Sunday, March 30, 2014

PEACE: Making a Miracle”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 5:9; 10: 34-52
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
4rd Sunday of Lent, March 30rd, 2014

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  (Mat 5:9 NRS)

While living in the western German state of Westphalia, we made several short trips to the beautiful city of Muenster.  A German friend of mind reminded me that Muenster was the place where, in 1536 a rebellion took place and Catholics hanged some of the very first Baptists.  Cages still hung high up along the steeple, where some Baptists where starved until the birds finished them off.  

But I also remembered that Muenster was the city where the peace treaty of Westphalia was signed in October of 1648.  That treaty was signed ending one of the most destructive times in Europe’s history, The Thirty’s Year’s War between Catholics and Protestants.  It all began in 1618, when the Austrian Hapsburgs tried to force a return to Catholicism down the throats of their Protestant and Lutheran subjects.  All of Europe was eventually drawn into the conflict, but the central battlefield was on German soil.   Though the war was sparked by religious differences, most of the battle fires were fueled by economics, as Kings and Princes hired mercenaries to fight.  These hired soldiers where seldom paid, and were forced to live off the land, plundering towns, villages, farms until they desolated the German countryside.   During those terrible times, an entry in a German family Bible reported:  ‘We live like animals, eating bark and grass.’ No one could have imagined that anything like this would happen to us. Many people say that there is no God...”  By 1630 starvation had reached such a point in the Rhineland, that cases of cannibalism were reported.   By the end of 30 years of war, fighting had become such a way of life that the mercenaries and their womenfolk complained that their livelihood was gone.  (http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/treaty-westphalia).  

Most of us can hardly imagine people living off hate and war, but in our own time we do know something about terrible wars fought for racial cleansing in Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, and most recently, in Syria.  There are many images from movies that I have forgotten, but I will never forget the image in the movie, Hotel Rwanda, about the hotel owner who, while bravely trying to save people from certain massacre, drove his jeep at night up a dark road that got very bumpy, when he realized he was driving over thousands of dead bodies (www.beliefnet.com/columnists/moviemom/2004/11/hotel-rwanda.html).

When Jesus spoke his seventh beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers…..” it was a shout against a world insane with hate, conflict, wars, and rumors of wars.  Jesus’ words still challenge us, and go against the grain of human nature, saying, if we truly want to live in peace, we can’t just want peace, we can’t just hope or pray for peace, but peace is something we must do.  Peace is something we must make happen.  

FIRST STEPS TOWARD PEACE
Learning how to ‘make peace’ starts by learning from Jesus. And according to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, the first step toward peace is to realize what is not working.  This is what Jesus meant when he said: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  (Matthew 5.38)Jesus was referring to the ancient law code of retaliation, called Lex Talionis.   This early form of law given by Moses was a legalized form of revenge used in a controlled and fair fashion so the punishment would fit the crime.   Lex Talionis was a way to prevent feuds and vendettas, which could escalate, get out of hand, and break up the social fabric. 

We must understand that it wasn’t so much that Jesus was against ‘eye for eye and tooth for a tooth’, (He said he did not come to destroy Moses’ law, but to fulfill it.  Mat. 5.20-21), but Jesus was teaching that the law itself could not save or bring lasting peace in the world.  ‘Eye for Eye’ might prevent war some war (or it might just start one), but it certainly doesn’t make peace.  In other words, peace can’t be won or made by only doing what’s fair, even what’s just, or what can be regulated, but peace can only be won by going to the next level, or as Jesus puts it, going ‘the second mile.’  “But I say to you (Jesus says with a shocking word), do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile….” (Matthew 5: 38-41).   These words sound just as out of touch with the ‘real’ world today, as they sounded then.

But the point Jesus is making is valid; that making peace is impossible from a use of negative power.  To take the first step toward peace someone initiate a different kind of power; a positive power that can transform.   And in order to initiate this kind of power, we have to make a shift in our own egos and in our own power plays.  I like the way James Howell, a pastor in Charlotte, imagines a kind of David and Goliath scenario with a different outcome: “For a tall, muscular guy with a twenty-inch sword to be at peace with a little, scrawny guy with a pebble in his hand, the big guy has to relinquish his bigness, he has to decide not to tower in intimidation; and the little guy has to decide not to run, and not to be a sneaky guerilla from jealousy over the big guy’s sword.  When the strong befriend the weak, dignity and strength are imparted to the weak---although, in reality, dignity and strength flow both ways” (James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, p. 79).  

But of course, the big question, especially if you are in the middle of battle with someone, is who is going to change or ‘surrender’ first?  Will the one who has the position of position of a Goliath or the one who has the position of a David be the one who will do the surrendering?  As we know from the Biblical story, neither surrendered, but God gave the victory to the weaker?   Of course, we like it when the ‘underdog’ wins.  This might bring ‘peace’ for a while.  But now, one who is greater than the way of Moses or the way David shows us still another way to fight and to win.   It is a way that does not fight to win a battle or war, but it is a way that takes the initiative to make peace.   Could we imagine how political, racial, cultural, religious, or personal struggles between people might go another way?  The real question of peace-making is not who will win the fight, but who is willing to lose the fight in order to win in a way that is better for all?   Which one would be willing to be the first to absorb the humiliation, the shock, the pain, and the threat from another before the fight begins?  Of course, what we and fear is that if one gives in, the other might not.  Such a step of surrendering power for the sake of making peace demands an incredibly big step, if not a leap of faith.  Who is willing to take that first step? 

Jesus believed that the poor in heart would take that first step.  He also believed that those who mourn, those who are meek, those who are merciful, and those who are pure in heart are the ones willing to take that first step.  They would follow in in these hard, narrow, and demanding ‘footsteps of Jesus’ because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.   They will agree to go this way, because instead of trying to climb the ladder of success and power in the world, they are climbing Jacob’s ladder, the ladder of heaven and the ladder of these beatitudes.  But those who are holding on to power, or who are afraid of losing, who have not faced their own poverty of spirit, or have other agendas which are not God’s kingdom, will not easily contribute anything to make peace.  That’s why Jesus later says that he “did not come to bring peace, but to bring a sword” (Matt 10.34).   The sword Jesus wields is not a sword to intentionally inflict pain on others, but it is the sword of the Spirit that is calls us to absorb the pain, the fears, the troubles and the hurt of others into ourselves.  In this way, the sword of Jesus becomes a cross (Matt. 10.38); a cross we must be willing to take up and bear (even when the “flesh is weak”. Matt. 26.41) if we want to take real steps toward peace.   

It is no accident, that in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the follower of Jesus and the one who would do good, not the evil doer, who is being challenged to take the first step.  This is the God-inspired method of the so-called third way, the non-violent, the transforming way of personal surrender and sacrifice, which can actually move a violent world a step closer to becoming more caring, compassionate and peaceful.   In fact, Jesus is challenging people like us when he says: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'   But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…..   For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?   Do not even the tax collectors do the same?   And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:43-48 NRS).    The blessing that can come from peace-making requires nothing less from us than going in the opposite way nature and reason tell us.  Peace-making demands something that we cannot do in our own strength.   Peace-making demands a sort of ‘super-nature’, the kind of ‘moral perfection’ that the ‘heavenly father’ has, because he “is perfect’, says Jesus.   Who can do this?  Well, it certainly doesn’t sound like a baby step, but sounds more like trying to jump across the Grand Canyon!  Can any person or people---even God’s people--- be asked to make peace possible by doing what seems morally impossible?  

