Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Have you ever heard The Yuppie’s Prayer? It goes like this. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray my e-mail to keep. I pray my stocks are on the rise and that my therapist is wise. That all the wine I sip is white and that my hot tub is water tight. That racket ball won’t get too tough and that my sushi’s fresh enough. I pray my cell phone always works, and that my career won’t lose its perks. That my microwave won’t radiate and my condo won’t depreciate. I pray my health club doesn’t close and that my Money Market always grows. And if I die before I wake, I pray my Lexus they won’t take.” It’s a trite, silly prayer, but I would guess that it’s prayed often enough in one form or another. The fact is that everyone prays. Listen to the people around you during the week. During routines of normal life, some people might not even tip their hat to God. But when crisis hits life, they will hit that “Spiritual 911” button. “Oh God, help me! I’ll do anything” Everyone prays. Jesus assumes that. Look at the first verse of today’s gospel reading. Jesus doesn’t say, “if you pray,” he says, “when you pray.” Everyone prays. The issue is whether our prayers are authentic or not.
This past week I was thinking about some people I’ve heard about who view prayer as the main business of their lives. Martin Luther, the great protestant reformer declared, “I have so much business I cannot go on without spending at least three hours a day in prayer.” John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church insisted, “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” He backed it up by devoting two hours each day to his prayer time. Adonirum Judson, America’s first foreign missionary, withdrew from work seven times a day to pray. Then there’s Doris and Jim. I met them when I lived in Boston. Doris and Jim were elderly and I raked the mountains of oak leaves in their yard every fall. Doris and Jim were praying people. When they got up, they prayed. When they served me lunch, they prayed. When they went out to the grocery store, they prayed. When they needed a new car, they prayed. In fact, Doris’ burgundy Grand Marquis bit the dust. So instead of shopping for a new car, Doris prayed. She prayed for another burgundy Grand Marquis. She liked that color because it was easy to find in the parking lots. After two weeks of prayer, someone called her and offered her a car. “What color is it?” she asked. You already know the answer: it was another burgundy Grand Marquis. I could go on about men and women who wake up early and stay up into the late hours of the night in prayer
These people inspire me. I also get discouraged when I compare my prayer life to theirs. Those giants of the faith are so far beyond anything that many of us have experienced. It can be easy to fall into despair. But, instead of beating ourselves up, let’s explore a number of ideas that can enhance our prayer lives. Today we are going to think about how to put prayer into practice.
1. Private Prayer – Avoid Outward Displays of Piety
In Matthew’s gospel, some of the religious leaders have a problem. They like to stand on street corners and in public places while they pray. They want everyone to see how holy they can be. To Jesus, this seems more like a public concert. Their prayers have become the theater of performance and show, the theater of appearance and deceit. In this theater, prayer is a public parade and the theater of religion becomes a gaudy charade. Jesus redefines the theater. He calls his followers not to a theater of spectacle or display, but a secret theater. In the drama of salvation, the stage is a locked room, the actor is the disciple and the audience is God. The place of encounter between God and his people is not the temple, or a church. It is the locked room where the disciple meets God one on one. Jesus practiced what he preached. He was followed by crowds and surrounded by people who demanded his time and energy, and he still found chances to sneak away to spend periods of private prayer with God.
Behind these two theaters, the actors prepare their scripts and get ready for their performances. Do you know what the Greek word for actor is? Hypocrite! We are taught that hypocrisy is a terrible thing. But the way I see it, we are all hypocrites when it comes to prayer. We all prepare what we want to say for God and where we want our recital to take place. The question is not whether you are a hypocrite. The question is about what kind of hypocrite you want to be. As an actor, for whom do you perform?
Jesus suggests saving it for God – going to a secret place, appearing on stage before God alone, and acting as if heaven has touched earth.
I want us to be a church that prays – a group of people who find time to be alone to talk to God. I know that as soon as I say that, most of us can think of ten reasons why we can’t do it. We don’t have time. There are too many distractions. We’re too tired. Our minds wander. The truth is if prayer is important enough to us, we will find time to do it.
