Broken Beings

This is my second year doing a summer series that involves reading some children’s books as supplemental readings to the scripture. Each sermon will contain a link to the book in question.

There’s a Bear on My Chair, by Ross Collins

Matthew 18:15-20

Offense

Jesus did not get along with everybody.
Jesus did not get along with everybody……and neither will you.

Contrary to popular belief, contrary to what you may have been taught, and contrary to what you may feel deep down inside, you will not be able to get along with everyone. While choices and sin can exacerbate this reality, it is independent of your faith, your religion, and your relationship with God. You will not be able to get along with everybody. Jesus wasn’t able to do it, and (pardon my saying so, but) you’re no Jesus.

There will be people that we come across in life with whom you just don’t get along. Maybe it has to do with personality. Maybe there is some deep offense for which you have not been able to find resolution. Maybe there is history that predates you each by generations. Whatever the cause, there will be brokenness in your relationship and in your beings.

One of the most common pastoral care scenarios I find myself in goes something like this:

“Pastor, so-and-so has wronged me in this way. I know I’m supposed to forgive them, but I just can’t. What do I do?

“Well,” I end up responding after we have a bit of conversation about the specific circumstances, “What do you do? You do what Jesus says you’re supposed to do. There’s a process for this.” And then we turn in a Bible to Matt 18, here at our scripture lesson. We look at this process that Jesus lays out—a process that is oh-so-important for us to see. For in it, Jesus recognizes that humans cannot exist in relationship with one another unless boundaries are maintained.

Matthew 18: Step One

What Jesus sketches out here is a three-step process aimed at reconciling broken relationships. If someone has done harm to you—sinned against you—Jesus tells you to first talk to that person in private. This first step—believe it or not—is all it takes sometimes. Most fractured relationships begin with a perceived—yet unintended—slight of some sort; the other person may not even realize they have done something wrong. Approaching them directly and right away allows us to “nip it in the bud,” as Barney Fife would say. It alerts them to the fact that they did cross a boundary with us—something that is important enough to us that it risks our relationship.

This step, sadly, is never even considered by so many. We assume the worst of one other, believing that “they know what they did” and then punishing them for it. We react to them; they react to us; and the violence we do to one other quickly escalates far beyond the initial offense.

I was talking recently with a police officer about the ways our increasingly polarized society was affecting his job. One thing he noted was how quickly everything escalates because people simply aren’t neighborly anymore. If someone’s music is too loud, they call the cops rather than talk to their neighbor. When the police show up, the music-playing neighbor is furious at the one who turned them in, and their anger and frustration at their neighbor is often vented at the officer. This sometimes escalates into feuds that last for years and sometimes turn violent. “I don’t get it,” he said to me. “Why won’t people just talk to their neighbors?”

I don’t have an answer for him, other than to say that Jesus also wants them to talk to their neighbor before calling the police. Jesus, too, suggests that working through conflict is the neighborly—and relationship building—thing to do.

Matthew 18: Step Two

But what if they don’t listen? What if they deny any wrongdoing or fail to take responsibility for the offense?

Jesus then instructs the matter be sorted out by bringing in a couple neutral parties. Contrary to the way we might read v.16 in spite, Jesus is not instructing us to gang up on the offender by bringing people who are on our side, attempting to strong-arm them into saying sorry. Quite the opposite: “establishing every matter by the testimony of two or three witnesses” indicates that these folk are brought in as a jury of sorts. Their responsibilities are three:

First, they sort out whether there has been an actual offense.

Second, they decide who is at fault.

And third, they will testify (if necessary) to the broader community about their conclusions and everyone’s behavior.

This is consistent with the OT rules aimed at preventing false accusations that we see in Deuteronomy 19:15 and other places.

Matt 18: Step Three

But what if these jurors believe the other person is at fault and he still won’t accept responsibility? You take it to the next level. What is often translated the “church” in v.17 is actually a word meaning “assembly.” At this point in history, of course, there is no Christian “church”—not yet. And in Palestine in the first century, justice among Jews was primarily mediated by the synagogues; they were (for all intents and purposes) the small claims court of the day.

