Rules Are Rules


The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On November 4, we took some time to think about one of the most difficult teachings of Jesus, the one regarding divorce and remarriage. Our gospel reading was Mark 10:1-12.  

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below: 

As we begin the sermon this morning, I’d like to test your baseball knowledge.  Let’s say that I’m the starting centerfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, I’m still dreaming…). I’m up to bat, and Jon Lester of the Cubs throws two fastballs right past me.  I’m in the hole.  But somehow, I manage to stay alive and have an at-bat for the ages.  He throws me 17 more pitches, and I foul off 14 of them while three are for balls. Now, it’s full count, and I’m on the verge of breaking the MLB record for the longest at-bat ever.  On the 20thpitch to me, I swing awkwardly, and I manage to foul off yet another pitch, but in so doing I wrench my back horribly. After laying in the dirt a few moments, it’s obvious I can’t play any further. Clint Hurdle comes out and helps me off the field and you come in to replace me.  Lester eyes you up and throws a change-up – a grapefruit – right down the middle of the plate.  You watch it go by for strike 3.

When the records of this game are finalized, who has to carry that strikeout on his record? Me.  According to Rule #10.17(b), “ When the batter leaves the game with two strikes against him, and the substitute batter completes a strikeout, charge the strikeout and the time at bat to the first batter.”

But let’s say that you DON’T do that.  Let’s say that you come in and you take a pitch that is so, so close – but you let it go by for ball 4, and you head down to first base.  In this instance, even though I’ve endured the first 20 pitches of the at-bat, youget credit for the base on balls.  The same rule that makes me liable for the negative result gives you credit for the positive one – even though our actions are unchanged.  It doesn’t seem right.

Rules are rules. Most of the time, we want them. We need them to guide us.  We rely on them to help us keep things straight.

Sometimes, we ignore them.  Sometimes, we twist them to get what we want.  Oftentimes, we wish they were different.

Rules are rules.

The Pharisees and Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Our reading from Mark invites us to overhear a conversation between Jesus and some members of the Pharisees.  Although they have a bit of a bad reputation nowadays, I suspect that most of the Pharisees were good people, and I further suspect that Jesus had more respect for most Pharisees than he did for other religious groups in his day.  He argued a lot with them, but I think that’s because he thought that they were on to something – they were almost there – but they couldn’t quite see where Jesus was going.

More than anyone else, the Pharisees sought to codify what it meant to be faithful to God. Do this.  Don’t do that.

So these very religious folks come to Jesus and they have a question about the rules.  It seems like a pretty easy yes/no question: is a man allowed to divorce his wife?  That seems like a pretty cut and dried question.

However, a closer reading of the text would indicate that they were not interested in merely acquiring knowledge.  Mark says that they asked him this question in order to test him.  I suspect that they are looking for a way to put Jesus in a bad spot.  He has come through the Galilee into Judea as he is walking toward his death in Jerusalem, and they interrupt this pilgrimage by asking about divorce.  In King Herod’s back yard.  You may recall that the last time we read about divorce in Mark, it was when John the Baptist was beheaded for being critical of the fact that the ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas, had divorced his first wife in order to marry his brother’s wife.  I suspect that in asking this question at this time, the Pharisees are hoping that Jesus might say something that would attract Herod’s attention in such a way as to induce the monarch to attempt to silence the Rabbi.

Moreover, at that time there was a significant disagreement within the community about the ethics of divorce.  As the Pharisees rightly pointed out, the rules (aka the commandments of God) allowed for divorce, but only a) if it is initiated by the man and b) if “she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her” (Deuteronomy 24:1)

Hillel and Shammai, Artist Unknown

Most of the faithful in that time agreed that divorce was possible. There was conflict, though, as folks disagreed about what “uncleanness” meant.  A very influential teacher named Shammai said that when the Law allowed for divorce, the only acceptable form of “uncleanness” was infidelity.  Adultery was the only permissible reason for a man to send his wife away.

Not long after that, another teacher by the name of Hillel said that “uncleanness” could cover a multitude of offenses, such as if the wife spilled food on her husband, or if she spoke ill of his family, or even if he saw someone who was more attractive to him than wife #1.  Any of these reasons, and a hundred more, were sufficient cause, according to Hillel, to dissolve a marriage.

I’ll give you one guess whose views were more popular amongst the men in that region at that time.  Hillel’s teaching was carrying the day, and divorce was rampant.

“Hey, Jesus? Can we get a divorce? Moses said we could!  Rules are rules, right?”

And I can hear Jesus sigh and say, “Yeah, Moses said that because he knew that you were a bunch of knuckleheads.”  He then offers a teaching that takes the discussion to a whole new level.

Jesus’ teaching about divorce makes the most sense in, and speaks most plainly to, a culture in which divorce is an issue of justice for the marginalized, rather than a straightforward legal procedure between two equals.  When a man sought to “send his wife away”, he was often condemning her to poverty, to shame, and to alienation.  Divorce in Jesus’ day was overwhelmingly an injustice to the woman, who was most frequently thought of as a “thing”, one who was subject to the whims of the male head of her family.