If you are not used to praying daily, then be prepared to be discouraged at first. You mind will wander. You will begin to pray and then think of what you are going to have for lunch, and then think of all things you have to do, and then think bout what’s on TV tonight. You may not be able to focus on praying for more than one minute. It will be easy to give up. This is the when you need to hang in there the most. God will meet you where you are and help you move deeper. But it takes practice.
Think of prayer in terms of training ourselves. When I get discouraged in prayer, I try to remember the Kenyan cross-country ski team. Did you know they had one? There is no snow in Kenya, yet the country sends a team of two athletes to the Olympics. They Kenyan Nordic team consistently score on the bottom of the standings. Even though they are last, they never give up. If I was on that team, I’d be tempted to find a new sport. But they always finish their race and keep competing. Prayer is a lot like that. We don’t become Olympians in prayer over night. We prepare and train ourselves over a period of time. We don’t give up when we are thinking of how good that leftover Chinese take out would taste when we meant to spend the time talking to God. Stick with it. After a few months, we will still be in the race. Don’t be satisfied with quitting. God has infinite treasure to give us. Ask God to help you and to teach you. God will answer.
2. Avoid babbling: Outlines in Prayer
Jesus talks about another group of people in today’s passage. These people think they can move God with their long-winded prayers. They heap up empty phrases. They believe that if their prayers are long and intricate enough, they will tire out the gods so that they will be granted divine favor. In traditional Roman and Greek prayer, the item sought after would be described as exactly and minutely as possible, just in case the gods granted the wrong favor. Jesus tells his followers that there’s no need to babble on in prayer. God isn’t like the deities of the age. God knows what you need before you even ask. The same goes for us as well. We can’t manipulate God with wordy prayers and repetitive words. God does not need to hear flowery phrases and grammatically correct sentences. Simplicity is always better. Brother Lawrence was a monk who lived in the 1600’s. In his classic book on prayer he writes, “It isn’t necessary to be too verbose in prayer because lengthy prayers encourage wandering thoughts. Simply present yourself to God as if you were a poor person knocking on the door of a rich person, and fix your attention on God’s presence.”
I find that people babble on when they don’t know what to say. People get uncomfortable. They don’t know how to begin or end. They either say nothing, or they say too much. Sometimes I find it helpful to pray with an outline. It keeps my mind focused and gives some structure to my thoughts. Here are a couple of suggestions.
The first comes from today’s gospel passage. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus offers the words of what we now call The Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is not a string of magical, comforting words we say together on Sunday mornings. It is a prayer outline. Take the Lord’s Prayer with you during your quiet time and pray through it line by line. Focus on the phrase, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by they name.” Stop and think of qualities that make God praise worthy. You may even want to write your ideas down in a journal. Then move on to the next phrase – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Stop again and pray for ways in which the knowledge of God can be spread, in your life, in your family, in our community, in the world.” When you are ready, move on to the next phrase, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Pause again and pray for specific needs in you life and in the lives of your family and friends. Pray for healing and for God’s nurture. Keep going like this through the entire Lord’s Prayer, phrase by phrase. And remember, the goal is not to get through the outline. We are teaching ourselves how to sit alone in the presence of God.
Here is another outline. Use the word ACTS as an acrostic to help you remember some ways to pray. A stands for Adoration. Begin your prayer by praising and adoring God. C is for Confession. Let God know how sorry you are for the times you have fallen short of what you know God wants for your life. Allow God to cleanse you from sin and feel God’s forgiving touch. Also take time to forgive others. T is for Thanksgiving. Take some time to show gratitude to God for specific blessings in your life. Finally, end with the S, which stands for Supplication. This means asking God to answer your needs. Present your requests to God and wait patiently for God’s peace that passes all understanding.
Let me suggest one more way to pray. A man named Frank Laubach wanted to learn to pray in such a way that just seeing another person would be a prayer. Just hearing another person, like a child talking or a person crying, would be a prayer. This idea is simple yet powerful. When you see or hear a person, pray for him or her. Laubach talks about flashing hard, straight prayers at that person. In public places, silently invite the love of God through Christ to touch people. It’s as if you’re throwing a cloak of prayer around each person you contact. Imagine if thousands of people were praying short, direct prayers like this on behalf of others. The atmosphere of our families, towns, even our nation, would be changed. And YOUR own soul would change for sure. You would begin to live every moment with a sense of God’s presence.
