Monday, February 21, 2011

More than sermon writing

Well, look at this. My blog really DOES work for things other than sermons. I had no idea. It's been so long since I've had any other kind of post,I thought maybe it was somehow blocked from posting anything but sermons I have preached. Ho hum. Here's a shot.

I'm not feeling the lectionary this week. "Do not worry about what you will eat or what you will wear." It's not bad or anything; it's just that I preached the Luke version this fall. I'm 99% sure most folks wouldn't notice if I preached the Matthew version now. Shoot, 99% of folks wouldn't notice if I preached the exact same sermon, but I'd notice. I don't think I can do it already.

So, I decided I'd pick through the Sermon on the Mount and try something else that doesn't get covered. I've never tried preaching about the Lord's Prayer, so I'm thinking that's the way to go. The other portions about prayer around it are in the lectionary for Ash Wednesday, but I'll avoid those for now, and just work with the LP. It might end up being more a teaching than a usual preaching, but we'll see.

Things that stick out for me now:
1. The collective nature of it
2. Dealing with the whole temptation/time of trial and evil/evil one stuff
3. In this way - does it mean exactly like this as we have interpreted or does it mean similar?
4. God's will - - Do we REALLY mean what we're praying???

I'm pulled more to numbers 3 and 4 as preaching directions right now. We'll see.

Choosing Life 101: You are not a doormat

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Matthew 5:38-48

I am going to break the rule of one of the most influential people in my life. Maria von Trapp, at least as played by Julie Andrews, sings, "Let's start at the very beginning," but today I am not. In fact, I'm going to start at the very end, because if you're anything like me, when I heard the end, I couldn't even go back to the beginning to think about what it said. "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

All I can imagine is a Bill Cosby-esque, "Riiiiiiiiiiight." Perfection is impossible. Or at least perfection achieved by human beings is certainly impossible. If we know anything to be true, it is this, that we are imperfect creatures. From the very beginning of creation, in our relationships with God and with others, even in our relationships with ourselves, we experience on a daily basis our complete imperfection. So why does Jesus say this? Is he challenging us so that we'll achieve some level of goodness, even if it's not perfection? Or is he just setting us up for failure?

No. To all of it. This is a case not of Jesus asking us to do what we can't, but a case of the English language, or at least the traditional translation of Greek to the English language, failing us. I don't often spend a lot of my sermon time playing around in ancient languages, but this time it seems worth it. The perfection Jesus is talking about here is not perfection like an A+ grade on a test. It isn't like making it all the way through a hymn without missing a note. It isn't like saying exactly the right thing to exactly the right person every single time.

It isn't perfection meaning never making any mistakes and never doing one single thing wrong. That perfection is impossible and attempting to live into it would be a life lived in vain. Last week we heard the command from Moses in Deuteronomy telling us to "choose life," but chasing after an unattainable perfection in the tasks of daily living sounds about as life-draining as things can get. It's a good thing this isn't what Jesus is talking about.

A better way to think of this might be "Live your purpose, therefore, as your heavenly Father lives his purpose." The word perfection is not so much about living without mistakes as it is about living the life to which we are called, living with integrity the life God as prepared for us to live, living fully, choosing life and life-giving ways, as opposed to copping out, dumbing things down, or just squeaking by. Being perfect means, to borrow from the old Army commercial, "Being all that you can be" or even better being all that you have been created and blessed to be. This has echoes of the words from earlier in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount the words from the Beatitudes that we summarized, "You are blessed. Act like it."

Be perfect, Jesus commands, Jesus challenges us, no Jesus commissions us. Be exactly who you are created to be, no more, no less. Be who God has called you to be and gifted you to be and blessed you to be, be the best you God has made you to be in whatever situation you find yourself. This perfection we seek, this perfection we strive to live into, it doesn't come from our own ideas of what is flawless; it comes from God's idea of our potential, and that's what's described in the first part of the passage.

