Saturday, February 26, 2011

Enough for Today

Matthew 6:24-34
Ordinary 8
February 27, 2010
William G. Carter

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?"

This is one of those Bible passages that sounds so attractive and strikes us as so unrealistic. It begins so peacefully: look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field. As a nature lover, I've always enjoyed such invitations. Take a good look at the world around you. Take notice of the peace at the heart of God's creation.

Maybe that's why we like the 23rd Psalm. Not only is God portrayed as the Good Shepherd of Ezekiel 34, He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.

Such peaceful restoration is so appealing to us. It's comforting to know the world is in good hands. Everybody will be OK. Don't you worry about a thing. This is the promise of God's providence. God provides what the world needs.

It’s a beautiful vision. It’s difficult to keep it in focus.

Not so many weeks ago, I was driving down toward Elmhurst. I love how the mountains fold in together. It’s a beautiful stretch of land. But you can guess what happened: the black clouds ripped open and all the white stuffing started to fall. In a matter of minutes the road was covered. The wind was whipping furiously. The Road Warrior tires on my car began to spin. I started worrying about my safety.

The cell phone started to ring. I reached for it and then thought otherwise. Some foolhardy soul decided to pass me, and swerved. He almost took me out. My pulse was pounding. The adrenaline was giving me a spontaneous high. I was really terrified that I might go off the road, or even worse, that I would have to spend the rest of a very short life in a mountain ditch near Elmhurst.

Now, Jesus can say, "Stop being anxious," but he never drove through a winter storm in the mountains on shaky tires. Surely I can stand here today and say, "God was with me somehow, as I was driving through that storm." But frankly, if I had the choice, I would have preferred to be sitting at a spa in green pastures, by the still waters, getting my soul restored.

Christ’s invitation is so appealing: consider the lilies, look at the birds. But we get so easily distracted. Or we turn aside because of whatever else is laying heavy on our minds. Either way, anxiety creeps in. Anxiety is a constant companion that never leaves us alone.

Jesus says, "Don't be anxious. Don't get worried about anything. Have no fear of life or death. Trust God, and let go of everything else." Easier said than done.

He points to nature as his sermon illustration. The birds of the air don't worry about anything. He gazes at the lilies of the field and quips, Ever notice how they don't fret about their appearance? Why do we worry so much? And why do we worry about such little things?

I don't know, but we certainly do worry. Let's see a show of hands: how many of you have had to wait up until a really late hour for one of your kids to get home? How many of you are still waiting?

I used to get so angry when I would come home from college, and go out until the wee hours, and when I sneaked back into my parents' house, my mom would be sitting in the Lazy Boy chair with a cold cup of coffee, waiting up for me. I could hear dad snoring upstairs when I was still in the driveway, but mom would stay up and worry. "Is he OK? Is he lying in a ditch somewhere? Is he wearing clean underwear?" It made me angry, and Mom said, "Just wait until you have kids of your own."

Well, I don't know what the problem is. I'm not going to let my girls date until they are eighty-seven years old. I'm worried about them.

Jesus says, “Cancel your ongoing subscription to anxiety. Chill out and look at the birds." It sounds so peaceful, but we have to remember that Jesus got killed for talking like this. He spoke not only to affirm life under God's protective custody, but to confront the prevailing views of how to run a world.

Peter Gomes, the preacher at Harvard University's Memorial Church, tells about preaching at the commencement for an exclusive girl's school in New York City. He says,

"Many of the brightest and the best of the girls went on to elite colleges, and soon thereafter would make their way into the expanding stratosphere of the establishment once reserved for their brothers. They were able, aggressive, and entitled young women on the threshold of conquering the world, and I rejoiced in their achievement, was happy to celebrate with them, and wished them well."

For that occasion, Gomes based his sermon on the sixth chapter of Matthew where Jesus asks, "Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Therefore, do not be anxious about your life." It seemed like an appropriate message for the audience, and all the graduates smiled upon him.

During the reception, however, one of the parents went up to Gomes with "fire in his eyes and ice in his voice." He told the preacher that, frankly, his sermon was full of nonsense. Peter said, "The message didn't originate with me; it came from Jesus." The parent looked at him and said, "It's still nonsense." As the man went on to explain,

"It was anxiety that got my daughter into this school, it was anxiety that kept her here, it was anxiety that got her into Yale, it will be anxiety that will keep her there, and it will be anxiety that will get her a good job. You are selling nonsense."

