Sunday, February 23, 2014

February 23 Sermon

To hear the audio version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 5:38-48

38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


There is a temptation in the life of faith to gloss over passages like this one. I’m not saying we actually skip them. I’m saying we often try to find ways to convince ourselves that Jesus didn’t actually mean what he said. I mean, surely he doesn’t mean that we should go above and beyond when somebody files a lawsuit against us. Surely he doesn’t mean to suggest that we ought to take a beating rather than fighting back. Surely he knows better than to tell us to give to whoever wants to borrow.

It’s no surprise we have this reaction. Life is hard. We are not innocent people. We bring all we have seen and all we are to this piece of scripture. We all bring our baggage with us to scripture, to church, dragging it behind us, and you can almost see the gouges in the floor from all the baggage that has been dragged in here over the years: struggle, abuse, pain, heartache. It’s a wonder we can fit anybody in the sanctuary at all, with all the emotional luggage we drag around.

So to pretend that we can go to scripture and understand it without acknowledging that each of us brings the lens of our experience, well, that’s just silly. We’re too encumbered for that, and I have to think God forgives that. It is harder to accept that forgiveness and leave the baggage behind, but I think God offers.

We bring our own realities into the room and use them to write off some of the more outlandish things Jesus asks of us, but it is not like we’ve always been this way. We haven’t always walked around saying things like, “I’m only human,” or “I’m just built this way,” or “I’m not perfect and never will be” or “This is the way I am. Love me or get out of my way.” It’s a common refrain, but more than that it is an excuse, for that is a statement that is wholly unsupported by scripture, wholly unsupported by the way we were as children. You never hear a child say, “This is just the way I am. Get used to it.” And if they do, they learn that phrase from adults. In fact, I’ll say it stronger. We all learn that phrase from adults. It is passed down from generation from generation like a genetic defect.

The pastor and writer Jason Byasee says of this passage that “the wisdom proffered here is not at all new. Jesus offers here nothing he did not learn at Mary’s knee.”

Jesus is reminding us of things we all knew as kids, that you should love one another. That you should help anybody who needs it. And yet, life is hard, so we shed that youthful innocence and put on armor, heavy suits of mail chained together with things like I’m just built this way and I’m only human and an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

We put on that armor because being wounded hurts, and we forget that the business of loving our enemies is part of our fiber. Giving to those who have need is innate to our very beings. But that kind of vulnerability is hard, so we become hard, and before you know it we are wearing so much armor, we’re like little Randy in the movie A Christmas Story, so bundled we can’t move our arms.

And, dressed like that, it is no wonder that we come to the Bible saying surely, surely Jesus doesn’t actually expect me to uphold something that is going to mean I have to take more than I think I can handle! Surely, when you look at the Greek, the word enemy means . . . or the phrasing here is reminiscent of the Old Testament prophet who was actually talking about . . . or this is all just about loving yourself.

Loving yourself is important, and it is part of it, but not all.

We spend so much time trying to figure out what Jesus means when he says love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you—not simply pray for them to stop persecuting you, but pray for their success!—give to everyone who begs from you, do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you—we spend so much time trying to figure out what Jesus means by this that we totally ignore this question: What if when Jesus says to love your enemies, he meant that you should . . . love your enemies? What if he actually meant it? What if he actually meant, if anyone strikes you on the cheek, give them the other. What if he actually meant it?

I remember, in college, hearing a speaker talk about Just War doctrine. It was just after 9/11 so they invited this outside expert in just war doctrine,  the idea that some wars are just in the eyes of God; not all wars, but some wars. And the proponents of that doctrine look back to this passage in the sermon on the mount as justification. In the ancient world, they said, it was a particular indignity to be backhanded, to be slapped with the back of someone’s hand.  It was a power play from the powerful to the powerless. So when you receive that backhanded slap and turn the other cheek, the aggressor is faced with a dilemma: if he strikes you palm first, that’s a sign of equality. It changes the power dynamic from one of power differential to equality. So, proponents of this doctrine say, turning the other cheek is about leveling the playing field. And if it takes war to level that playing field, to respond to some indignity with deadly force, those who argue for this kind of interpretation say, since Jesus says turn the other cheek, Jesus approves of war. (. . .)

