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Guarding Ourselves From Things that Make “Sense”


Some of you are looking at my sermon title and wondering what I could possibly be talking about. In some ways this is a response to some Christians who have unfortunately been saying that the earthquake in Nepal is God’s judgment. A refrain I hear all too often around times of natural disaster. Why should we guard ourselves against what makes sense? One Sunday I was in a church and heard a sermon based on the following text in the Old Testament.

5 “Surely God is mighty and does not despise any; he is mighty in strength of understanding.6 He does not keep the wicked alive, but gives the afflicted their right.7 He does not withdraw his eyes from the righteous, but with kings on the throne he sets them forever, and they are exalted.8 And if they are bound in fetters and caught in the cords of affliction,9 then he declares to them their work and their transgressions, that they are behaving arrogantly.10 He opens their ears to instruction, and commands that they return from iniquity.11 If they listen, and serve him, they complete their days in prosperity, and their years in pleasantness.12 But if they do not listen, they shall perish by the sword, and die without knowledge. Job36:5-12

The preacher went on to say how God is just and that obedience to God will result in prosperity and pleasant days, but wickedness will be repaid with poverty and illness. From the world’s perspective, and even from someone in the Bible, this seems to make a lot of sense. God rewards the good and punishes the wicked right? Isn’t that one of God’s jobs? This kind of reasoning leads to the kind of statements I saw this week. Unfortunately the one who spoke the words in that scripture passage was reproving a man named Job, and God himself rebukes those words. What makes sense and works in the world doesn’t necessarily reflect God’s priorities and desires. Sometimes when we think we know what God’s doing we are looking at the wrong thing, some tangible thing rather than the spiritual truth.

5 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6 Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” 8 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? 9 Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” 12 Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew 16:5-12

1) Loss of focus when neglecting taking care of ourselves.
2) Watch out! Pay attention!
3) When in need we are so focused on need that we interpret everything through the need.
4) Forgetting God’s provision in the past leads to fear now.
5) Jesus was speaking to the teachings of Pharisees and Sadducees.
6) Pharisees: Lots of rules, obedience leads to God’s favor, obedience leads to prosperity, obedience to rules leads to coming of messiah, we can earn God’s love, nationalism is holiness, God is the judge, there will be a reckoning in which God will judge all who break the law as they interpreted it.
7) Sadducees: accommodate the Empire, don’t make waves, give us money/sacrifices and God will bless you, wealth gives greater access to God, obeying rules leads to blessing, no resurrection, no existence of soul after death, described by some scholars as “Pharisees for the rich”
8) With the exception of belief in resurrection, the main disagreements between these groups were over minor issues relating to purity and civil law. From the outside the two groups looked pretty similar in their understanding.
9) The teachings of these groups seem to make sense in an occupied territory, but Jesus rebukes their worldview.
10) Jesus contrasts a God of generosity, creation, grace, and mercy.
11) It may make sense to go with the flow of the nation/culture we are in, but we must examine our assumptions to see if they get in the way of understanding the truth of who Jesus is and what he accomplished.
12) The Pharisees, Sadducees, and disciples all thought they knew what God was up to, but Jesus said “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” in Luke 19:10 in John 12:46-48a says:

46 I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. 47 I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.
There is a difference Jesus makes between keeping commands and rejecting God, a difference it would serve us well to remember.

13) A lot of what Jesus commands doesn’t make sense or seem to work in the world. Love your enemies, take up your cross, those who try to save their lives will lose them, the kingdom of heaven is better than all earthly things, don’t store up or seek out the fallible treasures of this world, blessed are the meek, those who mourn and those who are hungry, the greatest leader must be the greatest servant.
14) These things fly in the face of the priorities of just about every culture to ever have existed on the face of the planet, but we know that obedience to the foolishness of God is a wiser course than any human’s most powerful wisdom.
15) That is all great in theory, but as I was riding my bike and praying yesterday God brought me to the word “deserve.” The world wants us to think in terms of getting what we deserve and other people getting what they deserve, or at least what we think they deserve. Our faith is based on us not getting what we or others think we deserve. Larger conversations about who deserve what need to be submitted to the facts of Jesus’ sacrifice.
16) As we enter into our time of open worship, let us pray that the Holy Spirit continues to turn our hearts ever closer towards the sacrificial love Jesus has given us.

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The Mark Of Perfection

Today we look at what I consider to be extremely high difficulty level Christianity. In our pursuit of perfection the hardest part of ourselves to overcome is that piece within that desires to lash out when we are hurt. I think every one of us in this room can tell stories of the times in which we lashed out, and the long term negative consequences that had, but today I want us to think about what happens when we keep our eye on the end game and don’t get distracted by the pains of the moment. Jesus does something amazing in this passage and defines Godly perfection in a way that went completely beyond the Jewish understanding of perfection to God’s heart for all of humanity.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:38-48

All of our common sense and societal training screams at us that this can’t possibly work. Let’s be honest here, every criminal justice system in human history is based on retributive justice, the idea that the punishment must fit the crime and that justice is fully served when offenders are punished. Punishment is the focus in that sphere of life and those ideas seep their way into our understanding of what God’s justice is all about. However, Jesus is sharing that the purpose of God’s justice is not punishment but restoration and redemption. Retributive justice leads to full prisons and the continuation of suffering, while redemptive justice leads to restoration of the person and a society that better reflects God’s heart. This is one of the reasons that I so deeply appreciate the ministry that Chuck Colson founded and its work in bringing victims and offenders together which has an amazing record in terms of preventing repeat offenses. I highly recommend checking out their site at https://www.prisonfellowship.org/ and their Restorative Justice project at http://restorativejustice.org.