What if you still can’t find justice? Jesus says you have to cut that person off. If you’ve followed this process and they still won’t respect the boundary you need maintained for a relationship, then there is no relationship—not any more—the other person has seen to that. Why must you cut them off? Because human beings cannot exist in relationships without boundaries being maintained.

The Heart of the Process

Please take note, however—Every step of this process is aimed not at catalyzing the brokenness of relationship, but at reconciling it. You cannot look at this process as a series of boxes to check off before Jesus lets you “unfriend” someone from real life.

Moreover, some level of interpretation and application will have to be made for changes in our world. I doubt (for instance) you will find a Jewish synagogue willing to mediate your conflicts. And Paul in 1Corinthians 6:7 suggests that airing our dirty laundry before the world only besmirches the cause of Christ. It is “better to be ripped off or defrauded” by one another, he claims in that verse (VOICE).

But the truth of the teaching remains the same: Human beings cannot exist in relationships unless boundaries are maintained. Jesus knows that—he was one of us, after all.

No Boundaries?

I have known many people in my admittedly short lifetime who believed that Christians were supposed to be the world’s doormats. As unending founts of forgiveness and completely passive in the face of oppression and adversity, they believe that we are to be people without boundaries, without feelings, and without rights. I’m not so sure that I see that anywhere in scripture.

Even Jesus expressed feelings—and intense ones at that. Even Jesus maintained boundaries evident in the pattern of work, prayer, and rest throughout his adult life. Even Jesus attended to and respected the rights and dignity of all those he encountered. His willingness to sacrifice his own rights by dying on the cross was made that much more powerful by his advocacy for the rights of others during his life. Jesus was no doormat.

Unforgiving Servant

But……and there’s always a “but”……Jesus does not allow us to close the door on anyone forever. Just as God is always willing to receive us when we repent (that means “turn our choices around”), so Jesus instructs us to be ready to receive those who previously transgressed our boundaries.

After Jesus presents this model of reconciliation, Peter steps up and speaks—standing in for our own hardened and legalistic hearts. Verse 21 (of Matthew 18) reads: “Lord, when someone has sinned against me, how many times ought I forgive him? Once? Twice? As many as seven times?” (VOICE).

Jesus responds “You must forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22 VOICE). Jesus is not simply raising the bar, suggesting that we roll over and play dead 490 times—but that four-hundred-ninety-first time……well, you better be ready for the thunder [KISS BICEP] and the lightening [KISS OTHER BICEP]. …No…

I think Jesus knows that is exactly what his disciples are likely to think. So he tells a story:

Once upon a time in a land far, far away there was a mortgage lender. I don’t know why (I’m not a mortgage lender) but she decides to double check everyone’s accounts.

Her assistant brought to her attention one particular account. The account holder was deep in debt—his house had been purchased before the recession of 2008—the interest rate was sky-high, and the property value nil. He had been missing payments, and there appeared no way he would ever be able to pay back the loan.

So she calls his loan and puts the fear of God into him, intimidating him with fines and jail time and threatening to evict his family onto the street.

The man begged and pleaded, and somehow softened that lender’s heart (parables are fiction, after all). Motivated now by compassion, she signs him up for a loan forgiveness program that will erase the bulk of the debt.

The man leaves elated—a new lease on life! He goes out to celebrate and runs across one of his poker buddies. Last week a full house allowed him to clean up, and the man still owes him a hundred bucks. The argument escalates to violence, and the recently-forgiven man threatens to sue him.

“Have mercy,” that man now pleads, using almost the exact same words as his accuser did moments ago. But there is no mercy to be found……not this time……not for him.

Word gets back to the mortgage lender of all this—the paperwork hadn’t even been filed! So the lender shreds the paperwork and throws the book at the guy. “Surely,” she says, “you should have shown the same charity to a friend who was in your debt” (Matthew 18:33 VOICE).

Now I’d like to think that in telling this story Jesus had made his point and made it well. But he is leaving nothing to chance about this—he will not be misunderstood—so he lays it out plainly for the disciples, and for us: “That is what my Father in heaven will do to you unless you forgive each of your brothers and sisters from your heart” (Matthew 18:35 VOICE).