I share this with you because I find that whole bit absolutely ridiculous. I find it ridiculous that we’ve got people taking Jesus’s command to turn the other cheek and turning it into permission to go to war. If we want to go to war, fine, but let’s not pretend Jesus is behind it, all right? I’m not saying war is never warranted. I’m just saying that we should stop pretending Jesus thinks it is so great, and that we really ought to stop trying to twist Jesus’s words into something practical, when the whole bit is about how impractical the kingdom if God is. How impractical discipleship is. How impractical the call to serve others and to live radically as servants really is.

But then, I don’t think Jesus is interested in being practical. I think Jesus is interested in making disciples. And it is interestingly the case that making disciples, making real disciples, may not be strictly practical, at least as we understand that word, but it is more effective and transforming the world than the callous way we march through life, refusing to change, refusing to be made perfect, believing that the only way is the tough way, to explain away the hard parts of scripture and protect ourselves at from loving one another as God first loved us.

It may be difficult, but if we’re talking about changing the world—and that’s the business we’re in, church—the most effective way is to take Jesus seriously, to live as though he meant it when he said love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, be generous with your money regardless of how little of it you think you have. Yes, it is difficult, but it looks awfully attractive to those outside the doors of the church who are watching us on this corner to see if we act like we really believe what we say we believe.

I’m not saying you can do it on your own. But the promise of the Gospel is that God is with us, and the promise of the sermon on the mount is that when we take Jesus seriously, we will find ourselves, here and now, living in the Kingdom of God. We might just find that taking this stuff seriously makes a difference in the world. He may have been a Hindi, but when Gandhi was looking for a strategy to overcome his oppressors, it wasn’t The Art of War he turned to. It was the sermon on the mount, this idea of radical nonviolence, of loving your enemy. And it worked, it worked. He may have been born two thousand years after Jesus, but Martin Luther King did the very same thing. He didn’t say, oh, Jesus didn’t really mean this stuff. He said, what if he did? What if actually meant it? And look where it got us: far further than any practical application of Jesus’s message. Far further than anything you’d pick up on the rocky road from childhood to callousness.

Why, I heard about a church here in the North Georgia Conference, trying to get a mission program off the ground. The church had done some things, but not as much as they should have, and so they settled on working with an organization called Stop Hunger Now, a meal packaging program that offers—for twenty-five cents—a nutritious meal that will feed a child in the developing world for an entire day. A whole day for just a quarter! It is the case that when kids eat well, they develop better, they focus better, they do better in school, it’s just a win-win. It is also the case that children are starving, all over the world, distended bellies, sunken eyes, simply nothing nutritious for them to eat.

And when the money is raised the idea is that Stop Hunger Now brings in big bags of rice and protein and rice and vitamins and dried vegetables, and all these funnels and bags, and you have a big event where you put the meals together before they are shipped off.

 Despite the fact that this was their first time, they set a really, really audacious goal. They said they were going to package enough meals to feed 40,000 kids for a day. 40,000! That’s not nothing, you know. And they were going to recruit 200 people to help them package the meals.

I have to tell you, when they rolled this out, just about everybody said they were crazy. Just nuts. There’s no way. 40,000 is too much. 200 volunteers was too much. Maybe they’d think of it down the road, but this was the first time, and the church was just getting established in many ways. It’s just too much, and why worry about those hungry kids in Africa or South America or wherever, when there are hungry kids down street? Of course there are, of course there are, but it was an excuse, you know, it’s just too hard. I’m only human. Take me or leave me.

They said it was crazy, and maybe it was, but I will have you know that with the help of God, they didn’t raise enough money to feed 40,000 hungry kids. They raised enough money to feed 80,000 hungry kids. 80,000 meals that went to feed the hungry bellies of kids who might otherwise die. They had twice as many volunteers as they expected, because for a moment and for whatever reason, everybody forgot the practical part of being human and dared to dream of a world in which people fed God’s hungriest children fir the simple reason that there are hungry children in the world. And they gathered for the packaging event and it was like the kingdom of God, like God had ripped a hole in the dome between Heaven and earth, and love was everywhere. That church was never the same, and thank God for that.

I’m about to sit down, but I want you to know that I tell you this story not because I want you to be impressed. I tell you this story because we are going to do it. The church council of God’s Church at North Decatur has put a day on the calendar for September, and all of us and all of the church my wife serves, University Heights UMC, are going to raise money and feed children, lots of children, not because of anything practical, but because the savior has said that to follow Jesus is to love our neighbors: not because of anything practical, but because we worship a God who says that despite what you think your shortcomings are, being too old, too tired, too poor, too stuck in your ways, too whatever, the love of God has power beyond any weapon, beyond any enemies you may have drummed up along the way. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus meant what he said. Dear God, let it be. Amen.