Each of Jesus’ examples in today’s text has at its core a concern for the ways we look at ourselves and other people, for the ways we judge those with more or less power than we ourselves have. Jesus is saying here that the categories we make to define people, and which we use to justify our passing of judgment on the motives of others, are unjust. We must make our starting point for determining the value of any human being, including that jerk in the mirror, the image of God that each person is stamped with. Do we through our actions and attitudes distract ourselves and others from that image we bear? Of course, but nothing we can do will ever take that image away. Jesus’ teaching in the first part of our text is an important reminder that we have a responsibility to not only affirm the dignity of others, but also to behave in ways that affirm our own dignity and value.

When Jesus told his disciples to turn the other cheek, he wasn’t telling them to passively take abuse. It was a mark of contempt to backhand someone on the right cheek, by turning the other cheek you were forcing the person striking you to do so as an equal. By turning the left cheek towards them you prevented them from backhanding you again and instead of rising to the provocation of the violent you take the moral high ground and force your assailant to acknowledge your humanity. In this situation Jesus takes the idea of lashing out in response to hurt and instead confronts an aggressor with the humanity of the person being attacked. We are being called not to take revenge or retribution, but instead are being called to extend the truth that every person has value in God’s sight and must be seen as our equal, and that we will not accept anything less than an affirmation of the dignity and value of every human being. When we are focusing on God, it becomes much easier to see the value of the image of God stamped on every person. Turning the other cheek then is an affirmation of human dignity and a challenge to attitudes that treat others as “less than.”

This next example involves another act of protest which is designed to graphically remind someone taking advantage of the legal system of Jesus’ day that the person they are taking advantage of is a human being. It was a common practice to sue people for their clothing to cover minor debts that were outstanding, and the moneylenders in Jesus’ day who were using Jewish law to collect were also violating Jewish law through the rates of interest that they charged. This put the people who borrowed from them in a situation that ultimately led to losing everything so that the moneylender would profit. Jesus again is reminding those around him that they could get creative in their reminders to others of their humanity. When people begin to take advantage of others, and treat them as means to ends, for the sake of their own souls they need to be confronted with the humanity of those they are taking advantage of. It is the same with the carrying of burdens. The Roman legions would force people to carry their packs and were legally limited to one mile. The Romans used people as beasts of burden, and by carrying that pack beyond the mile you lovingly forced that soldier to confront the fact that you were a person with dignity. Even in oppressive circumstances there are ways we can remind each other of the value and inherent dignity of every human life. The first step towards perfection is recognizing God’s love for every created person.

That first step is the easier one, and now Jesus raises the bar to the highest possible mark. Godliness. Perfection. God’s love is not exclusive. He loves every human being exactly as they are, right now. There is nothing required of us to be loved by God, every human being is loved. This gets tricky, because we don’t necessarily see ourselves or each other as loveable and there are plenty of messages out there which point out our flaws. There are plenty of statements that say you can be loved if you just change this one thing and we will provide it for the low, low price of $49.95. There are messages that tell us that because we do this one thing it makes us unlovable, and not worth anybody’s time or effort. Jesus tells us that the mark of God’s perfection is the love that he extends not just to those who deserve it, but to those who have chosen to be his enemies. Perfection is a tough mark to aim for, and keeping our eyes on God and allowing him to set our course means that we are going to have to love people who are not our friends. It means that we are going to have to love incredibly broken people.

God’s love doesn’t require anything of us, but somehow when we receive it we can’t remain the same. It is being loved by God that gives us the power to step away from the ways we miss the mark, and Jesus is teaching his disciples that being Godly means loving those you completely, utterly and totally see as your or God’s enemy. God welcomes us as we are and pours his love into lives as we are and we must do the same for others. Now we could come up with a whole list of others, but the reality is that Jesus is confronting the Jews with a major failure on their part to live up to the mission God gave them. The purpose of Israel and the reason they were chosen was not so that they could sit back and say “We are chosen so that makes us better than you.” No God called Israel for the purpose of leading the world into the paths of righteousness. God called Israel to be the means through which the world could be reconciled to God. All Jesus could see around him was a people that instead separated themselves from the world as a way to keep themselves pure and unstained. They had lost sight of their purpose.

Jesus completely redefines for the Jews and us what it means to be pure and holy. This more than anything else puts him at odds with the systems of this world, that the mark of purity is not conformity, but is instead hospitality. God extends his love to every human being regardless of whether they are trying to live up to God’s love or not. God loves us so much that he even gives us the power to accept or reject the relationship that comes from accepting God’s love. When Jesus calls us to perfection after the manner of God we have some soul searching to do, because I know for sure that when I read this and I prayed over this I was squirming in my seat a bit. I had to ask myself if I was setting conditions on people being welcomed into the kingdom, if I was placing conformity to my ideals or my community’s ideals ahead of God’s love. This teaching of Jesus is not an easy one and challenges us to love people who not only don’t look like us, but also people who don’t think like us. In Jesus’ disciples we see a slice of Jewish societal conflicts and how God’s love can bring people with completely opposite agendas and philosophies of life together to follow him. Jesus could bring Matthew the tax collector profiting from the oppression of his people and Simon the violent revolutionary anti-Roman Zealot under the same banner of God’s love. God keeps challenging me and his church to consider who I might be neglecting or cutting myself off from because I see them as my or God’s enemies.