Christ and the Pharisees, Ernst Zimmerman (1870 – 1944)

In this context, the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce, and he talks to them about marriage. They were looking at problems.  He was looking at the plan, and reminds them of the creational intent for human relationships as found not in Deuteronomy, but further back, in Genesis.

Then, Jesus takes the disciples aside and elaborates.  “If a man divorces his wife,” says Jesus, “he commits adultery. And if a woman divorces her husband”, which was virtually impossible in that day and age, “she commits adultery.” Rules are rules.

But people are people.  I think that what Jesus was saying to the people in the room is that if a man attempts to discredit, disempower, or disenfranchise his wife (or injure his family) based on his own whims, then he becomes the one who is unclean or impure. Humans matter.  Relationships of intimacy are important – important for those who share them as well as for those who bear witness to them and who find their lives shaped by them.

So how do we read this in 21stCentury America?  What about divorce now?

Before I say anything, I want to recognize and claim the fact that I am speaking from a certain position.  I enjoy a number of privileges: I am white.  I am male. I am heterosexual, and have participated in one marriage.  Compared to many in this room, and many in the room with Jesus two thousand years ago, my life has been easy and uncomplicated.  I have to admit that if I had not committed to preaching my way through the Gospel of Mark, I’d probably have skipped this passage.

But here we are, listening to a first-century Rabbi try to encounter this difficult question in his day and age, and not only that, but seeking to draw some ultimate meaning and truth from it.

Here’s what I think: in answering a question about Moses with a scripture about creation, Jesus is indicating that relationships are a part of our creational identity, and therefore an invitation to practice godliness in everyday life.  In pointing to the way things were at the beginning, he is affirming that the ways that we treat each other (and ourselves) matter.  And he is pointing out that breaking troth with each other – practicing faithlessness – has consequences.

However, I would further suggest that Jesus does not allow any of us to be in a position to be sanctimonious or judgmental.  In some traditions, participation in a divorce, no matter what the cause, excludes people from full participation in the life of the community.

I had a friend who felt this way.  She was married at a young age to a man who seemed so much more sophisticated than she. They had a quick courtship and they were married.  He betrayed their vows on their wedding night!  She was heartbroken, and eventually he filed for a divorce (which she did not contest).

Not only did she never marry or seek a meaningful intimate relationship again, she spent the rest of her life feeling guilty at having divorced.  She was a hard-liner, and she was a hard-liner on herself as well as anyone else.  She saw her divorce as a great stain on her life, a sin that prevented her from full participation in the life for which God made her.

And there are those who might say, “Of course! How could she do otherwise?  Look at the scripture! Jesus says that those who are involved in divorce are equivalent to adulterers.”

Maybe.  But if you’re going to say that, you’ve got to be ready to take a look at how Jesus treated adulterers. The most well-known of the stories involving Jesus and one accused of adultery ended with Jesus speaking words of compassion, grace, and encouragement to the woman who lay before him.

My hunch is that most of my friends who are younger than me have a hard time understanding the perspective of my friend who felt stained by divorce.  For many in our culture, divorce is not a deal-breaker. It happens, they say.

These people, if they claim faith in Christ, are able to see Jesus in this passage as pointing toward the Divine intent of using our relationships to honor the other, and to set up truth and beauty and integrity and faithfulness as hallmarks with which we are to treat each other.

I am certain that Jesus is nottrying to beat up anyone in this teaching, and I would caution that anyone who would use this passage for that reason does so at their own peril.

What is the take-away that we can glean from this conversation?  That life and relationships are given as a gift.  We ought to seek to honor other people every chance we get.  We are called to treasure and esteem and value others in ways that reflect the creational norms.  We must resist every temptation to use, abuse, or commodify the other.

We are not free – in fact we are called to avoid – the use of the rulebook in order to beat someone else up.

This includes the one who has wronged you.

This includes the one who is different from you.

This includes the one whom you have judged to be “unclean”.

When it comes to the rules, I think that Jesus is saying, look first at yourself, and then at Jesus, and only through the eyes of Jesus at everyone else.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Because there were a number of visitors to the congregation, I felt obliged to explain why I chose to have the congregation sing “Good, Good Father” after the sermon.  If you are unfamiliar with that tune, you can access it by clicking the video link below. You might also be interested in hearing my two-minute commentary linking the song and the sermon.  In fact, if you and I have not met, or if there is any chance that you feel “beaten up” by my use of the rulebook in the sermon above, I’d ask you to please listen to the comments by clicking on the audio player below.

Lastly, in a surprise move, the Worship Team at our congregation commemorated this observance of All Saints Day by covering “Stormy Monday” by the Allman Brothers in celebration of the life of our dear friend Ed Schrenker.  You can hear that by using the media player below.  As you listen, please remember that we are recording in a sanctuary, not a studio.  It was just beautiful, and I wish you’d have been here!