Bears on Chairs!

While their specifics may vary with each individual, there are boundaries that are important to us, boundaries that need maintained. But sometimes—no matter what we say or do—there are people who insist on sitting on our chair. Sometimes we, too, may have to say “That’s it! I’m done!…I’m going now.” And that… is… OK.

But even to those who offend us the most, we have a responsibility to live by the Royal Law of Jesus—to love our neighbor as ourself. The mouse in the book—in the midst of his anger and frustration, in the midst of the violence of transgressed boundaries—he ends up committing the exact same offense against the bear.

Followers of Jesus, we are called to live in the light and not the darkness. Our Savior told us “as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31). No matter the boundaries being transgressed, no matter the offense against us, we are still called to live a different way. We can enforce boundaries and still follow Jesus’ teachings. We can tell others what they are doing is not ok without repaying them “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus calls us to a different ethic—the way of the Kingdom of God.

Romans 12

I’ve spoken on this in the last year, but another passage that often comes up in these conversations is Romans 12. Paul, as is the case in every NT letter, is trying to address and resolve conflict from afar. These Romans are experiencing hardship—persecution, really—and much of it is at the hands of their larger culture and society.

And yet in addressing how to live among these difficult external pressures, Paul emphasizes the importance of being transformed and renewed from the inside out (12:2), the interdependence of the Body of Christ (12:4-8), the necessity to “love authentically” and “rejoice” (12:9, 12), and these instructions in vv.14-19 (I will be reading from the VOICE translation):

If people mistreat or malign you, bless them. Always speak blessings, not curses. If some have cause to celebrate, join in the celebration. And if others are weeping, join in that as well. Work toward unity, and live in harmony with one another. Avoid thinking you are better than others or wiser than the rest; instead, embrace common people and ordinary tasks. Do not retaliate with evil, regardless of the evil brought against you. Try to do what is good and right and honorable as agreed upon by all people. If it is within your power, make peace with all people. Again, my loved ones, do not seek revenge; instead, allow God’s wrath to make sure justice is served. Turn it over to Him. For the Scriptures say, “Revenge is Mine. I will settle all scores.”

If it is within your power, make peace with all people.” That’s a pretty darn good challenge to leave us with this morning.

We are broken beings. Broken relationships are part and parcel to the human experience. But by following Jesus’ instructions and example, we may find ourselves both peaceable and peacemakers—living Christ’s kingdom into the world one relationship at a time.

Amen.

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Leading by Example

Farmer Dale’s Red Pickup Truck, by Wheeler/Bates

John 13:1–17

 

Great Googly Moogly!

The other day, as I was chasing down an idea connected to today’s sermon, I turned to that sage-of-our-age known as Google. “Great-and-all-knowing Google,” I asked, “tell me a joke about a bossy person.”

The Google told me many, many things. Among them were jokes about cheese, jokes about wives, excerpts from a book by Tina Fey, blog posts about conflict resolution, Yiddish phrases, a 2014 campaign to ban the use of the word “bossy,” and an absurdly large number of references to cows (apparently an american slang dating the early 1800’s). The Google may know many things, but none of them were very helpful.

Well, it did lead me to understand the reason our author today made the cow the bossy one. But who the bossy one is hardly matters—it is the leader that matters. And contrary to popular belief, the bossy one is rarely the real leader.

Bad Followers

This is one of those paces where we are challenged by Jesus. He sets a difficult example for us.

His teachings are so direct and clear that we decide he must have meant something more complicated.

His interactions are so driven by compassion that we assign him ulterior motives.

His commitment to taking care of himself by retreating and praying is so consistent that we decide being like Jesus requires us to be so busy we have no time for such “frivolities.”

His expansive forgiveness affects us so deeply that we work hard to decide who deserves it.

The path he walks is in such radical opposition to the forces of this world that we conclude we must utilize the forces and methods of this world in order to ensure that everyone walks it (whether they want to or not).

Jesus sets a difficult example for us. And we are so, so lousy at following.

John 13

This story in John 13 is incredibly important for followers of Jesus. Everything in Jesus’ life and ministry is coming to a head. We have been told earlier in the gospel story that Jesus now knows he is going to die (Mark 8:31-32; 9:31-32; Matthew 20:17-19). The third verse of our reading reveals that truth once again: “he was [soon] returning to God.”