We are facing into some difficult questions as a society and we Christians are being called to perfection in the ways we address those questions, and it is so easy to miss that mark. The perfection of God’s love for humanity embodied in the cross and resurrection is the mark we aim at and it will require us to seek out those stray arrows that we might pick them up, aim and try again to match God’s love. Jesus loved us when we were his enemies, and laid down his life in demonstration of the depth of God’s love for us. The mark we aim at is not an easy one to face into. Quite often we take our eyes off that mark and I know that I have some repenting to do on this one and some growing, so as we enter into our time of open worship, let us all seek the throne of grace together. Let us all turn our eyes upon Jesus so that we might better love those who bear his image. After five minutes of silence someone will stand with the microphone. If you are led to speak in the silence I ask that you stand and wait for the microphone to be brought to you. We will try to give some space to others’ words, so the microphone may not come right away.

Let us seek God together.

 

Jesus’ Swearing Problem

When I was a kid we had a foolproof way to determine the truth from lies, and we knew that when we invoked this the promises and words that followed would be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This method was called the “pinkie swear.” Somehow we attributed power to this little ritual that said once we do this the truth would be spoken. When the “pinkie swear” went from being something only used on occasion to a frequent usage of our daily lives it became obvious that we had trouble trusting what we said. We began to realize just how worthless the “pinkie swear” was, because for some reason it implied that for the most part our words were not trustworthy and that it required some kind of ritual for us to be honest. Eventually we also figured out that the person who we most had to invoke a “pinkie swear” with only had a very loose association with truthfulness and there were some people we never had to use “pinkie swears” with because we knew that whatever they said was the truth. Later on I learned the word integrity to describe what I saw in those people. When you hear the word “integrity” what comes into your mind? Just shout it out. All of these things have a thread in common and that is in living a life that is in harmony with itself. When our minds are not divided and every aspect of our lives reflects the truth of who we are, we are living integrated lives. When we live double lives and are one person in one setting and another outside that setting we are living a life of disintegration. We inhabit a disintegrated society in which different parts of our lives are compartmented off from each other and those divisions affect the decisions we make and the words we say. Jesus saw the same struggles in his own day and saw that there were dividing attitudes that led to actions which violate our integrity and he gives his disciples instruction in one area that breaks through the artificial divisions we set up in our minds.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. Matthew 5:33-37

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has consistently raised the bar on what is expected of his followers. Instead of focusing on sin management Jesus moves our focus off of sin and on to God, where it belongs. This requires a transformation in us, one that takes the ways we have divided our own minds and unifies them in pursuit of God. In the Friends Church we acknowledge that our testimony is affected by our integrity. If the words of our mouths about unimportant things aren’t always true, how can we expect people to accept the most important truth of reconciliation with God through Jesus from us? Our faith and practice says:

We believe that integrity of speech and action honors Christ as it advances truth and, therefore, should characterize our social and business relationships. In allegiance to Christ’s command, we refrain from swearing oaths and from profanity of speech. We consider integrity a mark of Christian holiness.[i]

Our witness is damaged when our words and actions don’t match up.

It isn’t always easy to tell when we have faltered in this area so Jesus gives us some signs of our aim being off the mark. The first is that difficulty we have all run into of baptizing our personal opinions and attitudes in biblical language and speaking of them as if they are straight from the mouth of God.  I call it playing the “God Card.” There was a man in a church that I was part of who was convinced that God was calling him to become an elder in the church. The elders and pastors had a distinct unease with this idea, mainly because the man was a relatively new Christian who had an overly forceful personality, and this was in New York! The elders rightly discerned that the man was not mature enough in his faith to become an elder and they were proved right when, instead of investing in the development of his faith, the man sowed discord and split the church. Invoking God did not magically make the words the man said right and enforceable. Swearing by God or the dimension he dwells in that we call heaven cannot make a lie true, even if we really want to believe it.

In Jesus’ time it was common to invoke the land or capital city of your nation that the words you speak are true. Now this probably isn’t as big an issue for us since I don’t think anyone in our nation associates truth with anything that happens in Washington DC. However, it is important for us to look a little deeper to see what Jesus is getting at. Jesus is teaching us that oaths, no matter what they are on or by, are only as binding as the integrity of the person swearing them. In other words oaths are “pinkie swears” for grown-ups. At this point my understanding of this teaching is Jesus saying to his disciples: “Look guys. If you need to invoke an outside authority to make it appear that you are telling the truth, or to give your words extra weight, you have a reputation problem. It will be better for you to remain silent until you have earned a reputation for truthfulness and honest dealings.” There are no shortcuts to integrity. We can’t appropriate someone else’s and say that just because we are connected to this nation or this God or this people group that has a reputation for integrity we don’t have to do the hard work of having integrity ourselves. We have to let our own personal “Yes.” Really mean “Yes.” And not “I am agreeing with you for the sole purpose of ending this conversation and will quickly forget any promises I make so that I don’t have to deal with you or make you sad or mad by saying “No.” It is amazing the meaning we can fit into one little word. When we say ‘Yes” it must mean: “I wholeheartedly agree and am ready to follow through on what I say.”

