Pastor Glenn

Pastor Glenn

Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
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Matthew 28:1-10

Fear Not!

April 16, 2017     Easter Sunday     Maple Grove UMC

 

          Here are some words from today’s Gospel reading that you might not expect to be part of the Easter story:  Don’t be afraid.  I mean, if ever there was a time when you shouldn’t have to tell people not to be afraid, you’d think Easter morning would be that time.  But here’s the angel telling them, “Don’t be afraid.”  And five verses later, the risen Jesus himself appears to them, and he has to say it again: “Don’t be afraid.” 

          What does it mean that even an angel of good news, that even the risen Christ himself, have to tell people not to be afraid? Surely it says something about the depth, the persistence of fear in our lives.  Over the past several weeks at Maple Grove, we’ve been studying and pondering how to overcome fear with faith.  We heard Jesus tell us not to worry, to let each day’s trouble be enough for that day.  We heard the Bible insist that hospitality, not fear, guide our treatment of strangers and foreigners.  Perfect love, 1 John says, cast out fear—the goal is to be so filled with love that there’s just no room left in our hearts for fear.  And when afraid, we can always hang on to God, who’s got the whole world in his hands.  Yes, we have been learning, but so deep and persistent is our fear, that even in the presence of the risen Christ, the message has to be “Don’t be afraid!”

 

          I had a seminary professor who gave one entire lecture on things not to say to troubled souls.  I don’t remember them all, but one was, “Never say, ‘I know just how you feel.’”  No you don’t, he said.  You can be sympathetic, but don’t pretend your experience is the same as someone else’s.  Another was, “Don’t say, ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.’”  That may or may not be true, but it sure doesn’t help someone who feels overwhelmed.  And, he said, never ask someone, “What’s the worst that could happen?”  Because, he said, sometimes it does.

          What’s the worst that could happen? What if someone had asked that of the women who followed Jesus, a week before Easter?  I doubt they could even have imagined anything as bad as what actually happened.  Within days Jesus would be arrested, put on trial, brutally mocked, crucified and sealed in a tomb.  And for their part, the disciples would desert and deny him.  That’s the worst that could happen, and then some.

          Yet in spite of all of that, here’s the good news of the Easter story: On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life!

          On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. Now, this doesn’t mean that life goes back to just the way it was before the worst happened.  That’s not how it was for the disciples and the women who followed Jesus.  They had amazing new life, but not the same old life. 

          On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life.  It also doesn’t mean that this new life will be without stress or trouble.  In an article about the gospel for survivors of abuse and trauma, Shelly Rambo teaches that even after the resurrection, life can remain difficult.1 This also was true for the disciples and these women.  They would themselves face persecution and disbelief, the churches they founded would go through tension and division.  Life was new, but often difficult.  Maybe that's why, in verse 8, Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb quickly, he says, with "fear and great joy."  Not either fear or great joy, but somehow both at the same time.

On the one hand, too many redemption stories are all joy and no fear. "My life was rotten," goes this kind of testimony, "full of sin and sorrow.  Then I found Jesus, and ever since all my troubles are gone!"  Pardon me if that just doesn't ring true.  Don't get me wrong.  I have new life in Christ—thank God, I do.  I've also still got my share of troubles.  How about you?  Resurrection isn’t an end to troubles; it’s new life in the midst of troubles.

On the other hand, too many people's stories are all fear and no joy. Yeah, life may always be difficult.  But if Christ is risen—and he is!--then fear and negativity don’t have to control our behavior.  A new power has been unleashed in our lives—the power of love, the power of forgiveness, and trust in the goodness of God.  After all, on the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life.

 

Here's another piece of the story: Jesus didn't just tell the women not to be afraid, he also gave them something to do.  He said, "Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee—I’ll meet them there."  Having something to do makes us feel less afraid, like we're part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  And the mission hasn't really changed since that first Easter.  The mission Jesus gave the women, the mission Jesus gives the church today, is to go and tell, to bear witness that on the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. 

But in some ways, I think those women had it easier than we do. All they had to say was, "Jesus is risen!" and everyone said, Really? He's alive again—that's amazing!  It was new news to them.  Try saying "Jesus is risen" to someone today--they'll probably yawn and mumble, "Uhh, yeah, I've heard that."  It's not that people haven't heard it before; you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who's never heard that Jesus rose from the dead.  It's that they've never really heard it, haven't seen how it matters to them.  They haven't made the connection between Jesus being risen from the dead and not having to live such fearful lives. 

And what is that connection? What might we go and tell people that would change their lives, the way what the women had to say changed the disciples' lives?

  • Well, we could go and tell people Easter means that God has power over death. Not that we won't die—we all die, even Jesus died. But God still has power over death. Back in 2008 I had three funerals during Holy Week, one of them for a 27 year-old man who was murdered and one for a baby that lived just two hours. The following week I had the funeral of a 40 year-old wife and mother of two, one of my best friends in all the world. Since I've been pastor of Maple Grove, I have officiated at 76 more funerals. Death is, in many cases, the worst that can happen. If I did not believe in my heart that God has power over death, I couldn't do all those funerals. I'd give up. Maybe you, too, know someone who is surrounded by sorrow and death, weighed down by a grief that will not shake. Well, maybe you could tell them our news. It won't give them their same old life back, of course, and it won't mean a new life without trouble. But it is quite a piece of good news—that in raising Jesus from the dead, God has power over death. On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. Fear not!

  • Or how about this: go tell people Easter means their story is never over. The women came that morning expecting only to tend to Jesus' body. They thought that with his death, his story, and their story with him, were over, that theirs had been a noble effort, but evil had won again. But their story was not over. In fact, he told them to go to Galilee to start a whole new chapter. Do you know anyone who thinks their story is over? When a spouse or child dies, it feels like your story is over. When you lose your job or don't get into the school you dreamed of, it feels like your story is over. When you have to move to a nursing home, or when friends turn again you, or things just change too much, it feels like your story is over. But Easter means that the story is never over. No, it won’t be the same old story you used to have. It may not be an easy story. But it isn't over. If God can raise Jesus from the dead, who knows what God can do for you? On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. So fear not!

  • One more: go and tell people that Jesus wants to meet up with his brothers. Did you hear that word, 'brothers,' in the story? The angel tells the women, "Go and tell his disciples." But Jesus says, "Go and tell my brothers . . ." Why is that important? Remember what just happened with the disciples. Despite Jesus pleading with them to stay awake in Gethsemane, they all fell asleep. Out of fear, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus. And they all turned away and deserted him at the cross. Yet when he comes back, Jesus doesn't say, "Go and tell those dirty rats . . ." He doesn't say, "Go and tell those former friends of mine." He doesn't even say, "Go and tell my disciples . . ." He says, "Go and tell my brothers." As one writer has put it, Jesus didn't come back to judge anyone. He returned to gather his family.2

Do you know anyone who may feel guilty or like they’ve failed in some way? Do you know anyone who has trouble holding their head up or looking you in the eye?  Do you know anyone in desperate need of some family of one kind or another?  Well, go and tell them that in the Easter community, no one is turned away and all are more than welcome.  Because the risen Jesus comes back to gather his family.  On the other side of the worst that can happen—loneliness, failure, shame--God gives no life.  So fear not!

 

Never ask anyone, my professor warned, "What's the worst that can happen?" Because sometimes, he said, it does.  That's why I want so much for you to take this Easter message with you today:  On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives no life.  So fear not!

 

1 Shelly Rambo, “Spirit and Trauma,” Interpretation, 69/1 (January 2015), 7-19.

2 Frederick Niedner, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (March 11, 2008), 21.

 

Matthew 26:36-46

Praying Through Fear

April 14, 2017      Good Friday         Maple Grove UMC

 

          I grew up in a church where the big stained glass window was ofure of Jesus praying in Gethsemane.  His body was gray, his face had an anguished expression, and to my child’s eyes it always appeared that a sharp rock was poking him in the side as he prayed.  You’d think I’d have grown accustomed to this Bible story.  But I have not.  It’s a shock every time I hear about Jesus in Gethsemane—about Jesus throwing himself on the ground, about him repeatedly pleading with God to avoid the cup of death, about his friends not being able to stay awake with him even one hour, how Matthew says that Jesus was grieved, even unto death.  It’s still a shock to me.  It’s kind of like seeing your parents being afraid for the first time.  You mean, even you get scared, Jesus?  Yeah, even I get scared.

 

          I want to share two ways the story of Jesus in Gethsemane can help us address our fearfulness.  One is this:  not even Jesus tried to face his fear alone.  He took with him to Gethsemane all of the disciples and asked them to sit nearby while he prayed.  And he took three of them—Peter, James and John—a little ways apart and asked them to stay near him, to stay awake, while he prayed.  I know that they all fell asleep.  But they were there.  Not even Jesus tried to face his fear alone.

          After our daughter Rachel was born, Carolyn had emergency surgery for internal bleeding.  The surgeon came out just for a moment and I asked him, “Doctor, is she going to be all right?”  And he said, “If she makes it through tonight, she’ll probably be okay.”  And then I just sat there in a waiting room, no one else around, for hours.  I tried to pray but I couldn’t really.  I’d never been so scared.  Finally, I knew what to do.  I called Laurie Clark.  I don’t know where she was or what she was doing.  Maybe she was already in bed.  But she came to Riverside Hospital, and sat with me, and prayed for us, and after a while I began to feel like I could face it. 