FROM RETALIATION TO A MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION
The ground of peace-making is nothing less than “Jesus blood and his righteousness,(Edward Mote, 1832, The Solid Rock, Baptist Hymnal, 1975, p. 337).  The kind of peace-making Jesus introduces into the world is grounded in the super-natural, miraculous, other-worldly gospel of Jesus Christ.   Jesus wants us build our lives on God’s ‘solid rock’ of loving action which will prove firmer and stronger than the sinking sands of hate filled deeds which conquers with short-term power. 

How can God ask us to give up our power for God’s power?  God asks us to make peace with each other the same way God has made peace with us, through the saving death and overcoming resurrection of Jesus.  Without the ‘miracles’ of grace you just can’t get there;  that is, you just can’t make the giant leap from retaliation to reconciliation without God’s help, with Jesus’ example and without the power of the Spirit.   To reconcile with us and make peace, God worked supernatural ‘miracles’ in this world---miracles of forgiveness, miracles of loving action and miracles of redeeming grace.   Without belief in God’s power to intervene, you won’t try to make peace---because in making peace is impossible without God’s help.   But if we trust in God, have faith in God, and believe in God, these kinds of ‘miracles’ can happen, do happen, and must happen.  To invite this kind of miracle into our lives is what makes the gospel good news.   What kind of ‘miracles’ am I talking about?  I’m talking about the miraculously strange, beyond this world, wholly other nature of God’s love; a love that moved from retaliating against the world with wrath and instead, offers grace.  The gospel expresses the miracle this way: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (Joh 3:17 NRS).  Or how about the other ‘miraculous’ text from Paul: “Indeed (there’s that word again), rarely will anyone die for a righteous person-- though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us”  (Rom 5:7-8 NRS).   And most of all, what about how Jesus worked that miracle, even while dying on the cross, as he does not blame those who are murdering him, but instead the endures the shame, bears the pain and carries the agony of the world’s injustice toward him and cries: ‘Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing!” (Luke 23:24). 

Where do we gain the power Jesus had, to do the work for reconciliation with our enemies rather than settling for retaliation or revenge?  The apostle Paul answers this in that great passage from 2 Corinthians 5:  “ALL THIS IS FROM GOD, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; ….. not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2Co 5:18-19 NRS).   Do you understand that Paul is not saying that only a group of special called people are ‘called’ into the ministry of reconciliation, but he is saying that God ‘entrusted the message of reconciliation to us.’   And this is not simply a message we are to preach, but it is a message we are all to live.   And if we are ‘in Christ’ we can’t help but live it, because:  “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2Co 5:17 NRS)   In other words, through what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, by miraculously forgiving us and making us new people, we are given the power, the calling and the ability to forgive and be the message of reconciliation with others.  

This message of reconciling peace certainly became real in the life of Francis of Assisi, who is credited with the great prayer which begins; “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace!   Francis, was a young man of popularity, privilege, and promise, living a life of comfort and ambition, until war broke out.  As a young man he went out to fight the neighboring town of Perugia in 1202.  At 22 years of age, Francis was fortunate, not to have been among those maimed or killed in the fighting, but he did become a prisoner of war.  After a long period of imprisonment, he was finally freed by the pay of ransom, but returned home diseased and disillusioned.  

After spending month’s recovering, an even greater healing was taking place in his soul.  One day, while riding outside of town, Francis came across a young man wearing the rags of poverty because of war.  Francis then got off his horse and gave his own splendid clothing (Francis’s Father made his wealth in the clothing business).   Then, on another day, Francis stopped to pray in the chapel of San Damiano, a building that was in decay.  There, he heard God’s voice speaking, “Francis, go and repair my house….”   Taking the words of the Lord literally, Francis used some profits from his Father’s clothing business to pay for the repairs.   Unfortunately, Francis Father was not a believer, and sued his son for his unauthorized act of charity.  At the trial, Francis not only admitted his deed, but repaid the money, and this removed all this nice clothes, presenting them to his father with the words, “Up to now I have called you Father on earth, but from now on I say,  “Our Father, who art in Heaven.”  

Now, Francis had only one ambition and life: to live according to the gospel, living a life without much money, wearing the same rags beggars wore, and owning nothing that might stir up envy and violence.  He formed a band of brothers committed to rebuilding God’s church through deeds of peace.  This a very important message at the time, because this was the time of fifth Crusades, the long, drawn out war to retake the Holy Land from back from the Muslims.   The Christians of Europe were then fighting in the Nile Delta, against the Sultan Malik-al-Kamil.   Though the Crusade might be winning the war for the Holy Land, it was a war that was destroying the soul of the church, so Francis asked the cardinal who was serving as chaplain, if he would bless Francis and a brother to pay a visit of peace to the sultan himself.  The cardinal warned that the Muslims only understood weapons and should be killed, not visited, but finally agreed to bless them, believing they would die as martyrs.  It is said that Francis and his brother left the camp singing, “The Lord is My Shepherd….”

Soldiers of the sultan’s army captured the pair, beat them, and then brought them before the Sultan, who first asked if they would become Muslims.  Saying yes would save their lives.  But Francis replied that they can come to convert him; and if they were allowed try and failed, then he could behead them both.  According to the legend, Francis and the sultan met daily, though neither converted the other, but the Sultan had gained such warmth and appreciation for his guests, that he gave them a passport to visit places in the Holy Land still under Muslim control, and they parted, neither as converts of the others, but as brothers in peace.   What a different history we would look back upon, and reality we might know, if Christians had truly carried the cross then and had not slaughtered their enemies, but had been peace-makers, and had witnessed a miracle of reconciliation like Francis did?  (As told by Jim Forest, in Ladder of the Beatitudes, pp. 113-116).

Isn’t being part of a miracle of reconciliation (not retaliation), what Paul meant when he put Jesus’ challenge to ‘love your enemy’ in the most practical terms of Romans 12?  “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…..Do not repay anyone evil for evil, ….. No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:14-21 NRS).   While these words are meant to be practical, they sound most impractical for a world still locked in a vicious cycle of hate and violence.   But, if the miracle of reconciliation is going to happen, someone has to have the faith to step outside the circle.   In the gospel story, Jesus Christ took the first step. In Jesus, God stepped out of what we deserve, the right and just retaliation for our sin, which the Bible says is ‘death’.   By stepping outside the cycle of violence with redeeming love, God has opened the door for us to step outside the circle too.  Nothing has to stay the way it was, because now, as John writes in his first letter, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1Jo 1:9 NRS).  Through Jesus’ cleansing and atoning sacrifice, God stepped outside the circle of how things are:  “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor. 5.19).  By making His peace with us, known to us, we are now empowered to make reconciling peace in the world.  

PEACE AS SOMETHING A CHILD CAN DO
But don’t miss this most important ‘gospel truth’: Peace-making does not start by us jumping out, trying in our own power and strength to make our own kind of peace in the world.  If you try it in your own strength, you are sure to fail.  Peace-making is a miracle, whose power comes from God, not from us.  We become peace-makers, not by manufacturing peace, or not by immediately surrendering to some bully or tyrant, nor by absent-mindedly giving in to the desires of another, but the miracle of ‘peace’ starts as we receive ‘peace from God’.   You certainly can’t make peace with others, until you are at peace in your own heart.  And contrary to what popular religion says, you can’t make your own peace with God, but you can only receive the peace from God that God has already made with you  (Note: The New Testament never instructs us to make peace with God, but we can only claim the peace that comes from God (see, Rom. 1.7, 1 Cor. 1.3, Gal. 1.3, Eph 1.2, 6:23; Phil 1.2, Col 1.2, 2 The 1.2, 1 & 2 Tim 1.2, Tit 1.4, Phm 1.3, and 2 John 1.3)

We are only contributing to own anxiety and fear when we think we have to ‘make’ our peace with God.  We don’t make ‘our’ peace with God, but we receive the peace God has already made with us in Jesus Christ.   Why is this important?   Because when you fully realize that God has already made his peace with you, you don’t have to worry any more about making peace with God, but you  ‘keep doing the things” (Phil 4.9) that ‘make for peace’ (Roms 14.9)  so you know “the God of peace is with you” (Phil 4.9), as Paul told the Philippians and the Romans.   When you have the gift of God’s peace, peace-making becomes so natural, that even a child can do it----a child of God, that is.   Isn’t this what Jesus means when he says:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God?”    God’s children are peace-makers because this is who they have become because God’s peace has transformed their hearts.