On Staying in the Boat

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On June 24, we considered the final teaching that Jesus offered to his disciples in the region of the Galilee.  What did this team need to know before the next, most difficult part, of their journey began.  Our gospel lesson was from Mark 8:11-21, and we also heard from I John 2:12-14.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below, or paste into your browser…

So let me ask you to think about this – and it’s a rhetorical question.  No need to answer out loud.  But why did you come here this morning?  What motivated you to get yourself out of the house and into the pew today?

I ask that because it seems to me that is a crucial question in the gospel reading at hand.  This is, at its core, the story of two different motivations for hanging around with Jesus.

When we left Jesus and his followers last week, they were “on the other side” – that is to say, in the region of the Decapolis, the land of the Gentile, the outsider, the “other”. The last thing we saw on Sunday was Jesus and his friends getting into the boat following the feeding of the 4,000. They were heading toward the region of Dalmanutha – a town on “our” side of the lake in the area of Galilee.

No sooner do they make landfall than they are greeted by a welcoming committee of Pharisees.  These religious leaders are eager to see Jesus – and they are primed for a fight.  Mark says that they came to “question” Jesus.  The Greek is a little more emphatic.  They were looking to argue, or even to “tempt” Jesus.  They wanted to know – was Jesus really who he appeared to be?  There were those who were claiming that he was Divine. Was he?  They’d know, if only he’d give them the right sign.  They’d know, if only he’d fit into their God-shaped box.

And I love what happens next.  Jesus “sighed deeply”.  It’s a word that implies some level of frustration and even anger. They have come to argue, but he won’t fall into the trap.  He sighs, he rolls his eyes, and then he says, “All right, boys.  Here we go.  Back into the boat.”

At this, the disciples (who, presumably, are doing most of the rowing here)have got to be thinking, “Are you kidding me?  I get it – you know a lot about healing, and feeding, and miracles, but you are a lousy sailor, Jesus. For crying out loud, make up your mind…” But they follow his directive and get back into the boat.

I think I know how they felt.  Many years ago I took a class on ministry and stress, and a part of that class involved a wilderness trek. We had a group of about 18 folks, and every day, a different pair was in charge of leading the group.  That meant reading the map, using the compass, and getting us to our next campsite. I’ll never forget the day that a couple of inexperienced folks had the map and we crossed the same stream – carrying 60 pound packs – six times. When they called us together to indicate yet another crossing, I lost my cool.  “Listen,” I said.  “I have one pair of dry socks left to last me the entire week.  I’ll cross that stream because you’re the leader, but if you tell me we have to cross it again today, I’m not going to be happy!”  It was not my proudest moment, I can tell you that…

But the disciples were not hanging around Jesus because he was such a great sailor; and they were not hanging around him because he always made sense.  If you’d have asked them that day, I suspect, they might not have been able to give you a clear answer as to exactly whythey were still following Jesus… but they were. There was something in him that was growing in them.  So this time, they got back into the boat and started rowing.

But there’s a problem. In all of the coming and going, unpacking and packing, somebody forget their lunches.  All that bread that was left from the other day… forgotten. Given the events of recent days, however, nobody was going to bring that up to Jesus.

If you’ve been here in the last couple of weeks, you’ve heard me say that the theme music in the Gospel is beginning to change.  There are indicators that something is in the wind, and change is afoot.  That becomes a little more pronounced – although the disciples still didn’t realize it fully – as today we read about the final teaching that Jesus gave to his followers in the region of Galilee.  Whether the others know it or not, Jesus is about to give them the last lesson in this area that has been home to most of them for their entire lives.

Of course, he chooses to use a metaphor about baking.  “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod!”

The disciples have to be thinking, “Oh, geez, who told him about the bread?  Now we’re going to hear it for sure!”

But instead, Jesus hurls a series of questions at them – at least eight or nine, depending on which translation you’re using.  And he ends with the frustrated cry of every teacher at some point or another: “For crying out loud, don’t you get it?”

Get what?  The teaching about the yeast.  What was Jesus talking about when in this last ever teaching session in Galilee, he talked to them about yeast?

I suspect that you know what yeast is – a microscopic organism that converts sugar into alcohol or carbon dioxide.  I know that some of you are quite familiar with, and grateful for, the yeasts in your lives…  You know that a tiny amount of yeast, left undisturbed, will radically change a large amount of whatever that yeast is in.  Put a quarter of a teaspoon of yeast in fifty pounds of flour and leave it in there long enough, and soon the entire quantity of flour has been transformed.

Jesus said “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod…”  In other words, be careful about the ways that their thinking affects your thinking.

The Pharisees were the religious group that had all the power in the daily lives of the people. There was a lot of what they did and held to that was good and noble… but… but… they had come to stand for an expression of the faith that was all but hollow and therefore meaningless. They carried around the Law and pointed to it in order to demonstrate the failings of those around them, but they never applied that same law to themselves.  The Pharisees used religion as a weapon against other people rather than a tool to shape their own lives.