          Whatever it is that you are afraid of, you do not have to face it alone.  Not even Jesus tried to face his fears alone.

 

          Here is the other thing I want to say about how Jesus in Gethsemane can help us face our fears:  prayer is one of the ways God gets us through our fear.  You might even say that fear is the way God gets us through our fear.  Ann Lamott wrote:  “courage is fear that has said its prayers”1 One kind of prayer is asking God for things, telling God what we want and need.  Jesus did that: “Father,” he prayed, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”  Surely we all do that:  God, heal my mother’s cancer; God, keep my son sober; God, keep our family together. 

          But there is another kind of prayer—simply asking God to be with us if we don’t get what we want, praying for strength to do whatever we have to do.  Jesus prayed this prayer too: “yet not what I want, [God,]but what you want.”  This can be seen as submitting one’s will to God’s, and maybe it is—I know some people struggle with that idea.  But for sure, it is praying that the relationship with God go on, that God will continue to be our loving Father, even if the worst happens.  And that prayer is always granted.

          In our Lenten study book, Rabbi Kushner says:  “When I pray, I don’t think of myself as asking God to intervene and change things.  I pray because invoking God’s presence helps me to feel less alone.”  Martin Buber said, “When we pray, we don’t ask God for anything.  We ask God for God.”2 We don’t often get around what we’re afraid of; Jesus didn’t.  By we can get through what we’re afraid of--and we don’t have to do it alone, and we do it by praying.

          In one sense at the end of the story of Jesus in Gethsemane, nothing has changed:  Jesus is still going to die.  But in another sense, everything has changed:  Jesus is now prepared to die.  He had prayed his way through his fears. 

 

          Not even Jesus had to face his fears alone.

          And even Jesus had to pray his way through his fear.

          I expect those things apply to us as well.

 

 

1Ann Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 239.

2 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Book

John 12:12-15 / Psalm 46 / Psalm 27

When Afraid, Hold on to God

April 9, 2017     Maple Grove UMC

 

Here's what that first Palm Sunday was: a crowd of people, banding together to prepare for the week to come.  They didn't know it yet, but Jesus would soon be arrested and put on trial and hung on a cross to die.  They themselves would soon desert and deny him.  And the scripture John shares for Palm Sunday is this, from Zechariah: 

Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion;

See, your king is coming.

 

Actually, the "do not be afraid" part is not in Zechariah, at least not the version we have today. Perhaps John added that, knowing it's what the disciples needed to hear, given all they were about to go through.

And here's what Palm Sunday is today: a crowd of people, banded together to prepare for the week to come.  And though, unlike the disciples, we do know how Holy Week will unfold, there is much that we don't know about this coming week, or any week—how that doctor's appointment will turn out, whether a loved one will stay sober, whether people will support us or turn against us.  And so we band together to prepare, we form a parade and wave palm branches, And we hear the scripture: "Do not be afraid!  See, your king is coming."

This banding together is so important. As hard as that next week was for the disciples, just think how it would have been if they hadn't had each other.  They did make it through that week, through Jesus' suffering and death and through their own failure, and together they became his powerful witnesses for Christ.  Scott Bader-Saye says that we "tend to lack courage just to the extent that we lack community.  As a community we can often bear risks together that we might be reticent to face alone."1 We all need someone to parade with, whether that's a literal or a metaphorical parade.  So here we are, the community of Christ, banding together to prepare for what lies ahead and to hear the message of the gospel:  "Do not be afraid."

 

At the end of his Palm Sunday story, John adds this: "At first his disciples did not understand all this.  Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him."  That's the way life is, isn't it?  As things are happening, it's hard to know what's going on—what you should and shouldn't do, what everything means, where God is in all of it.  Only later can we sometimes begin to piece all that together.  Which means that for the disciples on Palm Sunday, following Jesus required—here's a big word—TRUST.  They didn’t know where he would take them; they had to trust.  And for us today, courage and faith in this troubled word require—here's that big word again—TRUST.  Of course, it's one thing to trust Jesus on Palm Sunday when the crowds are cheering, the palm branches are waving and Jesus is right here.  It's another thing to trust him when the soldiers have come, and quite another when he's hanging on the cross.  The same is true for us.  It's one thing to trust God when there's money in the bank and everybody's healthy.  It's another thing to trust God when health fails and quite another when people you love fail and desert you.  I guess that's why they call it trust.

 

When it comes to trust, one of my go-to scriptures is Psalm 46, which we read together. I often read it for people as they prepare for surgery.  I share it at funerals.  I read it to myself when I'm afraid, and read it, and read it.  Psalm 46 expresses confidence and trust in the midst of various circumstances:  trouble (verse 1), change and natural disasters (verse 2), chaos (3) political upheaval (6) and even war (9).  Those may not be the only things there are to be afraid of.  But if we can have trust in the face of trouble, change, disaster, chaos, politics and war—we can probably have trust in almost any situation.

In the book we've been studying together this Lent, Rabbi Kushner names several other life situations where trust is hard to come by, but therefore all the more important:

  • Talking about a treatment plan with the oncologist

  • A congregation facing misfortune or division

  • Walking into your very first AA meeting

  • Your first day on a new job or at a new school.2

How do you find trust in God at times like that, when you need it most?  Well, turning to scripture, and especially to the psalms, is one great way to start.  Rabbi Kushner tells the story that on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, when Arab nations threatened to overrun Israel, one rabbi told his students, "This is a time of great danger.  Don't just sit there doing nothing.  Recite psams."3

In Psalm 27, the other psalm we read together this morning, the psalmist says three times in the first three verses that he is not afraid. I suspect the truth is that he was afraid, but was working on not being afraid.4 We tell ourselves, I am not afraid, not because it's already true; but in order to make it true.

In his commentary on Psalms, James Mays teaches that in ancient Israel Psalm 46 would have been sung responsively. A leader would have sung parts of the psalm, but the whole community would have sung together that "The Lord of hosts is with us!"  And again, a leader would have begun, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble," but the whole community would insist, "Therefore we will not fear!"  This psalm, in other words, is worship; it's liturgy by which worshipers learn to entrust our lives to the love and protection of God.5

So here today the liturgist said, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." And we responded "Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change."  What I’m wondering is--was that really true, what we said?  That we will not fear.  Well, maybe not yet.  But keep saying it; give it time.  Worship is the way we learn to trust in God.

Here's something else James Mays says in his commentary, this time about Psalm 27: "Trust is nurtured and strengthened by the exercise and discipline of religion."  In other words, worship and singing together and daily devotions and praying for one another are the ways we learn to overcome fear with faith.  Trust in God, he says, "transforms mere anxiety [in]to prayer."  Let’s just keep saying it, so we can believe it more and more.

Rabbi Kushner says that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day in the Jewish year.7 It's a day for the faithful to articulate their most heartfelt hopes for the upcoming year and at the same time to acknowledge their deepest fears about what may be lurking in the future.  And Jews prepare for this Day of Atonement by adding a psalm to their daily morning and evening prayers—Psalm 27.  For forty days before Yom Kippur and for ten days after they recite twice a day,

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

Now, is that really true for Jews preparing for Yom Kippur, that they’re not afraid? Well, maybe not, but they've got a hundred times to say it.  And if it doesn't quite become true this year, they'll say it again next year.  Trust is not something you have once and for all; it is something you learn, something you make true by liturgy, by repetition, by the discipline of turning anxiety into prayer.

 

Psalm 46 says, "Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult." It goes on, "God is in the midst[, in the center,] of the city; it shall not be moved."  In the midst of change and shaking, in the midst of roaring and trembling, there is something in the center that does not change, something solid to hold on to.  We call that something "God."   When afraid, you can hold on to God.

Overcoming fear with faith is about holding on to the God who does not change or tremble. Overcoming fear with faith comes from holding on to the God who’s got you and me, who’s got the whole world in his hands.  On your way out today, we're going to give you something literally to hold on to, something to remind you of the God who is at the center of it all, strong and able.  When everything else shakes and comes apart, you can hang on to God.

 

1 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, The Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 65.

2 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 162-65.

3 Kushner, 16.

4  See Kushner, 162.

5 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 183.

6 Mays, 13

 

1 John 4:16b-21

Love Casts Out Fear

April 2, 2017             Maple Grove UMC

 

Here's how the great preacher William Sloan Coffin put it: "I am sure the Bible is right: the opposite of love,” he said, is not hate but fear."1

And here's how 1 John puts it: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear."  I believe that with all my heart.  That said, I want to acknowledge that there is a relationship between fear and love.  Scott Bader-Saye points out that there is a sense in which love is actually born of fear.  We love something and therefore fear losing it.  And the more we love, the more we have to lose, and therefore the more we are subject to fear.  But this does not mean that fear is love.  Rather, Bader-Saye concludes, "fear is the shadow side of love."2

 

Fear is at the root of our worst behavior; fear is what can divide and separate us from one another. "You know what jealousy is, don't you?" asks Fred Craddock.  "It is fear of the loss of love.  Why are people greedy and . . . get as much as they can?  It is a fear, a fear of insecurity.  Why do children cheat at school?  A fear of failure.  Why does anybody tell a life?  A fear of punishment."3 We could go on.  Why do people drink?  Fear of feeling painful feelings.  Why do we criticize people whose ideas are different from ours?  Fear that we're not as right as we like to think.  And why do we reject and push others away?  Fear of being rejected and pushed away ourselves.  Fear is at the root of what we call sin; fear causes so much of our worst and most destructive behavior. 

