Love In All the Wrong Places

 

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Matt. 4:1-11

René Descartes, the French philosopher of the early seventeenth century who is often called the father of modern Western philosophy, and who had a great impact on the studies of mathematics and geometry as well, is best known for a single philosophical premise: cogito, ergo sum. “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes was attempting to create from the ground up a wholly new organizing principle for understanding the cosmos. This organizing principle would be rooted solely in the deduction of truths that could be known without a doubt. What was the one thing the existence of which Descartes could not doubt? Thought. Thought exists, he realized —because he thought it. And that thought could not be separated from him because without him that thought would not have been thought. Therefore, because his thoughts existed, Descartes was able to deduce that he, too, existed. In fact, he reasoned, if he had any doubts about his existence, even that skepticism served to prove his existence.

Now it was left to establish the extent to which he existed. He could claim that he existed as a physical being, but that knowledge was based on his sensory perception. The senses could be deceiving, or at the very least unreliable, and his philosophy left no room for doubt. So Descartes determined that the only indubitable knowledge was that he was a thinking thing. The hyper-rationalism of Cartesian philosophy would become foundational to later philosophical development, to the scientific method, and even to theology. Perhaps Descartes himself failed to realize how theologically revolutionary his philosophy was; but in shifting the debate from “what is true” to “of what can I be certain,” Descartes had shifted the authoritative source of truth from God (or scripture or “the heavens” generally) to human reason.

And, if I may say so, he was dead wrong.

In the opening paragraph of his most famous book, Confessions, Saint Augustine wrote,

“Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Far from the “thinking thing” to which Descartes reduces human being, Augustine’s ontology — that is, his study of the nature of beingness and existence — was rooted firmly in our creatureliness. We were created not as brains on sticks, but as beings in relationship — to one another, to the rest of creation, and, mostly importantly, to God. In fact, Augustine is not so much concerned with ontology — the nature of being — as he is with teleology — the point of being. What’s it all mean? What’s a human life for? He answers this at the start of his most famous book, with his most famous quote: You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. It’s not our thinking that makes us most human, it’s our hearts’ longing for communion with God (and, by extension, one another) that marks us as the bearers of God’s image.

Author James K. A. Smith explains this beautifully and at length in his new book, You Are What You Love. As Presbyterians, we come from a centuries-long tradition of intellectual wrestling with systematic theology and biblical studies, as though we were on a quest to know more about God. Ours is, in that sense, a very Cartesian tradition. We behave like thinking things; brains-on-a-stick. My own early adulthood could be characterized as a relentless search for knowledge about God, as though by such knowledge my soul would be saved. The more I knew, and the better I understood systematic theology, I supposed, the more holy I would be.

And, if I may say so, I was dead wrong.

Instead, Smith points out that it’s not what we know that makes us holy, but what we do. No, this is not me (or Smith) trying to make a case for works righteousness — I’m pretty much allergic to the notion of works righteousness! But ask yourself this: do you ever experience gaps between what you know and what you do? Let me give you some personal examples. I know that exercise would be good for me. I know that a lot of the food that I put in my body is bad for me. I know that I should never read the comments section on a social media website. But there’s a gap between what I know and what I do. And that’s because, despite what Descartes tells us, we are not, first and foremost, “thinking things” but creatures of habit.

We’ve entered the season of Lent, a time of self-reflection and repentance wherein we should be examining ourselves for shortcomings in our morality and ethics, and finding concrete ways to become more Christlike. When people ask me if I believe in the Devil, I say, “Yes; and my evidence is that Shamrock Shakes always come out during Lent.” How am I supposed to deny my own appetites when the only good thing McDonald’s produces is only available during Lent?

And the season is beginning with a reading from Matthew about Jesus’ own brush with temptation: the temptation to use his authority in ways that were self-serving, showed a lack of trust in God’s Word, and that would have put his own desires before God’s. What I realized about this story is that no one — perhaps including Jesus himself — knew how Jesus was going to respond to temptation until he was actually tempted. This story is the first narrative evidence of Jesus facing temptation and making the choice to be… well… Christ-like. We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood (at least, we don’t know much that is scripturally authoritative); but it is apparent that by the time he was 30 years old, he was practiced enough in living faithfully to God’s will for him that he was able to overcome the temptations of Satan.

Filling our brains with scripture is not what makes us Christian, no matter what we believe about it. Actually practicing Christ-like behavior is what makes us Christ-like. My high school band director used to ask us, “How do you achieve excellence?” to which we would respond, “Master the fundamentals.” “How do you master the fundamentals?” he would ask. And we responded, “Practice, practice, practice.”

No matter how many books a person reads about how to play the French horn, he will not be able actually to play the French horn unless he practices. No matter how many books about woodworking one reads, one will not be able actually to work wood unless one practices. Olympic gymnasts don’t win gold medals because they’ve watched instructional videos about gymnastics — they win medals because they’ve practiced gymnastics, honing their bodies and their skills.

What on earth makes us think that we can learn to be Christian simply by reading a book and showing up to church less than once a week? In his book, Smith describes how liturgy — a word that means “the work of the people” — shapes us and forms us. When we hear the word “liturgy,” we, of course, think immediately of Sunday morning worship (and perhaps you think of it as “the most boring part” of worship). But liturgy is any repeated practice that forms our self-understanding through story-telling. Smith uses an example common to all of us to make his point: shopping at the mall. Some shopping mall architecture is deliberately designed to give us a sense of transcendence as we enter and walk through. He describes how stores are analogous to chapels and alcoves in a cathedral, devoted to our favorite saints, where we can procure the objects of our desire through a sacrificial transaction with a priest (usually called a “cashier”), and all because we have been led by advertisers to believe that we will find self-fulfillment or self-worth in the object we’ve purchased. Then, when the “shine” wears off of that particular object — be it an article of clothing, or new electronic gadget, or a regimen of cosmetics — and we find our sense of fulfillment once again wanting, we return to the cathedral to participate again in the secular liturgy of consumerism.

Now hear me, and hear me well: I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with buying things. (You may be surprised to learn that I also own things!) Smith describes our shopping rituals and attention to advertizing because they comprise a secular liturgy that shapes our sense of self, forming our hearts to be consumers in search of fulfillment. But as Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God,” not in a new dress, not in an Apple Watch, not in a Subaru. In God. That doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t buy a new dress, an Apple Watch, or a Subaru; but one should do it for the sake of ownership, not for the sake of personal fulfillment. To the extent that we thoughtlessly participate in consumerism because we’ve fallen for advertisers’ insistence that such objects “say something about who we are,” we delude ourselves and are deformed by this secular liturgy.

The church offers a different liturgy that shapes us according to a different narrative about who (and whose) we are, and the purposes our lives serve. Even as we are tempted to believe that we’ll find bliss or personal fulfillment in the next Android phone, the next book, the next Shamrock Shake, the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us that our chief end “is to glorify God, and to enjoy [God] forever.” If Augustine and the Westminster Divines are correct, we don’t exist in order to achieve self-fulfillment, regardless of what Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Joel Osteen may have told you. We exist for God’s good pleasure, and our hearts will not know the peace that passes all understanding until we are drawn by what John Calvin calls our “mystical union” with Christ into participation in the life of the Triune God.