Now long ago,  I heard a representative from “Peacemaking Ministries” speak.  As pastors we were told how this national movement could encourage churches to lead the way in making peace.  I thought it interesting to hear what a professional peacemaker might say about the rise of increasing violence, struggle, and conflict in the world and even in churches?  He began his presentation by quoting one verse from James:  “What cause fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t you know that they come from your desires that battle within you?  You want something, but you don’t get it?” (James 4. 1-2).   Only by gaining a greater desire for what only can God can give, will we care less about what others don’t or can’t give us.   This is why peace-making is first and foremost a way of the heart.   Only when we desire the peace God gives, will we ask for the miracle only God can do, and prove whose child we are.   This is how God’s shalom (peace) comes to us, as it begin in us.  Amen.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

“PURITY: Clean Up Your Act”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 5:8; Matthew 23: 23-28
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
3rd Sunday of Lent, March 23rd, 2014

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”   (Matthew 5:8).

When Christianity was young, a movement of Christians retreated into the desert areas of Egypt to live alone in spiritual communities.   They wanted to separate themselves from worldly matters so they could live as pure and perfect as humans could live on this earth.   But what these ‘Desert Fathers’ quickly discovered is that the struggle against the ‘world’ is not simply a struggle against their environment, but it was also a struggle within.  It was mostly a matter of the heart. 

One popular story tells of two spiritual ‘brothers’ who happened to come upon a woman stranded on one side of a stream too deep for her to cross.   They both paused a moment, because they had taken a vow not to touch a woman at all.   Then, without a word, the older brother picked her up and carried her safely to the other side– an action that seemed scandalous to other, but he said nothing at the time.    Finally, after walking a long distance in silence, the younger brother who felt appalled and offended began to angrily chastise his brother for breaking the vow of chastity by touching a woman.  Then, the other brother responded, “Dear Brother, I only carried her across the river and put her down on the other side, but you are still carrying her”   (From Forest, Jim, “The Ladder of the Beatitudes”, (p. 98). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition).  

This story reminds us how just how challenging it can be to define what it means to be ‘pure in heart.’  Was the one brother impure by breaking his vow and carrying the woman?  Or did the other brother keep his purity by doing nothing?   Such a moral quandary reminds us why the great Bible teacher George Buttrick, described this sixth beatitude ‘as the most inaccessible’.  He says, ‘We hardly know which is more beyond us, the condition or the promise---purity of heart or seeing God.’ (Interpreters Bible Vol. 7, p. 285).   

What did Jesus mean when he said ‘the pure in heart’ are blessed, for “they will see God”?   Besides, who even wants to know what it means?  Most people aren’t against purity.  Who wants to live in a completely immoral or impure world?  We definitely want our doctors and nurses to wash their hands before they come into hospital rooms.   We also want our politicians, personal accountants, our teachers, mechanics and preachers to be sincere and honest, don’t we?  But when it comes to being ‘pure’ ourselves, no wants to be called a ‘prude’ and or appear ‘puritanical’?   It sounds too much like ‘high collars’ and ‘witch hunts’, doesn’t it?  And since moral ‘purity’ sounds so na├»ve, old fashion, or ‘out of touch’ today, it is seldom taken seriously by our culture.  Almost everything we experience today cries out against having any desire for purity.  As J. E. Kalas says, “our steady diet of easy violence, easy sex, easy classroom cheating, indifferent human relations, and constant ways of distraction” make any suggestion of ‘purity’ sound impractical or even impossible (J.E. Kalas, Beatitudes from the Back Side, p 66).   

TO WILL ONE THING
Perhaps it will help us to take Jesus’ call to moral ‘purity’ more seriously if we understand that Jesus is not speaking about absolute, moral or any kind of ‘sinless’ moral perfection.   However, projecting moral ‘purity’ as ‘perfection’ is often what we think of, especially since Jesus concludes his Sermon with the imperative to “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5.48) Such moral perfection sounds daunting and intimidating and there are plenty more Bible passages that sound just as discouraging to imperfect people like us, such as the one that appears later in Matthew 19, when Jesus tells a young man, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." (Mat 19:21 NRS).   I don’t think I’ll have many of you waiting to seek ‘moral purity’ or ‘perfection’ in this way.      

But before you ‘go away’ (Mt. 19.22, KJV) as disappointed as the young man in the gospel story, let me help you understand the kind of ‘perfection’ or ‘purity’ Jesus means.  It’s much more like ‘living out our fullest human potential’ with God’s blessing, rather than being perfect without failures or flaws (Dave Andrews. Plan Be, p. 45).   I can say this, because the kind of ‘purity’ Jesus means allows the ‘tax collectors and prostitutes to go into the kingdom of heaven’ ahead of the most respected, religious people of Jesus’ day and ours (Mt. 21.31).   These most undesirable people, even with their failures, could still contain the very ‘purity’ of ‘faith’ (Mt. 21.32) Jesus blesses because it ‘exceeds the religion of the Scribes and Pharisees” (Matt. 5.21).   How can this be?  Jesus later explained that the problem was that the Pharisees “cleaned the outside of the cup and plate” (Matt. 23. 25) but left the inside still dirty.   This made them look like ‘whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside are full of bones of the dead and all kinds of filth’ (Matt. 23.27).  If you really want to be clean (the same word used for pure in Matthew 5.8), Jesus says you need to ‘clean the inside of the cup’ first, so that the ‘outside also may become clean’ (Matt. 23.26).

Purity of heart is not something only the flawless, the faultless or the sinless can obtain or no one could be blessed.  Furthermore, Jesus can’t be referring to a nearly impossible, unreachable, faraway moral goal, because he also says that ‘the greatest in the kingdom’ (Mt. 18.4) are not those who are without sin, or who make no mistakes, or have gain great knowledge, but he says that the ‘greatest’ are like ‘children’.  “Unless you are like children,” says Jesus, “you’ll never enter the kingdom” (Mt. 18.3).   The ‘purity’ Jesus points to in a child is a purity that is innocent, blameless without threat and is purity that grows in the grace and truth God has given.   In this way, as Dave Andrews says, Jesus expectation of us is not an “abstract faultlessness” but it is rather a “concrete faithfulness” so we can live our lives from the inside out without fear, shame or hesitation (Dave Andrews, Plan Be, p. 45).     

The great Danish Christian Soren Kierkegaard wrote that ‘purity of heart means to will one thing.’   Again, what makes the heart pure is not obtaining some state of absolute perfection, but we clean up our act when we remove of all those other things that can pollute and spoil our God given lives.   Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he advised Martha, Lazarus’ sister, saying: “"Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  there is need of only one thing (Luke 10:41-42 NRS).   Wasn’t Jesus calling his disciples to ‘one thing’ when he said: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Mat 7:13-14 NRS).  The same kind of single-mindedness is instructed when Jesus says “seek first the kingdom and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6.33, KJV) or when he says, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other… (Mat 6:24 NRS).  There is nothing that hinders purity more than having two masters or, as the letter of James says, having two minds: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (Jam 4:8 NRS). 