And we’ve talked about Herod in recent weeks as we considered his murder of John the Baptist. He took what was meant to be a good thing – the rule of law – and turned it into an instrument of terror.  He completely separated morality (what is right) from what was legal.

The Pharisees enforcedthe religious laws on others, but disregarded them themselves; Herod enforced the laws of Rome not to bring order and safety, but to exalt his own personal power.  In both of these cases, Jesus said, there is a leaven, there is some yeastiness at work. Just as yeast works through a pile of dough and gives shape to the loaf that results, so too these false understandings of how to live work through the lives of those who practice them and wind up mis-shaping the lives of those who live that way.  Both Herod and the Pharisees had double standards – they said one thing, but they lived something else.

More than that, both the Pharisees and Herod used religion as a cover for doing what they really wanted to do anyway.  They made some decisions about how they were going to live, and then they selectively applied some religious-sounding language to make it seem as though they were just following through with God’s ideas.

Here’s the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod: you might start out thinking that you have been made in the image of God, but before too long you start worshiping a god who is just like you; a god who wants to give you all the things you want; a god who hates all the people you hate.  Whenever we come to worship in order to baptize our politics and our prejudices, then we are using the leaven of Herod and the Pharisees.

And Jesus says, in what is his final teaching in the region of Galilee, “No! Stop! Beware! Don’t be that way!”

Well, what are we to do?

Jesus gave us questions.  Eight or nine of them in this passage alone.

Questions? That is fantastic! I love questions!  In fact, I have a lot of questions!  Does following Jesus mean I get to ask questions, too? Here are some that all of us have had to live with in the past week:

  • what are we going to do with those babies that are locked up?
  • Is it possible to have security at the border? What does that even look like?
  • Why are so many young men of color killed by members of the law enforcement community?
  • What do we do about the fact that less than a mile from here is a group of people who have called themselves the “Greenway Boy Killas” – 29 of whom were indicted for drug trafficking, home invasion, violence…?
  • What are we to do about the flooding that has come so close to home? Is this climate change, or just a fluke? What will happen in the days and years to come?

It’s not just those, of course.  There are some that are a little more specific to individual circumstances…

  • what about those lab results? Will I ever hear good news?
  • What do I do about my child’s addiction?
  • How can I tell my parents about the real reason I failed that class?
  • Will I be able to forgive that man for what he did to me?

Man! Those are huge questions.  What does discipleship look like here?  How do I follow Jesus in questions like that?

For starters, I think we’ve got to remember the caution to avoid the leaven of Herod and the Pharisees.  For me, that means that I can’t just parrot a simple answer.  It’s not good enough to say, “Well, just follow the rules.  As long as you obey the law, you’ll be ok.” That’s a bunch of baloney – because there are unjust laws and corrupt officers of the law. Not every law is good and right.  Slavery was legal.  Everything Hitler did was legal.  Jim Crow was legal.  Calling something “legal” doesn’t make it right.

Equally, though, I’m not free to simply say, “Ah, those people who disagree with me are all morons.  Get rid of them all!”  Dismissing people in that manner is not helpful because it diminishes my ability to see anything of the Divine image in that person.

So what do we do?

The first disciples, I think, had it right.  They stayed in the boat, even when they weren’t sure where Jesus was telling them to go.  Stay in the boat, and ask your questions.  And look at Jesus while you ask them.  At whom does Jesus look? Who does Jesus embrace?  To whom does Jesus extend himself?  Where does Jesus line up?

 I chose the reading from I John to be included with this passage because, frankly, that message has always troubled me a bit.  John says, quite plainly, “Look: you’ve got this.  You know who you are. You know where you’re headed.  You know who’s in charge. You know how to act.  Can’t you be brave enough to act that way?  Can’t you simply follow the path you know to be true?”  The leaven of Jesus – the yeast of Christ – is more effective and truer than that of the Pharisees or of Herod.

My point is that neither the Pharisees nor the Disciples had a clue what Jesus was up to here…but look at how differently they responded.  The Pharisees couldn’t see, and they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Well, that’s it. This man needs to die.”  And they looked to escalate the conflict.

The disciples couldn’t see, and so they kept talking about it amongst themselves…they stuck with him…they asked him questions…they made more mistakes…they ended up following him, as we will see in the weeks to come, into Jerusalem….and up the hill to Calvary, where they watched him die…they followed him to the graveyard, and they were there when he rose from the dead…and they were still trying to figure it out when he ascended into heaven…and somewhere, somehow, some way in the midst of that sticking with Jesus, it clicked for them.  They had ears, and they heard.  They had eyes, and they saw.

Beloved, I am here to tell you that God is at work in your world.  The God who sent his son to be born as a child on earth, the God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead – the power that made the blind see and the deaf hear, the hands that broke bread for Jew and for Gentile alike – that God is calling to you.