Monday, February 17, 2014

February 16 Sermon

To hear the audio version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 5:21-37

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

(This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.)


What I appreciate about this particular passage of scripture is that it is an equal opportunity offender. There’s something here to make just about everybody mad. If you weren’t rubbed the wrong way by at least something from this passage in the Gospel of Matthew then you probably weren’t paying attention. I can’t help but think of that interview that Jimmy Carter gave that he always gets panned over, in which somebody asks him if he’s ever committed adultery, and he says that he has, because he has frequently lusted after his own wife in his heart.
So if you have come to church looking for a reason to be mad, well, my congratulations. You’ve come on the right Sunday. If you’ve ever been angry with somebody, if you’ve ever called somebody a fool, if you’ve ever experienced lust, if you’ve been divorced, if you’ve married somebody who has been divorced, if you’ve ever sworn an oath or tried to spin bad news, Jesus has some tough words for you: words like the hell of fire. And prison. And the evil one. If these are the terms, I don’t think any of us would get away scott-free.
And maybe that’s the idea. Maybe that’s the idea. This isn’t just a laundry list of things to avoid in order to get into heaven. I mean, I don’t know anybody who’d pass this test. We all sin. We all need grace. We all need Jesus.
So the question is this: knowing that we are who we are, how can we be good Christians? How can we fulfill God’s call on our lives?
You know, I talk a lot about leading with grace, about the importance of mirroring the grace God has shared with us as we deal with others. I think it is important to lead with grace as far as your dealings with yourself go, too. Everybody feels inadequate. I don’t think Jesus means to indict anybody. That’s not how God works, for God is love.
But I do think there are some things we can take from this passage. I don’t think we ought to throw it out with last week’s garbage or anything. I think that in the interest of following Jesus, of being good Christians, of being faithful to our calling as children of God, that we have to get past our gut reactions, the ways in which this passage stings a bit, and find a word for us now.
I mean, there is some good here, right? Yes, the business about lusting after your spouse is a little silly, but being a follower of Jesus means seeing people as people, not as meat! Yes, we have thankfully moved past the idea that divorce is always the wrong thing, but I’ve never met anybody who went through a divorce that relished it. Following Jesus means taking our relationships seriously, even when there is enough dysfunction to end those relationships, not callously throwing people aside like they are trash.
And my God, language. Talk certainly is cheap these days. There is this word that entered the national vocabulary a few years ago—truthiness. Do you know it? It was created by the comedian Stephen Colbert to describe our penchant for pretending that what we say doesn’t matter, that misleading headlines on cable news are not a big deal, and what’s a little gossip among friends?
It is no coincidence that Stephen Colbert is a devout Christian who teaches catechism classes at his Catholic church. It is no coincidence, because Jesus started talking about truthiness long before Stephen Colbert showed up, long before any of us.
The issues Jesus faced weren’t so different from our own. I would venture to say that if the Pharisees that Jesus was talking about were around today, they’d be running cable news networks and dubious news outlets, you know, just making a living, not actually hurting anybody, just writing headlines that are technically true, running stories that are technically true, reporting on things that technically can be seen as fair.
But then, it is this business of being technical that Jesus reacts so strongly to. In last week’s scripture lesson, the verses just before this one, Jesus says that he hasn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, to embody it, to make it true in a way that is beyond technical, not just stuck in the black and white on the page, to make it true in a way that is real. And he preaches against those scribes and Pharisees that are more interested in walking around with their Bibles and saying see, see, it says right here in black and white that you are wrong and I am right. Jesus preaches against those who see faith as a battle to be won rather than a life to be lived.
So he turns it around. Sure, he says, if you want to play that game, let’s play that game. Technically, yes, it says you shall not murder. But if you want to follow me and reflect the spirit of God just as I have embodied it, technically is not good enough. You cannot love on a technicality. Now, a black and white Christian says, see? I haven’t killed anybody today. Good for me. But a Christian that embodies love, Jesus says, must understand that not murdering is not just about following the law for the sake of abiding by the black and white, but about recognizing that we are all members of the same family, about embodying love, and when you cut into somebody’s humanity by counting them a fool, or by seeing somebody as an object of your anger rather than a subject in God’s kingdom, you’re not embodying love. You’re murdering.