Fear is also a deeply spiritual problem. “Fear,” writes James Martin, “is dangerous because it turns us away from God.”4 We’ll talk more about this next Sunday.  If we don’t have a fundamental trust that God will hold us and love us come what may, then we are always unsettled, tempted to see a threat in every situation and to take every matter into our own hands. 

Over the years, when I have failed to love well, it's usually fear that's been in the way. You know, I may look confident up here, on a good Sunday.  But a lot of times I fear that if people knew what I’m really like, they might not want to have anything to do with me.  And that fear is not unfounded.  So sometimes I keep people at a distance—to make sure they can't see what I'm really like.  The trouble is, across all that distance, it's pretty hard to love and be loved.  Fear gets in the way.

And there's a part of me that's afraid I haven't measured up, haven’t proven myself. And if I can't accomplish enough to feel good about myself, then I'm tempted to try to make myself feel better by bringing someone else down—by criticizing someone, trying to show someone up.  But it turns out that for some reason other people don't like that very well.  They don't find it loving.  Go figure.  Fear gets in the way.

 

If you read 1 John, it’s clear that it was written to a church under threat, going through a crisis. Heresy, oppression and division are some of the things they were experiencing.5 Given how stressed and frightened that church must have been, Will Willimon points out, it is all the more impressive that 1 John urged them not, ‘Be on guard!’ or ‘Defend yourselves!’ but rather [simply], Love!”6 Love one another; love the way God loves.  The answer to division and distress is not to strike back, not even to protect yourself, but to love all the more.  You’ll remember that Jesus commanded us to love not just those who agree with us, and not just those who are can disagree without being disagreeable.  We are commanded to love even those who act like enemies to us.  That may not be the answer we’re looking for, but it’s the only answer Jesus has.

 

There is no fear in love, 1 John says, but perfect love casts out fear. Let me think with you about what that means.

  • One thing that means is that if there is fear in a relationship, something other than love is going. It doesn’t mean there isn’t any love in the relationship; but if there’s fear, love isn’t all that’s going on. If you’re afraid of someone, it’s not love, no matter what he says or how much he apologizes. And if every single thing you do as a parent is to protect your child from harm rather than to help them grow or give them joy, then you’re parenting not out of love but out of anxiety. The same is true of our relationship with God. The “fear of the Lord” means being in awe of God, not being afraid of God--there is no fear in love. If you find yourself fearful in a relationship, stop and ask yourself what’s going on there that isn’t love.

  • Love is not a form of grasping or of holding on ever tighter, but a form of letting go. In The Phantom Menace, one of the Star Wars movies, Anakin Skywalker is being examined by the Jedi Council:

    Yoda: How feel you?

    Anakin: Cold, sir.

    Yoda: Afraid are you?

    Anakin: No, sir.

    Yoda: See through you we can.

    Mace Windu: Be mindful of your feelings.

    Ki-Adi-Mundi: Your thoughts dwell on your mother.

    Anakin: I miss her.

    Yoda: Afraid to lose her I think, hmm?

    Anakin: What has that got to do with anything?

    Yoda: Everything! Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”7 When there is fear in our love, one teacher says, we “find ourselves unable to rejoice in the presence of what we love, because we are too afraid of losing it.”8 There is no fear in love, the Bible says, but perfect love casts out fear. The answer is not to strike back, not to defend ourselves or to hang on ever tighter to what we’ve got, but to love, to let go.

  • John Wesley taught the doctrine of “Christian Perfection.” To this day, United Methodist clergy are asked at our ordination if we’re “going on to perfection.” And we are meant to answer, “Yes, by the grace of God.” (Some of us have a very long ways to go!) By this he did not mean that Christians could be free from error or weakness or temptation. Nor did he mean perfection in the sense that no further improvement is possible. What he meant was that a Christian’s heart could become so filled with Christ’s love that increasingly there’s no room for anything else—no room for pride or resentment, no room for selfishness or impatience. When it comes to fear, the goal is not so much to combat our fear, as to so increase in love that fear just fades away. May I say that again: the goal is not so much to combat our fear, as to so increase in love that fear just fades away.

  • As a pastor, I’m privileged to have sacred conversations with people at critical times in their lives: when they’re getting married, when they’ve lost a loved one, when they’ve had a near-death experience. And never once in any of these conversations has anyone looked back at their life and said, “You know, Pastor, I just wish I’d been more scared.” No one has ever looked ahead and said, “You know, Pastor, from now on I want fear to run my life.” Oh, there’s an appropriate caution in life, of course. ‘Foolhardy’ was not what 1 John had in mind. But yes, love is risky. Yes, love for those who mistreat us is hard. Yes, love leaves us open to being hurt and taken advantage of. And yes, love is what makes life matter. To be filled with love is the only way to get beyond fear.

              Sam Wells tells a legend about John the Evangelist, who by tradition is the author of John’s Gospel, the book of Revelation, and the three letters of John. One of his followers came and spoke to him, “Master, why is it that you always write about love? Why don’t you ever write about anything else?” St. John paused for a long time, waiting for *his disciple to work out the answer for himself. Finally he answered the question. “Because,” he said, “in the end, there isn’t anything else. There is only love.”9

              If there is only love, there is no place for panic, no space for anxiety, no room for fear. I want to love like that! Don’t you?

     

1 William Sloan Coffin, Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 27.

2 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 40.  See also 39-40, 58.

3 Fred B. Craddock, "Faith and Fear," The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 34.

4James Martin, “From Fear to Calm: Spiritual Direction on Stormy Waters,” The Christian Century (April 16, 2014), 33.

5See D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 18-21.

6 William H. Willimon, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 11.

7 Quoted in Bader-Saye, 47.

8 Bader-Saye, 58.

9Samuel Wells, Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 30.

 

Matthew 14:22-33

Take Heart

March 26, 2017   Maple Grove UMC

 

          This Lenten worship series is called “Fear Not: Overcoming Fear with Faith.”

  • We started with Jesus saying, “Therefore, do not worry about what you’re going to eat or drink or wear . . .” I heard one person summarize that message as “Take deep breaths and don’t watch the news.” That’s a great start to overcoming fear!

  • The next Sunday was about balancing our natural fear of strangers and foreigners with the Bible’s insistence on hospitality and justice.

    Still to come in this series:

  • 1 John says that perfect love casts out fear. Oh, to love like that!

  • The psalms teach that the opposite of fear is not fearlessness but trust.

  • On Good Friday we’ll watch in Gethsemane as Jesus prays himself through fear.

  • Even the Easter story has the phrase Do not be afraid not once but twice. Even on Easter people are afraid.

    We are such fearful creatures; and Jesus just keeps saying it: Take heart, it is I; don’t be afraid!

              The first part of today’s Gospel story shows that we can allow ourselves be scared of almost anything—even Jesus! The disciples are in a boat, in a storm, in the dark, wind and waves everywhere, and Jesus comes to them, walking on the sea. But instead of saying, “O thank God, it’s Jesus,” and calming down, they think he’s a ghost and their fear turns to abject terror. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many of you have ever been afraid of the very thing you needed most? Yeah, me too.

              You see, the disciples thought they were on their own. Jesus had stayed behind to pray and sent them on ahead. What the disciples forgot is that as long as Jesus is praying, we are never alone. What the disciples forgot was that when we need him, Jesus is never far away and will make his way to us come what may. What the disciples forgot was that just a few chapters earlier Jesus had calmed one storm; and if he can calm one storm, he can calm this storm.

              We fear because we forget that Jesus is praying for us, forget that he is never far from us, forget that he is the wave-walker and storm-stiller. We fear, I once read, because we overestimate the power of the storm and underestimate the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. We forget, and so I am here to remind you—we are here every Sunday to remind each other: Take heart, Jesus says, it is I; don’t be afraid.

              Some people stumble over this story and similar stories in the Bible because they get caught up in whether or not it “really happened,” whether physics allows someone to walk on top of water. These people fail to realize that the Bible is not a science textbook, or even a history book, exactly. This story is a parable. At the end of the story when we expect Matthew to say, “the disciples worshiped Jesus,” instead it says, “those in the boat worshiped him.” And who are “those in the boat?” Well, we are, of course. This is not a story about the laws of nature. It’s not a story about something that happened once a long time ago to other people. It’s a story that happens all the time, to us:   in our little boat, in the storm, in the dark, with wind and waves all around, we get so anxious that even Jesus scan frighten us. But here he comes, walking on top of those waves we’re so afraid of, he gets in the boat with us, and now look—everything’s going to be all right. The truth is, he was never far away, and we had each other all the while. What is there, really, to be afraid of?

     

              The second part of this Gospel story has Peter daring to see if he too can walk on water. He takes a deep breath, steps out of the boat, starts to walk on top of the water, and then suddenly he falls. You could call it a failure; even Jesus seems exasperated with Peter. But what actually happens next? Well, for one thing, water isn't too hard a thing to fall on. It doesn’t hurt him. And then Jesus reaches out, scoops Peter up, and sets him back in the boat with his friends. That's it. That's the full extent of what happens when Peter falls—Jesus picks him up and puts him back in the boat. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? What is there, really, to be afraid of?