That liturgy is the liturgy that we enact each and every Sunday. Many may wonder why worship is, by and large, the same experience every Sunday. It’s more or less the same because by participating regularly in a regular liturgy, we are practicing the gospel story. In my congregation, the first liturgical thing that happens is that we hear God’s Word read to us (and I even overemphasize this by placing the first scripture reading at the beginning of worship, though most churches don’t do this). Being called to worship — not by the liturgist, but by the very Word of God — we then ascribe praise to God with singing.

After this, and in response to the grace of God freely lavished upon us in and through Jesus Christ, we are able to confess our sins — not out of a sense of guilt or out of fear that our salvation depends upon it, but as a moment of honesty with ourselves and with God. We are forgiven and reconciled to God before we confess anything. Our confession is a check on our ego: we are reconciled to God, but that doesn’t mean we get life right all the time. We’re reformed, but we’re also continually reforming. We can and should strive to do better each and every day, because each “better” day better glorifies God.

Scripture teaches us that God’s ministry of reconciliation is about more than just our relationships with God, but also includes our relationships with one another and with the rest of the creation. So, having been reminded of God’s grace and unflagging love despite our flaws, we are invited by the liturgy to also offer grace and unflagging love to all the other flawed creatures sitting around us — even, and perhaps especially, those whom we have hurt, or who have hurt us. That’s what makes the Passing of the Peace so deeply, deeply important to our worship liturgy.

From there, we hear the Word proclaimed — both in art and in discourse, as the choir sings, and preacher preaches. Following this proclamation, we respond in a variety of ways: by offering of ourselves materially, temporally, and spiritually, acknowledging that all that we have and all that we are is a gift from God; by renouncing sin and being baptized; by answering God’s call to ordained ministry; and by gathering together around one table at Christ’s invitation, and entering into the very mystical union for which we were created.

Finally, after singing a final hymn, we are charged to leave, intent to do better this week than we did last week. This liturgy, practiced over and over again, is the beginning of being formed by the Word (or being re-formed after having been de-formed by the secular liturgies of the world). But it is only a beginning. We spend most of our time, money, and energy looking for love in all the wrong places. If we want to be as good at following Christ as we are at consuming products; if we want to be as good at taking up our cross as we are at picking up the TV remote; if we want to be as good at loving our neighbors as we are at loving every athlete in Pittsburgh who’s wrapped in a black and gold uniform, it’s going to take practice. Not weekly practice, but daily practice. You think Jesus overcame temptation because he went to synagogue once a week? His self-understanding was shaped by the traditions of his Jewish heritage and ethical practices every day. And Lent is the perfect time for us to pick up new daily habits to form us and shape us into something more Christlike.

Discipleship is not a hobby; nor is it a course of study. More than knowledge, what we need is wisdom; and wisdom comes with experience; and experience comes with practice. If we aspire to be Olympic-level followers of Jesus, we’re going to have to practice more than once a week.

Divine Wisdom

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Micah 6:1-8; 1 Cor. 1:18-31

Many Old Testament scholars read this prophetic utterance from Micah and imagine a courtroom scene. Described as a “covenant law suit,” such examples from prophetic literature generally include a summons, a call to witnesses or judges, a list of the benefits that the plaintiff has conferred upon the defendant, and complaints against the defendant.[1] That precise outline is laid before us here. Serving as the narrator (or, if you will, the bailiff), Micah summons all to be present and pay attention, saying, “Hear what the Lord is saying! Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains; let the hills hear your voice!” Micah then turns to address the mountains themselves: “Hear, you mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord! Hear, eternal foundations of the earth! The Lord has a lawsuit against his people; with Israel he will argue.” The mountains and the “foundations of the earth” shall serve as judge and jury in the case.

The next party to speak is the Lord, who begins in verse three with his complaint, “My people, what did I ever do to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!” That doesn’t sound like a very… methodical complaint, does it? “What did I ever do to you?” doesn’t sound like legaleze, does it? Professor Terrence Fretheim points this out as a reason to doubt that this is intended to be a courtroom drama at all. “This emotion-laden divine language is certainly not typical courtroom or accusatory rhetoric (6:3)!” he writes. And so he argues that this is not a covenant lawsuit. But I think that if we view this text through the lens of the New Testament, the possibility emerges that dismissing this text as “not a covenantal lawsuit” because God makes an emotional argument, rather than a legal one, misses the precise prophetic point.

God gives a short list of the “benefits” that Israel, the defendant, has received from God, the plaintiff; namely, “I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.” He also reminds them that despite King Balak of Moab’s plans to curse the people, God turned that curse into a blessing from the lips of Balaam, son of Beor and frustrated owner of a most charming talking donkey. “Remember all that?” he asks.

The camera turns, narratively speaking, to the people of Israel, seeking their response. “We make our sacrifices, so what more do you want from us? More sacrifices? More burnt offerings? Thousands of rams, instead of a few a day? Ten thousand rivers of oil, instead of what you’ve previously prescribed? Should we lay out our firstborn children? When will you be satisfied?”

Finally, divine wisdom is revealed in the final verse—the most famous verse of the passage—spoken by the prophet: “God has already told you what is good and what he wants from you: do justice; embrace loving kindness; walk humbly with God.” It is divine wisdom that subverts all expectation. The people have been hauled into court; God is the plaintiff; some penalty must surely be forthcoming. But God demands no penalty. God extracts no retribution. Instead, God says, “I want you to love each other… I want you to love me.”

It’s a safe bet that the people were caught off guard by this prophetic utterance. They had been working under the wrong assumptions: assumptions about the efficacy of their cultic activities—assumptions that were subverted and overturned by God’s stated “requirement.” Actually, this very passage of scripture can serve as an example of what I mean. The meaning of the phrase, “what does the Lord require of you?” might lead people to make certain assumptions. One might assume that seeking justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God are “required” of us in order to “satisfy” God in the same way that all those sacrifices had been given; that is, God’s “requirements” are often treated like cultic activities, motions to go through, lip service to pay. This assumptive, transactional theology turns the Law into a checklist of dos and don’ts to be followed out of fear of divine wrath upon any who fail. But according to the Rev. James C. Howell, author of What Does the Lord Require?: Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, and Walking Humbly, the Hebrew word for require, “darash,” contains undertones of affection. It’s not that the Lord insists upon justice, love, and humility (in the sense that our salvation depends on it); it’s that he seeks them, he yearns for them, he needs them of us in order for our relationships to be as healthy and intimate as God has designed.

