Expecting God

This Advent, the folks at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering some of the characteristics of the God whom we worship.  On November 29, we talked about what it means for us to worship and serve a God who is willing to break into human reality in surprising ways.  

Our texts included Isaiah 9:6-7 and Luke 1:39-45.

 

For our first Christmas as a married couple, Sharon and I set a spending limit. We agreed that we would spend no more than $30 on gifts, stocking stuffers, etc. We said we could afford a $30 Christmas.

Now, remember, this was a long time ago. When we got married, Ronald Reagan was president. The largest nation in the world was The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. We we got married, there were only 2 Star Wars movies and Wheel of Fortune hadn’t been invented yet. When we got married there were only 23 letters in the alphabet.

OK, I made the last one up to see if you were paying attention. It was a long time ago. And because we didn’t have much money, we got creative. I remember picking an armoire out of the trash and refinishing it for her (we still have it, on the 3rd floor of our home). Once she got a sweater from the thrift store, and because I wanted her to wonder what was inside the box, I wrapped it with a mayonnaise jar half full of water – just so I could watch her shake it and try to guess what was inside that box. We had a lot of fun with that $30.

When we do it right, Advent is about expectation. And we need to be clear that it’s not only about “what am I expecting to get for Christmas”, but especially in Advent we are called to wonder, “Where will God show up next?”

MapIn about 740 BC, the people of Judah were in a boatload of trouble. Believe it or not, in those days, Syria was a red hot mess (I know, it’s so calm now, right?). The king of Syria, Rezin, formed an alliance with the king of Israel, Pekah. Together, these nations sought to wage war against Ahaz, king of Judah in Jerusalem. Things were looking tough from the outside.

On the inside, it was no better. Ahaz, as it turns out, was a spectacularly bad king – in a nation that had had a lot of pretty bad kings. He was afraid to trust that God would deliver his people, and so Ahaz entered into a treaty with Tiglath Peleser III, the king of Assyria. The good news was that Judah was not overrun by the Syrian coalition. The bad news was that now Judah was a vassal state, paying tribute to Assyria.

Isaiah, Raphael, c. 1512

Isaiah, Raphael, c. 1512

In this time of conflict, famine, intrigue, and fear, God calls Isaiah to be his prophet. And Isaiah presents himself to Ahaz and says, “Listen, you don’t have to worry. God will send a deliverer! It looks rough now, but soon, things will change. Expect something big.” You heard a part of his amazing words to Ahaz in the Old Testament reading this morning.

Not long after Isaiah uttered those words about a son being given on whose shoulders the government would rest, Ahaz and his wife had a baby, a little guy named Hezekiah. And, don’t you know, Hezekiah turned out to be a good king – a spectacularly good king. He spent about 30 years cleaning up his father’s messes. He restored the temple, he re-instituted the celebration of the Passover meal, and more.

Isaiah was proven to be a good prophet – God did indeed show up, a son was born, and he was wonderful. Hooray!

About 7 centuries later, believe it or not, the Middle East was a mess. Still? Again? This time, the Romans were in charge, having brought their troops in to “liberate” the folks in about 63 BC. The Empirical troops were scattered throughout Palestine, keeping the peace by throttling any moves toward freedom or self-rule. Jerusalem and its environs had a Jewish population that was ruled by a Roman governor who appointed a Jewish strongman named Herod the Great as “king in Judea”.

Herod the Great, James Tissot c. 1890

Herod the Great, James Tissot c. 1890

Whereas Ahaz was a spectacularly bad king, Herod the great was a remarkably, undeniably, amazingly bad king. Whatever the nation had gained during Hezekiah’s rule was certainly ancient history by then, and people of faith used to gather around the scroll of Isaiah and read his prophecies and say things like, “Wow, it’s too bad that God isn’t in the showing-up-around-here business anymore, because this is horrible. How cool would it be if God would intervene in our situation?”

In fact, the people of Judea were suffering from what historians call “Messianic fever” – the strident hope or belief that God would send a savior to Israel – one who would bring freedom to God’s people forever.

It is in this context that an old woman named Elizabeth shows a rather surprising home pregnancy test to her even older husband, Zechariah. While they were shocked, and in Zechariah’s case even speechless, about this news, they took it in stride and were overjoyed at the ways that God was speaking into their own personal circumstances.

Meanwhile, about sixty-three miles to the north, Elizabeth’s teenage cousin was reviewing the results of her pregnancy test with even greater shock, since she was a virgin. And if Elizabeth’s husband was surprised, you can imagine how Mary’s fiancé took the news.