    Now I'm aware there's more than one answer to that question. Jesus asks Peter, "Why did you doubt?" Writer Amy Hunter says, "I want to jump in to defend Peter. 'Hello! Lord! Waves and wind!"1 Wind and waves, Lord—what do you mean "Why did I doubt?"

    And we might answer the same way. Why are you afraid?

  • Hello, I might lose my job, Lord. Or my marriage, Lord.

  • Hello, it could be cancer, Lord. People die from it.

  • Hello, I haven't heard from my kid in days, Lord.

  • Hello, Lord, it's called high school, or college, or retirement, or, well, you get the idea.

What are we afraid of? Plenty!  And when we fall, Jesus will scoop us up, dry us off, and set us back in the boat.  And when we get sick, Jesus will come to our side.  And when a loved one dies and we feel all alone, Jesus will set us back in the boat with the other disciples.  And when we go through things we think we can't endure, Jesus will come to us walking right on top of the water, just to show it can be done.  On the one hand, there's plenty to be afraid of; on the other hand, with a Savior like Jesus, what is there to be afraid of?

 

          Here’s what I mean.  Pastor Michael Lindvall tells this story.  On the day their youngest child was baptized, Pastor Lindvall and his wife took the baby to visit an elderly couple from their church.  Minnie was 91 and near the end of a long and painful battle with cancer.  Her husband Angus was doing the best he could, but just didn’t know how to face life without his partner of over sixty years.  They laid the child in the old woman’s eager arms.  The baby, who had wailed through her baptism and cried much of the day since, became still.  Minnie looked into the baby’s eyes and said, “Shhh, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” 

          Pastor Lindvall writes, As I looked down from the pulpit at the funeral two weeks later, I wondered if it is true that there is nothing to be afraid of. Have all the mothers who have cooed those words to their sleepless babies been telling lies?  After all, a disease marches deeper into your body for a decade and a half, finally taking you away from the ones you love.  And now a man has to sleep alone in a double bed at the age of ninety-one.  Is there really nothing to be afraid of?

          Then came the closing hymn for Minnie’s service. Precious Lord, they sang, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

          Minnie, it occurred to the pastor, had not been afraid, but not precisely because there is nothing to be afraid of.  The truth is more subtle.  There is plenty to be afraid of, but in spite of that, you don’t have to be afraid.”2

          Take heart, Jesus says, It is I. Don’t be afraid.  Yes, Lord, we say.  Yes, Lord.

 

          So here’s what we’re going to do.  In your bulletin is a pink card.  At the top it says, “What are you afraid of?”  And at the bottom it has those words of Jesus: “Take heart. It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”  With that card in hand, take a few moments and get in touch with what you fear.  What makes your heart race, your muscles tense, your stomach churn?  Whatever it is, write it down:  What are you afraid of?

          Then when you’re ready, come and leave that paper at the cross.  As you leave that paper here, take a moment to hear Jesus say the words to you:  “Take heart. It is I.  Don’t be afraid.”  This is, I hope, a helpful spiritual exercise.  It is, of course, not magic.  Will there still be things to be afraid of after you leave that paper at the cross?  Of course.  But remember--the truth is subtle: there is plenty to be afraid of, but in spite of that, you don’t have to be afraid.  Take heart, Jesus said.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.  Whenever you’re ready, bring your card, bring you fear, and leave it at the cross.

 

1 Amy B. Hunter, "Stepping Out," Living By the Word, The Christian Century (July 26, 2005, 19.

2 Michael L. Lindvall, Leaving North Haven: The Further Adventures of a Small Town Pastor (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 2002), 232-33.

 

Leviticus 19:33-34 / Deuteronomy 10:17-19

Fear (and Love) of Strangers and Foreigners

March 12, 2017

 

          Fred Craddock told this story: He stopped off at the Winn Dixie to get some peanut butter.  He was in a hurry, and those stores are so huge.  So he saw a woman pushing a cart, and he thought, She’s comfortable here. I’ll ask her.  He said, “Um, lady, could you direct me to the peanut butter?”

          She jerked around, stared at him, and said, “Are you trying to hit on me?”

          He said, “No, ma’am. I’m looking for the peanut butter.”  As he backed away from there, he saw a store employee, so he said, “Where’s the peanut butter?”

          “Aisle five, I think, way down on the left.”

          He went there, and sure enough—big jars of peanut butter.  As he turned to leave, that woman was there and she said, “You were looking for the peanut butter!”

          He said, “I told you I was looking for the peanut butter.”

          She said, “Well, nowadays you can’t be too careful.”

          And Craddock said, “Lady, yes you can. Yes you can.”1

 

Hold that story in the back of your mind as I think with you, in a biblical and moral context, about fear (and love) of foreigners and strangers. I want to start with an idiosyncratic list of scriptures relating to foreigners.  It's not a scientific selection—just whatever occurred to me in a couple of hours with a Bible in one hand and a notebook in the other. 

  • At the very beginning, Adam and Eve become foreigners, having to leave their original homeland, to which none of us has ever returned.

  • At God’s command, Sarah and Abraham left Ur of Chaldees to sojourn in a land God would show them, only to have to leave that land for a time due to famine.

  • The city of Sodom was destroyed, not because of sexual orientation, but because of its violent refusal of hospitality to strangers.

  • The people of Israel spent years as honored guests, and then as slaves in Egypt, and centuries later were exiles in Babylon.

  • Ruth and Naomi both spent time is immigrants—Ruth as a Moabite in Israel and Naomi an Israelite in Moab.

  • Esther was part of the persecuted Jewish minority in Persia.

  • In the New Testament, Jesus and his parents were refugees in Egypt, fleeing King Herod, who was killing babies in Bethlehem.

  • In Matthew 8 Jesus praises the faith of a Roman soldier—not only a foreigner, but a despised foreigner—and heals his servant.

  • Jesus makes frequent favorable mention of Samaritans, an ethnic group his people hated with a passion

  • Jesus separates the sheep from the goats based in part upon whether or not they welcomed strangers.

  • And when Revelation 7 paints a picture of heaven, there is a multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing together before the throne of God.

 

The Bible is a big book; there’s other stuff in it too. I know that. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they took it as their divine mission to destroy everyone else living there.  Gentiles weren’t allowed to enter the holiest parts of the temple.  After the exile, Ezra expelled all foreign wives.  And even Jesus once refused healing to someone because she wasn't an Israelite (though he later changed his mind). 

 

What does the Bible say about how to regard foreigners? We begin at the beginning of the Bible.  Every human being--citizens and foreigners, friends and strangers--every human being is created in the image of God.  In his book Christians at the Border, Daniel Carroll points out that this does not mean there should be no border control or that no one should ever be deported.  But it should inform the tone of Christian talk about immigration.  Decisions about how to treat foreigners may get to legal status and documentation, but it begins with the recognition that all immigrants are people, created in God's image.2 That fact doesn't end the complicated moral and political discussion; but it is the Bible's place to begin the discussion.

 

What does the Old Testament law say about how to treat foreigners and strangers? We just read a couple of relevant passages, and I'll summarize some others.  If you want to read them for yourself, just Google "Bible and immigrants" or "Bible and foreigners" and you'll find enough scriptures to keep you busy for a while.

  • For example, the Old Testament says that the same laws have to apply to Israelites and aliens alike. You can't have one set of laws for citizens and another set for everyone else.

  • Israelites were prohibited from exploiting aliens. Foreign residents deserved their wages and had to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath like everyone else.

  • Like other vulnerable people, such as widows and orphans, Israelites were required to provide for aliens among them—food and clothing is mentioned in Deuteronomy.

  • Leviticus goes so far as to say, "You shall love the alien as yourself."

All of this shows that Old Testament law has a strong bias in favor of aliens and their rights. However, this doesn't mean that anything goes. 

  • The Hebrew word used in these laws—ger—seems to refer to foreigners with some kind of recognized, long-term standing in the community. A different Hebrew word referred to short-term visitors, who had fewer rights. And still another word could have quite negative connotations about foreigners. And foreigners from different places could be treated differently in Israel—those from friendly countries could become what we might call citizens in three generations, while those from hostile countries required ten generations. (Deut. 23:3-13)

  • And Daniel Carroll points out that foreigners were expected to learn and respect Israel's language and culture.3 If you’re going to live here, learn what it means to live here.

Again, Old Testament law requires fair, generous and loving treatment of aliens. But this is balanced with requirements of practicality and safety.  Okay?

Ultimately there are two main reasons why the people of Israel were commanded to respect and love foreigners:

  1. The first is their own history: The Israelites themselves had been oppressed in Egypt. They were not to do to others what had been done to them.

  2. And second, Israelites were to treat foreigners well because there's a special place in God's heart for the weak and vulnerable. Daniel Carroll says, "Israel is to love sojourners. because God does."4

 

Why does fear of foreigners and strangers matter so much? Scott Bader-Saye says, "Fear is a moral issue insofar as it shapes the kind of people we become."5 As we're learning, fear causes our muscles to tense up, our breathing to grow rapid, our hearts to race, hormones to pump, and our brains to revert to fight-or flight thinking. We don't make our most rational, let alone our most loving, decisions out of a condition of fear.

Some foreigners, of course, should be feared.  Most, however, should not.  And even when some foreigners are worthy of being feared, they’re still not usually our greatest fear.  Courage, Bader-Saye insists, depends on learning "what to fear and how much to fear it."6 So, for example:

  • Throughout the 1990s US crime rates were declining, yet two-thirds of Americans thought they were rising.7 This doesn't mean we shouldn't have been concerned with the crime that was happening. But for a decade most Americans felt an unnecessary level of fear about crime and our criminal justice policies got shaped by unrealistic fears.