And I fully acknowledge that you may not totally understand all this right now.  There are some confusing things about your life and how God fits into it right now.  And, to be honest, I’m not sure that I am the one who can necessarily explain how God is moving in your world.  I don’t know, always, where God is moving in the world.

But as your pastor, all I can do is to ask you this – I can ask you to stick with him.  Don’t give into disappointment or depression, frustration or anger because God isn’t fitting into your box right now.  Instead, ask God to show you a new way of seeing him.  Ask God to show you his goodness.  Ask God to show you how he intends to use you to bring about his purposes in the world.

“Do you not yet understand?” That’s ok. Keep asking.  Keep walking. Keep looking.  And when you see which direction to go – by God’s grace, and for God’s sake – get moving. May God bless you on that journey to be like him. Amen

You’re Killing Me

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 September 27 we considered the words of the sermon as found in Matthew 5:21-26, while also reading the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34.

It’s harder than you think.

What is?

Driving. Parking. Bowling. Growing heirloom tomatoes.

Almost everything worthwhile is harder than you think. Much harder. I know, I know, you’ve seen the YouTube video. You’ve checked it out on the Food Network and Pinterest. And it didn’t look like that the first time, did it? Nope.

What you wanted to do...

What you wanted to do…

What you did...

What you did…



It’s harder than you think. And don’t even get me started about stuff that really matters, like marriage or parenting.

Do you know what else is harder than you think?


PhariseesLast week, we talked about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were really, really interested in being righteous (or at least they were interested in being seen as being interested in being righteous). They were so obsessed with this, in fact that they came up with a little score card. Do you remember? They said that the Law contained 248 positive commands (such as “honor your father and mother”) and 365 negative prohibitions (such as “thou shalt not murder”). Righteous living, in that understanding, is simply about doing more of the positives and fewer of the negatives. It’s cut and dried, right?

Don’t go there, says Jesus. If you insist on keeping score with God, you will lose. Every time. If you insist that God measure you up, then every single time you’ll find that you are nowhere near holy enough, pure enough, clean enough to get in on your own merits. If you make God keep score, you will always have fewer points than God.

The next section of the Sermon on the Mount, to which we have committed ourselves to studying this year, provides a number of examples wherein Jesus demonstrates the inferiority of the Pharisaical system. In our reading for today, for instance, Jesus brings up the sixth commandment. “You shall not murder”. The Pharisees thought that the Law was pretty simple – it refers only to the act of homicide. As long as you don’t spill any human blood by intentionally wiping out your neighbor, you’re ok. There are sub-categories of killing your neighbor, such as acts of war or capital punishment, but those were apparently to be handled somewhere else in the Law. The Pharisees stance was, as long as you don’t have blood on your hands, God is happy.

It’s not that easy, says Jesus.

The next six passages of the Sermon on the Mount are a wonderful illustration of the ways that Jesus fulfills the prophecy and the promise of Jeremiah. In that book, The Lord looks back to the giving of the Law and says, “Yes, once upon a time I gave them the Law, and I wrote it on stone.” Like the writing on stone, that Law was concrete. It referred to specific acts – external actions – that were done that were easily observable. That Law was a true/false test filled with yes/no answers.

“But in the days that are coming, when I display the fullness of my intentions, says the Lord, the Law will move beyond the letters carved in stone and be written on the hearts and minds of my people. Instead of measuring only external results, my people will come to see that what I really care about are the inner thoughts and motives.”

Do you see? It IS a lot harder.

abstract-artwork-of-a-angry-man-holding-his-head-paul-brownHave you ever killed anyone? Who, me? No way! I’m good. No problems here. Have you ever wanted to? Did you ever feel like knocking someone’s block off? Um, well, sure! Who hasn’t?

The Law that Jesus has come to write on our hearts reveals the truth that anger or sarcasm or cruelty is, essentially, murder. In my anger towards you, I am killing you.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way:

Anger is always an attack on the brother’s life, for it refuses to let him live and aims at his destruction…Every idle word which we think so little of betrays our lack of respect for our neighbor, and shows that we place ourselves on a pinnacle above him and value our own lives higher than his. The angry word is a blow struck at our brother, a stab at his heart: it seeks to hit, to hurt, and to destroy. A deliberate insult is even worse, for we are then openly disgracing our brother in the eyes of the world, and causing others to despise him… We are passing judgment on him, and that is murder.[1]

In my anger, I lose sight of who you are and who you are created to be. In my anger, I marginalize you. When I make you an object of my contempt, I reject the work of God in you. When I pass judgment on you, insult you, or condemn you – then I myself will be condemned.

Seriously? If that’s the case, then I’m in trouble. I mean, who doesn’t get angry? Isn’t Jesus being a little unrealistic here, telling his followers not to be angry?

There’s a little Good News here: Jesus never says “Don’t be angry”. There is no imperative saying “Thou shalt not be angry” or that it’s a sin to feel anger. And if, in fact, Jesus is saying that anger and insults lead directly to Hell, then 1) we are all in trouble and 2) Jesus is setting an impossibly high standard here.