There are many other ways to pray. I have offered a few suggestions. If you want more ideas or information, please come talk to me. When it comes right down to it, I don’t care how you do it -- I just want you to pray. The most important thing is that you devote some time to private prayer. I desire so much for each of you to be close to the heart of God. I want each and every one of us to know the joy of knowing the comfort, and power, and healing, and love that comes through prayer.
So pray. Don’t wait until you feel like it or else it will never happen. And may God give each of us the patience we need in order to become people of prayer.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Exodus 14; Matthew 5:43-48
Mandisa Hundley was a gospel singer and one of the 12 finalists on the TV show American Idol, season 5. She stood before judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson to find out if she made it through to the next round of the competition. Mandisa, is a full-figured woman, and Simon had previously made a sarcastic remark about her weight saying, “Do we have a bigger stage this year?” When she entered the room to learn the judges’ verdict, Mandisa looked right at Simon and said to him, “Simon, a lot people want me to say a lot of things to you. But this is what I want to say…yes, you hurt me, and I cried, and it was painful. It really was, but I want you to know that I’ve forgiven you, and that you don’t need someone to apologize in order to forgive somebody. And I figure that if Jesus could die so that all of my wrongs could be forgiven, I can certainly extend that same grace to you. I just wanted you to know that.” Randy said, “Amen.” Simon apologized and hugged the singer, and Mandisa discovered she had been selected to advance into the next round of competition.
Simon Cowell, that straight talking, contemptuous Brit, is an example of total freedom without love. He thinks has free reign to say whatever he wants, but his honesty is never tempered with compassion. In fact, at times he seems to disdain the very contestants he is supposed to promote.
Can we have freedom without love? Let’s think about that question in the story of the Passover, since it’s being celebrated in the Jewish world this week. Passover is a story about liberation and love. For four hundred years, the iron hand of Egypt bore down on the backs of Israel, burdening them with the yoke of slavery. Moses brings Israel out of bondage and into liberation – into freedom. Imagine the scene where Moses and the tribes of Israel make it to the other side of the Sea of Reeds (by the way, they did not cross the Red Sea, home of the Suez Canal in Egypt. The Hebrew text only tells us that they crossed something called yam suph, the Sea of Reeds). As they look across the span of water, now behind them, they see Pharaoh’s horses and chariots sinking to their deaths. Israel’s distress lifts. Like a cry rising from a pierced heart, a song of redemption suddenly erupts from the mouths of the hundreds of thousands of people who had been released from the shackles of slavery.
There is a Jewish story that tells another side of the events. It goes like this: The song of Israel rises to the heavens. The angels in heaven are so enthralled with Israel’s rescue, their songs of rejoicing begin to fill the heavens. Suddenly, a voice cries out – the voice of God. “My children are drowning. How can you sing praises?” You wish to surrender yourselves to an unbridled joy and celebrate in splendor? How dare you do such a thing? The singing stops. Their joy falls silent. From that point on, Israel would have no share in joy while God’s creations drown. God reminds them that their fate is bound with the fate of all humanity. “My people, you are not free yet. You will not find true liberation until you remember that there is no freedom unless there is also love.”
How can we recognize the humanity of our enemy, even when they have been so cruel? It is not easy. But the Jews found a way. After WWII, Israel captured Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, and placed him on trial. The Israeli court would have been justified in treating him as he treated the Jews, gassing him or torturing him. Instead, they protected his human rights as they put Eichmann on trial. He was allowed defense counsel and even regular clergy visits. Justice was done and he was hanged, but only after 14 weeks of testimony with more than 1,500 documents, 100 prosecution witnesses, and one appeal. The worst enemy the Jewish people have ever known was treated like a human being.
“My children are drowning. How can you sing praises?” God’s words are a clarion call to us – a call to the human conscience to remember the humanity around us. The voice of mercy should become the second nature of Christian conscience. We, as people of God, cannot stay composed and indifferent in the face of inhumanity. Wherever poverty, sickness and disharmony are felt, wherever justice and freedom are impaired – this inner voice always calls out – “My children are drowning in the sea…” Can there be liberation without love? Without compassion? Without forgiveness? The message here is unmistakable. We may never celebrate when inhumanity wins the day. As Robert Burns wrote, “Man’s Inhumanity to Man, makes countless thousands mourn.”