God’s will is that his people seek justice, which means building communities of caring. Justice is what love looks like at the societal level. Throughout the Law, God shows us how to seek justice through laws that prohibit the exploitation of the poor by lending at interest (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:36); jubilee laws that return familial property to their original owners after certain periods of time (Lev. 25); laws that demand care for widows and orphans (Ex. 22:22; Deut. 14:28-29); laws that protect and provide for the poor and hungry (Deut. 15:7; Deut. 26:12); and more than a dozen laws protecting the rights and dignity of migrants, refugees, and other aliens.

But why? Why does God care so much about poor people? About widows and orphans and other underprivileged folk? Why are there thirteen different utterances, for instance, that God’s people care for the foreign neighbors living among them? Because the fundamental virtue that underlies every ethic and practice in the Kingdom of God is love. We seek justice because that is how we exhibit, at a societal level, the same loving kindness that God has shown to us. There is nothing more “alien” to God’s holiness, there is nothing more different from God than sinful humanity. Nonetheless, God loves us, God has drawn near to us, God has carried the flesh of our humanity into his holy and eternal presence in the ascension of Jesus Christ; and “we love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God makes this clear in God’s complaint against Israel: “I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Mic. 6:4). God said it repeatedly in the book of Exodus: “You shall not oppress an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” The prophets were constantly reminding Israel of its story, implying, “Before you treat others badly, remember how you were treated by your oppressors.”

Micah speaks out because the people seem to have forgotten their story and, therefore, their saving God. When we forget God’s saving acts in our lives, we become unable to empathize with others. They become charity cases at best, and scapegoats at worst. But we’re not different from them; only our circumstances are different. God doesn’t love them less; we love them less, and we do so at our own peril and to our own condemnation.

And all the while, we show up on Sunday mornings and call ourselves disciples of the very Lord who said, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me… Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:41-45).

Micah’s message was (and is) an indictment of religious lip service; cheap grace; worship without work. It flies in the face of human wisdom, by which religious rituals replace righteous relationships. It alludes to the difference between charity, which only treats the symptoms of our social ills, and justice, which would heal our social disease.

Then we turn to Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, and he tells us that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of what we preach” (1 Cor. 1:21). See, the Jews, being a people with a long memory for how God had saved them through deeds of mighty power, demanded signs. And the Greek Gentiles of Paul’s day—the folks with whom he spent a great deal of time—were philosophers who constantly sought wisdom, that is, human wisdom about God (or “the gods”) and humanity’s place in the universe. Meanwhile, Paul and Apollos and Peter and the others… they were preaching the crucified Christ. A dead Messiah was a stumbling block for most Jews, and sounded just plain stupid to most Greeks, but for some—those whom the Holy Spirit enabled to grasp it—Christ’s cross was all the sign or the wisdom necessary to understand God. God is love. In Christ, God took his own judgment upon himself. Jesus was our righteous judge, judged in our place.

Dr. Mark Achtemeier says of this passage,

“This unlikely means of salvation, in which the Son of God suffers and dies an ignominious death for the redemption of humankind, is not something that conventional spiritual wisdom or philosophical reflection could have anticipated. As a result, says Paul, the religious ‘experts’ who were staking their claims on human wisdom have completely missed the boat…

“[Their] failure to recognize God’s salvation of the world in Jesus is the product of prior expectations about what God’s work must look like. Both Jewish and Greek unbelievers suffer a form of blindness caused by human religious preconceptions about what God must be like. As a result of their reliance on this accumulated stock of religious ‘wisdom,’ both groups fail to recognize what God actually is like.”[2]

When we fail to take seriously what scripture tells us about what God is like, our ignorance creates space for the idolatrous assumption that God wants what we want; that God hates who we hate; that God blesses “us” and curses “them.” We forget that we were once aliens in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord brought us up out of the house of slavery. We forget that Jesus taught that “God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45), apparently because God loves both the evil and the good, both the righteous and the unrighteous.

If that sounds ridiculous, if that sounds like foolishness to you, the apostle Paul would draw your attention the cross of Christ. “And then look at you,” he says. “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards, not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human being can brag in God’s presence. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us” (1 Cor. 26:30, CEB).

That, my brothers and sisters, is Paul’s definition of walking humbly with our God. We deserve condemnation, but God has loved us to his own death. He has told us what is good. God yearns for us to seek justice, to embrace God’s loving-kindness such that we are able to love our neighbors in the same way, and to remember our place and walk humbly with God. God’s strength is not worldly strength. God’s justice does not correspond to human justice. And God’s divine wisdom, however foolish it may seem, is our salvation.

 

[1] W. Sibley Towner, “Micah 6:1-8, Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox: 2010), 291.

[2] P. Mark Achtemeier, “1 Cor. 1:18-31; Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox: 2010), 303-4.

Discipleship to Christ

 

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Matt. 21:28-32

Eph. 4:11-16

Acts 2:42-47

Both of the sons in Jesus “Parable of the Two Sons” are guilty of insulting their father. One of them pays lip service to the Father’s will but then chooses not to conform to it. The other rejects his father’s will to his face, but later comes around. This is essentially Matthew’s take on the ethical teachings we know better from Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son but told in a very different way. A father has two sons: one who treats his father well but doesn’t do what is asked of him; and one who treats his father badly, but later does his father’s will.

As we all know from repeated consideration of the parable of the Prodigal Son, we may be one son or the other. More likely, we’re both.

We’re the first son when we run amok through life only late to return, repentant and chastened. We’re the first son when we live our days forgetting to give any thought to God, only to lay our heads down at night and realize, “I really should have prayed today.” We’re the first son when we’ve given little or no thought to what God wants, and frankly don’t care; but then when push comes to shove, by the stirring of the Holy Spirit, we nonetheless make a good ethical choice, or we do right by someone we really don’t like, or we say thank you to God for a blessing we know darn well we don’t deserve.

We’re the second son when we call Jesus “Lord,” but live and work and treat others as though we’ve never so much as heard of the Sermon on the Mount, let alone read it. We’re the second son whenever we pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” when God’s will is the last thing we want done on earth (because God’s will is not very often the same as our will, which is what we’d really like to see). We’re the second son when we are quick to declare our love for God, but slow to show love for neighbors, even looking down on them, as the Pharisee does to the tax collector in another of Jesus’ parables, as though their lack of sanctity somehow makes them less worthy of God’s love or ours.

 

In Matthew, Jesus doesn’t tell us how the father reacts to each of his sons, as he does in Luke’s parable; instead, he asks us, “Which of them did the will of their father?” His immediate point, in speaking to the Pharisees, was to point out that all their pious religiosity amounts to lip service; but ultimately, they have not changed their hearts and lives according to God’s will. Meanwhile, as he says, tax collectors and prostitutes, hearing John’s call to repentance, have changed their lives to conform to God’s will. Jesus’ larger point, keeping in mind the context of this parable in Matthew, was to compare his authority (which they questions) to theirs—his point being: authority comes not by knowledge of God’s Law (or, I would add, any particular systematic theology), but from knowing and doing God’s will.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of them, because those tax collectors and prostitutes, having heard God’s call to repentance through the preaching of John the Baptist, have changed their hearts and their lives; while the Pharisees have no regrets, continuing to believe they have nothing for which to apologize. Having just heard it last month, we hear echoes in our minds of Jesus having said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). And it’s no wonder since, in the Gospel of Matthew, this is perhaps the most foundational teaching of Jesus: real disciples don’t pay lip service; real disciples follow the master’s example. Even those who only get around to it eventually are still better than those who never get around to it at all. And Jesus’ final teaching in the Gospel of Matthew, found at the end of chapter 25, illustrates how God will judge the peoples by separating them out the way a shepherd separates his sheep from his goats. And again, the difference between the sheep and the goats is not that the sheep believe and the goats don’t. It’s that the sheep do what Jesus has taught: loving their neighbors as they love themselves, doing unto others as they would have done unto them; and the goat’s don’t.