And so driven by this reality, Jesus takes action. The disciples, we read elsewhere, don’t really have a clue what is going on and who Jesus really is; their eyes, hearts, and minds will only be opened to that after the resurrection (Luke 24:27). But a sense of expediency seems to overwhelm Jesus—He needs to make an important point, and he needs to make it now.

This lesson is not about what to believe. It is not directly about the Kingdom of God, which has been the center of Jesus’ teaching ministry. It is not even about what to do, as with Jesus’ instructions to the disciples and the 70 commissioned to heal and teach in Jesus’ name.

This lesson is about how. No matter what you believe, no matter what your understanding of the Kingdom of God, no matter what you dothis is how you are to be. This is what should permeate your every action, interaction, relationship, conversation, and commitment.

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master.” (John 13:14–16a NIV11)

If Jesus, our master, chooses to be a servant to us; then how much more are we to live and be as servants to all?

Baptists & Ordinances

I’ve made reference to this in other times and places, but I got in trouble at my ordination council. One of the many steps toward my American Baptist ordination involved writing a paper about my theological commitments, a paper that required I talk about our ordinances.

Whereas many of our Christian sisters and brothers in other denominations talk about things like communion as “sacraments,” we Baptists have stubbornly insisted on calling them ordinances. They are symbols rather than magical acts; they matter only in the ways they matter to us. So instead of seven sacraments, we historically have affirmed two ordinances: baptism and communion. And we call them “ordinances” because we have said they, unlike the other five “sacraments” were ordered by our Lord Jesus Christ.

So me being……well……me, I had to stir the pot a little. I did affirm only two ordinances, though I talked a bit about how I believe God uses them to give us grace. And I also pointed out that baptism wasn’t really ordered by Jesus—in the Great Commission of Matt 28, “making disciples” is the command (the order), everything else is a part of what “disciple-making” means. And I could not resist a reference to John 13—where Jesus clearly orders something we don’t recognize as an ordinance.

I may have been stirring the pot, but it does bother me. Do we have any better reason to ignore Jesus’ words to perform this symbolic action than our own discomfort at the task? Is it merely a matter of pride that keeps us from following the example and command of our savior? Unfortunately, I have yet to come up with another explanation.

Back to Farmer Dale

And it’s more than us failing to fulfill the command toward physical action; we don’t even honor the meaning behind this very well. You can hardly leaf through the news without coming across some group of self-righteous Christians who are pompously asserting their authority on other people. Like Bossy Cow, they are the first to be critical of others and the last to give up their own position, authority, and resources. And they look as different from Jesus as Bossy Cow does from Farmer Dale.

It is Farmer Dale’s pickup, after all. Everyone present is there by his invitation. He risks his time and his truck in order to help them out. He endures constant criticism and bickering among the riders he picks up. He risks his relationships with them by offering to mediate the conflict that emerges when the truck breaks down. And he is, of course, the first to get out and push—even though he should by rights be the last to have to fill this menial role.

Bossy Cow inspires no one—except in that her criticism became contagious. Farmer Dale, however, inspires everyone to help out by being a servant leader.

As Christians, we sometimes think no one will hear unless we are shrill and condemning, taking a “hard line” with those who we identify as “sinners” or the “unsaved.” But this is not the way of Jesus.

Jesus was criticized for being too affirming of “sinners” the “unsaved” (Matthew 9:10-13; Luke 15; etc.).

Jesus gave up his rights, both his divine rights and his human rights out of love for you and for me (Philippians 2:5-8).

Jesus, on the eve of his death, thought the “how” of the faithful life important enough to perform the most menial task imaginable in the ancient world, hoping and praying that this radical action would at last capture the disciples’ attention—that they would, finally, understand that the way of Jesus requires we be servants of all.

Epitaths & the End

I find the last half of John 13:1 to be some of the most poignant words in the whole of the Bible. They are hard for me to read without choking up, most of the time. The NIV translates them in this way:

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1b).