Of course there is that other word that causes most of us to struggle. It only has two letters, and our children seem to have the ability to speak it with ease. This is one of those times we might have a lesson to learn from them. We really want to be loved and we love the people around us and it is so hard to deny someone you love what they are asking for, even when we can’t give it. Saying “no” is a very difficult thing, but is absolutely important for maintaining our integrity. If we are to be whole, we must say no to those things that we don’t have the ability or desire to give. We need to be honest with ourselves that sometimes we agree to do things that we don’t have the time or energy for because we want others to think highly of us. This is really natural, and it takes some intention on our part to look inward and know what it is we really feel about something before we open our mouths to agree or disagree with it. This is not easy for any of us, sometimes our mouths engage before our mind and we end up saying “Yes” and living “No.”  Our “No” must be an honest and loving “No.” This all takes some work on our part, not only in matching the words we say to our actions, but in communicating why we say “Yes” or “No.” Those one word answers require some unpacking on our part in order for others to gain understanding. If we let people know why we are so happy to say yes or why we have to regretfully say no, it builds up the relationships we are so afraid of losing. We also have to practice accepting the “No” of others. If we want others to receive our “No” with grace we need to receive “No” with grace.

I want to say that acting with integrity makes everything wonderful and great. That a life of integrity is carefree and easy, but unfortunately the evidence is against me. Quite often our integrity will be the cause of suffering, because someone really wanted that “Yes” and wasn’t prepared to take “No” for an answer. One of my heroes in the faith is a Dutch woman named Corrie Ten Boom. In World War Two when her hometown was invaded by the Germans she and her family hid Jews and helped them escape the concentration camps. She knew that by living out her “No” she could pay a heavy price for her integrity, and she did. She was eventually caught and sent to the very concentration camps she had been helping Jews escape. She survived, and was one of the missionaries that went into Germany to minister to the very people who had imprisoned her. She didn’t just say “No” as a pretext to push the Germans away, but her “No” and her actions were a sign of love. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is say “No.” Just ask any parent.

When we are careful with our commitments and honor the words we say by matching our actions to them, we actually increase the amount of good in the world and decrease the amount of evil. When we set our mark on God and let that point of aim guide us our actions and words will match up and the good news will be truly seen as good.

Our time of open worship begins with 5 minutes of silence in which we place our hearts and minds in God’s hands. Today I invite you to join me in asking God to help us overcome the ways our life may be divided, to give us the courage and love to say “No” when we need to, to give us the peace we need to say “Yes,” and the wisdom to discern when our “Yes” or “No” would lack integrity.

Let us pray.

 

[i] http://nwfriends.org/faith-practice/what-friends-believe/

Salvation, Suffering, and Resurrection

(Click here to listen.)

Today’s scripture is a little complex and there are various interpretations of it. This kind of writing is actually one of the things that I love about the bible because it makes me think and reminds me of just how much I will never understand about the fullness of God. In pointing us to God and his greatness we will always be confronted with things we cannot always understand, and that is actually a good thing. The most dangerous times for us are those times in which we think we have God all figured out. It is then that we stray from the truth and make for ourselves a false God of our own device. When we encounter texts like todays they force us to recognize the limits of our comprehension and return to the simple place of saying “God, you are Lord of all and that is what I know. I don’t understand, but wait on you.” Needless to say I had a lot of waiting to do with this text and still have a bit left to do. While my thoughts are not finished on this text I will share what I felt led to, but in this case must say that especially verse 19 and 20 are hard for this 21st century guy to wrap his head around.

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.[e] It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. 1 Peter 3:18-22

When we talk about the suffering of Jesus, we tend to limit our focus to the events surrounding his crucifixion. I would like us to pull back for a moment and look at the big picture. Jesus suffered for over 30 years in his life as a human. I can’t imagine what kind of pain it must have been to have access to the power, wisdom and knowledge of being in very nature God and denying that every day. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to feel pain and accept it rather than willing it away. So when we speak of Jesus suffering, let us remember the enormity of all he suffered on our behalf, not just the events of one day. He suffered the injustice of being falsely accused and being put to death and he suffered skinned knees, hitting his thumb with a hammer and puberty. All this he did so that we could come to God.

Since there is no non-controversial interpretation of this next bit I am going to pick what I think is the most challenging to share with you. There is a simple underlying message here that through Jesus God’s love is for every person who has ever lived and will ever live, no matter what. God’s love is extended to every human being, even those who have rejected him, even the darkest of evildoers. There are plenty of other passages that talk about how God loved us before we came to love him to back this interpretation up, but I want to read to the description of the people killed in the flood from the book of Genesis:

5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” 11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. 12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. Genesis 6:5-7, 11-13

These people that Genesis tells us God regretted making are the very people Peter tells us Jesus went to in order to offer redemption. This makes me squirm a bit since I have to ask myself who I am not welcoming into my life that God has offered his redemption to. Who is it that I might be denying the chance at entering the kingdom? If Jesus could go to those violent offenders who caused God to regret making them who can be off limits to us? This is what I mean by a tough application because it forces me to look inside myself and see who I really don’t want to be saved. When I look at myself in that light I see that I am not yet fully clean, that the scrubbing I try to do to clean my soul is not enough.

Our efforts at making ourselves right never seem to be enough, and I’ll be honest here they aren’t. No matter how hard we try to get everything right we still fail, but we are not without hope. Even when the water doesn’t get us clean and we come to the point at which we wonder what can be done the Spirit comes. When we turn to the Spirit and ask Him to make us clean He descends with holy fire and in his baptism of fire we are purified. I don’t know about you, but as I reflect on my day as I prepare for sleep I ask the Spirit to help me see where in that day I have failed to listen for his voice, what I have done that was wrong and I ask that he descend on me with fresh fire to purify me more. The beautiful thing is that when we ask to be cleaned God is faithful to purify our hearts. I am not the man I was a year ago because the Holy Spirit is purifying me. Without the aid of the Holy Spirit I would not have lost as much weight as I have and I would still be a glutton. I am not done, but by God’s help I have taken another step forward in my journey towards him.

