Tag Archives: Quaker Testimonies

Truth in the Wilderness

(Sorry about the lateness, I have spent most of the last 3 weeks with a nasty head cold and chest infection.)

Sermon notes are below the video.

Finding the truth can be a very difficult thing sometimes. Often we are blinded by the images around us, are tainted by the various forms of groupthink that try to set our identity. When we start living out the truth, the guardians of the groupthink will come after us with questions, especially when we step away from the power centers. John the Baptist preached from the outskirts and when the political leaders of his people came to see if he could be used, they found instead the truth.

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”[g] 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,[h] nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. John 1:19-28

  • Who are the “Jews” in John?
  • Questioning identity from power. Underlying questions.
  • The kingmakers had come to see if John could be manipulated.
  • I am not the one that can save. Important truth for us to remember. People want someone else to take responsibility.
  • I am not someone from the past. John was fully engaged in the present and wasn’t going to let those in power pigeonhole him into the mold of someone who came before.
  • I am not the prophet. Nuance: “a” vs. “the” Flattery and manipulation are a tool of those in the center of societal power.
  • The voice in the wilderness “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
  • John’s locating himself in the wilderness kept him from the temptation to go along with the status quo.
  • If you don’t have the qualifications that come from our understanding, by what authority do you do x?
  • Truth is found in a humble place, away from the centers of human power and greatness.
  • In the centers of human power and greatness authority, power, truth, etc is used to promote self over others.
  • John points to the one true God and doesn’t exalt himself but shares the truth with humility.
  • We, like John the Baptist, are called to point to Jesus, to clear the path so that others can approach the Lord. As we enter into open worship…

 

No Place to Lay His Head

Click here to listen to the sermon inspired by the following notes.

When we think about Jesus, we tend to think in terms of images we have seen in movies or classical artwork, not the image on the front of today’s bulletin. What is so difficult to consider is that Jesus stepped out of the mainstream of Jewish society and spoke from the margins. In a very real way he was able to say and do many things he couldn’t otherwise because of his marginal location in that society.

18 When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. 19 Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.”20 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”21 Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”22 But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Matthew 8:18-22

1) Jesus trying to ditch the crowds…again!
2) Teacher of the law was a respected position in society. Served as local judges in outlying regions.
3) Jesus did not have a home, and this was a strategic decision on his part. (Play Rich Mullins’ You did not have a home.)
4) Simplicity means not being owned by the things/obligations of this world.
5) We repeat the phrase that we have been bought by a price, and then return to the old masters.
6) We fear the margins, but Jesus shows us that a church that is operating on the margins of society is being faithful.
7) The obligations towards family can come to distract us as well.
8) Following Jesus means making decisions that could marginalize us within our society, family and circles of friends, and Jesus is challenging us.
9) Take stock regularly and do an audit of time, money, and obligations. Think hard about what those say our priorities are.
10) Simplicity is not about stuff, it is about focus. Are the things/people/obligations in my life helping me focus on God’s call or are they distractions?

Speak Lord

Click here to listen to the sermon that came from the following notes.

On my mother-in-law’s bathroom mirror is a sticky note that says “We want God to work in a microwaveable moment. God uses a crock pot.” When I pray to God, I have to admit that I am looking for an answer now. But God speaks in his time, at his pace, and in his way. God’s word can sometimes come to us rarely. We pray and read scripture, but get “nothing” We sit waiting and it feels like everyone else has the connection we long for. It was at such a time in the history of Israel that a boy named Samuel was born.

The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see,was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was.Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”1 Samuel 3:1-10

  • Rareness, expectation and the ways God speaks.
  • Confusing the voices of authority with the voice of God.
  • Revelation leads to relationship “knowing God”
  • Expectant listening leads to changes.

So what is this “voice”? We talk about God’s word, but sometimes the bible doesn’t help, it gives us the words of the good shepherd, but sometimes that voice seems muffled to us no matter where we turn. Jesus opens up to us in John 10 who and what we are listening for.

1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

  • The gate. The way in is through faith in the shepherd.
  • Calls by name and goes ahead of us.
  • Theft and destruction are signs that the robber has come.
  • Lays down life.
  • Other sheep not of this pen.
  • Jesus has gone ahead and is calling us out to sheep not in this pen can we answer as Samuel did?

Where the Heart Is

(Click here to listen.)