Had Jesus lived in a world with tombstones, and had (of course) he remained dead—I believe this would have been his epitath: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

There is no greater symbol of Jesus’ attitude of service than the cross. On account of his love for us, “he loved [us] to the end”—he loved us enough to give up his life for our own.

What can we give up to pay him back for that? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Even if it were possible for us to live a perfect life from here on, to accomplish great things in the world in Jesus’ name, to be used by God to bring thousands or millions to the knowledge of Christ—it would still be a drop in the ocean of the debt of such great love. That’s why we speak of God’s grace. Because we do not deserve it, we cannot earn it, and we cannot pay God back for it.

But we can offer gratitude.

We can turn our lives over to Christ—so that Christ might live through us (Gal 2:20).

We can choose to follow the servant example of Jesus—one choice at a time, one moment and one day at a time.

We can commit to the “how” of Jesus’ cause as readily as the “what”—by choosing to be servants ourselves, and in doing so, walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

Only when we do this—only when we follow these steps of Jesus—will others follow our lead, will Christ’s Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

Amen.

Called to Be Me

Today began a series that involves reading some children’s books as supplemental readings to the scripture. It was an idea I toyed with for a few years before trying last year, to an enthusiastic reception. Each sermon will contain a link to the book in question.


Book: Backbeard and the Birthday Suit

Scripture: Romans 12:4-8

Peer Pressure

There are few forces on earth more powerful than peer pressure. If we let it, peer pressure can contort us into looking like someone else. It can erode our physical and emotional well-being. It can squeeze us into doing horrible things that are counter to our convictions. And peer pressure is always present, no matter the stage in life we find ourselves.

In both the extreme and mundane, peer pressure is the driving force behind what psychologists call a “mob mentality.” That’s when perfectly rational individuals all bend their convictions to what they believe others think. On the more innocent end of the spectrum, it influences clothing trends and home decor. On the more violent end, it has led to riots and lynchings.

It’s the reason that Kay (from the first Men in Black movie) remarked: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.”

My Experiences

I grew up near Chicago, hearing tales of kids being killed for their sneakers—the peer pressure of having the right clothes and to fit in with the right crowd led to Cain & Abel-like murders.

I remember the first fight I ever got into—I didn’t even have anything against the other guy, but “they” thought we should fight and that it would show everyone that I was tough.

And I remember how desperately and how long I wrestled with my pastoral calling. I felt the peer pressure of cultural conformity—I thought being a pastor would mean I would have to fit in a box that just didn’t fit, that I would have to live, dress, think, laugh, and be someone other than who I was. Thankfully, after a long time wrestling with God, I came to understand that God called me to be me—to be myself and serve as clergy, two things which (it turns out) are not mutually exclusive.

Romans 12

In the Romans text, Paul makes an appeal to Christians to resist peer pressure, to be authentically ourselves, and to be wary of pressuring others into being someone other than who God created and gifted them to be.

We all do not, as Paul remarks, have the same function or the same gifts. I might add that we do not all come from the same backgrounds or have the same experiences—when we expect that others encounter the world just like us, we deny God’s unique giftedness of them. When we suppose our way of seeing the world is the only one that is right, we turn a blind eye to the rest of the body.

Think about this: every part of the body does not experience the world in the same way.

Eyes may see, but cannot conceive of texture.

Hands my put food in your mouth, but know nothing of taste.

A nose might understand smell, but it is completely ignorant of what created that smell—not without help from the other senses.

Each part of the body needs the experiences of all the others in order to comprehend what it itself discerns.

No matter how certain you are of your experiences and convictions, if you are unwilling to look through others’ eyes and lives your perspective will always be incomplete and skewed toward selfishness and pride.

Because of this, Paul also urges us to simultaneously be the best “me” we each can be. Instead of trying to be like others, Paul encourages us to embrace the gifts and abilities endowed on us by God. Whether anticipating God’s action, serving, teaching, encouraging, generosity, leading, mercy, or any other gift, we are told to embrace our gift, to use our gift, and to find joy in sharing our gift.