In two weeks, we will celebrate together the thing that makes this all possible. Peter knew that the Crucifixion wasn’t enough on its own, and in truth the new covenant was made and validated not by the cross, but by the empty tomb. It is the resurrection, not the death that is the source of our hope. In the cross everything that kept us separated from god was put to death, not only the sin, but the systems for sin management and categorization as well, this is why the curtain into the holy of holies was torn. God was no longer operating in the comfortable box of the religious system that kept people at a distance from him. Jesus then became the first fruits of the everlasting life to come, the sign of the promise. Just as the rainbow was the sign of God’s promise to not destroy the earth again, Jesus’ resurrection is the sign of God’s salvation. The sacrifice of violence was overthrown, the way of death was defeated, and because Jesus submitted to suffering we now have direct access to God through the continuing baptism of the Holy Spirit. Every human being has the opportunity to have that same access to God now, all because Jesus rose from the dead.

Since Jesus accomplished all these things through rising from the dead, he now sits at the right hand of God with all submitted to his loving, peaceful rule. Jesus now speaks into every heart through the Holy Spirit if we take the time to listen, surrender and let ourselves be saved. I don’t always do this well. Sometimes I don’t listen, or listen but don’t obey, or I allow my mind to filter what I hear through my prejudices and preconceived notions. Even my disobedience doesn’t keep him away from me. This was a hard lesson for me to learn. I always thought that when I sinned God rejected me again until I confessed and came to him. You would think I wasn’t paying attention when we read and reread Romans 8. But those old images of an angry God who had it in for us just waiting to smack us down when we stepped out of line were hard to overcome because they made so much more sense than the God who loved so much that he chose to lose his power, suffer and die in order to bring us into new life with him. That is the God who I have met in Jesus. I desperately desire to live up to a fraction of the love and forgiveness I have been shown, but I can’t do it alone. You can’t do it alone either. This is why we are called together as Jesus’ body the church: that we can help get each other’s eyes back on Jesus when we get distracted by the “sense” of the world around us. There is a lot to chew on in this passage, and I encourage you to reread it while we are in open worship and listen for that still small voice. The Spirit is faithful to fill us with his presence if we open our hearts to his cleansing love. If, as the Spirit moves within you, a message is brought to your mind, take some time to discern what parts of the message may be filtered through your preconceived ideas and ask the Spirit to give you clarity that you might speak what comes from God and nothing else. That is the hope I carry, that someday every word that passes my lips finds its source in the Holy Spirit within me. Until that glad and distant day let us bring our hearts, minds, and bodies to Jesus and ask the Father to send his Holy Spirit to descend on us with the fresh fire of God’s presence.

Authority Among Equals

(Click here to listen.)

In my last few sermons we talked about how the ways we interact with others affect our witness to the gospel. Peter started out at a macro level in talking about how we relate to the government, then narrowed it down to how we relate at work, and now we get to dissect Peter’s words about the home. The way we relate to our family members definitely impacts our witness, since it is the people who share our lives that get to see the best and worst of us. If you want to know just how big a hypocrite you are, have kids and wait for them to become teenagers, they will break it all down for you. Our kids see our inconsistencies on a daily basis, and that has an impact on our witness to them. It is in our families that some of the hardest work of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and patience happens. In our home life we also have the place to practice and hone our gifts to build each other up. Peter asked us some tough questions over the last few sermons like “Is Jesus the Lord of your interactions with the government?” and “Is Jesus the Lord of your interactions at work?” Today we look at the tough question “Is Jesus the Lord of your home?”

There are some dynamics going on here behind the scenes of our text that are vital for us to understand if we are going to grasp what Peter is teaching. In every instance of interaction that Peter has given us, it is assumed that Christians are not the ones with power in the situation. The Christians Peter addressed in the last two sermons were subject peoples under a conquering governmental authority and slaves who were the property of a master. It is only in this week’s text that Peter addresses someone with any kind of power, and he addresses them last, almost as an afterthought. During the first century worldly power was, for the most part, inaccessible to Christians, and the writings of the very early church reflect that context and assumption. Another thing we need to note here is how radical it was for Peter to address women directly and not through their husbands/owners. We take for granted that women are autonomous human beings who are capable of moral agency, but this was not the common belief in non-Quaker Western Society as recently as 60 years ago let alone in Peter’s day. So try to realize as we read today’s text just how radical this had to be for the listeners of the mid to late first century.

1-2In the same way, wives, you should patiently accept the authority of your husbands. This is so that even if they don’t obey God’s word, as they observe your pure respectful behavior, they may be persuaded without a word by the way you live. 3Don’t focus on decorating your exterior by doing your hair or putting on fancy jewelry or wearing fashionable clothes; 4let your adornment be what’s inside—the real you, the lasting beauty of a gracious and quiet spirit, in which God delights. 5This is how, long ago, holy women who put their hope in God made themselves beautiful: by respecting the authority of their husbands. 6Consider how Sarah, our mother, obeyed her husband, Abraham, and called him “lord,” and you will be her daughters as long as you boldly do what is right without fear and without anxiety. 7In the same way, husbands, as you live with your wives, understand the situations women face as the weaker vessel. Each of you should respect your wife and value her as an equal heir in the gracious gift of life. Do this so that nothing will get in the way of your prayers. 1 Peter 3:1-7

Keeping in mind the cultural context here, Peter just told the women he is addressing that they have the ability to accept authority and that they have a responsibility to do it in a way that imitates Christ. Women had a witness in a society that declared them to be voiceless. There is a power in actions that goes beyond the spoken word, and I think that applies to men as well as women. When our actions themselves point to God, we witness to the truth of the good news. That Peter is giving this instruction to women is a remarkable understanding of the vision of Jesus for the world. Jesus’ desire as expressed in his teaching was that all might come to know him and his saving grace. It should then be no surprise that we as Christians are given instruction in our various conditions in how to do that well in the circumstances we find ourselves in.

