Tuesday, February 22, 2011

February 20, 2001

Did Jesus Really Mean That?
Matt 5.38-48

Author Frederick Buechner said about Love:

      "The love for equals is a human thing
    – of friend for friend, brother for brother.
        It is to love what is loving and lovely.
        The world smiles.

      "The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing
    – the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely.
        This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.

      "The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing
    – to love those who succeed where we fail,
        to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice,
        the love of the poor for the rich,
        of the black man for the white man.
        The world is bewildered by its saints.

      "And then there is the love for the enemy
    – love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain.
        The tortured's love for the torturer.
        "This is God's love. It conquers the World " (3).

The single most important command of Jesus is that Christians must love: we must love one another, love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and, hardest of all, we must love our enemies. This love of our enemies does not come easily or naturally. It goes against our self-interest.  Immediately, I recognize this as one of the hard teachings of Jesus. But, there it is in the Sermon on the Mount.

    One Sunday, Bishop Will Willimon read as his preaching text a familiar passage in which Jesus commands Christians to forgive. A woman emerged from the church and accosted him at the door demanding to know, “Do you mean to tell me that Jesus expects me to forgive my abusive husband who made my life hell for ten years until I finally had the guts to leave him?”
    The preacher immediately went into defensive mode with, “Well, we only have twenty minutes for a sermon and I can’t appropriately qualify everything here, and I do believe that spouse abuse is a terrible evil, but, er..., this is the sort of odd thing that you would expect Jesus to say. He did say that we ought to forgive “seventy times seven times.” And that’s a great deal of forgiveness. And he did say to forgive our enemies and I can’t think of a worst enemy for you than your ex-husband, and...” Willimon confessed that he finally trailed off.
    The woman drew herself up to her full height, took a deep breath, and said, “Good, just checking.”
    In the quiet of the church after everyone was safely gone to find their Sunday lunch, the preacher prayed, “God, give me the grace not to protect others from Jesus” (1).

    The woman was correct; the teachings of Jesus call on Christians to take risks, to give up the security of our rights. And many have endured far beyond “reasonable” in keeping them. I do not expect anyone to suffer due to some rigid rule-keeping – even Christian rules; I do ask Christians to deal honestly and creatively with even the hard teachings of Jesus.

    In the Sermon the Mount, Jesus said:

38 "You have heard that it was said,
    'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
39 But I say to you,
    Do not resist an evildoer.
    But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek,
    turn the other also;
40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat,
    give your cloak as well;
41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile,
    go also the second mile.

    The Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew, chapters 5-7, is one of the most extensive and far-reaching ethical teachings in the N.T. While there are sayings and claims here which are loved and even revered, the ethical teachings of this Sermon are more often broken and intentionally ignored than they are kept.
        +That we should consider ourselves to be murderers when we are merely angry with a brother or sister is laughable. Try making that stick in Circuit Court. They have real crimes and injuries to address over there.
        +Who among us has stopped everything to apologize to the jerk who cut us off in traffic – the one we called that ugly name that you don’t say out loud in front of the kids or your parents? Not many.
        +Who among us has worried that we let God down for enjoying the sight of that girl or that guy who walks by us every morning in home room class? Not many.
        +Who among us has made arrangements to cut off hand or eye or ear because they caused us to sin in our hearts? Not many, I hope.
        +Who among us, that has endured cruelty at the hands of another, has gotten through such an experience by the wholesome confidence that one day the abuser will wake up to the hurt they are causing and never do that to us again? Not many.
And one after another the ethical teachings of the greatest sermon ever preached are ignored and rationalized away. This is upside down. It is amazing that Jesus had any followers at all, once people truly caught onto his hard teachings.