There are a couple of things that I am led to address as the pastor of this community. The first is to thank you for the prayers you have poured out for Analise and us, there were times in the last couple of weeks that your prayers were what held me together. There are times in our lives when we need others prayers to make it through and by God’s grace we are. The second is to speak a bit about what is happening in Ferguson, and the larger conversation about race that still needs to happen in this country. I grew up in neighborhoods very much like Fergusen and can confirm that there are some members of our nation’s police forces that forget the “and serve” part of the motto that says “To protect and serve.” This happens most often with people of minority status and reflects some of the prejudices that have been active in our country for a very long time. As Christians we have a responsibility to speak the truth and while the expressions of violent rage are indeed counterproductive, we must admit that the rage we are witnessing is not without cause. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that riots are “the language of the unheard.” The question that I see as most important for us to answer is: What are we as a church called to do here, where we live, to bridge the divides that all too obviously still exist in our society? As Christians our first response to the kinds of tragedy we are witnessing is to fall to our knees. All too often we step out and act or speak before consulting with God and we speak to what we see before inviting God to examine our hearts. We have a responsibility to represent the kingdom of God and we cannot do that in isolated and segregated churches or without a proper foundation of prayer. Many of you have asked me what we can do in this climate of crisis we are in and I have a proposal that I want to lay before you: I would like to open the doors of our church from 8AM to 8PM Monday through Saturday for any who desire to come and pray. This will require some volunteers to be here hosting prayer times, but can any of us see the news and say that we don’t need centers of prayer to be open in our communities? I also want to invite you to consider ways in which God may be calling us to mourn with our brothers and sisters who are mourning in Missouri, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Nepal, West Africa and the neighborhoods in which we live. Can I get a quick show of hands on who would be interested in hosting prayer times here at the church? Thank you.

As I was preparing for this week’s sermon, I looked at the upcoming text, and as I prayed over the text on fasting, I got the sense that it was ground that didn’t need to be covered again since it was a continuation of the prayer theme from three weeks ago in which we talked about the ways we can abuse public acts of piety to place our glory ahead of God’s. Jesus’ top priority was the work of spreading the kingdom, and as he invested his teaching in the disciples he gave them tools to help diagnose their priorities and warnings about how placing other priorities ahead of God’s work causes a divided life. God’s call on us is not to divide our allegiances and loyalties between the things of this world and God, but to instead place our entire being, way of life, and value systems into the hands that knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. We live in a society that is based on the consumption of goods and services, more so than at any other time in history. This society teaches us that what we produce and consume is the measure of our worth as human beings, and everything is designed to fail or be used up. That attitude bleeds over into our opinions on the value of human beings and we see interactions like those in Fergusen and elsewhere in which people are treated as disposable. This is what happens when we place value in finite things, and Jesus gives us words from God to check ourselves.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[c] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:19-21

Now that Jesus has addressed the controversial topics of sex and power he turns his attention to money and the ways we determine value. These teachings of Jesus are not intended to shame us, but instead to invite us into relationships that have their value in the things of God. Jesus begins by warning us about storing up what the world around us holds to be valuable. Let me give you an example from the past, does anyone remember beanie babies? These were small stuffed animals that were mass produced and marketed as “collectibles.” They were released in an artificial scarcity with a slick marketing campaign. Many people got caught up in the craze and jumped on the bandwagon with some paying upwards of $200 for a single stuffed toy. This bubble eventually burst, but not without some people losing a lot of money in their speculation. The things marketed to us as valuable can all too easily turn out to be worthless in the long run, and Jesus is reminding us that there is only one place in which our investment is safe.

There is no security here on this earth. Let me repeat that: no matter what anyone tells you or promises, there is no place on this globe or in this universe in which any of us will be secure from loss. The flowers fade, the grass withers and our flesh is as dust, my future hangs on my feeblest breath. Every town and city will wither and every nation will eventually crumble. Every currency will collapse, every bit in our bitcoins will be set to zero. Little geek humor reference: there are 10 kinds of people in the world…those who understand binary and those who don’t. In binary there are only two numbers, zero and one so 10 would be two in decimal. Every corporation will close its doors and its books. Even the very world we tread on is susceptible to the dangers of space. Nowhere that life exists can be secure. Jesus is preparing his disciples for the next part which says don’t worry, and we will get there in a few weeks. For now Jesus is telling his disciples that trust and hope placed in the things and powers of this world is misplaced. Hope and trust cannot be supported by things doomed to fail.