I am going to take a liberty here and try to interpret the next section into the modern context. Which I am going to guess by the content of the passage may not be too different from some of the attitudes about women in Peter’s time. Everything around us tells women that their primary value is in the way they look, from the Photoshopped covers of “beauty” magazines, to advertisements for just about every product imaginable, we are bludgeoned with the lie that a woman’s worth is derived from the exterior of her body and the way it is decorated or displayed. Peter is calling that out as a dark lie. That lie is destroying people in every school, church, and workplace and we can stand for the truth that the source of a person’s beauty is in the whole person, not just the visible parts. When we get caught up in judging ourselves by externals we step out of love and we say that something God created is not beautiful. It then becomes a very short step to judging others by those same standards, especially since that is an easy way to get the focus off of our shortcomings. If you want to be truly beautiful don’t let concern with physical appearances let you neglect the development of good character and dedication to the God who sees you through the eyes of love. The material centered systems of our society depend on us allowing our bodies to be seen as objects. The underlying message in this passage is that you must fight against being made into an object to be lusted after and instead work on accepting that you are a person who is beloved.

In the past women who sought to be holy did so through the practice of accepting the authority their society gave their husbands, treating them with the respect those societies called for. Now, things have changed and our society is no longer structured in the same ways, so what can we make of this passage. It seems to me that Peter is saying that there is a new requirement that goes beyond the old blind obedience to authority. If you would be part of God’s people you have the responsibility to do what is right and not succumb to fear, worry, and anxiety about how doing the right things will make you look to others. We are still called to treat people with respect, but we must go beyond respect and truly love. Let me stand with Peter to say that the women of this church have a voice, and not only that but you have the same moral agency and responsibility as men to pattern the use of your voice after the model of Jesus.

(Important side note here: Using violence against your spouse is a form of marital infidelity, and in that situation boldly doing what is right is taking yourself and the children and fleeing. If you find yourself, woman or man, in a situation at home that is physically unsafe we will help you get to safety. Call a pastor, or the police if the situation is immediately dangerous, and tell them what is going on and where you can be picked up.)

Now we get to Peter’s “Oh, right! There might actually be husbands in the church,” and try to translate it to today as well. Men, the women around us are treated as objects every day. As soon as they look at their first media: the TV, internet, magazine, or newspaper (Those still exist right?) they are hit with the messages I mentioned earlier. We can make sure that our homes are places where women are valued and cherished for the gifts God has bestowed upon them and not just for what they can give us. We can make sure that our church is a place where women’s gifts are welcomed and valued, in which ministers like Rosie and Kathy can find a space to use their gifts and our future ministers like Hailee, Madison, or Amy can see examples of respect shown for everyone’s gifts. Let’s take the time to listen to what the women in our lives have to experience and make our homes and church places of safety and shelter in which women and girls are valued as equal heirs of salvation not as objects to be possessed. Peter gives us men a warning here as well, if we want God to listen to us we need to listen to, respect, and value the women in our lives.

Friends, each one of us is under the authority of Jesus, and that means that regardless of external circumstances or abilities we all answer to him. We must respect each person’s responsibility before God and place nothing in each other’s way that could distract us from the voice of God. We all have the responsibility to listen for the voice of Jesus and to respect the calling that Jesus has placed on others’ lives. My calling as a pastor is to point each of you to Jesus to the best of my ability, to listen with you, to respect your gifts, to value each member of this community as incredibly beautiful bearers of the image of God. We have been given the greatest gift of a savior who died because he looked at us in our brokenness and imperfection and saw someone to love. Authority works differently for us as followers of Jesus, since he modeled a different way than the way of the world. Jesus had access to absolute power and he gave that up so that he might truly experience humanity. In order to be fully human he did not grasp at power, instead he served. Authority that models itself after Jesus is not the dominating control the world craves, but is instead loving service dedicated to those who it serves. As fellow slaves with Jesus what authority we do have has a much different priority structure than any other authority operating in this world. We are equally slaves of God, equally called to serve each other and spread the kingdom of God. True authority that derives from the saving grace of Jesus follows Jesus by taking up crosses of our own that others might be saved. Authority among equal slaves comes not from power but from sacrifice. I sacrifice for you and you sacrifice for me. Wives sacrifice for their husbands and husbands sacrifice for their wives. We all sacrifice for each other because Jesus thinks we are worth sacrificing for. Let us pray.

(During our open worship one of our youth shared about their experience growing up with unrealistic dolls that taught her a distorted view of beauty. She went on to share about a new realistic doll called the Lammily Doll. Here is a link to go support a doll that teaches “Average is Beautiful.”

Christians on the Job

(Click here to listen.)