Back to Backbeard

In the book, Backbeard wonders if the other pirates will respect him when he is true to himself. His concern is first for his immediate friends (his crew), but also for the other pirates he might come across. The heart of the book is probably found in this exchange:

“Do you like it, Cap’n?” asked Sweaty McGhee.

“I do,” said Backbeard.

“Well then, that’s all that counts, ain’t it?” said Sweaty.

Despite their funny way of showing it, Backbeard’s crew really do love each other and are close friends. Because of that, they accept him for who he is—even if he likes different clothes and things than they do. A person’s appearance, they understand, doesn’t really matter; it’s the person that counts.

The book takes it a step further than this, too. Most of you were not in a position to see for yourself, but the final pages of the book depict Captain Backbeard, his boat, and his crew—all decked out in bright colors and patterns (even the sails & boards of the ship!). While it might not be as explicit, this communicates a powerful truth: When you follow your heart, it will inspire others to do the same. Because Backbeard decided to be his authentic self, others on his crew felt the freedom to express their unique selves too.

One of the false gods of our world is conformity. It is the lie that everyone is supposed to look, be, act, and think the same. That is not the way God created us. God created us uniquely different. God sets us on paths that are different. God gifts us differently, and expects us to use our gifts in different ways.

Saying “no” to the pressure of conformity frees us up to say “yes” to God’s invitation to become our authentic selves. But it also requires being part of a body much larger and more complex than our own perceptions can discover by ourselves.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, there are few forces on earth more powerful than peer pressure. There may, in fact, be only one thing strong enough to conquer it: Love. In his book Strength to Love, Dr. Martin King penned these words:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction….

The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

This has been yet another week where many have felt on the ragged edge of that “dark abyss of annihilation.” People have been killed—people whose lives matter, because God loved them and created them in God’s own image. People who matter because Christ loved them enough to die for their sins. People who matter because they mattered to their family, friends, and communities.

One thing that has become clear to me this week is that a great deal of the violence we do to one another in this world is because we cannot or will not look beyond our own lives and experiences and admit that other people have experiences vastly different than our own. We are unwilling to believe that our experience is not absolute truth for everyone. But this view comes from arrogance, and it denies the truth present in the Romans 12 text and so many other places in the Bible.

The way of Christ requires the humility to admit that we only know in part—of this world and the next.

The way of Christ necessitates that we confess our need to hear other voices and perspectives to obtain a more complete picture.

The way of Christ is the path that more readily says “I don’t know” than “You’re wrong.”

The way of Christ calls me to be me, but it also calls you to be you—and we each must honor the differing calls Christ places on each other.

After all, each part of the body needs the experiences of all the others in order to comprehend what it itself discerns. But with Christ as our head, we can be complete, together.

I Have a Dream

(with thanks, appropriate credit, and all due apologies to Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.)


Two hundred forty years ago, our American forbearers dared to declare that “all…are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In the intervening years, we have struggled to live into their audacious vision of equality and value for all people. We have fought wars among ourselves—both declared and unnamed. We have passed and repealed laws both just and unjust. Well over a half-million American lives have been lost in this struggle. Two hundred forty years, and still men and women and children are killed because of the color of their skin. Two hundred forty years, and still men and women and children are victimized because of their religion, or their language, or their culture. Two hundred forty years, and we still don’t know how to live together.

It would be all too easy to dismiss our nation’s initial bold vision as reckless, gutsy-yet-empty political rhetoric. God knows we’ve had plenty of that of late. But the fact is that our forbearers appear to have been sincere in their declaration—and that generation after generation since has affirmed these freedoms to be a central component of our national identity. America, I believe, is facing an identity crisis. Pressured and beset upon by bullies both within and without, America has given up its greatest strength—the value and responsibility of freedom, entrusted to every person no matter their circumstance.

Tossed about by these blustery winds, the strong trunk of our nation is at risk. The broad branches which shelter and protect those on the margins have been pruned, our growth stunted. The mighty oak that is our once proud nation has been weakened, broken down, and consumed from the inside out.

But I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all…are created equal.”

I have a dream…that neighbors will one day be neighborly again, instead of escalating to aggression and violence at every conflict.

I have a dream…that individuals of all professions may be held to account for their unjust deeds.