    Does Jesus really mean this? This is the question that immediately comes to mind as we read closely the Sermon on the Mount and consider its claims. It is sweet; it is beautiful. But, it is not where we live in the first half of the 21st Century.
        +Egypt’s people, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, were able to drive out Mubarak the dictator through a peaceful revolution, but their future remains very unsure.
        +Protestors in Iran, calling for peace in their nation, went out to the streets and found themselves greeted by tear gas and arrests.
        +Closer to home, we enjoy a relatively peaceful community and at the same time teach our children how to handle themselves at the mall.
        +Sure, we trust the people with whom we do business every day, but we always get a receipt.
If Jesus really means what he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, what should we make of it in our daily lives? How should we allow this teaching to shape our life as a community of faith?
        +Is this the Law for a world that really follows Jesus, complete with rewards and punishments for those who keep or break such law?
        +Is this the Christian Law about which Muslims should worry the same way we worry about the Islamic Sharia law?
        +Is this a vision of a new world that we might admire from a distance, knowing that human beings can never achieve more than a few bits and pieces of it? And knowing that we will never realize it in our world?
        +Is this a vision of a new world that Jesus would have us working toward? One which we can see if we are faithful?

II. I believe that Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are intended to point us toward a new world which Jesus already sees. This is a vision of a new world that Jesus would have us working toward. As Jesus addresses the crowd on the hillside, he invites the people to follow him into a new way of living that is so different from every other way of living that he called it the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Jesus’ new instruction offers his followers much work to do, and it guides his followers into very different ways from the world where Jesus taught.
        1. Jewish rules sought purity achieved by separation from all sources of impurity. The order is simple: Stay away from whatever harms you.
        2. Jesus’ rule takes a much riskier approach.  Rather than avoiding ethical danger, one is to embrace sources of defilement:
        +one’s enemies,
        +situations that bring out one’s insecurities,
        +persons in the community who call forth one’s worst self.

The reason Christians are called to embrace impurity is to transform it by spreading the grace of God made known in Jesus. Rather than worry over our own purity, we must trust God’s grace enough to work through us for the transformation of the world.

    But, frankly, Jesus’ new instruction offers a way that is quite different from our world, too.
        1. We live in a world which is obsessed with best practices in performance and accomplishment. We are equally obsessed with stopping bullying in our schools and abuse in the workplace. The underlying conviction is that we can and should keep these high standards.
        2. Still, in the face of bullying, we hear Jesus say, “Turn the other cheek.” In the face of abuse in the workplace, we hear Jesus say, 39 But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer.”

How do we take the words of Jesus seriously knowing how hard we have worked to call abuse what it is and knowing what many have suffered unseen at the hands of those with more power?
    Is Jesus calling Christians to suffer abuse and bullying in silence? Do you hear Jesus teaching us: “Cancel the police! We’re just going to love people until they love us back!” I don’t think so; Jesus lived in the real world just as we do.

    Perhaps this is not, after all, the appropriate question. The point is not the impossibility of the standards set by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The point of the Sermon on the Mount is a grand vision for human life focused on God graciously working in us and through us. Jesus believed that God was building a new world based on the coming of Jesus into the world. The social order was changing, and his responsibility was to spell out a new way of life (4).

III. We read this over and ask ourselves, “Does Jesus really mean this?” Matthew looks up at us with a smile and responds, “Imagine.” Imagine a world shaped by this way of dealing with the evildoers and the enemies who pester your world. Imagine a world shaped by people who have set out to give their very best instead of settling for the very least.
    Christians are to be become utterly other-oriented and non-judgmental. They are to have no worry for their own comfort or financial security. They are to be thoroughly gentle, peaceful, and gracious under pressure. They are to set aside all anger and all thoughts of revenge.

    [Garrison Keillor] told a story one Saturday night on “A Prairie Home Companion” in which he told about his 11th grade English teacher, Helen Story. She always told her classes “Ad astra per aspera,” which he translated to say, “Reach for the stars.” Don’t settle for completing just what is expected of you, reach high. Stretch yourself. Believe in yourself. Be more than everyone else expects you to be (2).

    Reach for the highest that Jesus teaches. Jesus does mean for those who follow him to reach for a way of living that embodies his life and his teachings. Without a doubt, keeping the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is fraught with risks. We might be stepped on; we might be pushed aside by many people who are willing to be more ruthless than we are. Further, our efforts at keeping the teachings of Jesus might be misunderstood as foolish OR misread as weakness. We can be certain that few of those we treat as Jesus teaches will enjoy a remarkable transformation.
    But... just as we have caught a glimpse, however fleeting, of the world as it will be when God rules, we can offer to the world a glimpse of it through our lives.