The Elders of my congregation recently ratified a new vision for our church which will officially take effect in January. It is not altogether different from the congregation’s previous mission statement. For instance, whereas the former statement says that we are called to “make disciples,” the new statement says that we “seek discipleship to Christ.” The first is language borrowed from Jesus’ Great Commission, instructing us to make followers of others. The new language, in a subtle way, acknowledges that discipleship—following Jesus—is an area where we could still use some work, ourselves.

And even as it contains that subtlety, it also offers profound focus and specificity. We seek discipleship to Christ; not to church tradition, not to one theological forebear or other, not to some distinctively American expression of Christianity, not to some moral philosophy, not to a political party, not to an economic system, not to a nation. We seek discipleship to Christ, and Christ alone.

Discipleship to Christ means we follow the teachings and example of Jesus Christ to the best of our abilities, trusting in him to direct us through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, correct us when we miss the mark, and cover over our sins with his righteousness; and, we immerse ourselves in the study and contemplation of scripture, paying particular attention to the way Jesus interprets God’s will for us in word and act. As he pointed out to the Pharisees in this morning’s gospel reading, his knowledge of God is authoritative, because it is Christ—and no other—who does, and teaches us to do, God’s will.

The author of Ephesians tells us that God has given gifts such that “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity [that comes by] faith, and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).

Discipleship, then, means constantly returning to sit at the feet of Jesus—hearing his words, watching his actions—and constantly seeking to conform our thoughts and actions more and more to his. Rather than be blown around by the winds of every competing philosophy or offer our allegiance to anyone else, we are called to grow—in every way—into Christ. Christ is the head of the body, and the whole body grows from him held together in him and by him and for him with love (Eph. 4:11-16).

We’re not going to get it right all the time. Discipleship is hard. Sometimes we know what Jesus wants us to do, and just don’t want to do it. Sometimes we do precisely what he would not have us do, and only later feel remorse for our actions. Sometimes we ignore the guidance of the Holy Spirit in those circumstances; sometimes we’re too caught up in our own selfish desires to even notice the Spirit’s work. But thanks be to God, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, although “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory… all are treated as righteous freely by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-24).

Jesus’ parable—and ultimately the whole concept of discipleship—is not just about “where we go in the end.” In fact, when Jesus declares that “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” he means for it to be lived and experienced now, not someday in a glorious hereafter. Only a few chapters earlier, in another dispute with Pharisees, Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah, who said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines” (Matt. 15:8). As it is commonly said in the popular book and TV series, A Game of Thrones, “Words are wind.” Now this morning, Jesus has given us a parable illustrating the same point.

The Reverend Doctor Janet H. Hunt tells a story from her own family’s experience, dating back to the death of her grandmother, Beulah, when Dr. Hunt was only seven years old. She remembered fearing that her grandmother had gone to hell because she had never known her grandmother to go to church. In fact, while Beulah had sent all of her children to a Catholic school in order to be taught in the faith, she herself never attended mass.

Only as an adult—many years after her grandmother’s death—did she hear the heart-breaking story of why her grandmother never attended church. When Beulah’s husband had died very young, she had no choice but to help her family by getting a job selling magazines and cigarettes at a newsstand. There, Beulah “had no protection and found herself at the mercy of others. And so it was that for the rest of her life she would not forget that certain pillars of the community and the church—married men with families of their own—did not hesitate to make advances towards her. I cringe to think of it now,” Dr. Hunt writes, “how very painful and frightening this must have been for her. And without a doubt, her distress was compounded by this: that their ‘witness’ to her was that the faith they professed seemed to have no bearing on their behavior when they walked into that shop. It would appear that their example was that of the son Jesus describes today who heartily and eagerly said yes to his father, and then somehow forgot, failed, and did precisely the opposite of what God would want.”

It matters what we do. It matters how we live our lives in all of the places where we are privileged to live them—and not just how we aspire to live when we sit in our Sunday morning pews. Again, none of us gets it completely right; and neither in Jesus’ parable get it right, either. One could be said to have gone to church, and then behaved badly everywhere else. The other could be said to have refused to go to church, but nonetheless comes around to God’s way of thinking and doing anyway. The latter is the one, however imperfect an example he may seem to us, who the Pharisees (and we) begrudgingly admit does the will of his father.

It can be hard to hear this parable, as one who professes faith and then, upon self-examination, realizes that I have often failed to live as Jesus would have me do. Where is there grace for a Pharisee such as I? There is grace in realizing that our stories aren’t finished being written yet; that, just as those prostitutes and tax collectors who are ahead of me in line for entry into the Kingdom, I, too, can change my heart and change my life. In other words, it is not too late for anyone to start seeking discipleship to Christ, nor are our efforts in vain when we fall short since Christ’s righteousness is ours by the grace of God.

The New Wilmington Presbyterian Church, where I am privileged to serve as Pastor, seeks discipleship to Christ, growing in every way into mature adults—measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ. All Christians are called to do the same, being gentle with ourselves and with one another as we do so, remembering always that discipleship is a life-long journey. We’re not all at the same point along the path, and we don’t all walk at the same pace. But what makes the Body of Christ a blessed community of the people of God is that we help one another along with gentleness and love, pointing in the right direction, picking one another up when we stumble, healing one another, even in our own woundedness.

The Church IS Caving to Societal Norms, but Not the One You’re Thinking Of

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This blog post was previously published on October 9, 2014, when “The Solitary Broom Tree” was hosted by BlogSpot. Other than correcting typos, the content has not changed.
Paul puts it in the clearest possible terms in the 14th chapter of his letter to the Romans: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? They stand or fall before their own Lord (and they will stand, because the Lord has the power to make them stand).” (Rom. 14:4, CEB).
At this point in his letter, Paul is talking about doctrinal issues of significant importance in the life of the church in his day. Should people eat food that had been sacrificed to idols? Should the Sabbath still be observed? Those aren’t the controversies that plague the church today, but we have controversies of our own, don’t we? We can certainly think of controversies about which we feel passionately—so passionately, in fact, that we might think that they serve as sufficient cause to reject fellowship with others: homosexuality, abortion, universalism, the authority of scripture, divestment decisions, and so on. But here Paul makes a clear argument that regardless of one’s personal convictions, such controversies are insufficient causes for breaking fellowship with fellow Christians.