Statue of the Visitation at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel

Statue of the Visitation at the Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel

Mary and Elizabeth are vastly different people. One of them is still buying Clearasil and Neutrogena acne prevention while the other one is looking through the bins of Oil of Olay anti-wrinkle creams trying to find new batteries for her hearing aids. And yet our gospel reading for this morning records how each of them was able to recognize that amidst the upheaval of their world and their own lives, God was coming. The Messiah was on the way. Just like old Isaiah had promised, God was on the move. Again. Still.

Only when Jesus got here, he didn’t act like people thought that God’s deliverer should act. There was no kingly birth, and he did not play the part of the conquering hero at all. After decades of obscurity, he finally went public with his ministry, and for a couple of years seemed to be off to a promising start in terms of rallying the popular support behind his miracles and healing ministry.

But something happened, as it so often does, and the wheels apparently fell off of Jesus’ campaign to be the redeemer. He died in shame, crucified as an enemy of the state who had been rejected by his own people. It seemed as if it had all been a dream.

And then, as you probably know, things turned around in a hurry. God, in his wisdom, power, and strength demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus that he was, in fact, in the showing-up-around-here business in spades. His followers came to see that Jesus never intended to be a conquering hero characterized by military might and brute force. Instead, they remembered the birth of Jesus and the advent of his ministry as the time that God revealed himself in the power of love. The almighty came into our world cloaked as an infant. It was in sheer and utter vulnerability that the people came to see Immanuel – God With Us – had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And to us a son had been given. And he was wonderful. A counselor. He is the prince of peace, and of the increase of his government there will surely be no end.

Which brings us, dear friends, to you.

How did you end up here?

That’s a serious question. I figure this is as good a day as any to ask it, since we’re coming off a week when all but emergency workers and the unluckiest of retail clerks are given at least one day off and expected to be mildly reflective as to our life situations. How did we get to where we are professionally, or in terms of our education? How did we wind up being in relationship with our friends, lovers, children?

I’m pretty sure that the kid who wrapped up second-hand sweaters and used mayonnaise jars could not have looked ahead and seen me coming down the road… did you see this coming?

How did you get here? And what do you want? Again, I’m not asking what you hope your beloved will dig out of the trash and put on your third floor. I’m asking whether you ever think about God breaking into your life, your reality, your situation. Do you have a desire for God to change something in our world? Like the Judeans of Isaiah’s time, like Elizabeth and Mary, do you hope for God to intervene somehow, somewhere?

Are you waiting for God to change someone in our world?

Are you waiting for God to change something in you?

What do you expect this Advent?

You have done all the things that people do when they hope. You lit candles. You prayed, “O come, o come Immanuel”.

If the scriptures teach us anything about God’s relationship with his people and his creation, it’s that he’s still in the showing-up-around-here business. Our God is surprising.

So this morning, beloved – this first Sunday of Advent – I implore you: don’t just mutter a few prayers and go about your business. Don’t just say that you hope something is different and then go back to business as usual.

It’s Advent, and we are called to pray these prayers of hope. So by all means, let’s do so. But then let’s act hopeful. Let’s behave as those who are expecting that something will happen, something will change, someone will come.

This week, look around you for signs of God’s reign and power and love. Watch out as the God who spoke through Isaiah and came to us in Jesus and lives in our community is active in the people and places around you. And for his sake, keep up with him as he moves in the quiet, dark places and shows up in the most unlikely ways.

I’d like to close, not with my own words, but with some from a message that Pope John Paul II shared 2002:

… Advent… helps us to understand fully the value and meaning of the mystery of Christmas. It is not just about commemorating the historical event, which occurred some 2,000 years ago in a little village of Judea. Instead, it is necessary to understand that our whole life should be an advent, in the vigilant expectation of Christ’s final coming. To prepare our hearts to welcome the Lord who, as we say in the Creed, will come one day to judge the living and the dead, we must learn to recognize his presence in the events of daily life. Advent is then a period of intense training that directs us decisively to the One who has already come, who will come and who continuously comes.[1]

So what are you waiting for? Let’s wait. Now! For the One who has come, is coming, and will come again. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] General Audience at the Vatican, given on December 18, 2002 https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/2002/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_20021218.html

Some of the basic framework for this message was developed from thought I encountered in Under Wraps: The Gift We Never Expected, a series of Advent studies published by Abingdon Press.

But…But…But…

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On November 22 we considered the words of the sermon pertaining to the treatment of  “the enemy” as found in Matthew 5:38-48. In addition, we considered one of God’s commands to the Israelites as found in Leviticus 11:44-45.

It has been a hard, hard month for this planet. An African poet named Warsan Shire has expressed it this way in her work titled “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”

i’ve been praying,

and these are what my prayers look like;

dear god

i come from two countries

one is thirsty

the other is on fire

both need water.