Like Peter Gomes, we know a lot of people like that prep school father. Some of them have been our teachers. Others have been trusted friends. A few may be members of our extended family. What binds them together is the consistent message by which they live. The message goes something like this:

• If you want to get ahead in the world, you have to carry a lot of anxiety with you.
• If you want to be successful, you have scramble get up the ladder.
• If you want the good life, you must work without ceasing and bear the burden of much stress.
• In short, anxiety is good. It is both a good motivator and a necessary companion for anybody who wants to get ahead.

We know a lot of people who believe that kind of stuff. Maybe you are one of them. In these words from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is striving to puncture our eternal illusion that life is ours to manage and control. He pushes us to look beyond ourselves and see God.

Have you ever considered how much time we spend thinking about ourselves? Did you ever realize how much emotional energy we burn up by pondering our own circumstances, fretting over other people, worrying about the bank balance?

In his commentary on this passage, Tom Long points out that Jesus is trying to get us to trust God. He's not telling to dig in and try harder. He's not saying, "Listen, you need to go for it, reach for it, scramble for it, work for it."

Look at the birds of the air. They are constantly flitting around, looking for food, and they find it. There is a necessary striving in life; you have to go looking for things. But it's there. That's the point. What we need has been provided.

As a practical consequence of these words, I went out and bought a lot of bird seed recently. It began to dawn on me that God provides and maybe God needs to provide through me. Sometimes we need to participate in the work of providence, especially if we've been given the resources.

Consider the lilies of the field. Here today, gone tomorrow. They are beautiful in their time, not because they worked at it or worried about it. They were beautiful because that's how they were created. God said, "Let there be lilies," and then God said, "Look how pretty they are!" From the time they were seeds in the ground, all the lilies had great potential in their genetic formation. With a proper amount of nurture, sunshine, and rain, their beauty breaks forth. They don't need any makeup. They don't hustle around trying to prove anything. They are beautiful because God made them that way.

As somebody once reminded me, "We don't put a ribbon in a young girl's hair to make her pretty. We put a ribbon in her hair because she is pretty."

Look at the birds. Consider the lilies. In the Greek language, these are strong, energetic verbs. Look, really look! Pay very close attention. We spend so much energy striving, working, hovering, as if that's going to improve anything. But the birds and the lilies live in a different world, "a world where God provides freely and lavishly, a world where anxiety plays no part, where worry is not a reality. Jesus invites us to allow our imaginations to enter such a world, to compare this world with the world in which we must live out our lives."

All of this, I think, prepares us for providence. If our hearts are open, we see God gives us a beautiful world, continues to provide whatever is essential, and promises to complete and fulfill all life through no authority of our own. God provides. And God is so securely in charge, so powerfully in control, that even God can kick back and keep the Sabbath.

Look at the birds of the air. Stop and really look, and look behind them to a God who provides in secret. In the words of John Calvin,

When the light of divine providence has once shone upon godly (people), they are then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that was pressing them before, but from every care.... Ignorance of providence is the ultimate misery; the highest blessedness lies in knowing it.

This is the blessed truth: God provides what we need. We pray for daily bread and God is under no obligation to give us cake. We receive the bread we need, with enough to share. That may be how God provides for others – by giving to them through us.

We are reaching the point where the preacher must stop and the poet takes over, and then we are left to decide where and how we are going to live. The poet, in this case, is Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer, and the poem is called, "The Wild Geese." He’s riding through the woods one day, and it strikes him how much has been provided:

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer's end. In time's maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed's marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Extraordinary Absurdity

Matthew 5:38-48
Ordinary 7
February 20, 2011
William G. Carter

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In case there was any question, the word is out. Jesus really said, "Instead of hitting somebody back, turn the other cheek. If someone forces you to walk a mile, go a second mile. When someone takes you to court and demands your coat, give your cloak as well." It's summed up in what Jesus says about how we should treat our adversaries. Jesus said, "Love them! Love your enemies!"

I don't need to tell you that his teaching is absurd. It certainly didn't make sense when I was six years old. I was in love with a beautiful blue-eyed girl. Her name was Kathy. A classmate named Darryl was also enamored with her. Unfortunately Darryl had a big brother named Mike.