He’s not saying we shouldn’t care about important issues, or that we should stop advocating for our positions. Paul engaged in theological arguments and disputes all the time. Paul is not as concerned about the moral rectitude of Christians’ deeply held convictions as he is about the spirit of those Christians for or toward those with whom they disagree: “Those who [hold one position] must not look down on the ones who [do not], and the ones who do not [hold that position] must not judge the ones who do, because God has accepted them” (14:3). Granted, this is not universally applicable. He acknowledges that whether they hold one position or the other, they do so as a conscientious act of faithfulness, seeking to glorify God (14:6). That is the litmus test — perhaps the only valid one — for determining continued fellowship. “I wholeheartedly disagree with my sister’s position on abortion,” one might say, “But in her position, she seeks to glorify God.” I suspect that this reflective attitude would almost invariably yield an unbroken fellowship, and it just might result in a dialogue wherein each party comes away with a better appreciation for (though not necessarily agreement with) the position of the other.

I have heard it said, especially lately, that the church is accommodating societal norms, “caving to pressure to be more like the rest of society,” and I couldn’t agree more. To whit, we have allowed ourselves to believe that we can hate and despise those who disagree with us, just like the rest of society. “Out in the world,” liberals and conservatives (because those are apparently the only two kinds of people who exist) disparage each other, hate each other, sabotage each other, and even stoop to the school-yard level of calling each other names, and all because of the self-righteousness with which they cling to their own positions.

Most troublingly, we’ve been seeing the same behavior happening in the church as well. We stop seeing another person as a child of God and view him or her instead as the personification of a sin — such as the “sin” of being a liberal, the “sin” of being a conservative. Good people — good people — fall victim to this mentality, and it doesn’t just happen “out there in the world;” it also happens within the Church. And that is the sin. The closely held belief of the people with whom you disagree probably isn’t sinful; but the disdain, the dismissiveness, the very thoughts that you have about those people in your mind probably are sinful. That is the sin of society that we have allowed to infiltrate the body of Christ. We are called to be better than that.

Our identity is not derived from political or moral standing, or from identification with these people in opposition to those people. Instead, Paul points the Romans to the transcendent truth: “If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8). Our relation to every other is mediated through our relation to God. Period.

When does forgiveness end? Never (Matt.18:21-22). Who shouldn’t we love? No one (Luke 10:25-37). Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ (Rom. 8:34).

Only Christ.

How might the world respond to the church if it offered the positive example of disagreeing without being disagreeable as an alternative to the surpassing value the world places on “winning” political battles where no one actually wins? Rather than emulating the world, the church should “exhibit the kingdom of heaven in the world,” offering it an alternative model of interpersonal and inter-institutional dialogue worth emulating.

The WAY: The Kingdom’s Treasury

 

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Eccl. 5:8-12

Matthew 6:19-24

Imagine a lavishly wealthy man, among the richest in the world, who had been a shrewd businessman and innovator in his field, who had founded his own company and toiled all his life to build his corporation, amass his fortune, and jealously guard it against all comers. All this was done to the admiration—and envy—of his competitors, who openly marveled at his business acumen.

On the day the man’s death was reported, two men were seated at a restaurant, discussing the demise of the famously wealthy man. One said to the other, “How much did he leave?”

To which the other one replied, “All of it.”

 

That tragic tale is the crux of the matter, when Jesus tells his congregation, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” These words follow on the heels of comments about the inward attitude with which Christ’s followers are to practice piety; and in fact, there is no clean break between the previous post and this one. It is part not only of the same sermon but the same point that Jesus began to make in the previous post. And so rather than treat this as a new segment, we have to review where we left off, realizing that Jesus’ thoughts on the subject of piety have not yet reached their conclusion.

Previously, Jesus taught that when we give alms, we should do so quietly, without seeking acclaim from others; that when we pray, we should do so secretly and simply, and not publicly or with many flowery words intended to impress others; and that when we fast, we should do so privately, not seeking the admiration of others. As commentator Patrick Willson summarizes it, “Rewards will come to those who give themselves away in almsgiving, who shed themselves in prayer, and who empty themselves to be filled by God’s goodness.”[1] Piety, then, is a denial of self in order to glorify God—a subject about which Jesus will have much more to say and to model throughout his ministry.

All of this is followed up by today’s opening words: “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth… instead, collect treasures for yourself in heaven. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21, CEB). If you, like me, have heard these words preached a hundred times in your life, it was likely almost always about money. But I suggest that while these words can be applied to money, the teaching itself hardly has anything to do with money at all, and that’s because Jesus has not been teaching about money, but about bad religion versus good religion, and these words are a continuation of that train of thought. “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth,” taken in the context of Jesus’ teaching about good almsgiving, good prayer, and good fasting, points back to the “rewards” that the hypocrites receive: namely, the accolades of their fellow human beings. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting do not enrich us monetarily, but may be twisted to enrich us socially. That is what Jesus continues to guard against, so these words are not about money but are a continuation of his warning not to seek the praises and honor of others for our acts of piety. We shouldn’t give to impress others, but give our very selves away; we shouldn’t pray to impress others, but shed our very selves in seeking God’s will; we shouldn’t fast to impress others, but to empty ourselves so that we may be filled by God’s righteous goodness.

Consistently, the treasure about which Jesus speaks is not money, but honor. Our inner motivations—provided that we are sufficiently self-aware to notice them—reveal to us the kind of treasure we seek: honor in the eyes of others, or honor in the eyes of God. Jesus summarizes all of this teaching with the final phrase: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That is, the one whose honor matters most to you is the one to whom you will give your allegiance. If we want to achieve what this world calls success, and be esteemed by our colleagues and friends, then we will give our allegiance to ourselves, or to that which will help us achieve status and success. If what we want is to live as citizens of God’s Kingdom, then we will give our allegiance to God’s will for us, as revealed in, and modeled by, Jesus Christ.

From here, Jesus finally seems to change the subject—but he doesn’t. He begins talking about eyes, and light, and darkness, and we might think, “Ah! Jesus is onto something else, now.” But we’d be wrong. These verses are cryptic and weird. (In contrast to our modern understanding of how our eyes work, that is, that our eyes allow light in, and our brain interprets that light, the common understanding in the ancient world was that the eye was like a lamp, casting light upon objects so that they can be seen. If one’s eyes were bad, it was indicative of the darkness within oneself.) But Jesus’ intent is still true, regardless of our understanding of optic physiology: if our eye is bad, we experience darkness. Or, to interpret the allegory, if our self-understanding is not clear as to our attitude concerning everything Jesus has been saying, then our entire life will be cast into the darkness of corruption.