But what if the point of this passage is not to tell us not to get irritated, but rather an invitation to live into a new way of being? What if instead of scolding us for something that is going to happen five or ten times each day, we can hear Jesus offering a set of practices that will transform our lives – and our experience of anger – and our experience of the other.

In verse 21, Jesus gives us the Old Law – the traditional experience of expectation and consequence. In verse 22, he overlays that with the reality that anger and sarcasm and contempt are just as deadly as an axe or a knife. And then in verses 23 – 26, he suggests a way of transforming our angry lifestyle into something that is more in line with God’s eternal intentions.

In verse 21, there is an imperative, a direct command: “thou shall not kill”. In verse 22, there are no commands – merely an observation (the one who is angry will face the same consequences as the one who kills). But verses 23-26 are loaded with imperatives: leave your worship service, go to the one with whom you are in conflict, be reconciled to each other, offer your gift after you offer yourself, and make friends quickly. What Jesus is doing here is radically transforming the experiences that are connected with anger and violence. Jesus “transforms the person who was angry into an active peacemaker; [he] transforms the relationship from one of anger into a peacemaking process; and [he] hopes to transform the enemy into a friend.”[2]

 Esau and Jacob Reconcile (Francesco Hayez, 1844)

Esau and Jacob Reconcile (Francesco Hayez, 1844)

Do you see? The Law that Jesus is offering here in the Sermon on the Mount is not a new system of threats and punishments that make it even harder to be considered righteous. Instead, he seeks to replace the vicious cycle of anger and retribution, of diminishment and one-upsmanship into a lifestyle that is characterized by the practices of peacemaking and grace.

The Old Law, and the one that feels pretty good, frankly, is easier. You hit me, and I hit you harder. You kill me, and I … er, someone else who thinks I’m a nice guy will come and kill you.

The New Law, and the ethic toward which the sermon calls us, is to live into a new and different cycle. The way to enjoy right living with God is to live at peace with the neighbor. And the way that we live at peace with our neighbor is by being right with God.

In a few moments, we’ll celebrate the Lord’s supper. We’ll commemorate the truth that the One who knew no sin, no brokenness, no alienation in fact became sin, brokenness, and alienation in order that we might have unfettered access to our God and Father. The death of Christ brings us to a place of peace before God and paves the way for peace with each other.

So when I am angry with you – as I surely will be – I am called not merely to heap what might very well be justified scorn or bitterness upon your head. No, I am called to recognize my own brokenness, and the ways that that anger reveals me to be one capable of great destruction. And in that calling, I am invited to engage a practice whereby I refuse to live in that anger, and I refuse to pass that anger on. I am called to reject the cycle of anger and violence that leads to diminishment and fragmentation, and instead claim the forgiveness that is offered so freely to me and pass that same forgiveness on to you.

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about whose lives matter. Some who have experienced a pattern of violence and degradation from certain law enforcement officers have said, “Hey, black lives matter.” Of course they do. But the sins of racism and fear have obscured that truth in some people’s eyes.

Similarly, there are those who have experienced a pattern of violence and degradation from certain members of the community that they are called to serve, and they have said, “Hey, police lives matter.” Of course they do. But the sins of racism and fear have obscured that truth in some people’s eyes.

I do not want to suggest that this is a simple issue, but it seems to me that one of the implications of the Sermon on the Mount is that each one of us is called to look the other in the eye and say simply, “You matter.”

You, who were too drunk to drive, but did so anyway… you matter. You, who keyed my new car last week… you matter. You, who preach all about holiness and integrity and cheat on your spouse… you matter. You, who abused me… you matter. You, who wish me harm… you matter.

This is not to say that the actions on which you decided do not matter; nor is it to say that there are not consequences to those actions. But I believe that Jesus calls us to live through our anger into a life that transforms anger and conflict into justice and peace.

TwoWolvesI have mentioned the story of the Old Cherokee who was talking with his grandson. He said, “My son, there is a fight going on inside of me. It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger and arrogance and self-justification. And the other is good – he is truth and compassion and peace. It is a terrible fight. And it is not only going on inside of me – it is going on inside of you and inside of every person alive.”

The grandson thought about what the old man had said for a moment, and then replied, “But grandfather – which wolf will win?”

The grandfather smiled and said, “The one that I choose to feed.”

You, of course, will be angry. But you don’t have to feed it. You can choose to transform it.

It’s harder than you think.

communion-cup-and-breadIn fact, you better have communion today to remember that you do not face this struggle alone. You better have communion today and remember that God, in God’s goodness and love, is choosing to feed you. Come to the table. Be fed. And feed that which brings us toward life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Cost of Discipleship (McMillan Paperback 1961) p. 143-144.

[2] Stassen, Glen and Gushee, David, Kingdom Ethics (IVP Academic, 2003) p. 135.

Staying Awake in Church

On August 5, 2012 the saints at the Crafton Heights Church asked themselves the question, “What keeps you awake in church?”  We considered two scriptures as we did so: 2 Kings 18:1-4 and Mark 7:1-8.