I have a dream…that no one anywhere need fear using the bathroom in public.

I have a dream…that law enforcement officers will not have their already impossible job made even more impossible by the unjust actions of another, simply because they wear the same uniform.

I have a dream…that one day we learn to value plough shares more than swords.

I have a dream…that a day’s work will earn a livable wage.

I have a dream…that mothers will no longer have to teach their children how *not* to be shot.

I have a dream…that God’s name will no longer be taken in vain by being dragged into the muck of un-Christ-like politics and explanations of tragedies, instead praying only “Lord, have mercy.”

I have a dream…that employees need not fear being fired for illness or other personal setbacks, but will be seen as an investment rather than a mere commodity.

I have a dream…that one day those of all religions and no religion will not be judged on account of extremists hiding their hate behind a thin veneer of faith.

I have a dream…that we will find facts more compelling than emotions.

I have a dream…that medical bills and educational expenses will no longer hang as a death sentence over those foolish enough to get sick or try to advance themselves.

I have a dream…that my children will not fear their children’s future as I have so often done.

I have a dream…that one day we will see how peripheral things like skin color, faith, sexuality, language, gender identity, and culture fade in comparison to the giant universal reality of being created in God’s image.

I have a dream today… I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope… With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brother/sisterhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

I have a dream today… the dream that “one day” will start today. That this day, in this place, at this time the dream that began more than 240 years ago might begin to be fulfilled. That we choose today to abandon the entrenched encampments we possess as foot-soldiers of the powers of darkness, that we drop our weapons of death, and that we stand up and step out in solidarity against those forces that imprison even the one who thinks he is free. I have a dream… I have a dream that all lives will matter enough to us to stand up for those whose lives don’t seem to matter as much. I have a dream… that when my days are over and my children surround me, they will know that today was the day everything changed, that today was the day their future—and the futures of those with a different skin color, a different faith, a different language, and different customs—all became a little brighter. Because today was the day we said “no” to hate and started saying “yes” to love.

I have a dream…

 

 

The Simple Work of God

Scripture: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

 

Sermon: The Simple Work of God

As many of you know, I was helping to lead a camp at CrossWind last week. We had a good group of middle schoolers from all around central and eastern Kansas. Most of them had not previously met.

As you would expect, we tried to redirect their enthusiasm in productive and helpful ways. There were, throughout the week, a rather lot of instructions and rules that we had to offer—rules for games, instructions for activities, directions for group learning, and so on.

I hate rules. I was one of those kids who would do the opposite, just because you told me what to do. I suppose as a parent, I’m paying for it now.

Our youth group knows I try to sum everything up into three (or maybe four) solid rules that they need to know—if they can follow these, we’re good. That way, no one has a lot to remember, and everyone can express themselves and relate in ways that are more natural for them. We are all different, of course, with different gifts and thoughts and approaches—and we are most like Jesus when we make space for one another’s uniqueness.

Rules, Rules, Rules

Today’s text is interesting to me for a lot of reasons—but one of them is that this is one of those rare times Jesus issues a lot of rules. By my count, Jesus issues eleven direct commands to these 70:

1. Pray for each other (fellow workers in the harvest)

2. No wallet

3. No backpack

4. No shoes

5. Travel quietly & without chit chat

6. Greet everyone with peace, whether they accept you or not.

7. Eat whatever you are served

8. Do not stay at more than one place per town

9. Eat whatever you are served (again!)

10. Be an agent of healing

11. Do not allow the “dirt” of those who reject you to stick on your soul

Most of these are repeats from chapter 9. In the early verses of that chapter, Jesus commissions the Twelve to do the same sort of work as these 70—which is the same sort of work as they have seen Jesus himself do. But it is not enough to heal the sick—they must conduct their lives and ministry with the same sort of humility and kindness as does Jesus.

When these 70 return, they are astounded at the transformation they witnessed and were part of. They returned elated—filled with joy—and amazed at God’s action.

When I finally arrived home on Friday, I’m sure April was laughing inside at how much I jabbered on about what happened and how I saw God moved. I suspect the parents of our own middle school campers can relate. This, I imagine, is how these followers of Jesus returned—unable to keep quiet about what God had done.