    [EX:] A thought-provoking example of Jesus’ teaching can be found in Victor Hugho’s novel, “Les Miserables.”
    The convict Jean Valjean is released from a French prison after serving nineteen years in prison (5-years for stealing a loaf of bread and 14-more years for his attempts to escape). When Valjean arrives at the town, no one is willing to give him shelter because he is an ex-convict. Desperate, Valjean knocks on the door of the kindly bishop of the city. The Bishop treats Valjean with kindness, and Valjean repays the bishop by stealing his silverware. When the police officer, Javert, arrests Jean Valjean, the Bishop covers for him, claiming that the silverware was a gift. But, more than that, the Bishop brings out more silver, telling Valjean in the presence of the police officer, “You left behind the best of the silver I wanted you to have it all.” In this way, the Bishop lives out the command of Jesus to turn the other cheek.
    Well, the police officer has no choice; he releases Valjean, and the Bishop makes him promise to become an honest man. Eager to fulfill his promise, Valjean masks his identity and enters another town. Under an assumed name, Valjean invents an ingenious manufacturing process that brings the town prosperity. He eventually becomes the town’s mayor. He has kept his promise to the Bishop that he become an honest man.
    Thus, the Bishop’s act of turning the other cheek in response to Valjean’s theft becomes redemptive. The thief becomes new man with a whole new future. This was Victor Hugho’s hope for any act of following Jesus’ teachings.

The Sermon on the Mount sounds impossible when we first hear it. But, Victor Hugo showed us that, though it is costly, it is possible. And more than possible, he showed us that following the teachings of Jesus might just give someone a new life.

38 "You have heard that it was said,
    'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
39 But I say to you,
    Do not resist an evildoer.
    But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek,
    turn the other also;
40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat,
    give your cloak as well;
41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile,
    go also the second mile.
42 Give to everyone who begs from you,
    and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

1. Willimon, Will. “Matthew 5.43-48,” Interpretation, January 2003, pp. 63.
2. Keillor, Garrison. Details quoted from Liberty, a novel, although the incident was quoted from memory of hearing the story on the radio.
3. Beuchner, Frederick. “The Me in Thee,” The Magnificent Defeat, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 105.
4. Charry, Ellen. “The Grace of God and the Law of Christ,” Interpretation, January 2003, pp. 34ff.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

February 6, 2011

Salty Christians
Matt 5.11-16 "You are the salt of the earth..."

[“Salt of the Earth”]
    Everyone knows the kind of people to whom we point when we speak of “the salt of the earth.” These are the common people, the working people, who do this world’s necessary jobs. They are the unsung heroes on whom we depend every day. While we may depend on them, we do not have a solution for the difficulty of their lives. We can talk about how hard they work and want to ease their burden, but theirs is work that is truly necessary to maintaining the fabric of the world. So we speak with real affection when we speak of “the salt of the earth,” but we cannot do much to improve their lives.


    Let us begin with the proverb: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” We love the image, even though we are not quite sure what it means for *salt to lose its taste*.
     Recently, I ran across a different interpretation of this passage that stands apart from almost every other. It comes from an article in Interpretation Journal; it was written by Dr. Paul Minear. At that time he was Professor Emeritus of Biblical Theology at Yale Divinity School. I have known him as one of the great Biblical scholars of my lifetime. I would like to take a bit of time this morning to outline his interpretation. Then, we can talk about the way this informs our lives as Christians.

    I believe that each of the Beatitudes addresses a real situation encountered by Matthew’s Church. If they had been irrelevant, he would not have mentioned them. In other words, the community of Christians needed to remember that Jesus promised *Blessedness* for people who
    +were poor in spirit,
    +were among the meek,
    +hungered and thirsted for righteousness,
    +were merciful,
    +were persecuted for their righteousness,
    +were reviled and persecuted on account of Jesus.
Matthew’s Christians were very likely among those people, or they personably knew Christians for whom that was the case.