 

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

 

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.

worldterrorIn case you’ve been under a rock, I’m talking about the terror attacks in France, Lebanon, Kenya, Mali, and a dozen other places. I’m talking about the millions of people who are running for their lives, seeking refuge in other towns, cities, or countries. I’m talking about the ways that we have engaged in fear-mongering and name-calling and race-baiting and other such mutually-destructive tactics.

We have not seen humanity at its finest…

And yet here we are, doing what we’ve done for the last couple of thousand years… we come into a room, and we sing a few songs, and we take a look at some ancient texts, and we ask where God is now… we ask what Jesus might have to say, if anything, about a world like ours in times like these.

Sermon on the Mount by Horton Young, 2012 Used by permission of the artist.

Sermon on the Mount by Horton Young, 2012
Used by permission of the artist.

And coincidentally, we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount, a message that has been hailed as one of the greatest expressions of ethical living in difficult times. In each of the last four readings, we’ve heard Jesus compare teaching of old with a new ethic. He has lifted up topics like anger, sexuality, marriage, and honesty and led his followers through a series of reflections contrasting the “things that everybody knows” with a glimpse of God’s intentions for his people. And, as you’ve already heard, today we consider the last two of those comparisons, each of which deals with how we treat the enemy.

As we begin to look at these texts, it’s important to note that for Jesus, the enemy is the one who seeks to harm us. You will find nothing in the Sermon about the people whom we seek to harm, for as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus leaves no room to even consider whether His followers have any basis for wishing harm to someone else.

In the New Testament our enemies are those who harbor hostility against us, not those against whom we cherish hostility, for Jesus refuses to reckon with such a possibility. The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother…His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus…[1]

That’s a lot to consider, and I’d invite you to think about that the next time you hear someone claim that, as a “Christian Nation”, the USA is morally bound to “bomb those people back into the stone age”. Jesus, it would appear, does not seem to allow for the possibility of my working for your annihilation.

Quite the opposite, in fact, Jesus offers a series of behaviors emphasizing non-resistance. He calls for us to forgo the temptation for revenge and instead to offer what we have – our coats, our energy, our money – to those who ask. And then he proceeds to flesh that out with a series of imperatives that end Matthew 5.

Now, listen to me: we call ourselves Christian. We claim to follow Jesus. We say we want to be his disciples – that we want to be like him. And if there is any place in our lives where we all walk into a room saying those things, and then hear the Gospel, and then say, “Um, nope. Not gonna do that, Jesus”, well, it’s this place. This could be one of the most unreasonable things that Jesus ever said, and frankly, we don’t want to hear it. And so we look at the text and say things like, “I wonder what Jesus really meant? After all, he couldn’t have wanted us to take that literally, could he?”

I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning looking at three specific words in our text in the hopes that we can understand what, in fact, Jesus meant in saying what he said that day.

By the time we get halfway through verse 43 in the Revised Standard Version, Jesus has used 997 words to convey what a disciple’s life ought to look like. One word that he has not chosen to use, at least until we get to 998, is “love”. In Greek, it’s agape. For the first time in Jesus’ primary treatment of ethical living, he tells his followers to love.

Love who? Kind-hearted older people? Adorable grandchildren? Cuddly puppies?

Nope. The first imperative to love in the Sermon on the Mount is directed towards the enemy – the one who wishes you harm.

But how can I love that person, who has sought to destroy me? How can I love this one, who has brought so much pain and death? I’m just not feeling it, Jesus!

Fortunately for us, the kind of love to which Jesus calls us is not based on feeling. Agape means that we act for the welfare of another. It is not a feeling, but rather a pattern of behavior that recognizes the humanity of each person and that moves towards justice and mercy. Jesus isn’t asking me to feel all warm and fuzzy toward you or anyone else; he is directing me to treat everyone – especially the one who seeks to harm me – the way that he has treated me.

Betsie, Corrie, and Nollie Ten Boom

Betsie, Corrie, and Nollie Ten Boom

In my last message I mentioned Corrie Ten Boom, whose family harbored Jews in the Second World War. They were eventually caught, and sent to the concentration camp called Ravensbrück, where she watched her sister die. Two years after the war ended, Corrie was invited to preach in a Munich church. She writes of a man who approached her afterward and stuck out his hand in greeting. She recognized him immediately, but it plain that he had no recollection of their ever having met:

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there…But since that time… I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.

Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”

And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.

“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.[2]

Corrie Ten Boom knew, far better than I ever will, I suspect, that forgiveness is a posture and a behavior that is rooted in love that comes, not from doing what I feel like doing, but from treating the other as God has treated me.