And yes, Jesus says, you have heard it said that adultery is bad, and a black and white Christian says, oh, good, I have once again made it twenty-four hours without cheating on my spouse, isn’t she or he so lucky to have me? But a Christian that embodies love, Jesus says, must understand that not committing adultery is not about me as much as it is about us, about all of us, the relationships we have in life, for in the final analysis we are called to love one another as God first loved us, and relationships may well be all we have. Not committing physical adultery is easy, at least relative to other things, but seeing each person we meet as an actual child of God rather than something or somebody to be used is much, much more difficult, and much, much more meaningful, for—just like most of what Jesus taught us—this is about relationship more than it is about my own need to pat myself on the back. It is much more about embodied love.
You have heard it said, he says, that you should follow the law, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but what I am saying is that unless you are embodying love, you could take all the books in the theology library at Emory and add them to all the books in the law school library and you wouldn’t have an ounce of worthwhile. You know, I get tickled when we get into these conversations about posting the ten commandments in the courthouse. I don’t have anything against the ten commandments—I keep them on a shelf in my office, in fact—but the business of following Jesus is not about following some laundry list of laws: you have broken Section 304.2 of the Christian code or whatever. Following Jesus is about embodying love, and that doesn’t mean we pretend there are no boundaries. In fact, Jesus says, we ought to take those boundaries even further. The boundary of murder comes way before you get to the point of physical violence. The boundary of adultery comes way before you get to the point of physical action.
We tend to see rules as simply existing for their own sake; when politicians tell us that they are passing a law to protect us from ourselves, we respond with understandable charge that we are being patronized. But when God shares these laws with us, we must understand that they are not about getting us to do anything but to love, for Jesus’s message here is that love is the most important thing, for it drives us to go ever deeper, ever further in the depths of our devotion to God and one another. Simply refraining from physical adultery is almost meaningless if you can’t see people as children of God rather than objects who exist to make you happy. That’s ridiculous, and yet it is a mindset that has infected everybody I’ve ever met, for each of us sees the world through our own eyes. It is easy to be myopic, to believe your perspective is the best perspective: your needs the only needs. And so the problem with how I view the law is made manifest in how I view everybody else: as serving me, as all about me.
It’s not about me. It’s about God. And it’s about God’s children.
I’m a little ashamed to admit how hard it can be for God to pull me out of my own boots and remind me that the world doesn’t revolve around my size twenty-three-and-seven/eighths-sized head. I know it’s not all about me, and yet because I see the world through my own eyes, it can be hard to forget. And yet sometimes, sometimes God gets through anyhow, in the midst of all the rest of my junk, and reminds me of my calling as a child of God, a calling we all share.
And you know what probably most profoundly did it for me, most profoundly got me out of my own head and reminded me that love drives the bus? It was a sermon, of all things. I know, you are probably thinking, my God, I haven’t heard a sermon that moved me in ages, but it is true, it was a sermon that I probably think about just about every day. We were at annual conference a few years ago, which is the gathering of all the Methodist churches in North Georgia, and Bishop Alfred Norris was preaching. Bishop Norris was serving as the dean of Gammon Theological Seminary, which is one of our United Methodist seminaries here in Atlanta. And his theme was this: people are precious. If you don’t agree that people are precious, he told a group of clergy about to be ordained into the ministry, then not only do you stand opposed to Jesus, but you’re going to be miserable in ministry. People are precious. Everybody. The ones who drive us crazy. The ones who don’t take us seriously. The ones who give and give and give until they don’t have anything left, and the ones who can squeeze a penny so hard that Lincoln starts to sweat. People are precious.
So I’ll close with this. People are precious. Bishop Norris was the one who stuck that in my head, but Jesus said it first, of course. In fact, Jesus said, people are so precious, our relationships so precious, that it is the case that if you have brought money with you today and you have a beef with somebody, Jesus says, I don’t want your money until you have resolved the issue. Because people are precious. Because our relationships are the most important thing: more important than our own myopic views of the world, more important than the law, more important than giving money to the church.
I’m not saying it’s not really important to give your gifts to God through the church. I’m just saying that for as important as that is—and it’s how I get paid, for whatever that’s worth—it pales in comparison to the importance of recognizing that people are precious. So if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar, go be reconciled, and then bring your gift. Because for as much as God wants your money, it pales in comparison to how much God wants your heart, for people are precious. That means you, by the way. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

February 9 Sermon

To hear the audio of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 5:13-20

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.