You intended it as a compliment.  I know that.  I love you for that.  You said it to encourage me.  You wanted me to feel that you were appreciative.  And I thank you for all of that.

This is what you said:  “Hey, I don’t mind coming to church here, Dave.  At least you keep me awake.”  As I said, I know and appreciate the fact that you meant nothing but good by that.

Do you know that every other Wednesday, we host a group of 8 pastors here at CHUP for prayer & encouragement?  So it is possible that in this very building every now and then there’s a conversation that goes like this:

“Wow, Dave.  You must be doing well.  I hear the people in your church are awake…”  “Really?  How does it happen, Dave?”  “Oh, it’s nothing, really…”  “I had someone awake in my church once…”

Do you get bored in worship?  Is staying awake in church a goal you set for yourself?  Perhaps a more frightening question might be, will you be bored in heaven?    Or, to look at it from my angle, is it a sin to be boring when talking about God?  Why do we get bored?

Here’s one hunch.  Could it be that we get bored when we lose our focus?  When we forget to keep the main thing the main thing?

That seems to be Jesus’ frustration with the Pharisees in this morning’s reading, doesn’t it?  Let’s take a look at what’s happening here.

First, we find that Jesus is in the area of Gennesaret – a village north of the Sea of Galilee. This area of the world is well north of Jerusalem – it’s an out of the way place, near Capernaum and Chorazin and Bethsaida where Jesus did most of his early ministry.  But these men had come looking for him from Jerusalem.  It’s like a team of folks from New York or Washington DC heading out to Iowa, for instance.  They were looking to see what all the fuss about this new Rabbi meant.

And they find Jesus, and his disciples, and all of a sudden, they’re offended – because some of the disciples were eating without having purified their hands according to the laws of the Pharisees.  When the text says that they had unwashed hands, it’s not a matter of hygiene – it’s a matter of following the rules that the Pharisees themselves had set up to help them stay faithful.

The rule that God had given his people was, be pure.  Be clean.  By the time that Jesus lived, some of the teachers had built a tradition for keeping clean that looked like this:  before eating a meal, and in between courses of each meal, the hands had to be washed in a certain way.  The water for washing had to be stored in ceremonially pure jars, and then the person washing his hands would hold them with his fingers pointing upwards and pour water over them so that it ran down his hands at least to his wrist.  The minimum amount of water to be used was one and a half egg-shells full of water.  Then, the hands were rubbed together, using the fist to clean the hand.  Then, the fingers would point downward, and another eggshell and a half’s worth of water would be poured over them so that the hands were finally ceremonially clean.  And then the man could eat the first course – following which he’d have to wash again.[1]

The Pharisees couldn’t believe that Jesus was being so slack with his disciples.  Why was he letting them eat before they’d done what “everybody knew” they were supposed to do?  And Jesus, as you’ve heard, comes right back at them and says, “Look, you’ve lost your focus.  You’re not looking for God anymore, you’re looking at your own rituals and practices.  You’ve abandoned God because you’ve built your own traditions.”  The Pharisees, said Jesus, were clearly majoring in the minors.  They were concentrating on the structures, on the minutia, on the fluff, on the details, on the extras, on the options – while they were forgetting to keep their focus on God.

Maybe you know someone who lives an example of this.  Let’s say that my friend Sam is a hunter.  At least, that’s what he says.  And, for a time, he was really a hunter.  That is, he would take a gun and shoot a deer and eat the deer.  And with his friends, Sam bought a little property out in the country.  They put a camp up there.  And each year for a number of years, Sam and the fellows put a little ritual together.  They’d arrange to take vacation in November.  They’d spend time looking over the catalogs from Cabelas and other places.  They’d order their material.  Buy licenses.  Clean and polish guns.  They’d pack clothes and food, head out to the country, and go hunting.  But over the years, something’s changed.  One year, Sam didn’t get a deer.  No problem.  He still had a good time.  The next year, it turns out he had broken his leg the week before hunting season – so even though he had done all of the ritual in terms of planning and preparing, he couldn’t actually go out in the woods very far.  Again, no deer.  Well, you know what happened.  Now, Sam still owns a place in the country.  And he still takes vacation in November.  He’s still got a gun cabinet, he still gets Cabelas, he still goes away with the boys.  But the truth is he hasn’t fired his gun in seven years.  He doesn’t even buy a license anymore.  He says he can’t wait for hunting season, and he tells his boss he’s going “hunting”, but all he does is go hang out in the woods and drink beer with his friends.

And most anybody would say, “No problem.  Have a good time.”  But very few people would call that ‘hunting.’  I’d call it ‘camping’.  And imagine if you had been told how great it was to go out for deer.  If you thought about getting a ten point buck.  If you watched ESPN and got Field and Stream and American Outdoorsman and you just wanted to get a deer.  And then Sam said, “Say, would you like to come hunting with me?”  And you went on a trip with no license, no gun, no hiding out in the tree stands?  That’s not hunting, that’s just all there is to it.  The rituals, the details, the extras – they became more important to Sam than the initial purpose.  Just as the details and rituals for worship had become more important for the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Just as they have for many of us today.