One day I descended from the school bus and came face to face with Darryl and Mike. "Stay away from Kathy," Darryl said. "Says who?" "Says me!" Darryl said. With that, he motioned to his brother Mike, who swung and struck me on one cheek. I turned as he struck me on the other cheek. Needless to say, at that moment I was not overwhelmed with warm fuzzy feelings for Darryl and Mike. Love my enemies? At the foot of a school bus, that teaching was ridiculous.

I have a friend who teaches a high school Sunday School class. Not long ago, she stopped by McDonald's for a late supper. She was two bites into her hamburger, she said, when the local high school wrestling team came in. They were on their way home from a regional tournament. My friend knew one of the wrestlers from Sunday School. "How did you do?" she asked.

The kid grinned. "I showed my opponent a thing or two." "Remember, Andy," my friend said with a smile, "Jesus says to love your enemies."

"Are you serious?" Andy replied. "I rubbed my enemy's nose into the mat!" Love our enemies? Apparently that particular teaching of Jesus doesn't always apply in the high school gymnasium. Some think it is silly.

An eighty-year-old woman says the teaching seems out of place in a nursing home. One day she said, "Reverend, I hate my roommate. She takes my things. Last week, she took my nightgown. Then she took two dollars from my dresser drawer. Then she took the remote control for my television. I told her to stop stealing my belongings. She told me to shut up. I don't know what I should do, Reverend. I hate my roommate."

As a pastor, I said something that pastors usually say. "Look, Minnie," I said, "you're going to have to forgive your roommate."

"Forgive her?" she cried. "Why should I forgive her? I hate her. I wish she would die and leave me alone." "But Minnie," I replied, "you're going to have to learn how to love her."

"Phooey!" she said. "I'm going to get even." I was curious. How does the resident of a nursing home get even? "Minnie," I said, "what do you plan to do?"

She said, "Tonight, when my roommate is sleeping, I'm treating her to some of her own medicine. I'm going to steal her false teeth!" Love our enemies? In the nursing home, like anywhere else, these words seem absurd.

Of all the hard teachings of Jesus, this teaching may be the hardest. It comes, as you know, from the Sermon on the Mount. As Matthew tells the story, Jesus is a great teacher who instructs us in the ways of God's "higher righteousness." Jesus is a new Moses who climbs a mountain to teach a new law to guide and shape the life of God's people. It is not enough for Matthew's Jesus to take people as they are. He urges them to take bold steps. You have heard it said, "Be good," but Jesus the teacher said, "Be better than good!" Go one better. Act extraordinary. Live a life appropriate to your baptisms.

Nowhere are his demands more obvious than in his teachings about enemies. Jesus teaches us to take the initiative in moving beyond revenge and retaliation. He expects us to do something more than take "an eye for an eye."

The rabbis had taught the rule of taking "an eye for an eye" as a way of limiting retaliation and establishing fair treatment. If someone pokes you in the eye, don't cut off that person's left ear. That would be unfair. Rather you are entitled to poke that person in the eye and no more. If someone drives down the street and accidentally runs over your cat, they shall replace a cat with a cat.

If someone steals your false teeth at midnight . . . Well, you get the point.

If you are a victim, you can expect fair compensation and no more. It is unjust to demand more than what your enemy has taken from you.

Some time back there was a hepatitis scare at a Mexican restaurant in the Allentown area. Someone wanted to sue the restaurant for twenty thousand dollars because he thought he had hepatitis after eating a fifteen dollar meal. He never contracted the disease. Yet he still wanted to sue because of "undue mental anguish." Never mind that the restaurant had enough mental anguish of its own! According to the rabbis, the lawsuit was unjust. The man was entitled only to another fifteen dollar meal. No more, no less.

That was the law: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a meal for a meal. The law stood for centuries before anybody ever wrote it down. It balanced the legal system.

Yet Jesus pushed the matter to another dimension. The issue, he said, is never compensation or legal damages. Neither is it retaliation or revenge. For the Christian, the issue is love that is expressed without distinction.

So Jesus taught them, saying, "Whenever someone hurts you, your hurt must not become the basis for how you treat them. Take the initiative to love your oppressor." To drive the point home, he offered three test cases.