“My children are drowning. How can you sing praises?” If anyone knew about freedom and love, it was Jesus. Today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount calls people embrace humanity in others. Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. God gives God’s best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that.”
We will never be truly free in Christ until we learn to love. This means loving our enemies as well as our friends. It means loving the unlovable, the outcasts and sinners. It means that until we can look at the most revolting members of the human species and see the face of Christ, we are still imprisoned by prejudice and hatred. And that’s not the way Christ wants us to live. If your God tells you that hatred and exclusion is OK, then you do not worship the God revealed to us in Christ. As Author Anne Lamott once wrote, you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.
I’ve been inspired by a few stories of those who have overcome their hatred and learned to love – and found true freedom. One of those stories is about Yonggi Cho, pastor of the largest church in the world -- 830,000 people. Several years ago, as his ministry was becoming international, Cho told God, “I will go anywhere to preach the gospel—except Japan.” He hated the Japanese with gut-deep loathing because of what Japanese troops had done to the Korean people and to members of Yonggi Cho’s own family during WWII. The Japanese were his enemies. After a prolonged inner struggle, Cho felt God calling him to preach in Japan. He went, but he went with bitterness. The first speaking engagement was to a conference of 1,000 Japanese Christian pastors. Cho stood up to speak, but all he could say was: “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.” Then he broke down and wept, both brimming and desolate with hatred. At first one, then two, then all 1,000 pastors stood up. One by one they walked up to Cho, knelt at his feet and asked forgiveness for what their people had done to his people. As this went on, God changed Yonggi Cho. The Lord put a single message in his heart and mouth: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
So, maybe you are not a spiritual powerhouse. How might enemy love work out in your own life? A father writes about his son Chase. One night after supper, Chase sat down in the living room to begin the task of signing and sealing the Valentine’s Day cards he had picked out for his second-grade classmates. Seeing him surrounded by mountains of cards, envelopes, and a list of names that filled an entire page, the dad decided to give him a hand. Chase said, “You can seal the cards and mark the names off the list,” as he shoved 15 or more cards and envelopes into his dad’s lap.
About halfway through the stack, dad noticed a bold red and pink Valentine inscribed with the words, “I am thankful for you.” What caught his eye was not what the card said, but the thick black lines that had been scrawled over the word thankful. Dad nudged Chase and said, “ I don’t think it would be very kind to give this card to one of your friends.” He was not prepared for the angry outburst that followed. Chase sat up straight and yelled, “Every day that girl calls me names, and I have asked her to stop, but she just laughs calls me names!” The dad’s heart felt a lurch of pain as he pictured his son standing undefended in the schoolyard with this unknown girl teasing him. He sat and took in the tears that were rolling down Chase’s face. He told his son how sorry he was and that he could understand the pain. Chase jerked himself loose from dad’s arm and with a fresh flow of tears choked out, “She embarrasses me! Do you want me to just stand there and let her call me names?” Here was a young son facing a moment of suffering that might seem small to some but was clearly a big deal to him. Dad put his arm around Chase, wiped his tears with a Kleenex, and said, “Yes, Chase, I do want you to let her call you names. I don’t want you to do anything that would hurt her.”
After a few moments, Chase slowly picked up a new card and addressed it neatly to this girl who so easily hurt his heart. His choice was to offer her forgiveness and grace in the form of a Valentine’s card.
19-year-old Ryan Cushing and his friends stole a credit card and then took off on a shopping spree… for no reason. They stole a 20-pound frozen turkey and proceeded to throw it from their speeding vehicle headlong into the windshield of the car driven by Victoria Ruvolo. The result: the victim underwent surgery for six hours as metal plates and other pieces of hardware were fitted together to rebuild her face. The prosecutor in Ruvolo’s case stated that for crimes such as this one, victims often “feel no punishment is harsh enough.Death doesn’t even satisfy them.”