  • Now a great fear of Muslim terrorism has gripped our country. Again, we need to be vigilant about real dangers. I personally know people affected by the event at OSU back in November. Yet the Dispatch reported last month that your likelihood of being killed in the US by a radical Islamic terrorist is less than being killed by lightning. And since 9/11 nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists than by Muslims.8 Are we fearing the right things?

  • And in our Lenten study book, Rabbi Kushner tells about a study finding that people who were acutely stressed after the 9/11 attacks and continued to worry about terrorism—about 6% of the population—were at least three times more likely to develop heart problems. If even a tiny fraction of those people suffered a fatal heart attack due to that stress, it would mean more people will have died of fear than died on 9/11.9 Fear is literally killing us.

     

    Here’s the thing: If we allow our fear of terrorism and foreigners to fundamentally change who we are and how we live, then terrorism has won. Terrorists aren’t trying to kill all of us; they don’t need to. They’re trying to make all of us live in fear. If our fear causes us to overreact with suspicion of all Muslims or by torturing terror suspects, all we do is perpetuate the cycle of terror.

    I was in Britain in the 1980s when the IRA regularly bombed English businesses. Now, of course the police tried to bring bombers to justice and the military tried to prevent attacks—all of that is needed. But after every bombing, that business would reopen the very next day, even if all they could do was set a card table out front with a few doodads to sell, and the sign would always say, “B.A.U.” Business As Usual. Necessary caution? Yes, please. Firm responses to dangerous actions? Absolutely. But fear should not change who we are and how we live. In the face of terrorism, we need some Business As Usual.

     

    In response to recent rhetoric about foreigners in Alabama, Bishop Will Willimon wrote a little book called Fear of the Other. He says, “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather having a reason for doing the right thing in spite of our fear.” And where does that courage come from? From revering, honoring and devoting ourselves to something greater than our own safety--to God, our Rock and Redeemer, the Creator of every human being. And think of church, Willimon says, “as schooling in how to manage our fears, how to fear our fears getting the best of us, fearing the right things in the right way.” 10

    So much of our fear—okay, I’ll own this: so much of my fear—has to do with the safety of my children. Hurt me if you need to, but don’t mess with my kids! And welcoming strangers and loving foreigners may in fact put our kids at some risk. But not welcoming strangers and not loving foreigners also puts our kids at risk—at risk of having cold hearts and of not following Jesus. Do you remember that story about the peanut butter, how the lady said, “Well, nowadays you can’t be too careful.” Yes you can; yes you can.

     

    My 21 year-old daughter, Emily, spent a semester last year studying in Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country in West Africa. She spent the end of that time in a city called Kaolack, where she was one of two white people and possibly the only Christian among 175,000 people. If anyone has ever been, she was a stranger, a foreigner. Every day as Emily walked to work, she saw the same old woman sitting on a stool. After a few days, the old lady motioned her over. And even though Emily had grown used to Senegalese hospitality by that time, she felt some trepidation. Is this old woman going to try to get money from me? More likely, is she going to try to marry me to one of her grandsons? Is someone else waiting around the corner to get me? But Emily went over. The old lady took Emily’s hands in hers, pointed up to God, and began to pray. The woman knew no English or French; Emily knew very little Wolof. But from then on, every morning this old lady prayed for my daughter, saying whatever black Senegalese Muslim old women say to their God for white American Christian college students far from home. I will never meet her. I don’t know her name.  But I am eternally grateful to this woman for her gracious, prayerful welcome of a stranger.

     

         So here’s your assignment. Some time in the next week or two, spend an hour with someone you might feel some fear of. You don’t need to tell them that’s what you’re doing! Maybe worship in a church made up of immigrants or go to a mosque. Visit someone in prison. Volunteer at the Free Store or New Life Church. Visit the Somali Community Association near Northern Lights or the Bhutanese Community Center on Tamarack. Your assignment is to spend one hour with someone, facing your fear.

    It’s natural to fear strangers and foreigners. The point is to learn to do the right thing anyway.

             

 

1 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 45-46.

2 M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, & the Bible, second ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press,2014), 45-51.

3 See Carroll R., 99-100.

4 Carroll R., 91.

5 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 26.

6, Bader-Saye, 25.

7 Bader-Saye, 15.

8 Alan B. Miller, "The Inside Story," The Columbus Dispatch, February 12, 2017, G1.

9 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 8.

10William H. Willimon, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 35-36.

 

Matthew 6:25-34

Not to Worry

March 5, 2017        Maple Grove UMC

 

          “I used to think that the angels in the Bible began their messages with ‘Do not be afraid’ because their appearance was so frightening,” writes Scot Bader-Saye in a book called Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear.  “But I have come to think differently.  I suspect that they begin this way because the quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us.”1

                    The quieting of fear is required to hear and do what God asks of us. That idea is at the heart of this Lenten worship series called “Fear Not: Overcoming Fear with Faith.”  Let me be clear:  this is not to say that all fear is bad.  Fear warns us of danger and teaches us much about ourselves.  But there’s a reason why “Fear not” is the most often repeated command in the Bible.  One teacher found over 365 “fear nots” in the Bible.2 Why so many?  Partly because we are such fearful people!  We need to hear it every day.  And partly because, not just to have fear, but letting fear run your life will leave you unhappy, ungenerous, and ultimately unfaithful. 

                    Between now and Easter we will look at fear in several ways:

  • fear of strangers and foreigners

  • at disciples who are afraid of Jesus and Peter daring, for a moment, to walk on top of the water

  • at the relationship between fear and love

  • at how the opposite of fear isn’t fearlessness but trust

  • and at praying through our fear.

     

                We begin this series with what is surely the most common type of fear: anxiety. Jesus says, Don’t worry about having enough to eat--birds don’t plant crops or store up food, yet God feeds them. And don’t worry about what you’ll wear--flowers don’t work at all, and still they’re beautiful. Don’t worry.

                First, a few things about what Jesus is not saying here:

  • He’s not saying that nothing bad will ever happen to you. Flowers eventually wither and die; some birds can't find anything to eat. Jesus isn’t saying that bad things can’t happen; he’s saying that worrying won’t make things better.

  • Jesus is also not saying that there’s no need to work and study and plan for the fuure. Jesus knows full well that food doesn’t put itself on the table. What he’s saying is that worry doesn’t put any food on the table.

  • And finally please don’t hear this scripture as a judgment or criticism of worrying. All that criticism accomplishes is that people still worry, and they feel bad about it—maybe even worry about their worrying. This scripture is not a word of judgment; it’s a word of hope—there is a way not to worry, or at least to worry less. Don't you want to know what it is?

 

I want to start by thinking with you about what worry is. I consider myself an expert on this topic, being an excellent worrier myself and coming from a long line of worriers

      You can distinguish worry from fear.  True fear, writes Gavin de Becker, is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of immediate danger—let’s say as a bear is chasing you, or a car is swerving into your lane.  Anxiety, in contrast, is not a signal, but more of a “state,” a condition—it persists in the absence of any real danger and it does not serve our survival.4 So there’s a difference between true fear and anxiety.  The trouble is, though, the mind and body can’t tell the difference between worry and fear.  Either way, the heart races, muscles tense up, breathing grows rapid and shallow, the brain reverts to fight-of-flights mechanisms.  We are not at our best when we are anxious or afraid.

     

      Gavin de Becker is a consultant to celebrities and government officials who are being stalked or have received death threats.  He knows a thing or two about fear and danger.  He acknowledges that anxiety is a form of fear, but calls it “manufactured” fear, a form of “self-harrassment.”4 It’s fear based not on what’s about to happen, but on what might happen, or might not happen, or that I imagine could happen, or I hate to think about what it would be like if it did happen.  Near the end of his life, Mark Twain said, “I have had a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”5 That’s anxiety.

      De Becker says that most often we worry because it provides some “some secondary reward.”  If you’re a worrier like me, you’ll recognize these secondary rewards, but as I list them, it will be hard to consider them rewards exactly..

  • Worry, he says, is a way to avoid change; when we worry, we don’t actually do anything about the matter.

  • Worry is a way to avoid admitting our powerlessness over something, since worry makes us feel like we’re doing something.

  • Worry is what de Becker calls a cloying way to have connection with others; in other words, worry is a poor substitute for love.

  • Finally, worry is a protection against future disappointment. If I worry about failing now, maybe it won’t feel so bad when I actually do fail.6

That makes worry sound like a fun life, doesn’t it? When you put it in these terms, you might wonder, “Why do I worry?”  That’s a good question, worthy of our reflection.  But today’s question is, “What am I going to do about anxiety?  How can I stop worrying, or at least worry less?”

Let me share two ideas about that. You can take them with you.  They're safe to try at home.  What to do about worry?

  1. Intentionally train your body to react differently to stress and consciously train your eyes to see the world a different way. First, the body: simply taking three deep breaths begins to slow down your heart rate and to release the tension in your body. Try it, right now. Nothing is more effective in countering anxiety than breathing. And try forcing yourself to smile—it is harder to stay worried when you’re smiling and laughing—it's physiologically true.