Test case number one: "If someone slaps you on the right cheek, you take control by loving that person. Don't flee or fight. Take control by giving another cheek to slap. Stand there in love."

Test case number two: "If people drag you into court to sue you for your coat, take the initiative! Actively love them in return. Give them your nightgown as well!"

Test case number three: "If a Roman soldier says, `Hey peasant, carry my pack a mile!' take control of the situation, but not through violence. In love, carry that soldier's pack two miles."

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus taught. The way our neighbors treat us should not determine how we treat our neighbors. Christ calls us to act out of love which makes no distinctions between "enemy" and "friend." That is the ethical demand of the gospel.

Granted, it doesn't make always "make sense." Jesus is speaking from the context of God's Kingdom, the coming realm where there shall be neither lawyer nor lawsuit. The reign of God is not a society governed by "might makes right" and "management by superiority." It is a totally new order to the universe, divinely ruled with mercy, forgiveness, and sacrificial love. We need a radical conversion simply to see such a world. Scripture knows this. The Sermon on the Mount portrays Jesus as the great teacher of God's reign on earth. But remember: this teacher was murdered. And why was Jesus killed if he merely taught what everybody already knows?

Love your enemies? In the coming reign of God, perhaps. But in the sovereignties in which we live, such a teaching sounds and looks absurd.

So what shall we do with this teaching?

I don't know about you, but whenever I encounter something difficult, the best way I know to handle it is to look for something even more difficult. Then the first thing doesn't bother me so much. It shrivels in insignificance.

So if you're troubled by Jesus' teaching to love enemies, let me tell you something even more absurd: that God makes no distinctions, that God carries no grudges, that God loves everybody and not merely a few, that God is impartial, that God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, that God sends rain upon the just and the unjust. Now that is the greatest absurdity of all.

Think of it:

• that in God's sight, the man who has spent a lifetime in a wheelchair is every bit as significant to the ballet dancer who enchants audiences around the world.
• that the prisoner on death row who is accused of murdering his children is loved by God every bit as much as a Supreme Court judge.
• that a dyslexic student who keeps failing spelling tests is no better or worse than the woman in an academic robe who receives her third Ph.D.
• that the toothless transient who slept last night beneath a bridge is as valuable to God as the family who brunches today at the Radisson.
• that the part-time convenience store clerk who taps numbers into a cash register is loved by God every bit as much as the corporate exec who owns three yachts.
• that, to the Ruler of the Universe, Democrats and Republicans are loved absolutely the same.

Can you believe it? Jesus says it's true. God is not partial. God makes no distinctions. God makes the sun to shine on those who are evil and those who are good. Or as Jesus puts it in Luke's gospel, God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish.

When it comes to showing love, says Jesus, God loves perfectly and without partiality. God sends rain on the just and unjust.

Once in a while we get a vision of such abundant mercy. Not the whole thing, of course, but a glimpse of the breadth of God's love. And if you see it, you never forget it. In the words of one of my Christian Education professors, “Once you wise up, you never wise down.”

I went to graduate school in a high-rent town of New Jersey. It’s a place where a lot of people want to live because it’s expensive and prestigious, but it’s also a town where people try to distinguish themselves in every possible way.

One day, the price of stamps went up. With important letters to mail, I trudged across town to the post office. Halfway there, the clouds burst open. I had no umbrella. I was drenched. As I opened the doors to the post office, I saw a great crowd of people who had come with the same idea. We were all sopping wet. Yet with an awesome storm billowing outside, we each chose to wait in line for stamps.

As I waited, I looked around in amazement. In front of me was a young urban professional, a wet tweed jacket over his blue button-down shirt. Next to him was a fraternity brother from the college with the word "hangover" spelled in his eyes with blood red letters. A slender woman with a briefcase stood next to a grunting construction worker who had tracked mud across the floor. An aerobics instructor wiped perspiration from her brow with the sleeve of a maroon sweatshirt. An unemployed accountant held his future in six manila envelopes of resumes. An elderly woman stood next to a young girl with braces and zits. Behind them was a man whose beard was bigger than the infant in his arms. At the end of the line were a couple of basketball players with girlfriends clinging to them like socks coming out of a clothes dryer.