How did Victoria react? She was concerned with “salvaging the life of her 19-year-old assailant.” She did not seek revenge in any way. She sought information about the youth and how he was raised. She insisting on offering a plea deal: second-degree assault, which carried six months in the county jail and one year’s probation. He could have been sent to prison for 25 years, returning to society middle-aged with no job skills or prospects.
This is only half the story. What happened in court is the truly remarkable part. After the verdict, Ryan carefully walked to where his victim was seated in the courtroom. With tears and in a whisper he said, “I’m so sorry for what I did to you.” He and Victoria embraced, both weeping. She stroked his head, patted him on the back, and comforted him. “It’s OK,” she said. “I just want you to make your life the best it can be.” It was reported that hardened prosecutors, and even reporters, were choking back tears.
The theologian and activist Thomas Merton once wrote these words. They come from the book entitled Seeds of Contemplation. I offer them for all of us to contemplate.
“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are a savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.
“Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weakness of men.
“Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God. For it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith”
God’s children are drowning. How can you sing praises? Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of God.
Roots and Wings: adventures of a spirit on earth, by Jack Haas
Thursday, April 17, 2008
Based on the Sermon“Following the Kiss” by William Carter. He said what I wanted to much better than I could have.
“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless. “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.
“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!”
Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII. He called 'the Little Flower' by adoring New Yorkers because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, and take entire orphanages to baseball games. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.
Within a few minutes, the bailiff brought a tattered old woman before La Guardia, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor.” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I've got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions--ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He took out a bill and said: “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
The following day, the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents, gave the mayor a standing ovation.
I like that story. It reminds me of the tension between law and grace, between following the rules and finding forgiveness. In today’s gospel text, Jesus is preparing to give us a number of new rules. The issue is what is the place of God’s Law in the life of grace. Or to put it another way, how do we live with religious rules in light of a Savior who comes to help us when we break the rules?
The place to begin is by looking where today’s passage is located. Right after this passage, Jesus teaches a list of difficult rules: You have heard it said, ‘Don’t murder,’ but I say don’t you dare to insult anybody else. You have heard it said, ‘don’t commit adultery,’ but I say don’t even treat another person as an object to grab and possess. You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.’ but I say, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. Your love must be complete, perfect, as your heavenly Father is complete and perfect. What a tough list that is! The burden is even heavier when Jesus says, “If you break one of these commandments, you’re at the bottom of the kingdom’s heap.”
Look again where today’s passage is located. Right before this passage, Jesus speaks about the gracious embrace of God. “Blessed are those among whom God is working. Whoever is poor in spirit, pure in heart, hungry and thirsty for justice - - - blessed are you in the glory of God’s kingdom.” They are kissed by grace, even if they are denounced by the world. Then comes the text for today, with its two affectionate nicknames: “You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.” All of us who hear Jesus speak are given a new identity. We are sent out to give the world a better flavor. We are lit up in order to enlighten. Once again, we are kissed by God. The rest of the text, however, lies between the kiss and the commandment.
In the Sermon on the Mount, after 14 verses of kindness, there are 93 verses of instruction. That’s a lot of do’s and don’ts, shoulds and shouldn’ts, and I-say-unto-yous. And in a general way, that’s the pattern of how laws are given in the Bible. Remember the Ten Commandments? Before God thunders down the commandments from the mountain, God says, “I brought you out of Egypt. You were slaves, and I saved you.” That’s the kiss. It comes first. It’s the same pattern as the Sermon on the Mount. First comes the kiss, the blessed sign of God’s love and grace. Then comes the commandment, the outer evidence that we are God’s distinctive people.
However, the church has always wrestled with a problem with the Sermon on the Mount. How do we hold the kiss and commandment together? Ever since the beginning, good religious people like us have tried to live with one and without the other. Some would say the kiss is enough, and nothing else is necessary. After all, the heart of the good news is that God cherishes us, particularly in a brutal, dangerous world. So why not bask in God’s eternal mercy, and do whatever we want?