I have to tell you now that I love the Old Testament reading for today.  And I have to tell you that it scares the pants off me, too.  You know what all those stories in Chronicles and Kings are about.  There’s a sort of a cadence that goes with each new king who shows up on the scene: you hear the king’s name, whether or not he was a good king, and what made him a good or a bad king.  And this is what it says about Hezekiah.  He was a good king.  And what made him a good king?  He destroyed the altars to the Canaanite god.  He removed the shrines to the fertility goddess.  So far, so good.  We want our kings — and our pastors, too, to be against paganism.

But what else did he do?  He threw away the old snake that Moses had used in the desert.  Do you remember that snake?  Back in Numbers, God’s people were in a jam.  They were dying.  And God said, “All right, if you want to live, then go look at the snake I’ve told Moses to make.”  Moses crafted a snake on the explicit orders of God.  And he used it exactly how God told him to use it.  It brought life to the people.  It was a good thing.

But here, hundreds of years later, the good thing has become a bad thing.  The source of life has become an instrument of death.  And so Hezekiah gets rid of it.  Why?  Because it no longer points to God.  It is not helpful for Divine worship – in fact, it’s in the way.  It has to go.

And that’s the scary thing:  all of the rituals that the Pharisees used – the handwashing, the purity, and so on – they all began as part of the strategy to help someone worship God.  They were all begun because they were helpful in the walk of faith to someone at some time – just like old Moses’ serpent!  And all the things we’ve seen already today – all of these rites and rituals that surround us – are here because they have been instrumental in helping people worship.  Who decided to make wooden benches and put them in order like this?  Why do we have stained-glass, rather than regular windows?  Who chose the ingredients to our worship service?  Why do we use an 8-note scale in our music?

Beloved, you know the truth:  each of these things, and a hundred others like them – the way we do baptism or communion or installation of officers – each of these practices can serve to be an arrow pointing towards heaven.  Each of them can show us something about God and prepare our hearts to meet and enjoy God’s presence.  But only if we’re able to stop looking at them and focus on heaven – not the arrow that points us there.

Look at this.  When I say – “Hey – look over there!”  what do you do?  You look over there, right?  One of the most frustrating things about our old dog, Betsy, was that she would not do that.  I’d throw the frisbee and say, “There it is, girl.  Over there.  Look over there!”  But she wouldn’t look.  She kept looking at me, not where I’m pointing.  The music we use, the elements of this building and this service – the words I say – they all point towards God.  Make sure that as you are here, that you look towards God.  If all you see is me, you will be disappointed.  Because I will fail you.  I will let you down.  But God will not.  God does not do that.  Look towards God.

How do you look for that kind of thing?  How do you keep the main thing the main thing?

In her wonderful book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Marva Dawn suggests that for too long, we Americans have been trying to fit God into our lifestyle.  We’ve been saying, “Given my lifestyle, what can I believe about God and the Kingdom?”  The correct question is the opposite of that:  “Given what God’s Kingdom is all about, what must my lifestyle look like?”[2]  The Englishman G. K. Chesterton made much the same point when he said, “The Christian life has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult, and left untried.”

The Prophet Isaiah said,  “Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing.” (IS 29:13)

Do you believe that?  Do you believe that God is ready to shock and amaze you?  Then you better stay awake in worship. Will you come to worship expectantly?  Will you look for God here?  Will you expect God to meet and shape you here?

How do you do that?  A couple of suggestions.  My friend Ron always used to try to get to church five minutes early.  He felt as though he had to read all of the unison prayers and responsive readings ahead of time, so that when someone asked him to join in, he could do so in full agreement, knowing ahead of time what the prayer was going to be about.  You can do that.  You can sit in the pew and really read the words to the hymns and songs that we sing.  These are powerful lyrics – are you letting them shape you?  Most of you have the skills and the opportunity to take notes on the scripture or the sermon as a means of helping you stay engaged and focused.  You might want to gather a few people together after worship to reflect on the experience, as you go for lunch or spend a few moments in discussion.  Maybe you’ll get together with some friends and pray for ten minutes prior to the worship service, asking God to bless us with an outpouring of power and strength.

I can tell you that I’m not about to unbolt the pews, remove the windows, or invent a new musical scale in an effort to somehow invigorate worship and remove the habits and rituals of another generation.  But I will look to make sure that I’m not bolted into anything; I will seek to make the window of my spirit clean, and I will try to sing a new song of praise to God every day.

What keeps you awake during worship?  And is that enough to sustain you for eternity in heaven?  I hope that you discover the truth that comes from Jesus that is fresh and invigorating every day.  Amen.

[1]  Barclay’s Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Mark (Westminster) p. 167.

[2]  Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down (Eerdmans, 1995) p. 228-229.