Jesus then brings the point home, saying, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to one and have contempt for the other” (Matt. 6:24a, CEB). Now, “love” and “hate” do not refer to emotions, of course, but are common Biblical idioms that mean, “to choose” and “to reject.” You cannot serve two masters, because ultimately, you will choose one over the other. This is particularly true where the last several paragraphs of Jesus’ teaching are concerned. He has told us that when we give alms, we must choose whether to do so in a way that glorifies us or glorifies God. When we pray, we must choose whether to do so in a way that glorifies us or glorifies God. When we fast, we must choose whether to do so in a way that glorifies us or glorifies God.

Ah! But Jesus, why can’t it be both? If I give money to charity, and this raises my esteem in society, what’s the harm? Hasn’t the charity profited? And if I pray publicly, and people believe me to be very pious, what’s the harm? Haven’t I set a good example for them? And if I make it plain that I am fasting, and this proves my devotion and reverence in the eyes of others, what’s the harm? Isn’t God glorified?

As it turns out, Jesus anticipated these lines of argument. What Jesus has been saying all along in the Sermon on the Mount, is that every choice we make is the acceptance of one thing and a rejection of something else. We choose evil or good; we choose the righteousness of the Pharisees or the righteousness of Jesus; we choose kindness or hostility. There’s always a choice, and our choices are indicative of whether we serve God or serve ourselves. We cannot give our undivided attention to two different things; and God, who describes himself as a “jealous God,” who commands us to have no other gods before him, desires our undivided attention.

Finally, Jesus puts a capstone on this argument with the simple statement: “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (6:24b). Many Bible translations offer us a common concept of what “mammon” means: money, wealth. But that is insufficient to properly understand what is being said here. It’s not money being served here, nor is it money being rejected. What Jesus is imploring us to reject is self-sufficiency. Mammon represents the means to take care of ourselves, to make something of ourselves, to ensure our own futures. This concluding statement bears out what this entire section of the Sermon amounts to: Human beings are not intended to be self-sufficient or self-reliant; and this applies not only in the material sense, whereby we provide for our own food shelter and creature comfort, but perhaps especially in the salvific sense. Our piety does not—can not—make us “right with God.” Only God’s own grace is sufficient for that. So if that’s why we give alms, pray, and fast, we do all of them for the wrong reasons. God intends for us to find life’s meaning outside of ourselves, in our loving relationships with our neighbors and with God.

Obviously, this is leading directly to the next passage, where Jesus will say “Therefore, don’t worry about food, clothing, etcetera. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and trust God to see to your needs.” But let’s not jump ahead just yet! Clearly, that is one of the pitfalls of taking Jesus’ single sermon and breaking it down into many parts. Jesus wants to keep talking, but we need him to pause before he’s reached his conclusion.

Instead, I want to draw our attention to another scripture reading, from the Old Testament book of ancient wisdom, Ecclesiastes. If we take the allegorical principles we’ve learned from the Sermon on the Mount and apply them to the teachings of Quoheleth, the teacher of Ecclesiastes, we perhaps find from whence Jesus’ wisdom has come. “Whoever loves money never has enough,” Quoheleth points out, “and whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income,” but living in such a way is pointless. “What’s the use in acquiring ‘stuff,’” Quoheleth asks, “other than to say, ‘Look at all my stuff’?” But he also notes the peace that comes to those who don’t devote themselves to enriching themselves. “The sleep of the laborer is sweet, whether he eats a little or a lot,” he says, while the rich lose sleep, worrying about whether all that they have will be enough.

To me, this speaks directly to what Jesus teaches in his sermon. Those concerned about status have their reward: whatever honor they have acquired in society is all the honor they will ever have. But those of lower estate needn’t worry; indeed, they have few possessions to worry over, and God will see to the rest. Remember, Jesus began his sermon by telling the hopeless, the grieving, the meek, the hungry for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers that God blesses them, and will continue to do so.

Their reward, their honor, comes from the treasury of the Kingdom, where there is no moth to be found, and where no corrosion can ever touch what God has granted.

 

[1] Patrick J. Willson, “Ash Wednesday, Homiletical Perspective” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2010), 25.

Machine Against the Rage

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Matt. 5:17-26

I deliberately included verses that were included in my previous post, because they serve as a preamble to what Jesus teaches in this post concerning anger and “the Way.” In fact, we will revisit that preamble for the next few posts, because it’s good to be reminded of Jesus’ position about the Law—that he has not come to abolish it but to perfect it—before hearing him speak about how his followers ought to live the Way in their lives. After all, we are reminded, the Kingdom of Heaven is out of reach for us, unless we learn to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees.

The reason why this is important enough to repeat is that when Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you,” he is not merely contrasting an old interpretation of the Law with a new one, or even replacing the old with the new. Rather, he is using the old interpretation of the Law as the basis for illustrating a new Way that is more radical, because it is as much about the character of believers as it is their actions. Rather than “go through the motions” or check off boxes on a checklist of do’s and don’ts, Jesus wants the Law to be inscribed on the hearts of his hearers, so that the Law—the WAY—becomes more than a list of rules: it becomes an attitude, a change of heart, a “new and right spirit” within us.

This method of internalizing God’s Law, turning it into the Way of life, is deeply challenging to every one of us, reminding us of how woefully inadequate our efforts at righteousness often are. Just when we might pat ourselves on the back and say (only half jokingly), “Welp, I managed to not kill anyone today. Guess I can check the sixth commandment off as done,” today, we read from our Savior’s own mouth, that we’ve actually probably completely missed the mark on that one.

Here’s how I might paraphrase Jesus’ teaching: “You have been hearing since the old days that, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say that if you are angry with a brother or sister, the Session ought to haul you in! If you so much as call someone a fool, your salvation is at stake! So when you come to the Lord’s table, and are reminded that you’re at odds with a fellow church member, leave the table and reconcile with your brother or sister. Then you can come to the table knowing that you are truly united with one another in Christ, which is what communion really means!

“And this doesn’t just apply within the church, but outside of it as well. If someone has accused you of wrongdoing, reconcile with him or her by all possible means. Your relationships—even with those outside the church—are more important than ‘who’s right and who’s wrong.’ Judges aren’t interested in reconciliation, only justice, which isn’t the same thing at all.”

I am reminded of the most memorable passage in the Old Testament book of Micah. In the 6th chapter of that book, Micah portrays a court scene, where God accuses Israel of transgressing their covenant with God. Israel, chastened by these accusations, asks, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

And the righteous judge responds, saying, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8). Here, just as Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, Micah is pleading with Israel to think of the Law not as an economic transaction—not a question of how many sacrifices will be necessary in order to compensate for their sins—but as a way of life that transforms attitudes. “I don’t want sacrifices,” says God, “I want your heart. Live justly, keep covenant with one another, take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus connects the dots for his listeners from outward acts to internal orientation, from murder to anger. It is one thing to behave rightly. It is another thing entirely for one’s heart to be oriented toward love. Just as it is easier to make a sacrifice at the temple than it is to do justice, so it is easier to keep the commandment against murder than it is to avoid anger in one’s heart. Jesus offers a more radical ethic, a reign of God ethic, one already hinted at in the beatitudes. The righteousness of Jesus’ newly inaugurated kingdom of God is about more than “following rules.” It requires and empowers a life surrendered to God and neighbor.