And then the eyes: almost every book on fear I read had this advice--don’t watch the evening news—the steady diet of crime and car crashes causes you to see the world in an unrealistic way. Keep a gratitude journal—every day write down three things you’re grateful for.  It shifts your focus from the negative to the positive, and gratitude is wonderful medicine for anxiety.  Start each day expecting good things to happen.  Let this be part of your morning prayers: “God, I am expecting good things to happen today."  This may or may not make good things happen, but it will help you notice when they do happen.  So much depends on how you look at things.  I was in a Bible study one time with Jody Oates, whom many of you know.  We were studying the story in Matthew where Jesus stayed behind and the disciples crossed the lake and the boat was far from the land, Matthew says, for the wind was against them.  And I said, “In't that they way it always is?  Isn’t the wind always against us?”  And Jody said, “Actually, no, a lot of times the wind is quite nice.”  And you know, he’s right.  I had developed a way of looking at the world that was negative, anxious and incorrect.  Worry is about how you look at the world, and about whether you hold tensions and troubles in your body or release them.  And so to worry less, intentionally train your body to react differently to stress and consciously train your eyes to see the world a different, more positive way. 

  1. And then there’s this. In his book about dialing back fear, Dr. Marc Siegel says “that if fear is unlearned, it is because a new emotion replaces it.” Fear doesn’t just go away; you have to replace it with something. And secular though he is, Dr. Siegel suggests caring. Caring for someone else gets us out of that self-centered cycle of anxiety. It's good for you. And Scot Bader-Saye admits that we can’t just command ourselves to feel less fear—it doesn't work. Overwhelming fears must be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a larger story that is hopeful and not tragic.7

          And here’s how Jesus said the same thing: “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ God knows you need those things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I know this can sound like a religious platitude, but it’s really a deep spiritual truth. Again, it doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen, and it doesn’t mean you should work hard and plan for the future. But you don’t overcome anxiety by doing battle anxiety. You overcome anxiety by reaching out for God, by trusting in God’s care, by breathing in God’s goodness and letting God hold all that burdens you.

          But what if I tried it and it didn’t work? Keep trying! I mean, what’s the alternative—keep worrying? Or rather, trying isn’t quite the right word. Keep letting this happen in you:

          I’m worried sick, Lord, and I’m going to put you ahead of my worry. I’m going to seek you first, Lord.

          I’m worried sick, and your righteousness, God, will be enough.

     

     

          I’m worried sick, Lord, and I’m going to let you calm my quivering, fearful heart. Lord knows I can’t calm it myself.

          God will hold you as far as, and to the extent that, you will allow yourself to be held. It’s not a platitude; it’s the truth we so desperately need.

     

1Scot Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 59.

2Lloyd Ogilvie, Facing the Future Without Fear, http://www.soulshepherding.org/2010/07/fear-not-365-days-a-year/, accessed March 2, 2017.

3 See Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence New York: Delta, 1999), 292-93.

4 de Becker, 302.

5 de Becker, 315.

6 de Becker, 302.

7 Bader-Saye, 60.

 

Matthew 5:38-48

Relationships Include . . . Enemies

February 19, 2017        Maple Grove UMC

 

          We may have smiled and nodded during the Gospel reading today, but if we’re honest we have to admit that those are some very hard teachings, aren’t they?  Jesus says not to resist anyone who harms you.  Whoa!  He says to love not only your friends, but even your enemies.  Really? These are hard teachings, and people know it.

          Just days after the 9/11 attacks, Tony Campolo dared to read in church these words of Jesus about loving enemies and not retaliating.  One listener came to him and declared, “This is no time to go around quoting Jesus.”  “I’ve got news for you,” responded Campolo; “this is exactly the time we had better quote Jesus.”1

          These are difficult teachings.  By that I do not mean that I’m telling you, “Hey, these may be hard for you.”  I mean they’re hard for all of us.  These teaching are hard because they challenge the notion that justice is about punishment or even about our safety, and they contradict the idea that love is about fairness.  They’re not, Jesus says.  Justice and love are not about treating people the way they deserve to be treated, but treating people the way God treats us.  That is challenging, to say the least.

 

          So what does it mean to keep God’s love at the heart of all our relationships, including relationships with enemies?

          Well, for one thing, it implies that it’s okay to have enemies.  There’s the old joke about the preacher who gave a sermon on forgiving our enemies.  At the end of the sermon, he asked everyone to raise their hand if they were willing to try forgive their enemies.  Every hand went up but one.  “Mrs. Jones?” the preacher asked, “why aren’t you willing to forgive your enemies?”

          “I don’t have any,” she replied, smiling sweetly.

          “Mrs. Jones, that is remarkable.  How old are you?”

          “93,” she replied.

          “Oh, Mrs. Jones, what a lesson you are to us.  Come up front and tell us how a person can live 93 years and not have an enemy in the world.”

          The little old lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation and said, “I outlived the wenches.”

          Well, that’s one method. I don’t think it’s what Jesus had in mind. 

 

          I want to start with some questions that are kind of philosophical:  What did Jesus mean when he said to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies? Why did he want us to live like that? What kind of ethics was Jesus teaching?

  • First, I mentioned last Sunday I believe the Sermon on the Mount is a kingdom ethics—that is, how Christians need to live in community with each other. These are essentially rules for how we have to treat people if our life together is going to be happy and peaceful.

         Clarence Jordan shows that the Bible arrived at this kingdom, or community, ethics in four steps:2

    (1) First there is unlimited retaliation. If someone harms or disrespects you, you can get back at them in any way you’re able to, up to and including killing them. There are no limits. It’s a state of nature.

    (2) Second comes limited retaliation. We may think “an eye for an eye” sounds barbaric, but it’s a vast improvement over unlimited retaliation! In a way, it’s still the basis of our criminal justice system: the punishment should fit the crime. It makes a kind of sense. But we also know how it inevitably turns out: if you harm me and I harm you back in a similar way, you’re still angry and eventually you’ll harm me again, and then I have to harm you again. It’s an endless cycle of violence and vengeance. Ghandi is often credited with saying that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

    (3) So the third step is limited love, the Bible’s command to love your neighbor. Even if your neighbor harms you, you’ve still got to love them. This is a vast improvement over retaliation, but is still limited only to neighbors. An example from Jesus’ time might be that if a neighbor, that is, another Jew, knocked out your eye or tooth, he can be forgiven; but if a Gentile did it, then all bets are off. It’s limited love.

    (4) So the final step, the step Jesus takes in the Sermon on the Mount, is unlimited love. Jesus is saying that love must be the basis for all relationships and must be applied universally—to people like us and to people different from us, to people who treat us well and people who hate us. Just love ‘em all, is what Jesus is saying.

         At first, Jordan admits, unlimited love seems counterintuitive, impractical, even dangerous. And indeed there are risks--Jesus himself wound up on a cross. But ultimately, Jordan says, unlimited love is the only way of living with each other that can possibly make any sense. Everything else perpetuates a cycle of violence and exclusion.

     

              So one way of looking at loving one’s enemy and non-retaliation is as kingdom ethics, behavior that makes life together possible and fruitful. But ethicists talk about the difference between consequentialist and deontological ethics. Consequentialist ethics says that it’s the consequences of our behavior that matters, that we should refuse to retaliate and we should love our enemies because these things will lead to the best outcomes. Deontological ethics says that certain things are just right or wrong regardless of the outcome, that we should refuse to retaliate and we should love our enemies because it’s the right thing to do. Which was Jesus teaching—consequentialist ethics or deontological? I’d like to say, “Both.”

              In terms of consequentialist ethics, it’s important to note that in telling people not to retaliate, Jesus did not say to be a victim or a doormat to be walked on. He gave three examples of how to respond to mistreatment. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek,” he says, “turn the other also.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies a backhanded blow, which in that culture was not only painful, but deeply insulting. To turn the other cheek is a nonviolent but aggressive response. It says, “Oh yeah, big guy? I can take it! You have not defeated my spirit, and I will not sink to your level.”

              Again, Jesus says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” As best I can tell, this was a kind of rude joke. Jewish men wore two garments—their coat, an outer garment, and their cloak, an inner garment. If you’re only wearing two garments, and someone takes the outer one, and you offer them the inner one too—what does that leave you wearing? This is a way of publicly shaming a person who would try to take everything you’ve got, even the clothes off your back. Maybe you can’t stop them from taking your stuff, but you can make them look bad.

              And Roman soldiers could legally require people to carry their pack for one mile, but only one mile. To voluntarily carry that pack a second mile makes the soldier a law-breaker and makes him look weak. It shows that you are in charge, not him.

              So when Jesus says not to retaliate, he doesn’t mean to be passive. Rather these are ways to stand up for yourself without stooping to the level of violence and revenge.

     

                   I believe all of that is true, that ultimately non-retaliation, forgiveness, and love of enemy are the only things that can save the world. I’m not saying I’m often courageous and in tune enough with God to live that way. But I believe it.

              But I also believe that Jesus wanted us to live that way even if it wouldn’t save the world. “Love,” one commentator sums up, “is not a weapon or tool. Genuine love has no ulterior motive; its purpose is simply to benefit the one loved, regardless of [their] response.”3 Clarence Jordan put it, “Jesus didn’t tell his followers to love their enemies because love would or would not work. The idea probably never occurred to him to raise the question of whether or not it was practical. He told them that they should do it ‘that they might be [children of their Father in heaven]4, to be close to God. “Be perfect, therefore,” Jesus concludes, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect, of course, impossible, problematic. But as I heard Laurie Clark say a few days ago, the Greek is mistranslated here. The word doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ in our usual sense; it means ‘whole.’ We turn the other cheek, we let stuff go, we love even those who hate and hurt us, so that we can be ‘whole’ like God, whether it “works” or not.