TO WILL THE RIGHT THING
Purity of heart begins with single-mindedness that is to will one thing, but it can’t be ‘just any old thing’ as James Howell has rightly said  (The Beatitudes for Today, p. 70).   Nor can it simply be to will our own thing, or to will what others want from us, or to will what the world says is right and good.  But ‘to will one thing’ is to want the right thing.  But what is that?   

Once I was in a pastor’s meeting where a couple of new pastors where sharing about starting a church.  When they opened themselves for questions, another pastor gave them some advice, and then questioned whether or not they were going to put ‘a cross’ in the worship area.   That pastor insisted that if they were going to be a church, they had better put up a large cross somewhere.   We all understood his point, and the younger pastors agreed that it was part of their consideration, but as I heard the pastor’s insistence, I recalled in my own mind how years ago, in my own home church, when they were considering putting a cross up, there were those who disagreed with having a cross up anywhere because it made them appear to be too much like a Roman Catholic Church, using icons or images that could distract from pure worship.  Isn’t it amazing how views and perspectives of what is right, necessary or needed can change?

This story reminds us that to will ‘the right thing’ is not always easy.  Times change.  Perspectives change.  People differ.  Cultures have divergent values.  Even views and teachings about what it means to be morally pure can be different among Christians around the world.  For example there was a time when it was considered ‘impure’ if women wore pants; or if men failed to wear ties, if women had short hair, or if men had long hair.  Once, beards were expected, and now a man wearing a beard looks not only ‘unshaven’, but unclean.   In some places only a certain Bible translation is considered ‘pure’ and some churches will throw you out of their fellowship ‘if you smoke, chew or go with girls who do.’   Being precise about ‘whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, (or) whatever is pure…” is not always as easy as simply ‘think(ing) about these things”, as it was in Paul’s on time (Phil 4.8). 

Because times change, people differ, needs vary and viewpoints may disagree, it is very important for us to understand that ‘the right thing’ the pure in heart ‘want’ is not really a ‘thing’ at all.   The genuinely and enduringly one good ‘thing’ the pure in heart want is not some ‘thing’, but they want someone.  Those who become pure in heart are those who want “God” and nothing else will do.   It is said that when the great teacher of the medieval church, Thomas Aquinas lay dying, from his deathbed he heard a voice from above, which asked: “Thomas, you have written well of me.  What reward would you ask for yourself?”  And it is said that Thomas replied, “Nothing but yourself, O Lord.” 

Perhaps we can see this purifying, transforming ‘desire’ for God as a ‘cleansing presence’ in the story of the woman who came to Jesus and washed his feet with her tears (Luke 7.37).  We could say that she was one of those ‘prostitutes’ of whom Jesus said will ‘go into the kingdom ahead of the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 21.31).  Luke tells us that she was a ‘woman….who was a sinner’.  She brought an alabaster jar of ointment to anoint Jesus, but ending up so overwhelmed by his forgiving presence, that she weep and bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.   When others around him felt her actions impure, Jesus countered that she was the only one who really understood showed ‘great love’, because her many sins had been forgiven.   Her desire to be with God, had not only ‘saved her’, but had purified her life.

In a way, I think it is true to say that those who want God, are made pure by this holy desire.   And because those who want to be with God, really want God more than anything, they are the ones who will be blessed with exactly what they want: “Blessed are the pure in heart (who want God more than anything), ‘for they will see God”.  They are the ones will get the desires of their heart, because their heart is forgiven, and completely clean and purified by the purest desire of all.“

TO WILL GOD’S WILL
This desire that purifies our heart is a desire to live in God’s presence now as we do God’s will now.   It is a single minded desire that wants God, and wants what God wants, so that we can realize our full God given potential in this world.   It is not a wish to live on a cloud somewhere, or only to go to heaven when we die, which all sounds too far removed from real life.   After these beatitudes, Jesus goes on to challenge us to be ‘the salt of the earth’ and to be ‘the light of the world’, which means, he does not want us to stay held up safe somewhere in a salt shaker or hide under a bushel basket, so we don’t fall down, get dirty or refuse to go out in the dark.  No, Jesus teaches that real purity can stand up to the ‘filth’ and darkness of the world and challenges it.   The purity Jesus blesses enables us to ‘let (our) light shine before others, so that they may see (our) good works and give glory to the Father in heaven.”   The purifying desire for good and for God, is the desire that calls us to live a life that wants and desires all that God wants for this world he has created.

One of the people of recent times whose heart was radiantly pure and wanted what God wants, was the Russian pianist Maria Yudina.  It was Maria Yudina's fate to live through the Russian revolution and its aftermath, seeing many of her dearest friends and colleagues disappear into the Gulag.   But she was a fearless Christian, wearing a cross visibly even while teaching or performing in public– an affirmation of belief at a time when the price of a display of religious faith could be one's work, one's freedom, even one's life.
But music was a way that Maria Yudina proclaimed her faith.   “She always played her piano as though she were giving a sermon.” But her public profession of faith was not without cost. Despite her genius as a musician, from time to time she was banned from concert halls and not once in her life was she allowed to travel outside Russia.   One time the communist cavalry rushed into straight into Yudina's piano class and demanded and answer from Yudina: “Do you believe in God?” She replied in the affirmative. “Was she promoting religious propaganda among her students?” She replied that the Constitution didn't forbid it.  Naturally, Yudina was dismissed from her teaching position, and was fortunate it was no worse.

Perhaps the most remarkable story happened in Stalin’s final years.  Joseph Stalin seemed more and more like a madman in his last days, and even more superstitious.  He sat locked up in one of his many dachas, amusing himself in bizarre ways.  They say he cut out pictures and photos from old magazines and newspapers, glued them onto paper, and hung them on the walls…. [He] didn't let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot.  Once Stalin called the Radio Committee, where the administration was, and asked if they had a record of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. “Played by Yudina,” he added. They told Stalin that of course they had it. Actually, there was no record, the concert had been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him.   All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes-man, a yes-man to a madman.   Stalin demanded that they send the record with Yudina's performance of the Mozart to his dacha. The committee panicked, but they had to do something.

They called in Yudina and an orchestra and recorded that night. Everyone was shaking with fright, except for Yudina, naturally.  But she was a special case, that one, the ocean was only knee-deep for her.  Yudina said they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn't think. They called another conductor, who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording.   This was probably a unique event in the history of recording– changing conductors three times in one night.   Anyway, the record was ready by morning.  They made one single copy in record time and sent it to Stalin.  Now that was a record.  A record in yes-ing.

Soon after Stalin listened to the recording, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles.  She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin.  Then she wrote him a letter.  The story seems improbable, but she was never known to lie.  Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: “I thank you, Joseph Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He'll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend.”  And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn't say a word, they expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow.  Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her.  But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn't come.  Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the “Joseph Stalin” was found dead in his dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to.  It was the witness of a pure soul, trying one last time will God’s will. (From: Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich as retold by Jim Forest,  in “The Ladder of the Beatitudes”. Orbis Books. Kindle Edition, 2011, pp. 102-109)


In a time of heart-stopping fear, here was someone as fearless as she was pure in heart.  She was so single minded, so pure of heart, that she was very last witness of pure love who dared to tell Stalin that he was not beyond God's mercy and forgiveness.  What did Maria Yudina see in Joseph Stalin?  Why did she care to witness and risk her life sharing her faith to a person like him?   If you find yourself asking that question,  you are asking wrong question.  The question is not what did Maria Yudina, see in Stalin?   I would dare say, she say nothing in him.  But what she did see was God.   This is who the pure in heart always see.  And when you see God, even the worse person in the world will look different.  For when you see God, you see love; a love so pure that even the most evil person in the world can’t diminish.   Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God, and we will too, and we will start seeing, by seeing God in them.   Amen.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

MERCY: The Art of Compassion

A sermon based upon Matthew 5: 7;  18 21-35
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
2nd Sunday of Lent, March 16th, 2014

"Blessed are those who are merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  (Matthew 5:7)

When Mother Teresa first began her work among the dying on the streets of Calcutta, India, she was obstructed and opposed at every turn by government officials and orthodox Hindus who were suspicious of her motives and used their authority to harass her and to frustrate her efforts.  She and her fellow sisters were insulted and threatened with physical violence.   