In these earlier verses we have another case of often misunderstood translation at play, and it is from this misunderstanding that my sermon title comes. You are not a doormat. We are not doormats. Being a Christian does not mean letting the world trample all over us while they determine what is right and what is wrong, what is valuable, what is worthy of time and attention and money. And just as importantly being a Christian does not mean letting people in power misuse and abuse us or anyone else while we sit in silence, letting them hit us from one side and the other.

Unfortunately and shamefully, that is how this passage has been used even by those within the church. A colleague of mine tells the story of participating in a community workshop meant to educate leaders about the realities of domestic violence. After a particularly disturbing presentation from a women who had escaped an abusive marriage the pastor asked, "What can the church do?" The woman simply responded, "Stop telling women they have to stay and get beaten."

They do not. Turning the other cheek does not mean accepting abuse in what is supposed to be a loving relationship. If you hear nothing else this morning, hear me say that Jesus does NOT desire, Jesus does NOT command that those who are being abused in any way must keep their mouths shut and stay in dangerous, abusive situations of ANY kind. The church must end its silence about domestic abuse and by that silence its participation in the continuation of the sin of abuse.

Being a Christian does not mean you are a doormat. Being a person of faith does NOT mean you must let people walk all over you. This verse about not resisting evildoers doesn't mean we should sit idle while evil is enacted around us; it means we should not stop evil with the ways of evil. Jesus isn't advocating non-resistance all together; he is just telling us what kind of resistance to use.

The people of Jesus' time and the early church who first received Matthew's gospel lived in a very different world than most of us in 21st century America. The residents of Judea lived under the occupation of Rome, under the thumb of Roman soldiers and Roman officials. The relationship was tense and could even be dangerous. It was an oppressive and brutal occupation. It was perfectly legal for a soldier to do what is described in Jesus' sermon, force an ordinary citizen to carry his pack a mile down the road.

Imagine if that were you. Imagine the humiliation that would boil up at being ordered by another human being to do something as infuriating as carrying the pack of the soldier who oppresses you. Imagine the anger that would rise step after step, step after step as you were burdened down physically by a representative of the emperor who was burdening you and your country financially, socially, and religiously. Imagine how you would want to throw the pack back at him, how you might even want to strike out at the soldier, spit in his face, return to him all the evil and pain you have experienced.

But Jesus says don't. Don't stand against the soldier with the same tactics the soldier used to stand against you. Don't resist him with the kinds of actions he uses against you. Jesus says we are called not to lay ourselves down and take whatever is coming to us, but we are called to rise above the violence and oppression and fight violence with peace, counter evil with love. Do not resist the way others resist, with hits and slaps and shots fired back. Resist with courageous strength in the face of power. Resist even with love.

Jesus' preaching is not an advocacy for non-resistance all together. It's an advocacy for the right kind of resistance, the kind of resistance that is life giving, even if in its danger it is not life saving. This kind of resistance has been powerful and effective around the world even as it has put its practitioners in danger. This kind of resistance is the kind of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Civil Rights Movement. It is the kind of resistance often used in central and eastern Europe in 1989. It is the kind of resistance that helped topple apartheid in South Africa.

And albeit on a totally different scale, it is the resistance we can use, we are called to use in conflicts each and every day. It would be easy to simply read these words from Jesus' sermon on the mount and tuck them away, promising to pull them out someday when they apply, when we find ourselves oppressed by an evil regime. It would be easy to discount them as antiquated and unrealistic, inapplicable to our daily living in a relatively peaceful community.

But rarely are Jesus' words really that easy to receive. They apply to us even here and even now. They are for us to follow as we seek to follow him today. Ultimately what Jesus is asking for is for his followers to live as he lives, to love as he loves. His love is not sugar-coated. His love is not passive or wishy-washy or anything that resembles being a doormat. His love allows for reaction, but it calls for a completely different kind of reaction than we may ordinarily choose because his love is not limited. Jesus doesn't love only those who are in his family, only those who are of a like mind, only those who follow the rules, only those who return love to him. Jesus loves everyone, even the one who turned him over to the authorities, even the ones who mocked him and crucified him, even the ones who left him alone in his deepest hour of need.