I’ll never forget that fateful day as a fifth-grader when I closed my bedroom door and blurted out a few dirty words. I was fairly sure there wouldn’t be a thunderbolt, and there wasn’t. I got away with that awful crime, and felt good that I got away with it. In fact, I felt so free that a few of those words rolled off my tongue at the family supper table. I was exiled to spend the rest of that evening in my room. Never a quick learner, I tried out my newfound freedom again at Scout Camp. I remember trying to console my bunkmate who had been yelled at by the scoutmaster. I said ,”Yeah, the scoutmaster is such a ________” (fill in your favorite expletive). As I spoke, I saw a shadow looming over me. As I turned around, there stood my scoutmaster who heard every word I said. I took me a few embarrassing moments like that to realize that freedom comes with some awesome consequences.
On the other hand, you probably know someone who keeps all the commandments and ignores the kiss. “All that gushy grace?” they say. “It’s a distraction from our duty.” For some people, duty is what life is all about: do the right thing, live the right way, walk the right way. Living within those boundaries can be a great comfort. A man I know drove all night to visit a sick brother. It was a long trip. He was tired. It began to rain. About two o’clock in the morning, he drove through a small town. He slowed down to thirty miles an hour. Nobody was on the street, but he knew how small town cops can be. Suddenly he heard the siren and saw the flashing lights. He pulled over and rolled down the window. The police officer said, “Mister, did you see that sign back there?”
“School zone - 15 miles an hour.”
“But officer, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.”
“Did the sign say, ‘School zone except at 2 o’clock in the morning’?”
“But officer, it’s raining. My windshield wipers aren’t working very well.”
“Did the sign say, ‘School zone except at 2:00 when your windshield wipers aren’t working’? The law is the law.”
I can understand that. I don’t like it, but I can understand it. Legalism is the most comforting religion of all. Everything is certain and clear. Did you steal the loaf of bread? Cut off your hand. Did you lust over that Sports Illustrated swimsuit model? Pluck out your eye. Did you relax one iota of the Word of God? Go straight to hell. How can you argue with a religion like that?
It would be a wonderful way to live . . . if only it looked like living. When life is reduced to a checklist, the soul withers. It’s all duty, no delight. It’s all work, no sabbath. More to the point: it’s all commandment, no kiss. Now the Gospel of Matthew has its legalistic streak, to be sure. The writer loves to flash his teeth and frighten us into holy living. Why, you can hear it in the passage we heard this morning: “unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” That’s hard to hear, until you also hear how the opponents of Jesus lived by commandments without kisses. They went through the motions, like actors on a stage. They talked a good talk, but their speech was self-serving. Jesus said, “Your righteousness needs to exceed all of that.” And if we aren’t sure what he’s saying, Jesus went to great pains to show us. The law said, “Don’t touch anybody with a skin disease; it might rub off on you.” Jesus touched a leper and said, “I choose to make you clean.” (8:3) Some said, “That’s a little excessive, don’t you think?”
The rules said, “Don’t mingle with sinners; whatever they have might rub off on you.” Jesus ate with people of ill repute, saying, “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” (9:13) His enemies said, “Don’t you think that’s going a bit too far?”
The traditions said, “Important people need important positions and important titles. Hang around people like that, and their prestige might rub off on you.” Jesus said, “Don’t get caught up in titles, pomp and circumstance; God alone is Teacher, and you all have a lot to learn. In fact, here’s lesson number one: the greatest among you will be your servant.” (23:1-12) The critics said, “Aren’t you stepping over the line?”
Well, maybe he was. He practiced what he preached, and somebody nailed him to a cross. He took upon himself all our failures, all our mistakes, all our broken commandments. When we could not be righteous, he showed us the deep righteousness of God. And he said, “Don’t think I came to throw away my Bible. I came to flesh it out and make it complete.” Keep the whole picture in view: Jesus said, “Blessed are you! You are salt. You are light. I have commandments for you to keep.” When we couldn’t keep the commandments, Jesus took up a cross and kissed us again. Ever since, we are under obligation to keep all the commandments. And when we can’t keep the commandments, Jesus kisses us again, and says, “I forgive you.” Then he requires us to keep his commandments. On and on it goes. Day in, and day out. We are continually loved, yet never off the hook. That’s what it means to belong to God. We know the kiss. And we are called upon to do the commandments. The true child of God is the person who holds both together. Have you ever met someone like that? It’s the person who begins each morning with the words, “Lord, you have claimed me as your own; so I’m going to live as if I belong to you.”
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