Remember. Remember. It is one of the most powerful words in our language, remember. Remembering can call into being the presence of long-gone loved-ones. It can call to mind our history, the foundations of which and on which we stand. And it can take us to dark places, to difficult time we would rather . . . forget. Remembering is powerful.

And in essence, remembering is what Jesus is calling us to do in this morning’s scripture lesson. Remember that you are the salt of the earth, that which gives life flavor. Remember that you are the light of the world, that which illuminates everything, which flickers in the dark places and brings forth light.

There is no use for seasoning that is no good, of course. You might as well throw away the cumin that’s been living in the back of your cabinet since Watergate. There is no reason to hide a light, unless, you know, you’re embarrassed about it. So we are called to go into the world and share that flavor, share that light.

It is one of the fundamental calls of the Gospel that we are to remember who we are, and whose we are. We are children of God, salt of the earth, light of the world. To behave any other way is to deceive ourselves, to refrain from doing justice to the Gospel, to split in two.

Have you known anyone who was forced to live in a way that didn’t allow them to be who they were? Of course you have. I have to think most people are this way, feeling that they are inadequate, so they have to pretend to be something they aren’t.

And we do it ourselves all the time, acting one way on Sunday morning, and then another when we leave church. Here’s my favorite—and I’m certainly not immune to this one—how many times have you heard somebody say, “Shh! Don’t say that! We’re in church!”

You know, as if being in church meant you were supposed to act one way versus the way you act when you leave here. This is certainly holy ground, but you don’t get a free pass when you walk out the door. If you feel better saying it outside the doors than you do inside, then maybe you’re wearing a disguise. Don’t feel bad. We all do it.

It is so ubiquitous a story that Hollywood has made umpteen thousand movies about this very conflict, about being crushed under the weight of our own disguises. I asked my Facebook friends this week to list movies that used the story of being crushed under your own disguise as the basis for its plot, and I got all sorts of answers:

Mrs. Doubtfire

Mean Girls

A Room with a View


Sense and Sensibility

Soul Man

Dead Poet’s Society


The Devil Wears Prada


A League of Their Own

Never Been Kissed

The Little Mermaid


The Royal Tennenbaums

French Kiss

The American President

Cool Hand Luke

And somebody even said the evil computer HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is quite a list.

Now, there is a reason that there are so many movies and books predicated on this idea that we cannot survive under the weight of the elaborate disguises we make for ourselves. It is a central thread of the human drama that we feel inadequate, that we feel we must put on costumes that look nothing like ourselves in order to fit in, to succeed in our professional lives, to please our spouses and loved ones. And if that is one of life’s great dramas, the quest to become someone else, it is likewise one of life’s great ironies that the most miserable people are those who wear the most disguises. I have to tell you, I know there’s a bit of this in everybody—I certainly feel the tug of inadequacy—but the people who most live in a way that is contrary to who they actually are can just about always be spotted a mile away. For as hard as we try to hide, to wear a disguise, it remains the case that those who try to disguise themselves the most are the most obviously broken. It as is if what they are offering is so fake that it crumbles under the lightest scrutiny. You can’t hide your light under a basket. You’ll set the whole place on fire.

And salt. A few years ago, my dad had a really serious heart attack. Thank God he’s fully recovered, but at the time, we were pretty sure he’d lost half his heart function. And I drove up to Memphis to spend the week with him in the ICU, and when I got home, Stacey insisted that we send him a care package to aid in his recovery. She made a CD that used every song she could with the word “heart” in it: Heartbreak hotel, Achy Breaky Heart, Heart of Glass, all sorts of heart songs. And my contribution was a barbecue spice rub that would give him flavor without the sodium, because he was supposed to cut it out of his diet. I used salt substitute.

Now, to those of you who use salt substitute and who have figured out how to manage, let me apologize for what I am about to say: that stuff is awful! Just horrendous! I am sure you can get used to it, but the only thing that tastes like salt is salt. You can spot an imposter a mile away.

And we wonder why the church gets a bad rap. We’re busy pretending to be something we’re not, busy trying to fit in, to keep everybody happy, to not rock the boat, all in the interest of trying to keep up appearances, and yet it is the case that in the interest of keeping everybody happy, all this pretending is what is keeping us from one another. It is keeping us from God.