It was a menagerie, a rag-tag bunch, gathered together while the storm raged outside. There were no rules about who belonged and who didn't belong. We were all there to buy stamps, clutching envelopes, packages, postcards, and dollar bills, all of us dripping wet. For the moment, despite our diversity, all distinctions between us did not matter.

In short, it was a vision of God’s kingdom. We were people equally soaked and sheltered from the same rain God sent from heaven. We had been loved equally as God's children.

Some people think that’s a pipe dream. They believe we will never live to see a world that looks as open and inclusive as that post office. But through the grace of a God, that strange new world is already here. The kingdom of God has come in the words and works of Jesus. Do you know where the kingdom comes? It is present wherever anybody believes that God loves everybody.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, February 13, 2011

How to Get into Hell

Matthew 5:21-26
February 13, 2010
William G. Carter

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that 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 liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, 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. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Walt Kowalski has a problem. He can’t live around anybody else. When we meet him in the movie “Gran Torino,” he is an angry man. His wife has just died. His Detroit neighborhood is not safe. The people next door come from a foreign land that he has never heard of.

Most of the time he copes by cracking open a cold one, sitting on the porch with his Labrador retriever, and cursing all the people who pass by. Walt has an R-rated slur for every one of them. If the neighbor kid knocks on his door, he calls him a nasty word from his days in the Korean War. He dismisses the local priest as a boy just out of the seminary. He retired from the line at the Ford factory and watches his son drive off in a Toyota Land Cruiser. It’s roundly dismissed as a “Rice Burner.”

We know this man. We have heard him speak. We’ve heard him call other people names both behind their backs and right to their faces. Walt Kowalski is bitter to the core. For him and his neighbors, life is a living hell.

Today we hear Jesus speak of relationships torn apart. It is a problem as old as Cain and Abel, the first two brothers. They were created to live in peace, children of Adam and Eve, but one struck down the other. Within the very first human family was committed the very first murder. This was not how God intended our life to be.

Long before God carved the commandment onto stone, the prohibition against murder was genetically imprinted upon our souls. “You shall not take another person’s life.” God gave life; “thou shall not take it.” That is the commandment.

In today’s text, Jesus pushes that commandment to a deeper righteousness. “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t murder,’ but I say to you, watch your words!” Watch what you say to other people. Beware of the names that you call them.

If you watch the movie “Gran Torino,” you may pick up a few nicknames for people who do not look like you. I was reminded of some ethnic slurs that my parents and teachers tried to bleach out of my soul. I learned a few new ones. Walt Kowalski is a Polish American; he hates Jews, Hispanics, Koreans, and African Americans. I sat in a dark theater, wondering how it is that people learn to hate one another. Do newcomers from another culture move in and take over the neighborhood? Do they take their jobs? Or more likely, do they start on a lower rung of the ladder, working for less pay, trying to improve their lives through hard work?

Not so many years ago, I remember when a handful of residents in this community openly resented the seasonal farm workers who picked tomatoes in local farms. Somebody actually asked in public, “Why are those people here? Can’t our own college students pick those tomatoes? They need jobs too.” You have to laugh: can you imagine a suburban college kid getting up at dawn in July, living on a cot in a cinder block house, picking vegetables for a buck or two a bushel? Not likely. The newcomers often do what the long-settled people will no longer do. And they are called names. Dirty, filthy names. Simply for showing up.

“Watch what you say,” says Jesus. “If you insult somebody, it is the same as killing them. If you call somebody a fool, an idiot, a no-account, a good-for-nothing, you are liable to burn in hell.” That’s the sure-fire way to burn, he says, by calling somebody names. Pay attention to your words.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks a lot about words, especially about their power to damage and destroy. In chapter 12, he says that our words are reflections of what lies in our hearts. “If the tree is bad, the fruit will be rotten; every tree is known by its fruit.” Whatever lurks in the heart is what the mouth speaks. If there is poison in what we say, it is due to the venom that remains in our gizzards.

Have to be careful of this, says Jesus. He is very clear. “On the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (12:36-37)

Do you know that sounds so harsh? Because it is. You have heard it said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But I say to you, “Words can kill.” If you call somebody a name, if you put them down, if you demean them in any way, it is the same as killing them.