    The first eight Beatitudes speak of “those” people; now in the ninth Beatitude he is going to get personal: “Blessed are *you*...” He is now looking directly at the disciples. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you... on my account.”

    This Beatitude is also different because it comes with an explanation that is longer than the Beatitude itself. All of this leads Dr. Minear to conclude that this last Beatitude is not so much part of the first eight as it is an introduction to a new passage now addressed to the disciples. Jesus is about to send his disciples out into the world in his name; he knows they will be persecuted. Jesus knows they will suffer for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel. He wants to prepare them.

    11  "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Jesus is warning them that they will suffer persecution just as the Prophets did. In Matthew 10, Jesus will send the disciples out with authority to cure every disease and every sickness. He said:
    16  "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17  Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18  and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles
(Matt 10.16-18).

These are strong words – warnings we pass over, assuming that they do not have anything to do with us. But, Matthew knew he had to tell all that Jesus had said to his disciples, because he knew that everything Jesus’ disciples did and suffered would happen to later disciples, too. He had to prepare them for the persecution and for the reward that awaited them. Suddenly, this is sounding very relevant to modern disciples of Jesus – like us.

    Now, instead of starting a new section in the Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Minear wants us to see Jesus speaking – not the crowds, but – directly to his disciples with the very next words:

    13 "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 

We have been taught to lift this saying out of the Sermon the Mount, focus mainly on the claim, “You are the salt of the earth,” and set aside all the rest. But, read this instead as an explanation intended for people who have been reviled and persecuted because of Jesus. What does it mean to us when we are reviled and persecuted for our faith to hear Jesus say that we are “the salt of the earth”?
        1. First, it does not mean that we are the unsung, hard-working people of the earth.
        2. The common interpretation of the “salt” as the seasoning that adds zest to our food also misses the point.

To understand the promise to the faithful: “You are the salt of the earth,” we have to begin by asking how salt was important in the Bible. You see, the Bible is still our best resource for interpreting the Bible itself. Let’s go to the O.T.

        In Exodus 30.34-36, salt was one of the ingredients in the incense that was used in worship at the Tent of Meeting:
        34  The LORD said to Moses: Take sweet spices... with pure frankincense 35  and make an incense... seasoned with salt, pure and holy; 36  and you shall beat some of it into powder, and put part of it before the covenant in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. Notice: “salt, pure and holy.”

        Numbers 18.19 tells us that salt was used to seal a covenant bond between Aaron and all the whole succession of priests:
        19  All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the LORD I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and your descendants as well.
        II Chronicles 13.5 tells us that salt was used for the covenant between God and the kings of Israel:
        5  Do you not know that the LORD God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?
Until now, I have completely missed the Biblical idea of the covenant of salt in the O.T., but it is plainly present and would have been observed in the worship that Jesus knew in the Temple during his life.

    As Dr. Minear summed up the evidence from the scriptures:

    Salt was used daily in the Temple offerings as an essential element in Israel’s worship. It was a bond that united the Lord to both the succession of priests and the succession of kings, and through them to the people. All generations were covered by these bonds, all being viewed as one in their obligation to and dependence upon God. God initiated the covenants of salt. To break the bond, therefore, would carry the most terrible consequences. In short these covenants of salt were intrinsic to the entire economy of nationhood, priesthood, kingship, worship, forgiveness of sins, national identity, and destiny (2).

So, this is the importance of SALT; salt carries the covenant between God and his people. Now, what is the connection between this *salt covenant with God* and the *earth*? Well, remember in Genesis when Cain killed his brother Abel? When Cain tried to hide it, God challenged him:

    10  And the LORD said, "What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11  And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand.While we do not often speak this way, Jews and Christians have always held the conviction that sin affects not just individuals; *sin affects the whole earth*.  Someone at Bible study Wednesday night gave a great example of this: he told how in Eastern Europe you can still see fields along the roadsides which are marked off as dangerous due to old mines – land mines left over from the Second World War, more than 60 years ago. The *land itself* is still dangerous. Thus, when redemption comes, it will heal the whole earth. You hear this in Isaiah 11.6-9:
6  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
    the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
7  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
9  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

You see, the earth needs to be healed from the sin of humanity just as much as human lives like ours need healing from sin. For Jesus to declare to all who would follow him, “You are the salt of the earth,” is to pronounce that those who carry the gospel into the world are the salt that brings this healing to the earth.