Last week was Black History month, and we as Quakers had a role to play after God convicted us and we not only gave the slaves Quakers held their freedom, but worked at emancipation. The reason why I bring this up is because this week’s text deals with the matter of slavery, and we cannot discuss slavery in our context without acknowledging the legacy of American slavery and the generational poverty that arose from it. There are key differences between the slavery of our history and that of the Roman world, as well as some unfortunate similarities. One of the key differences was the amount of power that Christians had access to in terms of changing fundamental cultural norms. Christians of Peter’s day did not have the cultural influence that was held at the time of American slavery, so Peter’s instruction to them reflects that reality. While the evils of slavery still exist, it is not a highly visible part of life for us, but there are principles in today’s text that can be gleaned and used to benefit our witness in our time and relationships. If you haven’t already, open your bible up to 1Peter 2:18.

18If you are a slave, submit yourself to the master who has authority over you, whether he is kind and gentle or harsh as he deals with you. 19For grace is clearly at work when a person accepts undeserved pain and suffering and does so because he is mindful of God. 20For what credit is there in enduring punishment you deserve? But if you do what is right and yet are punished and endure it patiently, God will be pleased with you. 21-22For you were called to this kind of life, as Isaiah said, “He did no wrong deed, and no evil word came from His mouth. The Anointed One suffered for us and left us His example so that we could follow in His steps. 23When He was verbally abused, He didn’t return the abuse; when He suffered, He didn’t make threats to cause suffering in return; instead, He trusted that all would be put right by the One who is just when He judges.” 24He took on our sins in His body when He died on the cross so that we, being dead to sin, can live for righteousness. As the Scripture says, “Through His wounds, you were healed.” 25For there was a time when you were like sheep that wandered from the fold, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your lives. 1Peter 2:18-25

Last week during open worship, we heard quite a bit about the work environments that challenge our witness. I think everyone here can point to at least one experience in which the work environment was toxic, and I am sure that some of you are in toxic work environments. Here is the hard part that the beginning of this section points to. When you behave in ways that aren’t toxic and you are in a toxic environment, there will be a cost to you. Peter doesn’t try to sugar coat the ways Christ-like behavior can give us Christ-like results: undeserved pain and suffering. The emphasis is emphatically on undeserved suffering, because there are times when we fail spectacularly at living up to the measure of love God has given us. I lost a very good friend for a while when I violated our friendship for my own selfish ends, and I know of ministers of the gospel who fell in highly illegal ways that rightly served jail time for their misdeeds. We are not immune from temptation, and it is within our church community that we can find accountability to help us resist. When we step away from accountability it becomes much easier to take actions we would never do in the full light of others’ view. Peter is writing not to individuals, but to the community of faith and it is important to remember that the witness is not just mine or yours, but ours. The witness of “those Christians” impacts our witness as much as our witness impacts theirs.

Last week we talked about the way our interactions with the government impact our witness, but for most of us that is not an everyday occurrence. We have business interactions much more frequently, and it is in the way we go about our business that our witness is frequently displayed. There was a movie that came out a while ago called Office Space and in its funny and somewhat crude way it explored some of the basic dishonesties that underlay the business world.  I would play a clip for you, but I don’t want to offend with language use, so I will read some of the script instead. The scene is a conference room in which two consultants are interviewing employees with an eye on downsizing.

 BOB SLYDELL:  Aha! All right. We were just talking about you. You must be Peter Gibbons. Uh huh. Terrific. I’m Bob Slydell and this is my associate, Bob Porter.

PETER: Hi, Bob. Bob.

BOB PORTER: Why don’t you grab a seat and join us for a minute?

He does so.

BOB SLYDELL: Y’see, what we’re trying to do here, we’re just trying to get a feel for how people spend their day. So, if you would, would you just walk us through a typical day for you?

PETER: Yeah.

BOB SLYDELL: Great.

PETER: Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late. I use the side door, that way Lumbergh can’t see me. Uh, and after that, I just sorta space out for about an hour.

BOB PORTER: Space out?

PETER: Yeah. I just stare at my desk but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch too. I’d probably, say, in a given week, I probably do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work.

BOB SLYDELL: Uh, Peter, would you be a good sport and indulge us and tell us a little more?

PETER: Let me tell you something about TPS reports…’

Cut to later. Peter is more relaxed.

PETER: The thing is, Bob, it’s not that I’m lazy. It’s just that I just don’t care.

BOB PORTER: Don’t, don’t care?

PETER: It’s a problem of motivation, all right? Now, if I work my tail off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime. So where’s the motivation? And here’s another thing, Bob. I have eight different bosses right now!

BOB SLYDELL: I beg your pardon?

PETER: Eight bosses.

BOB SLYDELL: Eight?

PETER: Eight, Bob. So that means when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my real motivation – not to be hassled. That and the fear of losing my job, but y’know, Bob, it will only make someone work hard enough not to get fired.

BOB SLYDELL: Bear with me for a minute.

PETER: Ok.

BOB SLYDELL: Believe me, this is hypothetical. But what if you were offered some kind of stock option and equity sharing program?

PETER:  I don’t know. I guess. Listen, I’m gonna go. It’s been a pleasure talking to you guys.

He shakes their hands.

BOB SLYDELL: Absolutely. The pleasure’s all on this side of the table, trust me.