One day a shower of stones and bricks rained down on the women as they tried to bring the dying to their humble shelter.  Eventually Mother Teresa dropped to her knees before the mob. "Kill me!" she cried in Bengali, her arms outstretched in a gesture of crucifixion. "And I'll be in heaven all the sooner."

The crowd withdrew, but soon the harassment increased.  Even more irrational acts of violence and louder demands were made of officials to expel the foreign nun in her white sari, wearing a cross around her neck.

One morning, Mother Teresa noticed a gathering of people outside the nearby Kali Temple, one of the holy places for Hindus in Calcutta.  As she drew closer, she saw a man stretched out on the street with turned-up eyes and a face drained of blood.  A triple braid denoted that he was of the Brahmin caste, not of the temple priests.  No one dared to touch him, for people recognized he was dying from cholera.   Mother Teresa went to him, bent down, took the body of the Brahmin priest in her arms and carried him to her shelter. Day and night, she nursed him; over and again he would say to the people, "For 30 years I have worshipped a Kali (god) of stone.  But I have met in this gentle woman a real Kali, a Kali of flesh and blood." Never again were stones thrown at Mother Teresa and the other sisters ( Quoted in John Terry’s sermon “The Merciful”  (CSS Publishing, 1997) as it was told by Donald J. Shelby, in "Weakness and Power," Homiletics 1/93 (Santa Monica, Calif.), p. 21c.).

“Blessed are those who are merciful, for they will receive mercy….”   That was certainly true for Mother Teresa.  When she showed mercy, she and her work were given mercy by her attackers.    Her story serves as a good example of how this fifth beatitude is unique: It is reflective.  In other words, when you show mercy, you receive mercy; you get what you give.  While the poor receive the kingdom, the meek inherit the earth, and those who hunger for righteousness will be filled; those who show mercy will receive from God exactly what they show to other.  The reward of mercy is mercy. 

MERCY IS SOMETHING WE MUST DO
The ‘reflective’ nature of this beatitude reveals how practical true faith should be.  Faith in God is more than an attitude, more than an emotion, more than a feeling or even more than a sincere statement of our faith.   Faith in God is something we must do as a concrete expression of our relationship with the God who has been merciful with us.   The great reformer John Calvin once said that God’s existence cannot be proven by a theological argument from reason, but God’s grace and mercy can be proven because it shows up in us as we become people of mercy and compassion.  If we have experienced God as mercy in our lives, we will show God’s mercy from our lives.   Mercy becomes who we are and what we do because this is who God is and what God does


We are called to be merciful because God is merciful.   The words ‘mercy’ or ‘merciful’ are scattered all over the pages of the Bible (over 200 times).   In one of the most important moments of biblical revelation, right after the 10 commandments were given, Moses returned to the Mountain to converse with God again, and in curiosity, Moses asks God to show himself more fully and to reveal his full ‘glory’ (Exodus 33:18).  God agrees to reveal himself more fully to Moses, but God will only reveal his back, since no human can see God ‘face to face’ and remain alive.  Before God appears, he tells Moses what he will see:  “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name,  ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy….”  (Ex. 33.19).

Only the ‘goodness’ of being ‘gracious’ and showing ‘mercy’ reveal the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.    This was certainly an exceptional understanding of God in the ancient world.  In ancient pagan religions, the Canaanite gods had to be appeased and placated by sacrifices, gifts, and various offerings.  But Israel’s God is different.  Instead of waiting for people to bring the right offering, Israel’s God is ‘good’ and “merciful” because this is always his nature.  The offerings and sacrifices come to God because he is merciful, not to earn or merit God’s mercy and grace.  

This essential ‘difference’ about Israel’s God is what God has been revealing about himself from the very beginning.   All the way back to Abraham, in one astounding event, God changes how Abraham should understand everything God is about.  Do you remember in Genesis 22, when God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac?    It sounded crazy to sacrifice a child, but it sounds even crazier for God to require Abraham to sacrifice ‘the child’ who was also a part of the promise God had given.  Why would God require this?   We are not told anything in the text, except that it was to ‘test’ Abraham’s faith.  But what kind of test was it?  What was clear to Abraham is not so clear to us; that in Abraham’s time, it was common practice for people to prove their faith by bringing the most precious gift of one of their children as a sacrificial gift to the gods.  This was to be a guarantee that the gods would show kindness and mercy.   But when Abraham binds Isaac and proceeds to make him a sacrifice, right in the middle of it,  God tells Abraham that this kind of ‘sacrifice’ will not be require.   Instead, God will provide the ‘sacrifice’, not Abraham (Gen. 22.14) and God will show kindness, mercy and grace because he chooses to, not because humans earn it.

As Christians, we know that the story of God’s mercy given to Abraham is true to the nature of the ‘mercy’ God has shown to us in Jesus Christ.   When Jesus was on the cross, crying out, “Father, forgiven them, for they know not what they do,” (Luke 13.24) we know that God’s kindness, mercy and forgiveness was on display for us, and for all humanity.   As Martin Luther once said, ‘the cross’ shows us God from the ‘rearward side’  (As quoted in “Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister E. McGrath, 2011, p 21).   When we look upon God as revealed in the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus, we are looking at the same God who revealed himself to Moses on the Mountain, to Abraham in the saving of Isaac, and to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who, in his great ‘mercy’ (1 Pet. 1.3) made a “merciful…. sacrifice of atonement’ (Heb. 2.17) and “bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness….” (1 Peter 2.14).       

Because our God who is ‘rich in mercy’  (Eph 2.4) has been ‘merciful’ to us, we are to be a people who are merciful to others.   This is why my first point comes to as this: Those who have been blessed by God’s mercy, are those who will actually show mercy to other people.  If we don’t show mercy, then God’s mercy has not been fully acknowledged by us, and when God’s mercy is not shown by us, it does not remain with us.   Wasn’t this the great failure of the man in Jesus’ great parable we know as the “Unmerciful Servant” (Matt. 18: 21-35).   The master forgave him a great debt (10,000 talents worth or about $600,000), but he in turn, would not forgive the much smaller debt (100 denari or about $360).  His ‘master’ showed him great mercy, but when the opportunity came for him to show mercy upon someone, even upon someone who owed him a much lesser amount, he did not ‘show it’ even in the smallest way.   The ‘unmerciful servant’ received great mercy initially, but because he did not acknowledge, appreciate nor appropriate that mercy into his own life, now, Jesus says, he has run out God’s mercy (vs 35). 

This problem of failing to acknowledge, appreciate or appropriate God’s mercy and grace is exactly the problem Jesus shows in yet another important parable, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Tax Collector).   When they go to pray (to acknowledge God’s mercy), the Pharisee does not fully appreciate God’s mercy because he is doesn’t appropriate it into his own life, saying that he is thankful that he ‘isn’t like other people who are sinners.’   But the Tax Collector acknowledges God’s mercy with a heart that fully appreciates and appropriates it, because he humbles himself crying out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”  (Matthew 18: 10-14).   Jesus concludes that the one who goes home ‘right with God’ is the one who realizes just how much he needs God’s mercy.   This is what ‘mercy’ does to you.   It makes you see God differently.  It makes you see yourself differently.  It will make you see others differently too.