The New Testament contains two different words for “anger.” One is simply the kind of passionate energy that causes one to act. Think of it as “righteous indignation.” The word that Jesus uses, however, means rage: the brooding, pervasive animosity that can eat away at us—a kind of leprosy of the soul. This toxic poison destroys relationships and leads to malicious gossip, to character assassination, to the destruction of lives and reputations, and even, as we were reminded this week, to truly murderous rage. We’d like to imagine that we are above such base behavior, but I ask you: Who was the last person you gossiped about or maligned? How frequently do you label or stereotype others; not just in conversation, but even in your own head? How easy it is to turn other people into a category, rather than seeing them each as a beloved child of God who just happens to see things differently than we do.

More than this, the labels we use dehumanize others, because we allow a descriptor to replace their personhood. When we identify people with labels instead of personhood—Conservative, Liberal, Democrat, Republican, Black, White, Latino, Homosexual—we dehumanize them; we make them less than people, objects worthy of derision or distrust. They are not. They are people created in the image of God and for whom Christ died.

A year ago, I preached a sermon in response to the mass shooting that took place in the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people during a Bible study for no other reason than that they were black. Within days of the anniversary of that tragedy, the country was reeling from the largest mass shooting in our nation’s history, involving the deaths of 49 people, for no other reason than that they were gay. When we utter epithets under our breath, we dehumanize someone whose culture or behavior is different from ours—and it doesn’t matter one whit whether you think that behavior is right or wrong, because the behavior of our neighbor does not change their status as a neighbor, and it does not decrease their humanity in the slightest. Jesus preferred the company of those whom society rejected. So ask yourself: would Jesus rather eat dinner with us, or with those we belittle?

Jesus’ teaching shows us just how readily we compromise our discipleship, while at the same time calling ourselves Christian. We congratulate ourselves for not committing murder while we ruin the reputation of a coworker, or belittle a family member’s best efforts, or betray someone’s trust with harsh words, or call someone we don’t know or don’t understand despicable names. But it never occurs to us that we have flouted God’s law, gotten lost along the Way, and betrayed our union with Christ or our unity in Christ. The notion that we must reconcile with anyone who has something against us before we can give our gifts to God, should stop us in our tracks. There is no easy, private relationship with God in these words. There’s no easy, private confession of sin to God and no easy, presumed pardon. Resentment, alienation, and estrangement from others prevent us from giving our gifts to God, or communing with Jesus and our fellow disciples at his table.

There is a story—I understand it’s a true one—about two farmers in Canada. One day the dog of the one farmer got loose and mauled to death the two-year-old child of his neighbor. The devastated father cut off all relationship with his neighbor, and the two men lived in cold, defiant enmity 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 family’s future appeared doomed.

Except that the next morning, he awoke to find his fields plowed and ready for seed. Upon investigation, he discovered that his grieving neighbor had done this good deed in the middle of the night. Humbly the rescued farmer approached his neighbor and asked him if he had plowed his fields, and why. The answer was clear: “Yes,” his former enemy said. “I plowed your fields so that God can live.”

God’s in-breaking presence in Jesus Christ re-orders the relationships of this world and re-orients the internal landscapes of our lives. We proclaim that ours is a living God, incarnate among us, not some far-off potentate who must be humored with occasional acts of obeisance. We proclaim that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), the Word embedded in real, everyday life, in outward actions and inward attitudes. We proclaim a God present in the flesh and bone of our lives, and not a mere keeper of check-lists. And in order for this incarnate God to live, we must “live out,” or embody, his Way of life.

Jesus challenges us in this post, as he will in the next few posts, with the question, “Are you called to a love of law, or to the law of love?” The Pharisees—to their credit—loved the law, but Jesus said that righteousness would have to exceed this if we want to inherit the Kingdom. The irony, of course, is that many Pharisees accused Jesus and his followers of being lawbreakers. He didn’t observe the Sabbath in keeping with their traditional understandings. According to Mark, he completely disregarded traditional rules about fasting (cf., Mark 2:18). He and his disciples were accused of openly defying time-honored traditions about ceremonial hand washing before meals. Worst of all, he associated with social outcasts, and even ate with them.

But Jesus cannot be judged by the standards of the Pharisees because Jesus’ Way is more righteous than theirs. It wasn’t, and isn’t, enough to live life “by the rules;” Jesus came to establish a new society—a new world order—not based on a checklist of laws, but on living out the very ethic of love for God and love for one another that he said the entire Bible hinges upon. “Out with the old, in with the new,” Jesus was there to proclaim. That didn’t mean that the old rules no longer applied, but rather that the old attitude about the rules no longer applied. The Law—as presented in the Old Testament—is not a legal requirement. It is God’s gift to humanity of a Way of Life. The Kingdom of God is not intended to replace Israel, it is intended to restore God’s people to an understanding of God’s Way of life. The very intent of God’s law is to cause people to live together in peace with one another and with God.

And this is good news! God, in, through, and as Jesus Christ, enters the messiness of life in all its dimensions, seeking to heal and save. This God offers a life that is deep and wide, where light shines into every nook and cranny, rather than a puny, flat life, reduced to “avoiding the big sins.” Jesus gives us disciples a new Way of life, not rejecting tradition, but building upon it and moving beyond it. It is a Way of life that both demands more and promises more. And it is “life abundant.”

The WAY: “Yinz”

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Matt. 5:13-20

Today’s reading is part of a transition for Matthew — a transition between the “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it” of the Beatitudes and the “what are you going to do about it?” of what comes next. In order to be a helpful transition, the metaphors of salt and light must serve as commentary on both what was said before them and what is said after. In my previous post, the Beatitudes indicated God’s love for and blessings upon us — even when the divinely desired response to that love is challenging for us, and especially when our response breeds hostility and persecution by the world. Today, Jesus goes on to point out to us that we are salt and light.

It would be wise for us to have in mind the context in which Matthew wrote his gospel. Matthew is most closely associated with the ancient church in Antioch, a congregation made up mostly, though not exclusively, of Jewish Christians. This is why Matthew wrote Jesus’ story in a way that would appeal to a Jewish audience: Jesus is depicted as the “new Moses,” his family having fled from the wrath of an angry king who kills young babies; having then made the return trip from Egypt to the Promised Land; and now, as his ministry is about to begin in earnest, having climbed a mountain to give to the people of Israel his interpretation of the Law of God — just like Moses.