The second word that leaps out at me from this part of the text is one translated in verse 47 as “more”: “if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

The Sermon on the Mount is a contrast on the ways that followers of Jesus are called to do “more” – in Greek, perisson, whereas the rest of the world does what Jesus dismisses as “the same”.

The world would be happy to live by the old “eye for an eye” rule, where if you push, I push back, and if you hit, I hit harder. But here Jesus states explicitly that his disciples are bound by a higher calling.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:

…the distinctive quality of the Christian life begins with the perisson. It is this quality which first enables us to see the natural in its true light. Where [the perisson] is lacking, the peculiar graces of Christianity are absent. The perisson never merges into [the same]. That was the fatal mistake of the false Protestant ethic which diluted Christian love into patriotism, loyalty to friends, and industriousness…Not in such terms as these does Jesus speak. For him the hallmark of the Christian is “the extraordinary”.[3]

Do you see? It is in striving for the perisson – the extraordinary treatment of the other – that we participate in the Divine nature. It is in treating others with love that we become more like the One who made us in love.

Which leads me to the third word I’d like to consider this day: Jesus’ call to “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Holy smokes, if Jesus is expecting moral perfection from me, then he’s got another thing coming. Is this another instance where Jesus is holding out an impossible ideal? Nobody is perfect, right? How can he even ask that?

The word that we have here is teleioi, and it does mean “perfect” – but perfect in the sense that “it’s all done – it’s complete – it needs no further refinement or change.” In fact, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, he cried out as he breathed his last, “tetelestai”, which we have translated as “It is finished”, and which comes from the same root as teleioi.

If you were to attend a session of Congress, or some other body where Parliamentary Procedure is observed, you might hear someone make a motion. Then, someone else might move to amend that motion. What happens next is that the motion is “perfected”. That doesn’t mean that it’s the greatest motion in the history of motions: it means that the people talking about the motion are getting it to say what they really need it to say. They are “perfecting” it in the sense that they are giving it the direction and integrity it needs.

SermonOnTheMountIn this last teaching in Matthew 5, Jesus is calling us to be people who have been perfected: people of integrity and wholeness. We cannot be perfect if we desire that only some hungry children are fed, or only some torture stops, or only some homeless find shelter. That kind of thinking is “the same” – it’s what got us where we are.

Jesus invites us to imitate, not the world, but the Father. Leviticus calls us to “be holy, as I am holy”. That is, to refuse to walk by what we can see right now, and to hold on to a higher righteousness. The Hebrew slaves could have given into the temptation to become just as evil as the Pharaoh had been to them, but instead they are called to a lifestyle of integrity, completeness, and dedication.

I don’t know how I’d feel if my sister had been murdered in the concentration camp, or if it was my child’s body that washed up on a foreign beach after we were forced to flee our home, or if I had to live in a city where bombs rained death from the sky. I don’t know how I’d feel. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t want to listen to Jesus or anyone else talking about love for the enemy, or the “extraordinary”, or being perfect.

But I hope that I know enough about Jesus to be able to extend love to the people that I can today; I hope that my walk with the Lord thus far has equipped me to pray and to do “the extraordinary” that love requires, even when it involves those who would wish me ill. I hope I can remember that fear is of the devil, and fear-mongering is deceitful.

I hope that in days like these, I am able to act with integrity and completeness, in enacted love, as God in Christ has acted toward me.

This has been a hard, hard, month for the planet. As followers of Jesus, are we making things better for those who suffer the most? May God be merciful to us as we seek to follow in his steps. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (MacMillan paperback 1963), p. 164.

[2] Guideposts Magazine, November 1972. Found online at https://www.guideposts.org/inspiration/stories-of-hope/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness?nopaging=1

[3] The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 169-170.

Truth or Consequences

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On November 15 we considered the words of the sermon pertaining to oaths and vows as found in Matthew 5:33-37  while also reading from James 5:12.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 2.43.47 PMIf you were to drive south on route 25 from Albuquerque to El Paso, and at about the halfway point you felt the need for a comfort stop, you might find yourself pulling into the Shell filling station in a town called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

If you did this, and asked the attendant how in the world a town in New Mexico came to be called Truth or Consequences, he would tell you that in 1950 one of the most popular entertainment programs in the nation offered to air its broadcast from the first hamlet in these United States that was willing to change its name. Hot Springs, New Mexico leaped at the opportunity, and ever since then has been legally known as Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the county seat for Sierra County.

truth-or-consequences-radioTruth or Consequences was the first game show to ever air on television, and it was broadcast on television or radio from 1940 until 1978. On the show, each contestant would come onstage and be given approximately two seconds to answer a ridiculous question. If the contestant could not answer in that time, “Beulah the Buzzer” sounded and the contestant would be forced to participate in some sort of a crazy stunt or get a pie in the face.