MERCY IS SOMETHING WE MUST DO FOR THE LESS FORTUNATE
So, since God’s mercy changes our perspective of God and ourselves, how does it change how we see others?  In other words, how does God’s mercy that is fully acknowledged and appreciated by us make us appreciate the needs of others around us?   What does it mean for us to become “merciful” as God our “Father is merciful” (Luke 6.36)?

I think it is quite interesting that at the center of every major religion in this world is a ‘reflective’ rule of reciprocity.  In our culture, we call it the Golden Rule: “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you”.   The Golden rule is based upon Jesus’ words in Matthew 7: 12, as he explains that this ‘rule of mercy’ is a summation of everything the “Law and the Prophets” have been teaching all along.    What shocks many people is that this ‘mercy rule’ is not only found in the Bible, but it can be found in some form in every major world religion.   It is found in Hinduism, (Never do to others what would pain you), Buddhism (Hurt not others that which hurts yourself), Taoism (Regard your neighbor’s loss or gain as your own), Confucianism (Do not impose on others what you do not yourself desire), Judaism (What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor) and in Islam, which says, (Do unto all people as you would they should do to you.) (As quoted by Dave Andrews in Plan Be, p. 39).   

People of all religions, and even people with no religion, understand that the mercy must be shown to others, or life is not worth much of anything at all.   The great problem within religions and with people in general is not that we are different (we are), not that one is completely true or completely false (we all can be), but the greatest challenge of life and faith is whether or not people put into practice what they say they believe.   All religions have ‘mercy’ written at the heart, but they do not always show it, nor do they follow the light they have.  This was certainly a failure of Judaism in Jesus’ day, which Jesus pointed out over and over as he asked, “What does the Law require?” because they had forgotten.  The challenge of living out what we say we believe is also a problem for Christians, as it is the problem for every expression of faith in our world.  I recall a person of one faith saying to another, “We don’t have to understand each other, we don’t have to agree with each other, and we don’t even have to like each other, but we do have to care and show compassion to each other or our religion will prove to be false.”   Will we show the mercy to others that we hope to receive from God?

But how do we show mercy?  What does it mean to be ‘merciful’?  In Matthew 25, in the powerful and unforgettable parable of final judgment, Jesus gives us a picture of a future moment when “all the nations will be gathered (before God)”.  What separates the good from the bad, or as Jesus says symbolically, “the sheep from the goats”?   What separates the two is the mercy that was or wasn’t shown ‘to the least of these’ (Matt. 25.45).   Here, six specific deeds of mercy are a ‘given’ to being merciful: feeding the hungry, quenching thirst, showing hospitality to ‘homeless’ strangers, clothing the naked, visiting and caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  You can’t be called a church of mercy, nor can you be considered to be a merciful person, unless you do these kinds of things when needs arise.  Others deeds or acts of mercy could be added to this list, but the point of Jesus’ parable is that the needs of the helpless and the hopeless are being addressed.  This is what makes faith ‘worth its salt’ (Matt 7.13) and makes people ‘light’ to the world (7.14).

MERCY IS SOMETHING WE MUST DO FOR OUR OWN GOOD
But there is one more very important thing mercy does.   The ‘merciful’ are not only compassionate for the sake of the ‘least of these’---the helpless and the hopeless, but by being merciful, the ‘merciful’ are also helping themselves.  The merciful are blessed, Jesus says, because they ‘will receive mercy’ (5.7).    

There is a powerful story in the one of the greatest books of world literature, The Brothers Karamazov, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, published in Russia around 1880.   It is a story about a woman who was almost saved by a single onion.  The story goes:

“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: now take that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it, and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise, but if the onion breaks, she can stay where she is.

The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I'll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: “It's me who's getting pulled out, not you; it's my onion, not yours.” No sooner did she say it then the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.” (As quoted in “The Ladder of the Beatitudes” by Jim Forrest, Orbis Books, 2011, p. Kindle Edition).

Hell is not to love anymore” says, George Bernanos.   Why would anyone want to be in heaven with different people if they don’t care for other people who are different?  And why would God reward someone with heaven who does not know how to be merciful toward another?   It doesn’t make sense.   As Jim Forrest rightly says, “Why would you want to be with people in heaven forever whom you have spent your whole life trying to avoid?”  

Are you a person of mercy?   Sometimes the best way to know something looks like is to compare it with the opposite.  In other words, what does an unmerciful person look like?    In modern literature and thought, few people have taken so hard and so close a look at ‘merciless’ evil as the Russian author and prison-camp survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Was atheistic communism the worst, most unmerciful evil imaginable in our world?  In his writing Solzhenitsyn insisted that the human race is not divided between the good and the evil; rather that the division is in each of us.  He writes: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either– but right through every human heart– and through all human hearts.  This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil.  (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), vol. 2, part 4, “The Ascent.”).

Do you have an ‘un-uprooted small corner of evil’ that is unmerciful in you?  Often we think that evil is something ‘out there’ that has to be stopped.   It can be.  But evil is also something in us, though it may only left ‘un-uprooted in a small corner’, it is still there, waiting to rise up in us.  Donna Eddy, a teacher in Milwaukee, while still a college student, had a pizza-delivery job. One night her job brought her face to face with three boys who demanded the money she was carrying.  Two of them had small handguns– Saturday Night Specials, she later found out. “All I had was twenty dollars belonging to the pizza company. It wasn't my money; I didn't care, but I didn't take them seriously. Those guns looked like toys to me. As far as I was concerned, they were just kids playing a game. So I just got back in the car. Then one of the boys pointed the gun at me and started to cry. ‘But I could shoot you,’ he pleaded. I decided I'd better give him the money, but he didn't give me a chance. He pulled the trigger.

The gun made such a little noise, just a pop, not like what you hear in the movies. I felt this hot pain, like a pellet gun. “Thank God those boys ran as fast as they did or I would have done some terrible harm to them. I gunned the engine and used my car as a weapon, chasing after them. It took me about ninety seconds to come to my senses. I thought to myself, What are you doing? If you catch up with them, are you going to run over them? “So I drove to the police station, but all they did was tell me I was a fool for delivering pizzas in that part of town. I still didn't realize I had been bleeding– I told the police it was just a pellet gun. But they said a medic should take a look. It was only at the hospital that I realized that I'd been shot!”

Donna was lucky. The bullet had hit her belt buckle, angled off to the side, tunneled between two layers of skin, and then come back out. It was a superficial wound but a life-changing experience. “That was the day I learned I had the potential for that kind of violence. For ninety seconds of my life, primitive rage ruled. If I'd had a gun, at least one of those boys might be dead today.”  (Jim Forest, IBID, Kindle Locations 1203-1211).

However you come to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the merciful”, what you must never fail to grasp is that learning ‘mercy’ is just as important for your own sake as it is for God’s sake, or for the sake of needy world around us.  One more story, a much less violent one is perhaps even more instructive. Recently on an air flight from Disney World, a Canadian family and their Autistic child were on a connecting flight to Canada.  The family is always nervous about flying, because Mouland, their Autistic daughter’s   behavior can be unpredictable.   Fortunately, on this flight she was seated next to a man, Eric Kunkel, a business man from New Jersey, who put down his work, and for the entire duration of the flight (2.5 hours), entertained Kate by allowing him to fiddle with his iPad and played video games with her.  Being most thankful for help and ‘mercy’ from a stranger,  Mouland’s mom when home and posted and ‘open letter’, entitled “Dear Daddy in seat 16c” thank him kindness show to their daughter. (http://shine.yahoo.com/parenting/businessman-befriends-autistic-girl-flight-makes-everyone-39-235300300.html).