A few years ago, the Barna group did a large-scale survey of young adults in the United States. You may have heard about it. And, according to those they surveyed, there are six reasons why young adults stay away from church:

Here they are. Young adults see church as: inauthentic, shallow, out of step with science, judgmental, exclusive, and unfriendly to doubt, as if doubt was the biggest challenge to the work of God, rather than our own unwillingness to carry it out.

I have to tell you. This stings. As someone who has given his life’s work to the church, this stings. And the worst part is that it is our own doing, because the Gospel has nothing to do with any of these things. There is nothing in the Bible that says we ought to reject science; to the contrary, the Psalms are full of praises for the gifts of the sun and the stars. There is nothing in the Bible that says we ought to be shallow; in fact, when Jesus says to love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself, that’s about as deep and serious as it gets. We certainly aren’t supposed to be judgmental; you know what the Bible says about that.

There is no Biblical reason that the church is any of these things, and yet as I survey religious life in America, I find that these critiques ring true. The church has, at times, been judgmental. We have been exclusive, as if the business of being the family of God were about staying as we are rather than welcoming others in. We have been inauthentic, unwilling to delve into difficult issues just in case somebody gets mad and takes his or her ball and goes home.

This last one can be the most insidious, as we spend so much! time and effort on making everybody happy, inside and outside the doors of the church, as if what each of us were really supposed to do is to take no stand that will make anybody mad, as if one person getting upset would ruin the whole deal rather than standing as proof that the church actually stands for something. As you know, I am an advocate for inviting all people into the fellowship of God through the church, for I believe all people are children of god, and if you don’t like diversity, you’re going to hate Heaven. But there is a difference between welcoming all people and being all things to all people. The former is what we are called to do by the God who claims each of us as children. The latter is a recipe for irrelevance. The thing about salt is that when you rub it into a wound, it stings. And yet in the days before modern medicine, salt was used to prevent infection. If we are to retain our saltiness, we must stand up for the things that matter. We must not leave Jesus stuck in the first century, but accept his presence in our lives now, in our world now, in the issues that face us now.

So when Jesus says that salt is no good when it loses it saltiness, that a light is no good when you hide it, well, friends, he is talking to you and me.

It is as if we have forgotten who we are. It is as if we have forgotten that each of us is made in the image of God, that when we strip away the nonsense we cover ourselves with in order to get along for getting along, we reflect that image everywhere we go.

To this, and to us, Jesus says, “Remember. Remember who you are: a child of God, made in God’s own image, beloved of God.”

This kind of remembering is not as easy as it sounds, but you knew that already. I need not remind you that the world can be a dark place. Children kidnaped and trapped in prostitution. People who go to bed hungry every night, across the world and across the street. A culture that sees the church, you and me, as hypocrites, whether or not we deserve that distinction.

The world can be a dark place. And so, as I see it—and as Jesus tells us in Matthew—we have two options. We can just give up, holding on to the traditions we know and not giving an inch, just like the scribes and the Pharisees, knowing full well that what makes us comfortable is often diametrically opposed to that which makes Jesus happy. We can lose our saltiness, our integrity. We can put our light under a basket, where, devoid of oxygen, it will slowly snuff itself out.

Or, we can claim our calling as children of God. We can go into the world and share the radical love of Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he was willing to take on flesh and undergo unbelievable suffering, simply out of love. We can take off the disguises we use to try and fit in and go be real people who follow the real Jesus in the real world. We can be salt, stinging at times but full of strength and flavor. We can have the hard discussions and recognize that being authentic to our calling means sometimes doing the unpopular, difficult thing, as we go out into the world, and it just so happens to be a fortunate truth that people are attracted to authenticity more than our bland disguises, anyway. Jesus knew this. It is why he tells us to uphold his commandments, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself. On this hangs all the law and the prophets; it drives everything else.

We have two choices. Wear our heavy disguises, or wrap ourselves in nothing but the grace of God. I will close with this. I had lunch this week with the Rev. Dr. Phil Schroeder, who is the director of church development for the conference and a great friend to this church—and a friend to me. And Phil told me of his first week at a church he served as pastor a number of years ago. And this is what he told them, in his inimitable style, in his first sermon “I have heard it said that as Methodists, we are called to err on the side of grace. I reject that. I reject that, because I refuse to say that leading with grace is ever in error. Grace is all there is, and you’ll never hear me say anything else. If that’s a problem for you, you’re not going to like me very much.”