There is only one source of hope and trust, one source for security that is not dependent on circumstances. When what we treasure is the joy that comes from being in the presence of the God whose love caused the universe to exist, there is nothing more needed to feel a sense of security, and nothing will shake us, not even other people’s religious opinions. I we are feeling insecure in our faith or life, it might be time to do some prayerful evaluation to discover what we might be trusting in that isn’t God. Where is my treasure invested? That might just tell me where my priorities are.

The next passage requires a bit of explanation since there is a bit of a translation issue here. The word Jesus uses that our bibles translate as “healthy” implies generosity and the word we translate as “unhealthy” implies stinginess. When we don’t allow ourselves to be controlled by accumulating things or wealth we look at others with generous and healthy eyes. This is a consequence of living in the light of God’s truth, that nothing is more valuable than the treasure of serving God. When we look upon others with the understanding that our treasure is entirely in God’s hands we can be healthy in the ways we give to others. Jesus hasn’t really changed the topic that he has been talking about, just approaching the need to have right relationships built on the foundation of God’s loving grace and mercy from a different angle each time. Every display of unhealthiness and darkness comes from being afraid of losing what we rely on. It comes from treasuring that which is fleeting in its very nature. When we are deceived into believing that things or money are where our value lies, we look out at others in unhealthy ways, we hoard what we have. The fear of loss will then begin to taint our relationships and as we gather our things up to hide them and keep them away from others. That fear and anxiety will then begin to dominate our thinking and any disagreement will be perceived as a threat to the house of cards we have built on the shifting sands of worldly power, reputation, or wealth. Why is it that Jesus could hang around the people that his society deemed worthless? What was it that prevented the Pharisees from hanging out with the tax collectors, gluttons, hookers, and other broken types? He did not treasure the things or opinions of the world, but instead invested himself fully in the love of God. This is the source of power and courage, that God is with us and we can serve him. This is what can enable us to truly befriend the people who our society tells us are threats. What would it mean for us as Clackamas Park Friends Church to place our treasure, the resources we have been gifted with, entirely into God’s hands to be used up and given away without fear of loss? What kind of faith statement would it be for us to declare with our actions that we trust the generosity of God to overcome our fear of loss? That we could lose every worldly possession and still rejoice because our treasure is secure in God?

Friends, if there is fear in our lives it comes from having something other than God’s priorities guiding our actions. I can only speak this from my own experience of this truth given us by Jesus: when I am fearful it is because I am trusting in something that can be shaken. This is the hard truth that Jesus gives us today: we can only serve one master, there can never be “God and” there is only “God or”. I really would like there to be some way for me to serve God and money, God and food, God and my family, but as soon as I allow for any other master, no matter how important that master is to follow in this world, the door to fear has opened because of my idolatry. Every one of us in this room has something that it is most easy for us to slip an unconscious “and” into our lives, something that we tend to focus on instead of God. Let us take the time now to renew our determination to follow God and God alone.

Let us begin our time of silence with a time of confession and renew our focus. Friends, every day we must get up, face into the unhealthy patterns of this world and ask God to give us the strength to resist the temptation to put other things first in our lives. We are called together as a body to help each other resist, to help each other overcome, to redirect each other’s attention and priorities back to God as our eyes slip off the mark. Let us take this time of open worship to confess our fears to God, renew our determination to serve God alone, and resolve to support each other as we face into the unhealthy patterns of fear that close us off from the generosity that comes from serving  God. Let us put everything with God that our treasure may be stored up in His presence and our hearts reside in his steadfast love. Let us pray.

Poking Holes in Public Holiness

(Click here to listen. Speaker’s Note: The audio version of this sermon deviates from and significantly improves on the printed text below.)

In the Sermon on the Mount, we have seen how Jesus consistently raises the bar for his disciples from the letter of the law which kills to the spirit of the law which brings life. From a faith that is self-centered to a faith that is God-centered. Today’s text is no different, and the critique Jesus levels has been echoed repeatedly through the centuries. One of my favorite Dilbert comics is a conversation between Dogbert and Ratbert in which Dogbert had just cashed out as CEO of a company and was going to turn his attention to Philanthropy. Ratbert, being the comic foil, asks if that is the study of people named Phil to which Dogbert replies “It’s mostly about watching people beg and having buildings named after me.” In Jesus’ time the practice of giving alms to the poor was a part of Hebrew tradition and throughout the scriptures there are commands to care for the poor, the stranger, the alien, the orphan and the widow. The awesome thing was that the Jewish people really did make a big deal about the importance of their acts of charity, and their theology reflected it. However, as with many good works, there came a time in which a line of glorification was crossed. The line between glorifying God and glorifying self gets blurry awfully fast sometimes, and Jesus was fully aware of that fact. In today’s teaching Jesus addresses some of the things that will help us to keep our eyes on the mark of God’s glory.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4

