The Rough Road

In some of my meetings and discussions this week a theme has been coming up and I felt a sense that we need to talk about it, especially as it relates to this month’s theme of conflict resolution. Following Jesus is not easy. Jesus kept raising the bar on us and throughout the gospels Jesus keeps saying “You have heard it said (follow this rule) but I say (following that rule) is worthless if your heart is wrong.” The law was a nice clear cut list of do this and don’t do that, and if you follow the list, and the guidelines on what to do when you mess up, you are fine. It isn’t that easy any more now our motivations are under scrutiny. Does God help us? Yes, but that doesn’t change the fact that we live under a higher standard than those who follow the law. Even when we are right we can still be wrong in God’s sight because we are right for the wrong reasons. In today’s scripture we are looking at Jesus wrap-up of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus just finished raising the bar to challenge the way we think about and interact with others and says:

12“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. 13“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

15“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Matthew 7:12-18

One thing that I find interesting is that these passages are not separate chunks, but are part of the same teaching, one leads into the next. The law and the prophets are focused on our actions, and those are important. Please don’t hear my words to be saying that what you do doesn’t matter. What I am saying is that our actions are not always an accurate indicator of our motivations. I have to admit that sometimes I do what is right out of fear of reprisal rather than love of others. Sometimes what I do is legally right, but there is no way I would ever want someone to treat me that way. Sometimes we say the “right” things and do the “right” actions just so we can point the finger at someone else who isn’t. This is an area that I struggled for years with, and I think others like me who were raised in the church have the same struggle. The painful piece in this passage is that Jesus is saying that we do not have the ability to be objective. We cannot step outside of ourselves, our emotions, or our opinions to see the world from any perspective but our own. This is why Jesus has to bring his call to right living into a subjective level for us by saying “If you don’t want to be treated or thought of a certain way, don’t you dare treat others or think of others in that way.” The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were using faith as an excuse to treat others in ways they would never want to be treated. In Matthew 15 Jesus takes them to task for teaching people to give the money they would use to care for their parents to God, and they would be absolved of the responsibility for care. I doubt any of those who taught that would want to hear those words from their children. Over and over Jesus takes the Pharisees to task for abusing their faith and tradition to treat others in ways they would not allow others to treat them. Of course, the Pharisees response to this challenge was “Crucify him.”

It is much easier to continue doing what works for us than it is to make the painful changes that bring us into closer alignment with God’s kingdom purposes. Jesus very clearly lets us know that the road is not going to be easy, that we are going to have to step away from the comfortable path. The road to self-destruction requires no change in our behavior or thought patterns, and often, people will not change their behavior until the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of changing. This is why most addicts have to “hit bottom” before they are willing to confront their addiction. Jesus calls us to face into the pain of stepping outside of the easy groove of what is familiar and easy and promises that doing so will lead to life. The early Friends knew this, and in their journals we see a clear call to see ourselves and others differently than the easy categories that a society defines people as. George Fox speaks of a dispute in North Carolina over who had access to the Holy Spirit

The governor, with his wife, received us lovingly; but a doctor there would needs dispute with us. And truly his opposing us was of good service, giving occasion to the opening of many things to the people concerning the Light and Spirit of God, which he denied to be in every one; and affirmed it was not in the Indians. Whereupon I called an Indian to us, and asked him, `Whether or no, when he did lie, or do wrong to any one, there was not something in him, that did reprove him for it?’ He said `There was such a thing in him that did so reprove him; and he was ashamed when he had done wrong, or spoken wrong.’ So we shamed the doctor before the governor and people; insomuch that the poor man ran out so far that at length he would not own the Scriptures. [1]

During a time in which people were justifying their ill-treatment of the Native Americans with dehumanizing rhetoric, George Fox spoke the truth about God’s perspective on who was valuable. One thing to note about these beliefs that early Friends upheld was that they came from careful study of the scriptures, not only study, but prayerful study in which they asked God to open the meaning of the words to them. Often the Friends were accused of taking things literally that others felt were metaphorical, mainly involving the teachings of Jesus. What if Jesus really meant that those who were considered important by the world’s standards would be the least in the Kingdom? What if God would truly judge based on whether or not we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked or visited those sick and in prison? Maybe the promise that was fulfilled at Pentecost really meant that ALL flesh would receive the Holy Spirit with no distinction of race, class, or gender? The main reason the early Friends thought this was literal was the response of the people of Jesus’ day to his teachings: “Crucify him!”

There are going to be plenty of people around us, encouraging us to take the easy way and that our comfort is what God desires for us. These “wolves in sheep’s clothing” are usually trying to sell us something. If you go into any Christian bookstore, the first things you see are the racks of books on how God wants you to be rich, happy, and secure in material comfort, and each book tells you that you can do it if you just follow their three easy steps. Each book has slightly different steps of course, but let’s see just how far I can get with three easy steps. “One – Two – Three.” Hmm! That isn’t very far is it? What kind of fruit is this going to bear in me when I follow these easy steps and get nowhere? This is the danger of false prophets that show us an easy way to be comfortable and still be faithful; our interactions begin to resemble the sharp pain of thorns or the irritation of thistles because we are getting nowhere. That is when we lose sight of the fruit of redemption! While “An Unfathomable Number of Painful Steps on a Rough Road” is not going to sell a bunch of books, except maybe to certain kinds of hikers, it will be what brings us to life and beyond needing external comforts to maintain our happiness and security. Last week I talked about how awesome it was that we are called to bear Heaven with us into the world, that we have a part as God’s representatives in reconciling creation to its creator. While it is an awesome job, I have to admit that the prerequisites for becoming one of Jesus followers and co-laborers in the restoration are uncomfortable. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23   Self-denial is never a popular message. When we are told to cut food we enjoy out of our diet our primary response is not “Wow doc! Thanks, I can’t wait to do that.” It is usually something more like “Stupid Doctor. What do they know? They keep changing their minds every couple years anyway.” Have those words come out of anyone else’s mouth or is it just me? The fruit of self-denial and facing into the pain of changing self-indulgent habits is a healthier body. We now must let the law of love be written on our hearts, Hear, O Clackamas Park Friends Church, your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. In these the bar of the cross has been raised for us to bear in our daily lives.

[1] Fox, George. George Fox: An Autobiography. Ferris & Leach, Philadelphia, 1909. p.526


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