It’s important to remember, too, that Israel is an occupied territory. While they live in their native land, in a sense Israel is still a nation in exile, because they are not self-governing. The Jews reacted to this situation of exile-in-their-own-territory in a variety of ways. The Saduccees collaborated with their captors in an effort to gain favor and power. The Zealots stoked the fires of a widespread desire to take up arms and fight the empire off. The Pharisees, as a party, were of two minds. Some of them agreed with the Zealots that Rome should be shoved out of the Promised Land. Others decided that if they could not attain political independence, at least they could preserve their cultural and religious identities as a people called and set apart by God.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount preaches ta similar message, but it does so through a different perspective on the law of Moses. As we will learn, Jesus rejected the ideology of the Zealots, teaching his listeners that their enemies should not be hated, but loved; should not be resisted, but prayed for and met with astonishing generosity. But he also rejected the ideology of the Pharisees, pointing out that unless one’s righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees, one would not enter the kingdom of heaven. In other words, the medicine the Pharisees were selling wasn’t strong enough to cure what was ailing Israel (or, as we read it, the church).

The Greek words used in Jesus’ pronouncements this morning are extra emphatic, second-person, and plural — Yinz are the salt of the earth; Yinz are the light of the world (if you are from Southwestern Pennsylvania); youse are the salt of the earth; youse are the light of the world (if you’re from Philadelphia and parts of the Tidewater); Y’all are the salt of the earth; y’all are the light of the world (if you’re from the South of the United States)! And the reason for the emphasis is that Jesus is going to spend much of the Sermon on the Mount contrasting the church with the Pharisees and Zealots, and he’s prepared to start right now. The Zealots have the wrong idea, the Pharisees have the wrong idea—Yinz (because I’m from the Pittsburgh area) are the salt; Yinz are the light, not them.

The Pharisees’ version of adherence to the law was based on an outdated understanding of Israel’s situation. The Pharisees worked on the assumption that the fulfillment of God’s promises still lay in the future; that God’s reign had not yet begun; that the mentality of exile still continued. And so they advocated withdrawal and protection of their cultural identity so that they might be found righteous when God “did his new thing.” But Jesus was proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was now; that God was already doing a new thing. So merely preserving one’s cultural identity was no longer good enough.

This is what Jesus meant when he said, “No one puts a lamp under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house” (Matt. 5:15). If we know who we are — if we recognize that God has called us, separated us, and marked us as his own children — and then refuse to do something about it, then we are salt without flavor; we are lamps under a bushel. We are useless to the kingdom, and will be thrown out with the trash.

We are not salt and light by virtue of any inherent potential that we’re called to recognize and develop. We don’t choose to be salt and light, and we aren’t salt and light simply because of who we are. We are salt and light because Jesus says so. What, then, must we do to fulfill our calling, or our purpose, as the salt of the earth, or the light of the world? In one sense, Jesus will spend the rest of the Sermon on the Mount answering that question. By mentioning it near the beginning, Matthew hopes that it will help us to make sense of everything else that Jesus is about to say. Jesus calling his followers the salt of the earth suggests that Jesus gives us a distinctive capacity to elicit goodness on the earth. Like salt, which is used to alter or enhance the flavor of food, we have the capacity elicit goodness — to alter or enhance the world in which we live — as we participate in Christ’ ministry in consequential ways. In other words, our being in the world should change the flavor of the world, making it more palatable.

Salt is used to indicate a number of things in the historical context of Matthew. It is a symbol in the Old Testament for sacrifice, for covenant fidelity, for purification, seasoning, and preservation. “But if salt has lost its taste [not by some impossible chemical miracle, but through the impurity of mixing in other minerals]… it’s no longer good for anything, and must be thrown out.” Salt that is full of impurities cannot be used to season, purify, or preserve, because it will taint anything to which it is added.

Jesus, calling his followers the light of the world, indicates that we are illumination for the world. It almost seems like being called to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,” is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ teaching later in the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter 6, that we should “beware practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them.” I’ll have more to say about that when we get there. For now, I’ll simply say that it’s only a contradiction if we misunderstand the nature of light. Light is not seen — it allows other objects to be seen by illuminating them. In other words, the good works we do to give glory to our Father in heaven does not make us stand out, they make God stand out. It doesn’t draw attention to us, it draws attention to God. God is glorified — God’s will for the world is illuminated for others to see — by the light of the world, which is not seen.

The light metaphor is an even stronger comparison between the church and the Pharisees than the salt comment was. After all, the prophet Isaiah says of Israel, “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa. 42:6). This is how God described his covenant with Israel: God was using Israel to bring the light of righteousness to all nations, open the eyes of the blind, and release prisoners who sit in darkness. But here in Matthew, Jesus says, “Not the Zealots, not the Pharisees — Yinz are the light of the world. My followers, those who see the Kingdom breaking forth before them, and live righteously so as to glorify God.”

As Christianity is about relationship — first our relationship with God in, through, and as Jesus Christ, and then our relationships with our fellow human beings — relationships require doing, and in this case, doing in a distinctively Christian way. Living like this was not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus’ rejection of the Pharisees’ teaching was not a rejection of the Torah — it’s just that he wanted his listeners to practice Torah with a different perspective. The Pharisees read the Torah from the perspective of a world enslaved to sin, and believed that the Torah protected Israel against losing its identity as God’s chosen people. Jesus read the Torah no longer in the context of sin, but in the context of the Kingdom of Heaven, because he knew that in him, the Kingdom of Heaven had already come. And that Kingdom of Heaven has an additional dimension to it: that of the Christian community. We are not merely a bunch of Christians that individually figure out how to be salt and light.

For instance, if I drop one single grain of salt into a glass of water, would anyone be able to tell the difference if they drank the water? On the other hand, if I were to dump an entire saltshaker into the glass, would anyone be able to tell then? Of course! Because more grains of salt make more of a combined effect than one grain can do on its own.

Now consider a flickering candle. In a large, pitch black sanctuary, where a single candle was the only light in the room, would you be able to see well enough to, say, read your Bible? No.But if we placed a hundred such candles, even though each only provides a little light on its own, together they would provide more than enough light to read by.

That’s what makes Jesus’ use of “yinz” so significant. It’s a plural pronoun, not a singular one. What Jesus is saying is, “Living according to the Way takes all yinz.” We can accomplish much more to glorify God, much more to enhance the flavor of the world, much more to dispel the world’s darkness together than we can separately. Remember, Jesus didn’t say, “A man standing on a hill cannot be hid,” but “a city built on a hill cannot be hid.” There’s no denying who we are — that is, whose we are. At least, not unless we want to be taken out with the trash, and trampled underfoot.

Let me close by quoting, again, from Eugene Peterson, who paraphrases this part of the Sermon on the Mount in this way:

“Let me tell you why you are. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste Godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

            “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, their generous Father in heaven.

“Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.

“Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.”

How do we live more righteously than the Pharisees? Well, Jesus is going to explain that over the next few posts. But for now, he has already started by suggesting that we not keep the gospel to ourselves, because it wasn’t meant for us alone. We are the instruments through which God is bringing the Gospel to the whole world. If we keep it to ourselves, then we’re not doing what we were called to do — and in fact, we’re useless to God. Besides, the Christian faith is not intended to be lived in solitude, but in community. And if we pull together, then living our faith out loud, like a city on a hill, or a light on a lampstand, will bring out the God-flavors and illuminate the God-colors in the world, and in this, God is glorified.