Although the program was called Truth or Consequences, the premise and humor of the show came from the fact that the host created a situation wherein it was impossible to tell the truth. The questions were so awkwardly worded or trivial that it was a virtual certainty that no truth would ever be told – and the audience got to laugh at the contestants as they rode unicycles or sang with seals or other such nonsense.

For a couple of months now we’ve been exploring Jesus’ teaching as found in the Sermon on the Mount. After laying out the “ground rules” for faithful living in the Beatitudes, Jesus has begun to outline a series of expectations for his followers. In so doing, he calls them – and us – to a life that is shaped by humility, service, and a refusal to manipulate other people to serve our own ends. Today, he lays out the importance of telling the truth.

Verses 33-37 are evidently a response to some teachings of the religious leaders of his day about which vows were considered “sacred” and which were not. In other words, there was some discussion about which oaths and promises had to be kept and which were free to be discarded if they became inconvenient. In which circumstances is it permissible to go back on one’s word? Which oaths are iron-clad and unbreakable?

In response to questions like that, Jesus simply says, “None of that for you. There are no oaths and no vows. Swear nothing.”

IntegrityWhy would Jesus say this? Because an oath can only exist in the presence of the possibility of a lie. If I say, “seriously, I promise – this is the honest-to-goodness-truth,” then I am allowing for the reality that at other times, when I open my mouth what comes out is something other than the honest-to-goodness truth. “I swear on a stack of bibles” or “I promise you on my mother’s grave” are merely ways of communicating to you that much of the time, I may be dishonest and unreliable, but now, I really, really, really mean it.

Using oaths and vows in the way that Jesus’ contemporaries did is a way of shaping reality so that I am in control; I manipulate the truth to my own advantage in precisely the ways that Jesus forbids the manipulation of people.

Some Christians have read these verses and taken them quite literally. These believers refuse to take oaths of any sort – and in fact the constitution of the United States guarantees people the right to “affirm” rather than “swear” in at least four different places. Whether it’s offering testimony in court or being sworn in as President of the USA, many people have been unable to say “I solemnly swear, so help me God.”

Other people have taken these verses to mean that any form of deception at any time is a clear violation of God’s intentions for humanity. In her book The Hiding Place, a Dutch woman named Corrie Ten Boom describes her family’s practice of hiding Jews and other fugitives from the Nazi storm troopers. She recalls the day that her niece answered the door and when the Gestapo asked about whether there were any fugitives in the home, the young girl stammered a bit but eventually told the Nazis that those whom they sought were under the kitchen table. She did so because, she said, it was a sin to lie – even to Nazis.

Someone else might employ this same logic today in this fashion: you’re at a party and one of the guests is clearly drunk out of his mind. He staggers over to you and says, “Do you have my car keys? Where are they?” A literal reading of this part of the sermon might lead you to feel as though you are obliged to hand the keys over to the one who is intoxicated, simply because he asks you if you have them.

On the other hand, however, a quick glance through scripture reveals a number of places where a lie is celebrated or rewarded. When the Egyptian Pharaoh commanded the Hebrews to kill all the baby boys, for instance, the midwives named Shiphrah and Puah report that there are only girls… and are blessed by God for that. A Canaanite woman named Rahab lies about the presence of Hebrew soldiers in her home and is rewarded in a significant way. And when the three wise men showed up to worship the infant Christ, King Herod made them promise to come and tell him where the baby could be found – a promise that they did not keep when they discovered who Jesus really was.

What is Jesus’ intent in these verses? Would he condemn the midwives, or Rahab, or the wise men as being dishonest? Or is there a deeper ethic to which he invites us?

It seems to me that the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to give shape to a community that is trustworthy. Jesus is giving us practices that will create people who know that they can rely on each other and who will act towards what is right. This is a community wherein the manipulation of truth for personal gain is unknown.

As is made clear in the Beatitudes, Jesus’ conversation here is rooted in the presumption that people are in a covenantal relationship and are committed to treating each other as God intends. If that is the case, then, we do well to remember that Jesus’ summons for truthfulness is rooted first and foremost in the ways that God’s people treat each other as we seek to live as a community that is shaped by covenant and integrity.

Having said that, then, I’d like to make a few comments about truth and its consequences.

One of the things we need to remember about truthfulness is that it is a gift and not a weapon. When I speak the truth to you or about you, it ought to be a benediction – literally, a “good word”. That doesn’t always happen, does it? Too often, followers of Jesus use the cloak of “truth” as an excuse to attack someone else. We hear mean and derisive comments followed by a shrug and someone saying, “Hey, it’s only the truth…” Such conversation has no place in the Christian community.