You have your stories, I have my own. Each story is painful. When I was in ninth grade, I played the trumpet in the band. I wasn’t very good, mostly because I had recently discovered the piano. I was working hard to play the piano better, and there were only so many practice hours in the day. In the middle of band rehearsal one day, my teacher called me out of the back row, told me to play my trumpet part in front of the rest of the band, and then verbally humiliated me before my peers. He called me worthless. He said I would never amount to anything. Then he said, “Get off my stage. You are a waste of my time.”

It was the last day that I ever played the trumpet. He killed that desire in me. He killed my interest in music with his insults.

Watch out for your words. Deadly words reveal deadly impulses. Do you remember that collection of poems by Edgar Lee Masters, called “Spoon River Anthology”? Masters takes us to the imaginary town of Spoon River, Illinois and reads the cemetery epitaphs. Now that everybody is dead, they tell the truth about their lives. My sinister favorite is the epitaph by a woman named “Constance Hately.” Here’s what she says:

You praise my self-sacrifice, Spoon River,
In rearing Irene and Mary,
Orphans of my older sister!
And you censure Irene and Mary
For their contempt of me.
But praise not my self-sacrifice,
And censure not their contempt;
I reared them, I cared for them, true enough –
But I poisoned my benefactions
With constant reminders of their dependence.

Every night she looked at those orphans and said, “Don’t forget! I took you in. You depend on me. Without me, you are nothing.” Because of her words, they grew to hate her. Words have that kind of power. The words we speak can kill another soul. Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t murder.’ But I say to you: ‘Don’t curse another person.’ Don’t reduce another person. Don’t call another person a name.”

Now, I know that is hard to do. People do awful things. They are mean and demeaning. They prove the doctrine of sin over and over again. As I have heard someone say more than once, “Why be an idiot if you can’t prove it?” But if we can step over the anger that naturally comes with daily life, we can perceive the deeper truth that all of us are more alike than different. All of us have our share of disappointments. All of us live in an unfair world, and all of us contribute regularly to its unfairness.

Yet all of us are children of God. Every description of a human being begins there. She is a child of God. He is a child of God. That’s who we are. And to demean other people is really to insult their Maker. To put somebody else down falsely puffs us up.

The rabbis tell a tale of a certain Rabbi, Simon ben Eleazar. He was coming from his teacher’s house, and he was felling very smart. After a day of learning, he was feeling uplifted at the thought of his own smarts, his own erudition and goodness. On the road, a very ill-favored passer-by gave him a greeting. The Rabbi did not say anything.

The traveler repeated the greeting, to which the Rabbi said, “You Raca! You fool! How ugly you are! Are all the men of your town as ugly as you?”

“That,” said the passer-by, “I do not know. Go and tell the Maker who created me how ugly is the creature he has made.” And so the sin of contempt was rebuked.

It reminds me of a poster from a Sunday School room. It pictured all these children, all sizes and shapes, all ages and skin tones. The caption said, “God doesn’t make any junk.” What a beautiful, baptismal-affirming truth! God’s children are God’s treasures. If anyone trashes those treasures, they will find themselves on the trash heap.

That is actually Jesus’ favorite word for “hell” – it’s Gehenna, which is an actual place. It is the Valley of Hinnom, the garbage dump of Jerusalem. It was always on fire and it smelled so badly. If the wind shifted, you caught a whiff of destruction. It was nasty. Jesus said, “Beware! Don’t end up there. Do whatever it takes to build relationships, not destroy them. Even if your relationships come apart, treat one another with respect. Go that extra mile.

If you’re sitting in church, he says, and it’s time to put your big, whopping offering in the plate, and you remember that somebody has a grudge against you, don’t let the bitterness call the shots. Go to your opponent, even before you make your offering. Forgive them. Free them. Show them that God’s love absorbs all sins. Be reconciled to one another. Create a future with your estranged sister or brother, and never, ever, write them off. Because God hasn’t given up on the human race, so we should never give up on the possibility of God’s peace and justice among us.

I think of Walt Kowalski, that bigot in the movie “Gran Torino.” He can curse out his neighbors with a most impressive vocabulary. But as he gets involved in their lives, after he breaks up some neighborhood bullying, after he eats strange food with people vastly different from himself, after he defends a victimized girl, after befriends a lonely boy, he realizes these are people with the same dreams as himself. They want to live in peace. They don’t want to be destroyed by hatred.