It doesn’t make much in life to ‘test’ our true colors and prove ‘who’ we are.   When they interviewed the businessman on T.V. news, tears came to his eyes and good feelings flowed all over him, because of what he had done, even without fully realizing it.   That’s exactly what Jesus meant, when he told us:  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink….?  ...Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me”  (Matthew 25.40).   Without realizing it, those who are merciful will receive exactly what they give and they, says Jesus, will end up truly ‘blessed’, both in life, and in eternity.   Amen.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

HUNGER: Desiring What’s Right

A sermon based upon Matthew 5: 6; 15: 22-28
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
1st Sunday of Lent, March 9th, 2014

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  (Matthew 5:6)

Frederick Buechner was 10 years old when his father killed himself with car exhaust fumes.   At the insistence of his mother, Buechner and his brother rarely talked about their father and tried to keep his father struggle with alcohol and his suicide a family secret.   

But keeping everything a secret came to haunt him.   Not only did he learn to keep silent about his father, he also came to forget most everything about his father, and when he became a father himself, he suddenly realized that he did not even know how to love his own children. 

Out of such a family tragedy, however, Buechner started to developed a ‘hunger’ for more than a life of keeping secrets.  It was out of those moments of spiritual and emotional darkness, Buechner came to hunger and thirst for the light and to know the deep things of God.   He even became a prolific writer about the spiritual life, learning to “Tell Secrets” (Telling Secrets was the title of one of his many books) and learning how to find his way through the “Hungering Dark” (Another of his book titles). (http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1991-02-10/entertainment/9101120763_1_frederick-buechner-secrets-father).

It is not incidental, that the greatest spiritual journey begins with hunger and thirst.  Consider the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry and the unforgettable image of the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness where he would develop a great hunger and thirst for more than what the devil could offer (Matt 4.1).   St. Augustine felt that same kind of hunger in his heart, and he wrote in his own Confessions,  "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."  (Book 1, Confessions of Saint Augustine).  

WHAT ARE YOU HUNGRY FOR?
Right before Christmas, I was going through Public Television’s schedule of programs for the beginning of the New Year to see if there was anything I wanted to record.  As would be expected, there were multiple programs scheduled about dieting, eating right, getting yourself in better physical shape and learning to make better life choices in the year ahead.   But the one program that got my immediate attention was based on a brand new book by popular medical doctor and new age spiritualist, Deepak Chopra.   It got my attention because it wasn’t a diet book that started with recommendations about what you should or shouldn’t eat, but it started with one question: “What are you hungry for”?   Are you hungry for Food?  Love?  Self-Esteem?  Peace?   According to Chopra, if you want you to get your bad eating habits under control, you need to first answer why you overeat---“because”, he says, “many are using food as a substitute for real fulfillment.”  In other words, if you find your hearts ‘true desire’, then you will be lead in the right direction, away from the desires that ‘lead in the wrong direction’. (http://www.chopra.com/ccl/new-book-from-deepak-what-are-you-hungry-for).

Whether or not you fully agree with Chopra’s New Age diet approach, he’s certainly on to something when he suggests that only by solving our hunger for what we rightfully need will give us the ‘satisfaction’ and ‘fulfillment our bodies and souls crave.    Interestingly, in this moment in history, when America’s and their children are facing an epidemic of adult and childhood “obesity”, and the threat of paying out millions more in medical expense and taxes, it’s not only New Age spiritualists who are writing books in this direction, but it’s also mainstream evangelical preachers like Rick Warren and his new book, “The Daniel Plan”.   Dealing with his own struggle with “Food” and “Weight”, the popular preacher’s approach is advertised as a groundbreaking, healthy lifestyle program where people get better, not alone, but together. “With love as the motivation, this ‘plan’ is based on a story of abundance, not deprivation.”   It’s a plan based on Faith, Food, Fitness, Focus and Friends.   Relying on both God’s power and the support and encouragement of friends, this is said to be a ‘plan’ that can help you “be transformed from the inside out” (http://www.danielplan.com/). 

I’m neither suggesting nor knocking either of these brand new ‘Diet Plans’.   But I do take note of them because they are improvements over approaches that merely count calories.   They are better because they attempt to look at the ‘whole person’ and are asking some of the most important questions about life, faith, focus and friendship.   For until you discover what your heart and soul is really hungry for, and what you are made to hunger for---that is, until you find what will bring your heart, soul, and mind contentment, as well as, what will bring nourishment, strength and pleasure to your body----until you begin to answer these ‘greater’ questions, you will not find the physical ‘filling’ nor the sense of spiritual and emotional fulfillment and health you need.

I don’t have to tell you that there are plenty of reasons people suggest as to why America is facing such a dangerous epidemic of obesity these days.   There are just as many who will suggest ‘answers’ to what should be done about it.   Some of the solutions for this ending epidemic range from the outrageous ideas of “taxing” of ‘sodas’ which bring unnecessary weight gain, to raising the price or even taxing other unhealthy food choices, and then using that revenue to subsidize healthier food and lifestyle choices.  Whatever solution will be attempted in the future, I think a very important part of the equation must also be to consider the spiritual, emotional, and ethical choices that people have been making in the past, and need to make in the future.     http://www.dukehealth.org/health_library/news/soda-taxes-weight-loss-benefit-linked-to-household-income.).    My parents taught me, and many of you learned that as well, that there is something sacred and spiritual about eating a healthy meal together, and I suspect that the breakdown of the family and the eroding of spiritual values in our culture does play into our national obesity problemWhen people feel lonely, or live like they are alone, and when they eat alone, without higher values, hopes, dreams and purposes, many will try to ‘fill’ their souls with the ‘right’ thing by feeding their stomachs with too many other things.    

WHAT SHOULD WE BE HUNGRY FOR?  
So, in this day in our culture, maybe we can begin to hear the importance of this beatitude even better than before, when Jesus says, Blessed are those who hunger… and thirst…. after righteousness, for they…. will be filled”.   But there is something else we need to understand about ‘hunger’ and ‘thirst’.  For Jesus is not only generally asking ‘what are we hungry for’, but he is also telling us what we are supposed to be hungry for---that is, to ‘hunger and thirst after righteousness.   But what is this?  Can we even begin to comprehend what Jesus meant by ‘righteousness’ when we live in a culture where the question of ‘what is right for me’ has been made the ultimate ‘righteousness’?  How can we learn to hunger and thirst for the “righteousness” Jesus requires, when there are so many variations of what it might or should mean?   Can Jesus, or Christian faith, or a preacher like me, even dare to define what ‘righteousness’ should mean for all or for any of us?   

Several years ago, when I was a pastor in East Germany, just after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the people in my congregation were suddenly being exposed to many changes in their way of life.  One of them was shopping for groceries.  When I first arrived in the East, around 1990, there were only a couple of small stores where you could buy groceries.  For example, if you were buying meat, you’d buy whatever they had in one of two bowls.  If you were going to buy cereal, you’d buy either corn flakes or bran flakes.  If you wanted jelly there was strawberry or blackberry.   Everything was like that.  You either had to take what they had that day, or you had a simple choice.   When the first ‘western’ supermarket opened in our town, I’ll never forget how one of the members of the church came to me asking,  “Why do Americans and other people in the west think you need to have 30 different kinds of cereals, or 20 different kinds of jellies, or 15 different cuts of meat?  She said she walked down the aisles of the store and became completely dizzy and confused.  How do you get anything done shopping in such an environment?   And in many ways, she expressed perfect our own situation of living with such much ‘freedom’.   Even though freedom and choice is a wonderful blessing, it becomes a terrible curse when it is unbridled and undisciplined.   Are we not very often confused, not just about what we should eat or wear, but what we should do with our lives?   How do you define what is right about anything, when there are so many alternatives and choices to what I might say is ‘right’?   