There will be times when I have to tell you some hard things about yourself or our world, but when I do so, I need to make sure that you understand that the reason I’m telling you those things is to encourage you and to build up the community.

Another way of saying this is that I am called to be true with you and true for you and sometimes true to you – but never true at you. Can you imagine yourself hurling a gift at me – throwing it in my face and saying, “Here you go, Dave – enjoy this!”? In the same way, it is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus to walk up to someone and unload a whole bellyful of truth just to make yourself feel better. We are each called to assess our motives in situations like this: if we are setting out to nitpick and criticize and feel superior about ourselves, then we ought to simply shut up. Yet if the ultimate goal is the enhancement of relationship and mutual growth, then I can offer even difficult comments in a spirit of generosity and humility, risking myself even as I ask you to be vulnerable to me.

Another thing we’ve got to remember about the truth is that as an offering, it is voluntary. That is to say that a posture of truth requires me to answer questions that you have not asked as often as I respond to those you have. Another word for this is “transparency”: a part of living truthfully is that I am unwilling to hide anything.

There have been times when I have gravely hurt other people not so much by outright lies, but by a refusal to share the entire story. When I manage the information I have concerning my thoughts, my feelings, my time, my hopes, then I am being less than truthful with you. There have been times when I have sought to justify myself by saying something like, “You never asked me about such and such”, but I’ve only done so because I was looking for a way to avoid speaking falsely; there’s no way that you can call that kind of manipulation of words truth-telling.

There are many times in interpersonal relationships where the truth requires an initiative and a sharing; an openness and vulnerability. If I find myself paralyzed by a fear that’s come up after a visit to the doctor’s office, or profoundly irritated by a situation at work, or deeply troubled by an event in the community, then I am being less than honest if I do not find a way to offer that part of myself to someone in the community.

Truthful speech of this nature produces the fruit of dependability in our lives. When we are honest about what we say and how we say it, people are more likely to see us as reliable in other areas. When we establish a pattern of integrity, those with whom we are called to serve are better able to open up to us. Truthfulness leads to dependability and then dependability brings us to a place of significant trust.

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission.  More at http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-US/search?filter_text=Laura%20James&filter_group=all

Sermon on the Mount, by Laura James (2010), used by permission. More at http://laurajamesart.com

When Jesus sits on that hillside and invites his followers to be truthful, he is calling them and us to engage each other at a deep level. We are invited to become a community that is unflinching in our commitment to seek the welfare of all; a people who – with our neighbors – are open to an earnest consideration of what it means to be created, called, and commissioned by God as we speak for justice and compassion.

The only way to become that kind of community is be trustworthy and dependable. Any testimony that we offer is valued only as we demonstrate ourselves to be persons of integrity.

Reliability. Trustworthiness. Integrity. There is only one way to get those things: by telling the truth, over and over and over again. By offering the truth as a gift and seeking to be transparent in our dealings with others.

I know, I really do, that it’s possible to live otherwise, but the consequences of that are far worse than a pie in the face.

The first and one of the longest-running game shows on television created a reality wherein everybody knew that it was virtually impossible to tell the truth.  Nobody every watched that show thinking that there was any chance that there would be truth. That’s how we live far too much of the time.

If we are serious about living life the Jesus way, it will be impossible not to tell the truth. When Jesus was speaking about himself to these same people in John 14, he said that he was the way, the truth, and the life. If he is the truth, and I am called to be as he is, then what option do I have but to seek to live gently and truly in the place where he puts me?

No Deposit, No Return

For much of 2015/2016, God’s people at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are seeking to be attentive to Christ’s call to follow as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  On November 1 we considered the words of the sermon pertaining to divorce as found in Matthew 5:31-32, while also reading Malachi’s words to his community in Malachi 2:15-16.  

plasticislandStretched across the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a clump of material known as the Giant Ocean Trash Vortex. This is a collection of litter that has been brought together by the currents and concentrated in an area that is by some estimates twice as large as the state of Texas. About 80% of the material in that vortex comes from land-based activities in either North America or Asia, and the number one component is plastic. Some researchers suggest that as much as 26 tons of plastic is added to the ocean each year.

Why is there that much plastic in the ocean? Well, for starters, because there’s 260 tons of new plastic created every year. And why do we make so much plastic? For lots of reasons, but one stands out this morning: plastic bottles. Forget the detergent bottles and the salad dressing bottles – Americans throw away 35 billion water bottles every year.