Tough words. But salty, for practicing grace is not always easy. Practicing grace can take us to unusual places among unusual people. And yet we are called to be children of God, children who reflect God’s image and share God’s grace in such a way that we will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. Let’s try to do justice to that calling, shall we? In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, February 3, 2014

February 2 Sermon

To hear a recording of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 5:1-12

5When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


I don’t know if you noticed, but I changed the sign out front this week to read thusly: “This Sunday at 11, come hear the best sermon ever. Also, the pastor will preach.”

This is the challenge of the sermon on the mount. How do you preach about a sermon? If that is not meta-enough for you, how do you preach about that which is widely agreed to be the best sermon of all time, Jesus’s list of those whom God call blessed? It is wonderful, and poetic, and timeless, and yet many of us who have heard this sermon for years have not asked what it means. After all, being blessed is good, but what does it mean?

The Common English Bible, which is the translation that the United Methodist Church and other denominations have been working on for some time, translates this passage this way:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

Isn’t it wonderful, for there is nobody who needs a measure of God’s grace more than the hopeless, the grieving, the harassed. We’ve all been there at some point, of course, feeling like we’re at the bottom of a well with no way out, until, eventually, God sends down a rope. This is what it means to be blessed. God is with us. Always.

There is a reason this is the greatest sermon ever preached. Nobody needs a way out more than the hopeless, and we know this viscerally, in our guts, in our souls, for there have been times when we have needed that presence of God more than we have needed food or drink. And if you are like me, when you do get the rope, you tend to climb out of the well, give God sort of an embarrassed thank you, and then go on your way until you find yourself stuck in another ditch.

But there are those among us, and many more outside these walls, who do not have the luxury of going about their merry way. There are those who find themselves stuck more often than not, and frequently because of the shove of a fellow human, sometimes because of you or me. There are those who are truly hopeless, truly reviled, truly harassed.

I mean, it is nice that Jesus is with me, that I am blessed when I mourn, but I have to tell you that I have a sneaking suspicion that this passage of scripture is not actually about me. Sure, I grieve, but not all that often. Sure, I am merciful, as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me too much. But I am not really hopeless; my lot in life doesn’t lend itself to that kind of thing. I haven’t had to spend too much of my emotional capital on peacemaking. I am not particularly meek. For one thing, I’m a little too cranky a person to be meek. And for another, meekness means that you’re under provocation. You can’t prove your humility until you’ve had your back pushed up against the wall.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the beatitudes are not actually about me, and that is a problem because, you know, I really, really want Jesus to like me. If Jesus is serious about this stuff, if he is serious that God is especially with the oppressed, and I am not one of those folks, well, that says lots about who Jesus is, but it says less flattering things about my role in all of this, and that’s kind of hard to face.

And so I am left to wonder, if it is not about me, then who? Who are the grieving, the poor in spirit, the ones who are reviled and persecuted and who find themselves on trial on account of their faith in Jesus?

It is not too hard to find these folks, once you start looking. There are Christians in oppressive countries who are jailed for their beliefs. There are Christian missionaries who are killed by terrorists.

Those are the easy ones to spot. But in a country where we don’t kill people because of their beliefs, the business of finding those people Jesus is talking about it is harder, because the way we dispose of people in this country is not by killing them, but by maligning them, by saying that they are outside the mainstream, that they ought not be paid attention to. When you are stuck in a hole, after all, you can be hard to spot.

But they are there, if you’ll just open your eyes. Those who are poor, who are marginalized, who feel like they have no home. I was reading an article just this week about a really cool organization called Lost-n-Found youth, which provides safe space for youth who are LGBT, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and who have been kicked out of their homes by their families simply because of this fact. There are approximately 750 LGBT kids on the streets of Atlanta with no place to sleep, simply because they’ve been kicked out of their houses by their families! Youth and children, who have been disowned by their families. Say what you want about the issue of homosexuality, but these are kids, and they are homeless. These are the kinds of people Jesus calls blessed.

Did you know there were so many homeless gay kids in this city? I certainly did not, but that is the way it works. We shove these folks aside, and even if we aren’t actively persecuting them, we’re letting it stand in the name of holiness, of maintaining our Christian morals. It is in the face of this kind of response that Jesus sits atop the mountain and says, blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn.

Now, I haven’t talked much about the issue of homosexuality from the pulpit. You may have noticed me dropping a couple of hints along the way about where I fall on this, but I haven’t said much. For reasons I will explain, I think it is time.