     

              In a moment I want to tell you a couple stories about loving enemies on an interpersonal level. But I want to note that this works at the national level as well. A recent issue of The Christian Century5 told of a restorative justice project in Uganda led by a retired Anglican bishop. In the 1980s and 90s the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army abducted more than 60,000 children in Uganda, killed over 100,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. With that many people involved, to retaliate or even to punish all the wrongdoers would only further devastate the country. Instead the bishop is trying a process of justice called mato oput, which centers on forgiveness, truth telling, compensation, and a ritual in which enemies share food together. Another article was about the widow of a Japanese reporter who was abducted and killed in Iraq by one of the warring parties there. Instead of seeking revenge, she built a hospital and offered it to those who had killed her husband. Take those stories times 100, times 1000, times what you do and what I do, and the entire world is more ‘whole,’ more like God.

     

              I’ve probably told you before about the time I was playing tennis, doubles with my brother, my sister and my brother-in-law. Somewhere toward the end of the first set, little Charley Yoder started riding his bike back and forth across our court, intentionally interrupting our game. We pointed out that there was an entire vacant court where he could ride without disturbing our game, but he just kept riding back and forth across our court. We told him to Scram, Knock it off, or else. But he just kept riding back and forth across our court. I chased him off with my racket (I like to think I wouldn’t have actually hit the kid), and he disappeared. But of course two points later he was back riding back and forth across our court.

              We decided to take a break, hoping he’d lose interest and go away. But he didn’t; he just kept riding around. I went to get some water and when I came back, I saw my sister and Charley Yoder sitting under a tree playing a game together. I was incensed—this was no way to treat someone who’s ruining our game! It got worse: when they got up, Charley picked up my sister’s racket and she said, “Charley’s going to take my place for a while.”

              “No way!” I shouted. But she’s my big sister, so she got her way. We finished the set—me, my brother, my brother-in-law and Charley Yoder. I did not enjoy it. He wasn’t very good. And he smiled with joy the entire time. “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies,” he said. It’s a hard teaching.

     

              Finally this: Will Campbell was a white Southern Baptist preacher who became a civil rights leader in the South. He wrote a book about his life called Brother to a Dragonfly. (The language, just so you know, was Will Campbell’s uncle’s, not mine.) Will tells how in 1959 his father died after a long illness. Will was exhausted from caring for him, overcome with sorrow. His sister, though, came and said, “Will, I know you’re tired. . . But will you stay with him tonight?” He promised that he’d keep watch over the body that night.

              Several hours into the night Will heard, “Believe it’s cooled off a bit.” “Yea,” he replied, “I believe it has.” Slowly, he writes, it occurred to me that someone from out of the darkness had spoken to me. I did not need to turn around to ask who it was. I’d not heard the voice for a long time, but I knew it was a favorite uncle from my childhood. In recent years he’d been one of the most critical and vocal ones concerning my activities in the civil rights controversy, expressing bitter disappointment and displeasure that his own nephew had turned out to be what he called a nigger lover and renegade preacher. I’d ceased to visit him when I came home because I loved him too much to risk his rejection.

              He moved quietly out of the darkness and sat down beside me. I tried to see my watch. “It’s three o-clock,” he said. I assumed he knew about the promise I’d made my sister, and had been sitting in the shadows since the last mourner had left, deciding in his own time when I had been alone—though not alone—long enough.

              He poured coffee from a lunch box thermos and handed it to me. And until the dawn, Will Campbell writes, I sat in the redemptive company of a racist Jesus.6

              “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies,” he said. And maybe even harder, let them love you. Our God-Centered relationships include . . . our enemies. It’s a hard teaching. And the only way to change the world.

 

 

1 Tony Campolo, “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times,” The Sunday After Tuesday: College Pulpits Respond to 9/11, ed. William H. Willimon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 52.

2 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1970), 63-68.

3 Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 60.

4 Jordan, 68.

5 The Christian Century (February 15, 2017), 18-19.

6 Will D. Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1988), 150-51.

 

 

Matthew 5:21-30

Relationship with Others Is Relationship with God

February 12, 2017             Maple Grove UMC

 

            What if during worship everyone got up, walked across the room, and engaged in heartfelt conversation with someone?  Or what if everyone got up and walked out of church calling some long-lost friend on the phone?  Bad behavior in Church?  No, I think that would great!  Hold that thought—I’ll come back to it. 

            But first, what about those teachings where Jesus seems to equate anger and insult with murder and lust with adultery?  What are we to make of that?  Does he really mean it?  Are we all in a lot of trouble? 

            Chapters 5-7 in Matthew’s Gospel are called the “Sermon on the Mount,” which is the Bible’s purest, highest description of how Christians should live.  And today’s teachings about killing and adultery are the first of what scholars called “the Six Antitheses.”  Six times in this sermon Jesus says, “you have heard it said that . . . but I say to you this.”  In addition to killing and adultery, these antitheses are about divorce, taking oaths, retaliating when someone wrongs you, and loving not just our neighbors but even our enemies (more on that one next Sunday).

            So morally challenging are these antitheses and the rest of this Sermon that several common interpretations over the ages essentially say that these teachings don’t exactly, or don’t fully, apply to most of us.  For example, Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages taught that only monks and nuns were expected to fully comply with the Sermon on the Mount.  Some Christians believe the Sermon on the Mount can’t be fulfilled here and now but only when Jesus returns.  And one Lutheran interpretation is that the Sermon on the Mount is intentionally impossible for us to live up to and that Jesus was trying to teach us that we can’t meet God’s demands on our own and that’s how we learn to rely on the mercy and grace of Christ.1 Clever interpretations, all of them, by people far smarter than I. But it strikes me that they’re all ways of trying to avoid the fact that Jesus wants us to live higher and holier lives. 

            I assume and I believe that Jesus really wanted us all to live this way—to weed anger and lust out of our hearts, to hold marriage sacred, to let our word be our word, not to strike back when people hurt us, and to love all people, even our enemies, even those who persecute us.  I’m not saying I live this way—I need God’s mercy every day.  I’m saying that I believe Jesus wants us, he longs for us, he expects us to learn to live this way. 

            Now I would want to make that conditional in a couple of ways:

  • First, Jesus uses some strong and exaggerated language in the Sermon on the Mount. Did he really want us to gouge out an eye or chop off a hand? Well, I don’t think so. But I know what he means. . . And did he really mean that being angry is exactly the same as killing someone? I don’t think so, but I know what he means. . . The exaggerations show how seriously Jesus meant these teachings.

  • And second, I think Jesus was teaching a kingdom ethic. This is how Christians are meant to live in community with one another. This high and holy way of life may not be possible for each of us separately and individually. But together, as fellow disciples of Jesus, much more is possible.

 

So Jesus said, "You've heard it said, 'You shall not murder,' but I say to you 'If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be handed to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to hell.'" So does this mean, asks Tom Long, that "if you lose your temper at a church committee meeting and unload a piece of your mind on some poor soul across the table," that you're going to hell?2 Thankfully, no, since that would be bad news for me, and maybe a few of you as well.  The Greek word Jesus uses for anger means literally to swell or run over; it was used of people who boiled up inside until they were ready to explode.3 This kind of anger doesn't just suddenly occur; it has to be allowed, even cultivated over time.

Clarence Jorden--the civil rights leader I mentioned last Sunday who helped found Habitat for Humanity--understood that murder is already being born when we lose respect for someone else as a human being and allow ourselves to overlook the infinite worth of every child of God. He notes that one early sign of this kind of overrunning anger is self-pity: craving attention or respect and not getting as much as you think you should, always feeling like you're carrying more than your share of the load, being unwilling to see how you have contributed to the problems around you.  Allowed to flourish and spread, self-pity is fertile ground for the kind of anger Jesus is talking about.4

It is not hard to see how this is a kingdom ethic, the way we need to live for Christianity community to work. As one Lutheran bishop puts it, "In this commu- nity, it's not enough only to avoid homicide.  There is no room even for . . .  insult, or name-calling—no room for behaviors that chip away at relationship and community."5 But it's also easy to see that the person this kind of anger and self-pity hurt most is the one who carries them around.  How joyful, how blessed, can life be when you're always lugging around that load of hurt feelings?  The surest way to guard against killing, Jesus is saying, is to develop within yourself a peaceful disposition.6 Amen?

 

And again Jesus says, "You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery,' but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." First of all, notice that even though back then, as now, it was common to blame women for men's bad behavior, Jesus will have none of that.  He directly instructs men to control not only our behavior but what's in our hearts.

But as with anger, surely Jesus didn't mean that sexual desire is wrong, or everyone's in trouble. Rather than desire, Tom Long teaches, by lust Jesus means our basic attitudes, the choices we make about what we will allow to take root in our imaginations, to shape our thoughts, to govern our actions, and to mold our relationships.7 Lust is, ultimately, looking at someone with an intention of breaking a covenant, looking at someone as a means to your end rather than a human being to love and care for.  Unless we are mentally ill, each one has the capacity to decide what we will keep thinking about, what we will allow ourselves to look at, and what our intentions toward others will be.