Family-size-red-crate-whiteIt wasn’t always like that, of course. Fifty years ago, when you bought a drink, the drink came in a thick glass bottle, and the price you paid for it included a deposit on the container. You drank the beverage and then returned the bottle and got your deposit back; the container was washed and re-used. Around 1965, someone had the bright idea to sell beverages in bottles that didn’t need to be re-used, and the “No Deposit, No Return” industry was born. Manufacturers began selling pop and beer and juice and water in thin glass or plastic bottles that didn’t need to be returned. It was a little cheaper for the consumer and a lot easier for the manufacturers.

Despite Push From Environmentalists, Bottled Water Consumption Remains UbiquitousThere was, however, a side effect: there was an astounding increase in the amount of litter. Once the bottles had no value, people cared less about where they ended up. Within a very short period of time, the notion of what constituted an acceptable means of selling drinks changed, and empty beverage containers came to be regarded merely as “waste — unwanted and unvalued, simply delivery mechanisms that become a problem as soon as we have consumed the beverage they once contained.” Almost immediately there was a plan to mandate the collection of deposits on all beverage containers, but the retail food industry fought those changes tooth and nail. One New York grocer said that his business was “selling goods, not collecting trash.”[1] And so we have an island in the Pacific Ocean, larger than the state of Texas, comprised of garbage.

PhariseesIn Jesus’ day there was a spirited disagreement regarding sex and religion. One group of faithful Jews, led by a Rabbi named Shammai, taught that Deuteronomy 24  was a command to be taken literally, and that divorce was only an option following a gross indecency on the part of one’s wife. Another group, led by a Rabbi named Hillel, argued for a very broad interpretation of that passage, and so taught that divorce was an option for a man who was offended not only by his wife’s infidelity, but by the fact that she was a lousy cook, or she ‘dishonored’ him, or if she had the nerve to be less attractive than his new neighbor or co-worker.

I’ll let you take one guess as to who was a more popular Rabbi in those days – at least among men.

The teaching of Hillel reflected the presupposition that a marriage was not really about a relationship of trust and intimacy with another person – it was really about what I was liable to get out of it. I get married to the girl next door, and everything is well and good. And then someone else comes along – someone who is a better cook, or who lets me clean my fish on the kitchen table without arguing, or who never loses my socks in the dryer, and I am free to get rid of #1 and move on to #2, where I’ll be deliriously happy until #3 comes into the picture…

In other words, some of the most religious people in Jesus’ day were treating the wives of their friends the way that we treat empty Snapple bottles today: as waste – unwanted and unvalued, simply delivery mechanisms that become a problem as soon as we have consumed the usefulness they once contained.

BlessedNot surprisingly, Jesus has something to say about this.

The Pharisaical culture that surrounded Jesus was concerned with possible grounds for divorce. They heard some of the Old Testament words, such as Deuteronomy 24, that allow for divorce in the case of “indecency” as commands to be followed. Divorce, while not a good thing in and of itself, was not a big deal, spiritually speaking. It was a messiness through which one went and then came out, most often with a younger, prettier, wealthier, better-cooking wife.

Jesus, on the other hand, was concerned with the goodness of marriage. He looked at the words of Moses and said that they were a “concession” because of the ways that people’s hearts are hardened. And then he put divorce in the same category as adultery.

And again, it’s hard to imagine anyone who actually knew Jesus would be surprised by this. Do you remember the so-called “ground rules” for Christian living as illustrated in the Beatitudes? Disciples are called to be poor in spirit, and meek, and humble. As St. John Chrysostom preached in the fourth century, “For he that is meek, and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that is his own?”[2]

Last time, we talked about the fact that Jesus branded lust a violation of the other person because it is selfish and manipulative. How much more is this casual dismissal of the marriage vows out of line with God’s intention?

Jesus condemns the ease with which his contemporaries sought to dispose of marriages because such behavior is counter to God’s intentions for the ways that we are supposed to treat each other. In doing so, he is very much in line with the prophet Malachi, who used the language of violence to describe the ways that his contemporaries were using divorce as a means to justify their own selfish behavior. In Malachi’s voice, God is even sarcastic as he compares the way that some of Malachi’s contemporaries changed their marriages the way that they changed their clothing.

So what are the implications for us? I mean, it’s good to hear that Jesus has little patience with those who treat covenantal relationships as though they are disposable, but what do these words mean to us, today?

More specifically, how do we hear these words right now? I mean, look around the room: there are a lot of people here who have gone through the trauma of a divorce. For many, this is an open, festering wound. What does Jesus say to us? How are we supposed to react when Jesus brings up this topic?