He loved them and he loves us so much that he gives us a new way to choose life in the middle of disagreement and conflict. He gives us another option. Aggressiveness can end with us. Ugliness can end with us. The insistence on getting my way can end with us, because Jesus has given us grace. Jesus has shown us how to offer grace in the face of aggression. Jesus has shown us how to choose life, choose love, choose a different way of resisting the temptation to lash out even in the middle of mundane day-to-day life.

When somebody tailgates you all the way to the store, you can show them a choice sign with your hand OR you can stop the irritation and give them the front row parking spot even when you saw it first. When someone tosses their trash on your yard, you can package it up and deliver it back to theirs, or you can just clean it up. When someone writes a scathing and judgmental letter to the editor you can slam words back at them or offer thanks for the freedom to disagree and invite them over to supper to talk about things face to face.

There is another way. There is a way out of the cycles of violence and aggression and basic disregard for the life of others that we so greatly cherish for ourselves. It is the way that uses peace as an answer to violence, love to conquer evil, and friendship to overcome enemies. There is another way, and it is the way of grace. It is the way of Jesus.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Choose Life

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
(with a slight nod to some of the issues of Matthew 5:21-37)

Like many of you and many around the world I have watched the events unfolding in Egypt over the last three weeks with a great deal of wonder, nervousness, excitement, and especially prayer. While I like to think that I keep up with current events, I can admit my ignorance of the intricate details of the political situation as I believe these sorts of situations are always much more complex than most of us realize. However, the passion has been unmistakeable. The technological aids have been unbelievable. The revolution was, we now see, unstoppable.

The people of Egypt are free from an oppressive ruler and they now stand on the cusp, on the edge of a new day, a new life. After a few days of expressive celebrations the time is coming to move forward. One reporter for NPR related how the people she had interviewed were wondering now, not so much with fear, but with eager anticipation, just where this revolution had really taken them.

It's the kind of question the Hebrew people asked Moses several times throughout their journey out of Egypt. Why did you take us out of that land? At least in Egypt, they were heard saying more than once, we had food to eat! As they wandered in the wilderness for forty years they wondered if they had really made the right choice by following this leader. They wondered when they were going to get to the Promised Land, and when they got there, IF they got there, what it was going to be like.

That picture up there is one view they had. It's a view of Israel from the top of Mt. Nebo, the place of Moses' death, in the modern state of Jordan. The Jordan River, the border between the two countries, is straight below the steep slope of the mountain on which the photographer is standing. The Dead Sea is directly in front of her, and all of Israel, the Promised Land is before her. On a clear day she can see Jericho, about 15 miles away.

It's from this point, Scripture claims, that Moses delivered his final words to the people he had led for over forty years. It's from this point that he led them through a final recitation of all of the laws and commandments of God. Before they could enter the land God had promised, they had to hear God's plan for how they would live there, the commandments, decrees, and ordinances that would instruct and guide every aspect of their daily lives. It's from this point that he gave them the final message, the final word from God, before he died, never entering the Promised Land himself. "Choose life," he said.

To us it sounds contradictory. On the one hand, for twenty-nine chapters, Moses speaks on and on about all the things the Hebrew people can and can't do. The exact way to organize their courts, the particular way to make offerings on an altar, what food to eat, what festivals to celebrate. Reading them all with the intent to obey can seem tedious, restrictive, repressive, maybe even deadening to our modern ears. It seems to us, especially people of a culture that so highly values independence and freedom, that every choice in life that brings variety and diversity is taken away.

Yet on the other hand Moses insists, GOD insists, it's not mind numbing or deadening. It's not a way to make uncreative, mindless robots out of God's good creation. In fact, God insists it's the exact opposite. Appropriately enough for this Valentine's Day weekend, apparently, following the law, choosing life, is a matter of the heart. Choosing life is about loving God. Choosing life is about turning our hearts to God and in doing so making the many choices that are laid before us in a life-giving, God directed way.

The law, God insists, exists to help us love God. It frees us to give our whole lives, body, soul, and spirit, our hearts to God. It frees us to some extent from wondering, guessing what it is that God wants from a loving and obedient people. The law, in our Reformed understanding, is what we are free to follow in gratitude for the new life we are given in Jesus our Christ. Choose life, God offers, choose me, as I have already chosen you.