Today’s text is one that we can struggle with applying, so to get our minds on the same page I want to share one way I saw this done. In a large high school like the one I attended the statistical likelihood of someone experiencing tragedy was pretty high, and we often heard through the grapevine how someone’s parent had cancer or was getting divorced. What was really interesting was that usually within two days of the tragedy making the rounds of the school, a bouquet of handpicked flowers addressed to the student would appear overnight. Nobody could figure out who was doing this, and it had a hugely positive effect on the student body. I still couldn’t tell you who, but it had to be someone or some people on the staff who had access to the student address records. Regardless of who did it, on the back of each card was the 23rd Psalm. Whoever did this found a way to apply today’s text and led others to share secret acts of compassion in ways that point to the goodness of the God who inspires them.

When we give in secret, without strings or even allowing others to know who is doing the giving there are some amazing opportunities that open up. The first opportunity is for God to be glorified. When I was growing up in the ministry in New York, we were trying to feed 25-40 people three meals a day and some months we used all of the tricks the third worlders who lived with us knew about stretching food. Occasionally a miracle would happen. We would open our front door in the morning and there on the porch would be bags and bags of food. There would be no note or anything to identify where this came from other than the name of the store on the shopping bags. That food came from God, and everyone in our house knew it. When whoever left that food did it in secret they turned away from credit and acclaim so the people who were living with us would know that the source of this food was Jesus. God received the glory.

There was something else that happened as well, when miracles occur it doesn’t feel like a handout. There is no weird relational dynamic that places the giver over the receiver because nobody knows where things came from. One of the dynamics that Jesus is really addressing here is giving with an eye towards exerting influence or control over others. When we don’t let our left hand know what the right hand is doing in our giving we are exercising a very important act of trust. We are expressing a trust that God will be glorified and we trust that the right things will be done in God’s church without our exerting financial influence over the process.

These acts of trust and faith are not easy, and we are bombarded constantly with the message that other people are not trustworthy, especially people in the church, especially the fallible people who lead our churches. Don’t hear me say that we should not have checks and balances, but that those checks and balances need to be disconnected from personal financial involvement. The problem is one of a misplaced sense of ownership, and I must confess that I have heard that little voice in my soul that says things like “I am a consistent giver so the leaders had better listen to me.” and “Hey, this is my church because I help support it.” and even “I helped found this church and everyone knows I give to make this ministry happen so my voice needs to be heard on this.” I think all of us have heard variations on those themes and have had to check ourselves with the reminder that “No. This is God’s church and I have to submit to his leading.” All glory, authority, control, and power belong to God and God alone, and Jesus is helping us find ways to silence those voices that tempt us to think otherwise.

Jesus is doing more here than keeping us from trying to Lord it over others because of the amount of money we are able to give. He is reminding us of the answer to one of the big questions of life “Why am I here?” Humanity has asked this question for as long as there has been the ability to think about it. For a majority of my life, the answers that I would give, even in theologically prettied up language, were mostly variations on the theme of do the best I can for myself and my family. As I have been part of the Friends and experienced the challenge to live simply, below my means, God has used that to help me focus on the purpose we all are created for: To glorify God; to serve God’s purposes in the world and to show by my trust that God is worthy of the glory, worthy of honor, worthy of praise. When I surrender my desire to control and let my giving be hidden from others, I create an opportunity for others to experience the goodness of God. In that experience of God’s goodness, maybe, just maybe a seed will be planted and God can be glorified in another person’s life as they accept the gift of Jesus.

Jesus is reminding us in today’s teaching to once again keep our eyes on the end game. The mark we aim at is that mark of loving perfection which we see in Jesus. We need his help to keep our eyes focused on that, and Jesus points out for us the reward that comes from following him and his purposes in the world. God’s glory is shown and when we are in his presence we get to hear the words we so long to hear: “Well done my good and faithful servant.” As we enter into our time of open worship take the first five minutes of silence to allow your thoughts to quiet. As we consider this teaching of Jesus maybe you will be inspired to an act of creative hidden generosity. What joy can we bring to others so that they might give glory to our God? Who knows, maybe if enough of us take on this task we can begin to see the fulfillment of the promise in Habakkuk 2:14 “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Let us pray.

 

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/