It’s times like these when I return to that astounding theologian of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Rocky Balboa. There’s a wonderful scene in the first Rocky movie where the aspiring boxer has received a chance to fight the champ. At first, he’s excited, but as the event draws closer, he is unsure. The night before the match, he leaves his apartment and wanders the streets, filled with self-doubt. Rocky visits his girlfriend, Adrian, who responds to his situation in a very Christ-like way:

Rocky: I can’t do it.Rocky

Adrian: What?

Rocky: I can’t beat him.

Adrian: Apollo?

Rocky: Yeah. I been out there walkin’ around, thinkin’. I mean, who am I kiddin’? I ain’t even in the guy’s league.

Adrian: What are we gonna do?

Isn’t that amazing? She doesn’t try to talk him out of his fear; she doesn’t yell at him to train harder; she doesn’t give him a ‘dope slap’ and say, “Of course you can’t beat him – and you’re an idiot for even thinking you could!” She sits with him in the place where he is and says, “What are we gonna do?”

That, beloved, is the question that faces us this morning. I don’t care if you’ve been married for 60 years or you’ve never been on a date – when we consider the words of Jesus when it comes to covenant love, our best response has got to be, “What are we gonna do?”

peasants marryingMost of you have sat through at least one or two weddings for which I’ve been privileged to be the officiant. For the few in the room who’ve not been at one of those gatherings, let me tell you something that happens every time I stand up here, usually as the less-attractive person wearing a white dress: We talk about the ways that the community is invested in the relationship that we’ve come to bless, and about the ways that the community will be blessed by the marriage that is occurring.

I really mean that. When two people are in love, and they have their own little relationship, well, that’s great. I’m happy for them, and they generally appear to be pretty darn happy themselves. But when they announce that love and seek to walk with that love into the estate or covenant of marriage, then that love moves from being their own private possession to being a means by which they and the community together tell the story of God’s investment in the creation. Marriage is deeply personal, but it is not private – marriage belongs to the whole people, even though only two individuals are directly engaged.

With that in mind, then it seems as though the first thing that we do is to affirm that divorce is not God’s intent. The tearing apart of a marriage is painful and difficult and messy – it’s a place that nobody wants to be. Divorce is antithetical to a covenantal view of the other. That kind of breach in relationship is not a gift.

Having said that, of course, we do well to point out what I hope is the obvious truth: that sometimes divorce is the option that is least bad. Sometimes the marriage has been so eviscerated by abuse or neglect or violence that the only way forward is through the bitterness of separation and divorce. That’s just how it is, and many of you in the room know more about that than I do. Nobody ever gets married hoping for the joy of a divorce; but there are times when it’s the best way to move forward in the life to which we’ve been called.

In response to that, then, it would behoove us to commit ourselves to building a community where people are seen as beings of worth and value in and of themselves, rather than as objects for my own personal use or abuse. We need to create a climate where trust, not manipulation, is the cornerstone of relationships; a community where forgiveness is practiced. The church needs to be a place where our mistakes, our pain, or the abuse of our past does not define us and where models of faithful living and reconciliation are shared.

There was an instant during a recent wedding when I almost burst into tears in the middle of the sermon. It wasn’t because I was so happy for the couple preparing to enter into that covenant, and it wasn’t because I was so embarrassed by my preaching. No, what brought your pastor to the brink of tears that day was the sight of so many of you in the congregation at whose weddings I’ve been privileged to officiate. I was struck and humbled by the ways that you have lived your lives in the months, years, or decades since that day; the joys that you’ve shared and the pain you’ve endured; the hard places – including divorce – that many have been… and yet there you were, again, doing your best to live into the kind of community where people are free to make outlandish promises to one another in front of the rest of us, knowing that they are not alone in that.

What are we gonna do?

We have noted at several points in this exploration of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus does not intend either to point people to an impossibly high ideal or to heap shame and guilt on those who have somehow failed to live up to the standard that he appears to be setting. As we consider the brokenness of divorce and the pain that we can cause each other in relationship, let us remember that our calling is to rise up from our seats around the teacher after the Sermon on the Mount and create a community of disciples where all are valued and all are called to celebrate and honor covenants.

If the Pacific Ocean is full of the debris from billions of discarded beverage bottles, how much more are our lives swamped by the pain of broken promises, unfulfilled potential, and eroded trust? We gather here this morning and listen to Jesus, not because we claim to be less-broken than those who are around us, but because we know that if there is any hope for healing at all, it will come first from Him, and then from our willingness to treat each other not as objects of fleeting desire but as those who bear the image of the One who calls us into his body – the place of restoration and growth for generations yet to come. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Both quotes from this paragraph are from “A Pocket History of Bottle Recycling”, Atlantic Monthly, February 2013 http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/02/a-pocket-history-of-bottle-recycling/273575/

[2] “Homily 17 on Matthew”, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/200117.htm