So if you saw the movie, you remember there’s a final scene where Walt Kowalski makes things right. In one final Christ-like moment, he gives himself for the peace of the neighborhood. Arms extended like a crucifix, he takes all the bitterness and violence upon himself, and thus takes it all away. In the deepest sense, this is what Jesus does, of course. He gives himself for the possibility of our peace. He is not only our Teacher but our Savior.

I heard a true story abut two farmers in Canada. One day the dog of one farmer got loose and mauled to death the two-year-old child of his neighbor. The devastated father cut off all relationship with the dog-owner. The two men lived in cold, defiant hatred for years. Then one day a fire devastated the property of the dog-owning farmer, destroying his barn and all his equipment. He was unable to plow and plant, and so his future appeared doomed.

The next morning he woke up and found all his fields plowed and ready for seed. Upon investigation, he discovered his grieving neighbor had done this good deed. Humbly the rescued farmer approached his neighbor and asked him if he had plowed his fields -- and, if so, why. The answer was clear: "Aye," said the former enemy. "I plowed your fields so that God can live."

This is the shape of the love of Christ. Love is not irritable or arrogant or boastful or rude. Love does not insist on its own way, but bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Following the Kiss

Matthew 5:13-20
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 6, 2011
William G. Carter

I hope you realize the Sermon on the Mount isn't intended for everybody. It isn't written for everybody everywhere, whoever, wherever. Neither is it intended for people with a casual interest in God. It's meant for people who are interested and committed.

Outsiders are welcome to listen in. But much of the Sermon on the Mount makes no sense unless you have decided to follow Jesus. It's a text for pilgrims, for people on a journey of faith. That's the only way I know for us to make sense of the text we've just heard. Jesus is preparing to give us a number of new commandments. And we are called upon to relate these commandments to the Jesus who gave them to us. The issue is how do we live with religious rules in light of a Savior who comes to forgive us when we break the rules? Or to put it in theological terms, what is the place of God's Law in the life of grace?

The place to begin is by looking where this passage is located. Right after this passage, Jesus teaches a list of difficult rules:

You have heard it said, 'Don't murder,' but I say don't you dare to insult anybody else. You have heard it said, 'don't commit adultery,' but I say don't even treat another person as an object to grab and possess. You have heard it said, 'Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.' but I say, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. Your love must be complete, perfect, as your heavenly Father is complete and perfect.

What a tough list that is! The burden is even heavier when Jesus says, "If you break one of these commandments, you're at the bottom of the kingdom's heap."

But recall where this passage is located. Right before this passage, Jesus speaks about the gracious embrace of God. "Blessed are those among whom God is working. Whoever is poor in spirit, pure in heart, hungry and thirsty for justice - - - blessed are you in the glory of God's kingdom." They are kissed by grace, even if they are denounced by the world.

Then comes the text for today, with its two affectionate nicknames: "You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world." All of us who hear Jesus speak are given a new identity. We are sent out to season. We are lit up in order to enlighten. Once again, we are kissed by God. We didn't ask for it. Jesus just spoke and we heard what he said.

The rest of the text, however, lies between the kiss and the commandment. Following the kiss comes the commandment. In the Sermon on the Mount, after 14 verses of kindness, there are 93 verses of instruction. That's a lot of do's and don'ts, shoulds and shouldn'ts, and I-say-unto-yous

And in a general way, that's the pattern of how laws are given in the Bible. Remember the Ten Commandments? Before God thunders down the commandments from the mountain, God says, "I brought you out of Egypt. You were slaves, and I saved you." That's the kiss. And it comes first.

It's the same pattern as the Sermon on the Mount. First comes the kiss, the blessed sign of God's love and grace. Then comes the commandment, the outer evidence that we are God's distinctive people.

However, the church has always wrestled with the same problem that plagued Israel. And it's the problem of holding kiss and commandment together. Ever since the beginning, good religious people like us have tried to live with one and without the other.

Some would say the kiss is enough, and nothing else is necessary. After all, the heart of the good news is that God cherishes us, particularly in a brutal, dangerous world. So why not bask in God's eternal mercy, and do whatever we want?