PETER: Good luck with your layoffs. I hope your firings go really well.[1]

 

That is a level of honesty that seems to only work out in comedy. Quite often we see that the wheels of business as usual are greased with dishonesty. When I worked in the tech world, it was a common practice to pad expense reports. I think what really clued me in to just how common an occurrence this is was when I just finished paying for a cab ride and the cabbie asked me if I want the receipt from the last person to ride as well. I was confused. I naively asked the driver why I would want someone else’s receipt. He looked at me like I was from another planet and said “For your expense report of course.” And yes the tone of the driver’s voice had an echo of the word “Duh” in it. The driver was amazed that it might never had occurred to someone to falsify an expense report, and when I talked to some of the other techs I was told that everyone did it and that I should as well so that I don’t upset the status quo. I didn’t last long in that job, but because of the ways I interacted with the people around me a witness happened.

After last week’s sermon someone shared with me how their work environment is filled with backbiting, slander, and generally tearing each other down in order to look better. They went on to tell me that since they are working at not being involved with that behavior they have become a confidant to some of their coworkers and are seen as the peacemaker of their job. That is a witness to the difference God makes in our life. The results don’t always pan out from the perspectives of worldly success, but a seed is planted. From an eternal perspective those seeds are worth more than anything the greatest successes of the world can give us. When Price talked about taking the verbal abuse that came with some of his calls it fit right in with this week’s scripture. In many of the working situations we find ourselves in, the master of the situation is the customer, and when we do not respond in kind with abuse, it places the person being abusive in a position to recognize or choose to ignore that they are making a moral decision in their actions. In Peter’s time, it was common that whole households would convert to following Jesus as a result of one slave’s witness. The people who had the most contact with them came to Christ because they experienced a better way: The way of Jesus.

It seems like everyone might be used to people telling them that better ways were possible. Everything around us seems to be telling us about better, new, improved ways of doing the same old things. It is a game changer when we step up and demonstrate that there is a better way that takes us out from the bondage to the same old cycles of abuse which displays the grace and mercy of God. We get to show that another way is not just possible, but that the best possible way is here, being lived out in everyday life by everyday people. We have the opportunity to show everyone around us the grace of God exemplified in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The truth of the good news can come into our daily business decisions and open the way for others to experience a way of life that supports their integrity, and not just our own.

This is actually one of the core testimonies of the Friends that: “Nowhere is the practical working of our faith put to a severer test than in the conduct of our ordinary work and business, yet nowhere is there a nobler and more fruitful witness to be borne.”[2] When I first heard this testimony, I agreed with it, but it sounded like the Friends might have been a bit delusional in how much impact this really had. Well, my mentor Stan asked me if I had been in a grocery store lately. I bit back my sarcastic reply and he explained how the Friends’ witness to integrity led them to set fixed prices on everything, before Quakers became shopkeepers you haggled for everything, and how much you got depended on how good you were at haggling or on whether the shopkeeper liked you. The Quakers instead put fair prices on everything and refused to haggle so that a 7 year old would get the same price as a 30 year old or someone they would have been tempted to cheat received grace. They lost business at first because of this refusal to haggle or to treat people differently based on their social status, but the knowledge that you were going to be treated fairly regardless of any exterior circumstance became attractive after you got cheated by someone else. The practice of set prices eventually became widespread once enough shops and trades workers lost customers to Quaker businesses.

What we see here is more than just the world being changed, but something else as well. When God’s people display integrity in our business dealings, no matter who we are dealing with and no matter the perceived benefits that could come from bending to dishonest business norms, we demonstrate the truth and faithfulness of Jesus. When we are honest and faithful, even in the face of dishonesty and abuse of power over us that reflects on our God. I desperately want people to believe my words when I tell them that Jesus took my brokenness on himself that I might live in right relationship with God, humanity and the entire created order, and that he died that they could we all can be freed from the ways of broken, abusive, and dominating relationships that we call sin. In order to witness to truth of the gospel we must no longer wander, but stay close to the example of our Shepherd and Savior Jesus Christ. Let us seek him together in a listening communion of open worship seeking to hear his voice and his voice alone. Let us pray.

Works Cited

Office Space. Directed by Mike Judge. Performed by Ron Livingston, & Jennifer Aniston. 1999.

Lucas, Sidney. The Quaker Message. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1948.

 

 

 


[1] (Livingston and Aniston 1999)

[2] (Lucas 1948, 64)

The Genealogy of Jesus Demonstrating “That of God in Everyone”

This last week in our church we kicked off our Godly Play Sunday School curriculum with the “Holy Family” lesson. (Listen to the lesson and reflection here.) Before the lesson I read the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew 1 and was really struck by the diversity in Jesus’ lineage. There are widows, adulterers, murderers, women forced into prostitution, immigrants, Gentiles, displaced peoples, kings, shepherds, wealthy, poor, righteous and wicked. They are all in there, and God worked through all of them to bring us a baby born in a barn to a poor couple who would change the way the world works. Each of the people in that line no matter what their earthly condition contributed to God’s work in the world by the simple act of being human, having a family, raising kids, and living their lives as people in a hard world. Some did well, others not so much, but each one was necessary, each one brought us one step closer to the coming of Jesus.

What this genealogy brought home to me was my own exclusivity, the fact that there were people who I didn’t want to find God within, that I didn’t want to hear God speak through. I had to confront, again, my own failing to live out the core teaching of my faith, the core Quaker truth that every person has the ability to listen to, hear from, and speak from that inward teacher that George Fox taught is Jesus Christ, come to teach his people himself. If I truly desire to follow this way of the Friends I am going to have to start listening to and recognizing the Christ within that the people I would rather he not speak through each bear.

The query I ended the service with is the query I share with you: I wonder if there is any part of God’s family that we have left out?