But Jesus, in his all-too-peculiar sort of way, issues them a challenge: Sure you’ve done amazing things, “But listen—that’s not the point…Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20 VOICE).

Jesus is not being a Debbie Downer here—he’s offering an important reminder about the sins of pride, control, and prejudice. Jesus is urging his followers to keep mission and life humble and in perspective. The only way to ensure that happens is to find joy only in your place in God’s eyes.

These Rules Force Simplicity

When you think about it, the many rules Jesus offers here are not about complexity but simplicity. They are about doing without things that you might think would make them more efficient or at least speedy.

But by doing without, Jesus’ followers will have to rely on the hospitality of others. Living and serving and ministering this way will force us to be vulnerable to those who may have everything they need in life except the gospel. Similarly, this kind of ministry will allow us to see others who are at risk and in need—those who are often invisible to us.

The Lessons of Doing Without

When new folks meet me, I am almost always asked about my bare feet or sandals. Such was certainly the case this past week. When asked, I have tried to express this spiritual commitment that I have made in terms that the questioner can relate to:

It connects me to God’s larger creation, and reminds me that I am a part of it.

It helps me remember that I cannot escape God’s presence; everywhere is “holy ground.”

In my weakness, I find strength.

It forces me to slow down and pay more attention to what and who is around me.

And so on……

But one reason I continue this practice is this: doing without teaches lessons, no matter what the discipline may be. Among other discoveries, I’ve learned:

That the anticipation of pain is usually worse than the pain itself

That discomfort is not to be feared.

That there will always be people who attack what they do not understand.

That few things feel as much like love as the warm earth in spring or the cool rain of a summer storm.

That nearly every way we isolate ourselves from the elements is also a way we isolate ourselves from one another.

These are lessons that can be applied to much of life—and especially our relationships and communications. And they—like the discoveries of the 70 in our scripture text—are the product of introducing some intentional simplicity into my life.

Jesus Makes It Simple

The fact is: Jesus calls us to the simple work of God—to love one another. Later in Luke 10, Jesus will be asked about what a person must do to gain eternal life. In Matthew’s version of the story, told in the 22nd chapter there, Jesus answers: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22:37–40 NIV11).

Everything—the entirety of what Jesus considers the Bible can be summed up in the twin instructions to love God and love your neighbor. In terms of “rules,” that’s about as simple as it gets.

Faith Questions

One of the components of camp this past week was a box for “faith questions.” Every day, campers were encouraged to write down questions and put them in the box. And every day, we would pull some questions out and do our best to address them.

Many times, we had to say: “There are a lot of differing ideas about this, but here’s what I think……”

Other times, we had to acknowledge that we just didn’t know—that was still a question we were asking too.

But over and over—in my answers and in answers voiced by the other leaders—I heard echoes of the simple teaching of Jesus to love one another. If we believe the Bible in its claim that Jesus is the only righteous judge, the one who will one day judge both the living and the dead, then we have to also acknowledge that salvation is in God’s hands—it is not up to us to guard the gates of the Kingdom of God, deciding who gets eternal life or death. That has never been our job, and it will never be our job.

Our job is to love so deeply, wholly, and recklessly that it completely unsettles this world.

Our job is to walk so closely to Jesus’ path in life that people look at us and see him.

Our job is to live so fully in the Kingdom of God that heaven and earth become one in accordance with God’s desires.

If we are oriented toward Jesus, our questions about those who are different than us are not: “is it a sin?”——Our question is: “How should I treat this person?”

If the answer to that isn’t clear enough, we can follow the biblical instructions in asking slightly different versions of the same question:

How did Jesus treat people like this in the gospel stories?
(Jn 13:15: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you”)

If I were this person, how would I want to be treated?
(Lk 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”)

If this person were Jesus, how would I treat him?
(Matt 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”)

These are simple questions that drive us to carrying out the simple work of God, something we unnecessarily complicate because we are not actually courageous to genuinely follow Jesus.

But with God’s help, in our weakness God can show strength.

And in the end, it is not our accomplishments in ministry that should drive us and cause us joy—it is the simple reality of our salvation, and the simple work of God to which we are called.