    Thus, Jesus can say to the disciples as he is sending them out to face almost certain persecution, “You are the salt of the earth.” You are the salt covenant that restores the covenant of faithfulness with God. You are the salt that will bring healing not only to human lives but also to the whole earth. So, you can see that Jesus all this in mind when called his followers “the salt of the earth.” They are not just hard working folks. They are witnesses, disciples, in the tradition of great prophets who speak in the face of persecution so that the people and the nations might be healed of their sinfulness and restored in faithfulness to God. It was a message for them; it is now for us.

[APPLIC:] Hear Jesus speaking now to us as he spoke to other disciples long ago:
        11  "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 13 "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
    Jesus is talking to his disciples about the risks and rewards of discipleship. We are sent, knowing that revilement and persecution will be our lot. If we are faithful, great is our reward in heaven.
    Jesus is talking to his disciples about courageous discipleship: about witness, steadfastness, confidence in the face of resistance. Can we be those disciples? Are we willing to go with Jesus all the way – even to the cross?

[ILLUS: Ruby Bridges]
    During the Civil Rights Movement, a federal judge ordered New Orleans to open its public schools to African-American children, and the white parents decided that if they had to let black children in, they would keep their children out. They let it be known that any black children who came to school would be in for trouble. So, the black children stayed home, too.
    Except Ruby Bridges. Her parents sent her to school all by herself, six years old.
    Every morning she walked alone through a heckling crowd to an empty school. White people lined up on both sides of the way and shook their fists at her. They threatened to do terrible things to her if she kept coming to their school. But every morning at ten minutes to eight Ruby walked, head up, eyes ahead, straight through the mob; two U.S. Marshals walked ahead of her and two walked behind her. Then, she spent her day alone with her teachers inside the big silent school building.
    Harvard professor Robert Coles was curious about what goes into the making of courageous children like Ruby Bridges. He talked to Ruby’s mother and, in his book The Moral Life of Children, quotes her as saying, “There’s a lot of people who talk about doing good, and a lot of people who argue about what’s good and what’s not good. But there are other folks who  “just put their lives on the line for what’s right” (3).

I do not know if Ruby Bridges and her family are Christians, nor whether they did all that out of Christian conviction, but her courage shows us the risk that she endured to stand for what was right.

[ILLUS: Protests in Egypt]
In Egypt, there is another example of people taking risks for what is right. The news reports boil the whole situation down to those for and those against President Mubarak. Any thinking person knows that there are a hundred decisions and positions to be taken every day as the demonstrations continue. What happens to President Mubarak remains to be seen. More importantly, what sort of society and what sort of government the Egyptian people will get out of this popular revolution remains to be seen. What is clear to me is the risk that every Egyptian is taking as this uprising continues: the protestors in the square, the President and his police, the army’s soldiers and the generals. The list goes on and on and the answers remain to be seen. But, the risks of either demonstrating or refusing to demonstrate surround them daily. May the Lord provide people of discernment and conviction who will step forward and take the risk to put their lives on the line for what is right.

    Jesus said to those who would be his disciples: “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you... for you are the salt of the earth.” These courageous ones – these who put their lives on the line for what is right and faithful and just – they are the salt that heals the earth and restores it to God. Indeed, they are the salt that restores all of us to God again.

    In the name of Jesus, you and I are sent to be the salt that heals the sin-sickness in our world.
    Let us pray for others around the world today, who are stepping forward courageously to be the salt that heals – wherever they may be.

1. Minear, Paul S. “The Salt of the Earth,” Interpretation Journal of Bible and Theology, January, 1997, pp. 31ff.
2. Minear, Paul S. “The Salt of the Earth,” Interpretation Journal of Bible and Theology, January, 1997, pp. 37.
3. Smedes, Lewis. A Pretty Good Person, quoting Robert Coles writing in The Moral Life of Children.