it. Studying Scripture reminds us that many of the great characters of Scripture had doubts, and fears, and worries and anxieties.

Abraham was never given a detailed road map of the path God called him to follow. It was simply go to a land I will show you. I will show you is the future tense. Abraham, you’re going to have to trust. Jesus called his disciples with the words follow me. No details, no road map, no discussion of salary and benefits; just follow me.

There are many things that cause us worry and anxiety. I am not where I need to be in relation to worry and anxiety, but I have made a little progress in recent years, and it has greatly improved my life.

In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Allow Jesus to help you overcome your worries and anxiety. Accept his peace today, and may his peace rule your heart, your mind, and your life.

Monday, October 17, 2011

October 16, 2011 - The Sermon On the Mount - A Good Return On Your Investment

This morning we continue through our study of The Sermon On the Mount. Today we study Matthew 6:19-24.

Listen to the words of Jesus as recorded by Matthew –

One of Ann Landers’ best letters came from a woman writing about her husband’s unusual request.

For years he was hiding money, saying he didn’t trust banks. She laughed about it, which made him mad, so one day he said he wanted his money to be buried with him. She agreed to honor his request, thinking it wouldn’t amount to much money. When he passed away she remembered her promise. Counting the money she was shocked to find it amounted to more than $60,000, in cash. That put her in a dilemma. She wanted to honor her husband’s request but didn’t want to bury all that cash. She agonized over what to do and finally came up with a great solution. She took the cash to the bank, deposited it in her account, wrote out a check for the amount, and placed the check in the coffin. That’s a wise investment.

This morning, continuing in the Sermon On the Mount, we come to a passage about wise investments – Matthew 6:19-24. Investments are tricky these days. If you have an investment account your are better off not opening a statement when it arrives in the mail.

Jesus spoke often of making wise investments – investments of our lives – and he certainly does in this passage.

He begins by speaking to our sense of security. Do not, he says, store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Everyone wants to build some measure of security in life, so we are naturally driven to try and build wealth, because wealth, in our eyes, represents security.

In my class on St. Augustine’s City of God, there is a section where St. Augustine compares a rich man and a poor man. Augustine writes Let us imagine two individuals – for each man, like a letter in a word, is an integral part of a city or of a kingdom, however extensive. Of these two men, let us suppose that one is poor, or, better, in moderate circumstances; the other, extremely wealthy. But, our wealthy man is haunted by fear, heavy with cares, feverish with greed, never secure, always restless, breathless from endless quarrels with his enemies. By these miseries, he adds to his possessions beyond measure, but he also piles up for himself a mountain of distressing worries. The man of modest means is content with a small and compact patrimony. He is loved by his own, enjoys the sweetness of peace in his relations with kindred, neighbors, and friends, is religious and pious, of kindly disposition, healthy in body, self-restrained, chaste in morals, and at peace with his conscience. I wonder if there is anyone so senseless as to hesitate over which of the two to prefer (Book IV, Chapter 3, pp. 87-88). When I ask the class if they agree that the poor man has the better life, they always agree. I then ask them, why is it, then, that no one aspires to be poor? People do not come to this country because it is their dream to be poor; they come to this country because it is their dream to be wealthy.

And make no mistake about it; a measure of wealth does make a difference in life. To be able to afford housing, food, education, and medical care is no small matter.

But Jesus provides a reminder that those resources are not as secure as we might think. No matter what we have, it is susceptible to loss. If you are seeking to invest money, where will it be safe? Is it ever really safe? A lot of people lost a lot of money in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. A lot of people have lost money on their homes. A lot of people have lost money in the stock market. It was just a few years ago that home values, the stock market, and other avenues of wealth-building seemed to be on the way up with no foreseeable end in sight. But the end came.

Jesus says treasure of the earthly variety is never really secure and points to the irony of investing so much of life into what is ultimately neither secure nor of lasting value. We think they are secure, but they are not. Everything, he says, is subject to forces that threaten security. Our stuff is subject to decay, it is subject to theft, and it is subject to market forces.

What do we have that we cannot lose? Almost everything is subject to loss, as Jesus says. What do we have that we cannot lose?

Jesus encourages us to invest in what is of lasting, eternal value. Jesus did not hold to the view that this world did not matter. Jesus knew that people needed bread to survive but also said that we cannot live on bread alone. His theology was not one of simply enduring this world until one reaches eternity. Jesus knew that people had needs and concerns and he was not insensitive to those needs and concerns. But Jesus reminds us of the spiritual component of life. Life does consist of more than our jobs and our stuff. Life consists of other people, many of whom face great difficulty and need us to enter into their lives.

A wise investment, then, is other people. How many of you remember the names of school teachers, Sunday School teachers, coaches, or others who invested in your lives. I can still tell you the name of my 2nd through the 6th grade teachers (I don’t know why I can’t remember the name of my 1st grade teacher. Must have been a bad year, perhaps).

The message of investing in other people is a message to individuals but to the church as a body as well. During one of the Roman persecutions of the church, soldiers entered a church meaning to plunder the church of its treasures they believed to be there. The leader of the soldiers demanded show my your treasures at once! The church leader pointed at the orphans who were being fed, to the sick who were being cared for, and the poor who were receiving provision, and said these are the treasures of the church (Barclay, p. 242).

Then Jesus mentions the eye, and as he does he reminds that he seek to give us a new vision of life. We can be remarkably blind at times to what is right in front of us. When we took the youth to All People’s Christian Center in LA last summer, one evening we took a driving tour of downtown. A staff member from the center was with us and he took us down a block where there were some very upscale restaurants. There were tables along the sidewalk and a lot of people eating outside. It was in the evening, at dusk, and as we turned the corner there were people setting up tents on the sidewalk. They were homeless people, large numbers, just around the corner from great affluence. There were families, some with very young children, and it was a jarring sight.

I commented on the odd image of affluence and need being so close together and Larry, our guide, reminded me that it wasn’t any different in our community. I vividly remember him commenting on how we fail to see some of the needs right in front of us. Do we see what is on our own doorstep? We actually learn not to see the need in front of us.

There is a responsibility that comes with the resources we are given, I believe. There is a responsibility that remains to our brothers and sisters in need. One of the great dangers of affluence is the way it can insulate us from the needs of others. As we have more, our circles change, and the changes can further remove us from those who suffer great need in life.

There is also a need to hold accountable those who see people as little more than instruments to make money. There is, thankfully, a much greater awareness of the tragedy of child labor. Companies are more sensitive to examine their supply change to see if children are being exploited as cheap labor, but the problem hasn’t been completely solved, it is still a terrible blight upon our world.

Jesus then reminds us that investing in the wrong things can place us in terrible bondage.

One of the tragedies of our modern era is that we can find ourselves with so much, but at the same time with relatively little. We can have many things, and in the process find we are not able to be generous because we are so entrapped by those things that we have a poverty of the soul

When Walt Disney was working on a cartoon version of the legend of King Midas, the sound technicians found something very interesting. As they sought a way to create the sound of coins clinking together they finally discovered that rattling chains gave them the desired sound. Chains representing money. Isn’t that an interesting irony?

Interestingly, the word for mammon, which is the word for money in this passage, comes from a word that means to entrust. It carried the idea of entrusted to another that which we own or possess, as a person entrusts their money to a banker. Over time, though, it came to mean that in which we place our trust. So mammon – money or possessions – morph from being something we entrust to another to being something in which we place our trust. This highlights another irony as our money bears the imprint of In God we trust when the reality is that money so often receives our trust.

So the question comes down to this – what is our treasure? Is it something that is of lasting value, or something that in the end provides no security?