I met once with a couple planning to get married, but along the way he developed a relationship with another woman. I don't mean that he touched that woman, but he met with her, he called her frequently, he confided in her.  And his fiancé found out. He and I met to talk about it.  He said, "I just couldn't help myself."  I asked, "Is that really true?"  He thought and then said, "Well, no.  I didn't help myself.  But how can I stop it from happening again?"  And I said, "You tell me:  how can you stop it?"  And over the next hour he said:

  • I can take out of my phone the personal numbers of any woman I might think of confiding in. Uh-huh

  • I can make sure I don't meet with other women one-on-one, but only in group settings. Uh-huh.

  • When I'm feeling hurt or depressed (which is one I tend to get in trouble), I can reach out right away to a safe person to help me feel better, so I don't reach out to an inappropriate person. Uh-huh.

There were others, but you get the idea. Lust is looking at someone with the wrong intentions, and there are many ways to cultivate right intentions in all our relationship.  Amen?

 

But let me return to where I started: what if everyone suddenly got up in the middle of church and engaged in heart-felt conversation with someone?  Jesus said, "So when you're offering your gift at the altar [loosely translated, "when you're at church"], if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift."  Jesus is saying that our relationship with God is all mixed up with our relationships with other people.  We are not fully reconciled to God until we are reconciled with one another. That is a challenging teaching for these divided times we live in.  And to make it even more challenging, Jesus did not say "If you're at the altar and remember that you have something against someone else, make sure to go and point it out to them."  That can be important in relationships too—don't get me wrong.  But it's not where Jesus focuses.  He says, "If you're at the altar and remember that your brother or sister has something against you, go and be reconciled." 

One way we've been talking about God-Centered Wellbeing is that it's seeking to keep our relationship with God and God's love at the heart of all our other relationships. This gospel lesson teaches an important corollary:  All of our other relationships are always at the heart of our relationship with God.  You can't escape the messiness of your difficult relationships by coming to church; all of that comes with you to the altar.  In fact, at the altar is where our need for reconciliation becomes so compelling that we just might get up and do something about it. 

It happens all the time. Not long ago one Maple Grove member was disappointed and hurt by something another Maple Grove member said, and in turn he said some hurtful back.  He took a few weeks off and was thinking of leaving the church completely.  But as took Holy Communion one Sunday, he looked across the room and saw that person he was angry at taking the very same Communion at the very same time.  And his heart cried out to be reconciled in the name of Jesus.  So he reached out to that person, said he was sorry for what he'd said and wanted to repair things between them.  And the other person rethought what he had said and affirmed that person in a healing way.  The altar of God had done its holy work

So what if during worship everyone got up, walked across the room, and engaged in heartfelt conversation with someone? Or what if everyone got up and made a phone call to a person they hadn't talked to in ages?  Bad behavior in church?  No, no—it's called living out the Sermon on the Mount.  Go, be reconciled to your sister or brother; church will still be here when you get back.  Our relationship with God is our relationship with others.

 

1 See J. Carl Laney, “Nine Ways to Approach the Sermon on the Mount,” https://www.westernseminary.edu/transformedblog/2016/02/22/7141/, accessed February 10, 2017.

2 Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 56.

3 Clarence Jorden, Sermon on the Mount, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1952), 88.

4 Jordan, 57.

5 Brian Maas, "Living by the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary," The Christian Century (January 18, 2017), 21.

6 Joardan, 54.

7 Long, 54.

 

Matthew 5:13-16

Salt & Light: It’s All About Relationships

February 5, 2017

 

            Before he was the bishop of Alabama, Will Willimon was the chaplain at Duke University, where part of his job was to have conversations with students about faith and religion and life.  One student told him that he and his roommate weren’t getting along well.  “Why not?” Willimon asked.  “Because he’s a Muslim and I’m not,” the student said.  Willimon asked why that made a difference.

            “When we moved in together, he asked me what my religion was,” the student replied.  “I told him that I was a sort of Christian.  A Lutheran.  I told him up front that my family and I weren’t the very best Christians, that we only went to church occasionally, and it wasn’t that big a deal to me.  But my roommate has this nasty habit of asking embarrassing questions.”

            “Like what?”

            “Like after we had roomed together a few weeks, he asked me, ‘Why do you Christians never pray?’  I told him, ‘We pray all the time.  We just sort of keep it to ourselves.’”

            “He said, ‘I’ll say you do!  I’ve never seen you pray.’  He prays, like, a half dozen times a day on his prayer rug in our room.

            “The last straw was Saturday morning, when I came in from a date, and he asked me, “Doesn’t your Bible talk about avoiding dissolute living?”

            “I told him, ‘Look, it’s not dissolute living; it was just a party at the Tri Delt house.  I told you I’m not the best Christian in the world.  You shouldn’t judge the Christian faith by me!”1

 

            You shouldn’t judge the Christian faith by me . . .  I sympathize with that student; I’m not eager for the Christian faith to be judged by everything I do and say either.  But it begs the question:  what should people judge the Christian faith by?  Well, Jesus answers that question in the Gospel reading today.  And no, it’s not how often or where we pray or even whether or not we party with the Tri Delts.  Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”  And “You are the light of the world. . . Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  What should people judge the Christian faith by?  Well, according to Jesus, by us, by how we engage with others and shine on those around us, by our relationships with one another and with other people.  And surely our salt will be saltier, surely our light will shine brighter, if we keep God’s love at the heart of all those relationships.

 

            So in part, the way we are salt and light, how people will judge the Christian faith, has to do with our internal relationships, the way we love one another in the church.  In the Greek of the New Testament, when Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world,” the word ‘you’ is not singular, but plural.  In the South it would be “y’all are the salt of the earth,” or back in Kansas we’d say, “you guys are the light of the world.”  In other words, I am not the light, and you and you and you are not the light individually.  We are the light of the world, together. 

            One way the world will judge the Christian faith is by our internal relationships.  That’s why in John 13:35 Jesus tells the Twelve, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  You might expect him to say that other people will know we’re his disciples if we love them; but instead he says people will know we’re his disciples if we love one another.  I’ve heard it put this way:  the church’s greatest witness to the world is the quality of our life together. 

            Now, admittedly, that’s harder than it might seem.  The truth is, it can be easier to love a perfect stranger than someone who lives in your own home.  And sometimes, the better you get to know a person, the harder they are to love!  The rapid pace of change in our culture and the current passion in our politics makes simply loving one another especially challenging right now.  I know I’ve said some things that didn’t help others feel loved.  And I’m aware that there are times when I'm quicker to look for reasons to criticize people I disagree with than I am to find reasons to be kind to them.  Maybe you’ve been like that too?          

            As salt of the earth and light of the world, I’d like to take a deep breath, take a step back, and make a fresh start at this loving one another.  Why?  Because the witness of the gospel depends on it.  Because not just me and you and you, but "y'all"--we all—are the salt of the earth and the light of the word, together.  People will, and are, judging the Christian faith by how we love one another.

 

So being salt and light is partly about our internal relationships, how we love one another in the church; but being salt and light is also about our external relationships, how we treat our neighbors well beyond the church.  Jesus says, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works.”  And New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, points out that both salt and light are important not just in and of themselves, but because of their impact on something else—salt impacts food, light impacts darkness. 2  And Christians impact our neighbors and the world. 

                    Being salt of the earth and light of the world means that our relationships will give us away. Clarence Jordan was a civil rights leader in the 1940s and 50s and was also helped found Habitat for Humanity.  He notes that “Jesus isn’t saying here that you shouldn’t hide your light [under a basket.  What Jesus is saying is] that nobody ever does that.”3 We can’t do that.  Our light is shining, whether we mean it to or not.  So when we feed the hungry, when we welcome strangers and people who are different from us, when we visit the sick and the elderly, our light is shining.  And when we do not feed the hungry, when we do not welcome strangers and people who are different from us, when we neglect the sick and the elderly, our light is shining then as well. 

            Again, Scot McKnight describes what it looks like when a church lives out Jesus’ call to be salt and light.  He visited a church called New Covenant Fellowship in Champaign, Illinois.  “The only way I can describe this church,” he says, is that “the boundaries between church and community are porous.  The church is an offering to the community and the community seeps into the church.”  Do you feel how this church’s relationships with those around them are like salt and light?  There is no “in” or “out” at New Covenant, just people in relationship with each other.  McKnight says that the day he was there he “experienced some homeless folks, a middle-aged woman who showed signs of schizophrenia, some Jewish neighbors who thought the topic of [the day’s] teaching was of interest to them. . . “The salt and light metaphors,” McKnight concludes, “reveal that the church’s fundamental task is to mediate God’s presence.”4 In other words, it’s all about relationships.

 

            Y’all are the salt of the earth, Jesus said.  Y’all are the light of the world, together.  You’ll remember that student who told his Muslim roommate: “You shouldn’t judge the Christian faith by me.”  But people do judge the Christian faith by us, by how we love one another, and by how we welcome and include and love our neighbors near and far.  I, for one, have heard this scripture this week.  I repent of ways that God’s love has not been at the heart of my relationships and I am committed to putting God’s love back at the heart of all my relationships.  I wonder who will join me on that journey?

 

1Adapted from William H. Willimon, “Árguing with Muslims: God-Talk on Campus,” The Christian Century (November 16, 2004), 34.

2 Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 56.

3 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1970, Koinonia Edition), 42.

4 McKnight, 61.

 

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