Another part of the challenge in defining what is righteous is that righteousness is a word we have lost in our vocabulary.   As Erick Kolbell has rightly said, “Righteousness is one of the ‘Sunday words’ we heard as a child, but seldom use the other 6 days of the week.   It’s like wearing a suit and tie, or a word stored away, like ‘good china’.   We talk about being a ‘hero’, about success or greatness, or getting rich, but who cares about righteousness?   But perhaps the greatest challenge of defining ‘righteousness’ is selfishness.  We might even call it ‘self-righteousness’.  E. Stanley Jones, a great Methodist missionary,  once told a story about a little girl, whose mother asked her to do a certain thing.  She answered: “I don’t want to do that?”   O.K., the mother continued, then do this ‘other thing’.  The little girl answered, “I don’t want to do that either”.  Exasperated, the mother then asked, “All right then, “What is it you do want to do?”  The little girl thought for moment and said:  “I don’t want to do what I want to do either!”  (From John Redhead, Uncommon Common Sense, 65).

To say that ‘self-righteousness’ is our greatest hindrance to defining what righteousness means, probably comes as no surprise, but what if I suggested that it is our ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ selfishness that I mean.  Many of us, especially in the church, have defined Jesus’ call to ‘righteousness’ only to mean that we must ‘get’ or “be right with God’ which means something like having a daily devotion of a “personal piety” which hungers to ‘be good’.  But the problem with this kind of righteousness is not that it is wrong, but that it is not enough.  It omits the just-as-important quality of righteousness which Jesus made clear, that requires us to ‘do good’, not just “be good”.  Jesus concluded the sermon on the mount by underscoring the kind of righteousness God requires, “Many will say Lord, Lord,…. But only the one who does the will of my Father, will enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 7.21).   It is the hunger to “do” God’s will, rather than our own will which Jesus blesses.  

To put this in the most practical terms, biblical righteousness means ‘living right’, and to live rightly is to be defined daily by being in a right relationship with God and others.   As Jesus says, it has as much to do with ‘doing right’ and ‘doing good’ as “being good”.   Understanding this could keep all of us from getting wrongly fixated upon ‘being right’.   How can we even ‘be right’ or ‘be good’ since Scriptures clearly teach that ‘there is none who is righteous” and “there is no one good but God” because our “goodness” and our “righteousness” are nothing but ‘filthy rags’?    Has God not already pointed us in the right direction already, since the only true righteousness we are capable of is the kind that seeks to “do good” for others, rather than ‘being good’ for our own sakes?

BLESSED HUNGER: WHEN WILL YOU GET HUNGRY?
Finally, we come to ask the most important question about righteousness.  It is the kind of question that will help us to fully and finally to answer what righteousness means for us, for now, for this moment, and in our own world and for our own lives.   Because before you or I can fully or finally formulate any definition of what God means by righteousness, we must determine whether or not we are ‘hungry’ and ‘thirsty’ for the kind of righteousness God requires.   As Jesus rightly says, the ‘blessing’ begins in the hunger itself, not just when we are in the final state of being filled.    Thus, before you can be or do righteously, you must become hungry for the kind of righteousness God requires.  

An ancient story goes that the Buddha was down at the river’s edge when a young man approached him and asked him what he needed to do to attain a state of enlightenment or spiritual understanding?  Without saying a word, Buddha took the man by the hand, thrust his head under the water, and held it there until just before he was ready to pass out.  He then lifted the man out of the water, and said to him, “In those last few moments, what were you thinking about?”  “I was thinking about air,” the man said, still gasping for breath.  “Anything else?”  the Buddha asked.  “No,” the man answered, “I was just thinking about air; my life depended on it.”  Precisely.  When you can turn you attention only to the eternal truth, as if you life depended on it, “ Buddha told him, “you will be on the path to enlightenment and spiritual understanding.”  

The most important question a counselor ever asked someone seeking advice is simply:  What do you want?  What is your greatest desire, right now?   If we are honest with ourselves, the answer of our ‘desire’ is a moving target, isn’t it?  When we are sick, we want health.  When we are poor, we want wealth.  When we are lonely, we want love.  When we are troubled, we want peace, and when we are hungry and thirsty, we will want food and drink.  But what Buddha was answering, and what Jesus was blessing, was a different kind of target, altogether.   The greatest spiritual traditions of this world are different, but they are united when it comes to most important assumption: Our lives are guided by the greatest desire or hunger we have.  “When you know what your greatest desire, then you will know what your god looks like” (Richard Niebuhr).  Do you know what your God looks like?

Back in the 1980’s, the stock market was on a bull rampage and many young gunners were fresh out of business school and were riding that wave for huge six-figure incomes.  One of them was a man by the name of Dennis Levine.   But on his way to the top in one of the most prestigious financial firms, he was caught for ‘insider trading’; that is by trading stocks based on ‘inside information’ which allowed him to know whether a stock would rise before it became public knowledge.  Levine was busted for it, and the price he paid was a steep one.  He lost his broker’s license, his reputation, and two years of his life to a federal penitentiary.  When he was released, he was asked by a reporter why he took such a risk.   This thirty-five year old man, who had already earned 300,000 dollars answered, “I’ll tell you why.  I did it because I wanted to get at the REAL money.”  But, the real money was not simply Levine’s desire, it was his god, his idol, his AIR.  This was what he was hungry and thirsty for.   “Then, the devil took him on a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4.8-9).  The devil offered it, and Levine went after it as if his ‘life depended on it’.  And of course, it did  (This story is from  “What Jesus Meant”, Erik Kolbell, p.76).

So what does your life depend on?  That’s how you start to figure out what righteousness is supposed to mean.  Let me give you another example of hunger from REAL life?   All of us have seen those terrible, horrible pictures of starving, hungry children.  We often carry images of ‘hungry children’ in our heads to remind us what is wrong about our world, which makes it very difficult for any of us to ever think of ‘hunger’ as anything good.   But another picture to put in our heads is the kind of hunger we have when we come to the table someone has just prepared for us, when the food on the table is still steaming and warm, our favorite people are around us, and we are ready to dig in and eat because we feel like we are ‘starving’.   That’s certainly a good kind of ‘hunger’, isn’t it?   It’s the kind of “blessed hunger” we all want to feel because we know that it is an emptiness that is about to be filled.  
Most of us know the meaning of “UPPER CASE”  “lower case” letters.  We use the “shift key” to make that distinction on our computers, tablets, and cell phones.   With this in mind, Raymond Gibson has said that the most wonderful feeling of fullness comes when we are ‘emptied of our strivings for what could be called “our lower-case” gods (the many things that we desire and want) to be filled with the greater, ‘upper case’ strivings (for what we should seek and desire).  God wants us to live lives that end with satisfaction and fullness, instead of ending up empty, shallow or hollow.   A hunger, thirst and desire for righteousness, that is, living our lives “for God” and “for others” keeps life from becoming empty, void, hollow and invalid.  It is this this “blessed hunger” that leads to fulfillment, which is what Jesus meant when he said, “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10.10). 

Today, most of us live our lives in a state of ‘abundance’ but that does not mean that we have lives that are full of meaning.  Is anybody hungry for that?   It’s almost 12:00 noon, and all I know right now is that I’m starved.  How about you?  Amen.