Let me preface this by saying that I know this is a really, really complicated subject, and I’ve met almost nobody who didn’t feel strongly about it one way or the other. Let me also say that the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church is very clear. We believe that people who are LGBT, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are people of sacred worth, children of God, but—the church has said—the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. If we are going to talk about this issue, we should be clear about what the general conference of the church has said.

I deeply love our church, this denomination. I have told you that I did not grow up in a United Methodist Church, but that I chose this denomination on purpose, because I love our way of doing ministry, our theology of grace. But if I am going to be clear about where the church stands on this issue, I should also be clear that I disagree with the church’s teaching. I understand the church’s position, but my understanding of who Jesus is and what he teaches leads me to a different place. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that sexuality ought not have boundaries. I am saying that the boundaries and covenant of marriage are things that ought to be open for everybody, for they are deeply good, deeply holy.

Now, I don’t intend for this to be a sermon only about homosexuality, and so if you’d like to talk to me one-on-one about this issue, know that my door is open to you. I mean that—I would love to talk with you. But I also believe that we can’t pretend that difficult issues don’t exist. That doesn’t do justice to the work of God in the world. So why do I bring this up?

Perhaps you have heard in recent months about Frank Schafer, the former United Methodist pastor who was brought up on charges within the church because he performed the wedding of his son, which would have been lovely in the eyes of the church except for the fact that his son was engaged to a man. And Frank Shaefer went through a costly church trial, and ultimately he lost his ministerial credentials, for saying yes to his son.

This being a newsworthy thing, several of you heard and asked me about my thoughts on the situation, which I have shared privately, but I did not bring up the trial in worship because, well, we had other irons in the fire. The work of God is bigger than this one issue.

But today, today is different, because a United Methodist minister in the New York conference has been brought up on charges for the same thing, for saying yes to his son, for saying yes, my child, I love you and I will perform your wedding: but this time, the situation hits  closer to home. The Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree is the minister in question, a world-renowned Christian ethicist and the former dean of two seminaries, most recently Yale. What I find most impressive about him is that he is the brother of Bette Prestwood, one of our beloved members here at North Decatur. I checked with Bette before I brought this up today, because you can imagine that it is deeply personal, but it is important for you to know that this is going on. I hope you will be supportive of Bette in these days as she supports her brother and her family.

This isn’t a sermon about just about homosexuality. It is a sermon about God, and without getting into a drawn-out explanation of why I believe what I believe—because that conversation should be one-on-one, not one-on-a-hundred—let me just say this. I’ve never met anybody who was gay who wasn’t reviled and harassed because of it, who didn’t find him or herself hopeless at times; there is a reason that the suicide rate for people who are lesbian and gay is so high. And now, we’re punishing people for agreeing to officiate the weddings of their own children, for wanting to give their kids a chance at the stability that the marriage covenant brings. Here’s what I want to know: if it is true that the hopeless are blessed, that those who are harassed and reviled are blessed, that those who hunger and thirst for the favor of God are blessed, how can anybody, anybody make an argument against aggressively reaching out and welcoming those who are marginalized, including our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers? Why do we continue to act like the church is a place for people who have it together instead of what it is, a hospital for sinners like you and me?

It is in the midst of this reality that Jesus preaches the sermon on the mount. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the reviled. Blessed are the meek. And what does it mean to be blessed? It means that God is with you, of course. And so if we want to be with God, we ought to go looking for those Jesus called blessed.

If you have come here looking for a blessing, I must share with you that it is quite possible that the sermon on the mount is not actually about you, at least in the way that many of us wish it were. But the sermon on the mount also reminds us that the business of living our faith is less about my own wanting this to be all about me and more about making this all about others, for it is in the business of working for the welfare of others that we find God.

Now, here in a few minutes, we are going to gather at the table for Holy Communion. No matter where you fall on all of this, whether you’ve been nodding your head so much during this sermon that you’ll leave with whiplash or whether you are wondering why the Bishop sent us this guy of all people, no matter, you are welcome at the table. This is what the church does, after all. We eat. We gather, we discuss, we argue, and eat. We get nourishment for the road, sustenance to support us on the long road of blessing.

And if you take on that challenge--if, as you travel that long road of blessing, you find yourself hungering and thirsting for righteousness--well, Jesus says you might just also find yourself filled. You might just find yourself in the presence of God. There is no greater blessing. In the name of the Creator, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.