The problem is that we get caught up in the details. Much ink was spilled in the days of the early church about how much of the law we need to follow. Do Gentile converts to the faith need to be circumcised? Do Jewish believers need to continue to keep the food laws? Even before the early church controversies, Jesus was also weighing in on the subject. "I came not to abolish the law," he insisted "but to fulfill it."

He takes away the temptation to say that the laws are gone, unnecessary, no longer useful to believers in him. But he also takes away the temptation to just slip through life doing the bare minimum. He teaches the law, expands it even, for a people who sometimes like to use the law to define what is good enough, even if what it good enough isn't what is life-giving.

Think of two sisters in the backseat of a car on a long, very long car ride. The invisible line has already been drawn down the middle of the car to keep them from touching each other. One too many "accidental" hits has happened and the "no touching AT ALL" law has been invoked. What does the completely law abiding, but maybe not life choosing sibling do? She hovers her hands right over the line, not touching her sister, but just getting real close. "I'm not touching you. I'm not touching you." The law has been followed. No rule has been broken. But is that good enough?

No, Jesus says. The law has been followed, but it hasn't been fulfilled. Life has not been chosen. "You have heard it said," Jesus' teachings on laws about murder and anger, adultery and lust begin, "but I say to you something more." God's laws aren't about prohibiting every single bad behavior. God's laws are about choosing life, choosing life that leads not only to faithful obedience to God, but loving and compassionate relationships with other people. God's laws spell out God's desire for us to turn our lives and our actions in a life-giving, life-respecting direction. Jesus desires for us to turn our hearts over to him and no other. Jesus desires for us to love others as he loves others and us.

The divine law isn't about taking away diversity and restricting creativity; it is about encouraging expansive living, protecting all people in their quest to love God with all their heart, soul, and mind. God's law is about choosing life for others as well as for ourselves through actions that respect all people as blessed creatures of the loving Creator. Choosing life is about choosing the way of the One who created all life, who sees all life, who loves all life, who forgives and renews all life. Choosing life is about trusting God whose view and vision is so much farther than our own, who could see beyond the Dead Sea, beyond Jericho and the reach of the human eye, beyond our imagination of what is right and fair and good enough. Choosing life is about facing the challenges before us with a sense of hope and courage because the one who creates order out of chaos can create life out of the most difficult situations.

This is the life God's people are called to choose. Standing on the edge of the Promised Land, the people of God were filled with excitement and anticipation, certainly, but also fear and trepidation. The Promised Land was also a "Possessed" Land. It was not empty, sitting vacant waiting for the Hebrew people to come inhabit it again. Other people were living there, farming their own farms, worshipping their own gods, raising their own families. There was anxiety among the people about how they would enter this unknown territory, worry and wonder about just where their revolution, their journey had brought them.

In Egypt this weekend some of the revolutionaries found a way to choose life as they stood on the edge of their future. The protests for the most part were over and while the celebrations continued some people began to look forward. It started first in Tahrir Square, people who had used Facebook to organize a revolution, used Facebook to organize the clean-up. People came down not with signs and shouts but with trash bags and scrubbing brushes. They cleaned up the square and then the streets surrounding the square, and then the movement spread out in symbol and reality. People took to streets around Cairo and around the nation according to some reports cleaning their country, choosing life, making a way forward in an uncertain, but much brighter future.

We all face our Promised and Possessed Lands in different ways. Our journeys bring us to different mountaintops, different cliffs from which we look over our unknown futures. Whether you're looking out over the promising future of a new job or a new family or new opportunity in school or education, or whether you're looking out over a land possessed by diagnoses and treatments for an unexpected illness, a land gripped by financial insecurity, or ravaged by wars of addiction and dependencies, the choice remains the same. Turn your heart to God. Put your trust in God's gracious mercy, God's guiding spirit, God's ordering love. With complete dependence on the one who breathed life into the dust of the earth, who died and rose again for our sake, who moves through all of creation as wind over the the water, choose life in God's hands as your way forward. You will be blessed. You will be blessed.