I'll never forget that fateful day as a fifth-grader when I closed my bedroom door and blurted out a few dirty words. I was pretty sure there wouldn't be a thunderbolt, and there wasn't. I got away with that awful crime, and felt pretty good about it. In fact, I felt so free that a few of those words rolled off my tongue at the family supper table. As I was exiled to spend the rest of that evening in my room, I realized that freedom comes with some awesome consequences.

On the other hand, you probably know someone who keeps all the commandments and ignores the kiss. "All that gushy grace?" they say. "Why, it's a distraction from our duty."

For some people, duty is what life is all about: do the right thing, live the right way, walk the right way. Living within those boundaries can be quite comforting. Inside is right. Outside is wrong. Inside is the way of survival. Outside is the way of chaos and confusion. That can be a great comfort.

A man I know drove all night to visit a sick brother. It was a long trip. He was tired. It began to rain. About two o'clock in the morning, he drove through a small town. He slowed down to thirty miles an hour. Nobody was on the street, but he knew how small town cops can be. Suddenly he heard the siren and saw the flashing lights. He pulled over and rolled down the window. The police officer said, "Mister, did you see that sign back there?" "What sign?" "School zone - 15 miles an hour." "But officer, it's 2 o'clock in the morning." "Did the sign say, 'School zone except at 2 o'clock in the morning'?" "But officer, it's raining. My windshield wipers aren't working very well." "Did the sign say, 'School zone except at 2:00 when your windshield wipers aren't working'? The law is the law."

I can understand that. I don't like it, but I can understand it. Legalism is the most comforting religion of all. Everything is certain and clear. Did you steal the loaf of bread? Cut off your hand. Did you lust over that Sports Illustrated swimsuit model? Pluck out your eye. Did you relax one jot or tittle of the Word of God? Go straight to jail.

How can you argue with a religion like that? It would be a wonderful way to live . . . if only it looked like living. When life is reduced to a checklist, the soul withers. It's all duty, no delight. It's all work, no sabbath. More to the point: it's all commandment, no kiss.

Now the Gospel of Matthew has its legalistic streak, to be sure. The writer loves to flash his teeth and frighten us into holy living. Why, you can hear it in the passage we heard this morning: "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

That's hard to hear, until you also hear how the opponents of Jesus lived by commandments without kisses. They went through the motions, like actors on a stage. They talked a good talk, but their speech was self-serving. They walked a good walk, but their lives were not different from anybody else. Jesus said, "Your righteousness needs to exceed all of that."

And if we aren't sure what he's saying, Jesus went to great pains to show us.

The law said, "Don't touch anybody with a skin disease; it might rub off on you." Jesus touched a leper and said, "I choose to make you clean." (8:3) Some said, "That's a little excessive, don't you think?"

The rules said, "Don't mingle with sinners; whatever they have might rub off on you." Jesus ate with people of ill repute, saying, "God desires mercy, not sacrifice." (9:13) His enemies said, "Don't you think that's going a bit too far?"

The traditions said, "Important people need important positions and important titles. Hang around people like that, and their prestige might rub off on you." Jesus said, "Don't get caught up in titles, pomp and circumstance; God alone is Teacher, and you all have a lot to learn. In fact, here's lesson number one: the greatest among you will be your servant." (23:1-12) The critics said, "Aren't you stepping over the line?"

Well, maybe he was. He practiced what he preached, and somebody nailed him to a cross. He took upon himself all our failures, all our mistakes, all our broken commandments. When we could not be righteous, he showed us the deep righteousness of God. And he said, "Don't think I came to throw away my Bible. I came to flesh it out and make it complete."

Keep the whole picture in view: Jesus said, "Blessed are you! You are salt. You are light. I have commandments for you to keep." When we couldn't keep the commandments, Jesus climbed up a cross and kissed us again. Ever since, we are under obligation to keep all the commandments. And when we can't keep the commandments, he kisses us again, and says, "I forgive you." Then he requires us to keep his commandments.

On and on it goes. Day in, day out. We are continually loved, yet never off the hook. That's what it means to belong to God. We know the kiss. And we are called upon to do the commandments. The true child of God is the person who holds both together.

Have you ever met someone like that? It's the person who begins each morning with the words, "Lord, you have claimed me as your own; so I'm going to live as if I belong to you."

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved