Sunday, August 13, 2017

“What Then Does This Text Mean?

A sermon based upon Luke 20: 1-8; 17-19
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
10th Sunday After Pentecost, August 13, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #8 of 12)

My mother was a seamstress.  What that means is that she sewed clothes for people.  It was something she learned from her mother, and when she retired from the cotton mill, she decided to make her money sewing for women in the community.  I especially loved it when she made cheerleading uniforms for my high school and the cheerleaders had to come to my home and try them on.

I never learned a much about sewing, but I did come across a wise saying, which comes from sewing and says: “Those who sew must first tie a knot.”  Unless you want to re-stitch that button or re-hem those pants often, you must first anchor it with a knot.  Of course, the wisdom here is more than just about sewing.  The adage also relates to life.  If you want your life to hold together, without coming unraveled with ever crisis that comes, you’d better have a ‘knot’ or an ‘anchor’ that will help you keep your bearings as an unwavering constant in your life (*This idea, and the flow of this message comes from Daniel Day's, If Jesus Isn’t the Answer…: He Sure Asks the Right Questions! (Kindle Location 831). Smyth & Helwys Publishing. Kindle Edition).  

For most of us that ‘knot’ has been given to us from our parents, from church, from school, or from other close relatives or other formative connections in our lives.  This is where we learned what was right and wrong, sacred or taboo.  This is where we learned to trust what was real and to figure out what isn’t.  

But at some point in our lives, these certainties and confidence have been shaken.  To keep our analogy going, we learn that other people ‘tie their knots’ very differently, or tie them ‘at different places’.  We come to realize that people out there, beyond our own tribe or family, don’t understand life the same way we have.  This can cause us to question the  ‘authority’ of some of our own upbringing and conceptions.   We wonder if we have been right to build our lives on the ‘knots’ or ‘anchors’ we were given.

Several years ago, the owner of a Concrete company in Boone, was looking after the house that my family and I were living in while on furlough from our mission work.  One day, while we were trying to get the furnace going, he was telling me about a young girl who was going off to college.  He said that her mother had come to him with great concern about whether or not she would keep her faith while away at college.  He said, “I told her that depends.  If you allowed your daughter to develop her own faith, and you didn’t force it on her, then you’ve probably nothing to worry about.  It’s her faith.   But if she only has your faith, and not her own, then I’d be real worried too.”

That was not a very professional way to approach it, but he got the point across.  Life and faith is not just about passing down knowledge, but its also about making choices.  Daily we have to make decisions about what matters, what we should or shouldn’t do, what kind of faith we have, and whether we will trust in anything at all.  If we want to have an anchor, or ‘tie a knot’ that holds together, then we must decide which voice, which teaching, or even which viewpoint we will choose to build our lives upon. Life means making a choice: You cannot, not choose.

When we lived in Germany, our own cultural and even religious choices were sometimes tested and tried.  Once, my chair of deacons in my German church recommend a campground for our family.  We wanted to experience camping in Europe, so we bought a tent and headed out.  We arrived late, quickly set up the tent and went to bed.  Early the next morning, my daughter wanted to go swimming.  We were the first ones there, but it wasn’t long until others came.  The arrived much like we did, but then everything changed.  They all went swimming with no close on whatsoever.  My German Baptist friend had no idea we didn’t also swim that way.
Now, that was literally untying a really big knot for us.  We didn’t go there again, and we never got use to this European norm.  What they called natural, we called nudity.

My point is that every culture, even Christian groups, have their own specific ways of choosing which knot will be tied tightly and which one knot will be tied loosely.  Those  German Baptists had some very specific knots they tied tightly, which we didn’t.  If you didn’t attend church for a couple of Sundays, you could be thrown out permanently.  Also, if you didn’t bring your hymnbook to church with your and you didn’t sing, or at least try to, then your faith would be questioned.  Music was how the ‘redeemed of the Lord said so’.  The point I’m making is that even within the Christian faith, not just in Germany, but in Brazil, or other countries, Christians make choices about what is most important, and what is less important.

In our text today, Jesus revealed that one tightly tied ‘knot’ that anchored his own religious upbringing, and his people, was Scripture.  Every faithful Jew believed that God had given written texts to help guide the people in making good choices and giving right shape to their ethical and religious life.  Thus, questions like “What did Moses command” (Mark 10:13), “What is written in the Law?” (Luke 10:26),  or as in our text, “What then does this text mean?” (Luke 20: 17), were very important questions for faithful people in Jesus’ day.  The way people made right choices was well established and clearly guided by God through sacred, written, texts.

That’s how it was for them, but for us not so much, and it’s also much less clear.  As Dan Day has rightly said, “For many people today its not so obvious, that Moses’ words or any ancient religious text for that matter’, could have ‘anything applicable’ to say to us.  It is bizarre, even to some of us, that what ‘was written on parchment by people living in tents, with no electricity (an no internet) living 3,000 years ago, could have anything relevant to say, let alone be authoritative.”  

Of course, Jesus, and many of us too, don't think Moses, or the Prophets, spoke only for themselves, but we actually believe, that God was speaking through them, and still can speak to us through these ancient words.  Jesus believed this too, and this is why the question, “What did Moses Command” was one of the most important than could ever have been asked in his time.  But what about our time?  What do these ancient words from ancient texts really mean for us, and for our world?  Is there anything here that really matters, and why should we still care?  

Recently, I got the Fall schedule for the local Community College in the mail.  I searched all through that paper, through all the many planned classes.   They had classes on Gardening, Agriculture, Horticulture, and even Viticulture.   They had classes on Law Enforcement, Nursing,  Firemen training, and other forms of community service.  They also trained for skills for working on Small Engines and other Mechanical fields; as well, as pastimes, like painting, music, yoga, and many others.  But no where in that magazine did they advertise any kind of course in how to read, interpret, or understand the Bible.  I know they must teach some introduction to religion course, because a friend of mine teaches it, but it wasn’t important enough to list, even in the middle of the buckle of the Bible Belt.  Can you image how less important it is elsewhere, if not here, where?

When in our text today, it tells us that “Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “What then is the meaning of this text… or as others translate, ‘of that which is written’,  it implied that most everyone in the culture, even without have access to a written copy of the Scriptures, knew the text Jesus was referring to.   Even though only a few had access to written texts, they still knew.  Scripture was at the heart of their daily culture, their weekly worship and their intentional upbringing.  In other words, when Jesus asked, “What Did Moses Command?”or “What did this text mean?” It meant something. 

But what exactly this text, or any text from Moses, from the Prophets, or from Psalms meant to people was never automatic, without some effort to understand.   The people had to constantly hear Scripture quoted and learn ways to interpret them.  The meaning in these ancient texts, even to them, had to be read, discussed, and filtered through an their own interpretive filters for processing.  In other words, to answer Jesus’ question, “What does this mean?” meant that you had to do your homework.  There was ‘gold’ to be mined, but you still had to mine it.

When you study how Jesus treated and interpreted Scripture, you can find a two-fold approach.  One, Jesus reverences Scripture highly, memorized it, quotes it, and uses it as an final, anchoring word, a bedrock.  A clear example is when Jesus quotes Scripture, and literally, ‘throws the book’ at the devil who is tempting him while he is in the wilderness (Matt. 4).  Jesus uses Scripture, as we should, to tie a unbreakable knot, to anchor our lives against those forces that can tempt and destroy us.

But strangely enough, even with the high view of Scripture which Jesus had, there are other times that Jesus appears to loosen the knot of Scripture, disregarding certain laws, regulations, and rules which were clearly, concretely, and most obviously written.  An most obvious one of these was how Jesus completely untied the knot about Kosher laws.  In one single statement, Jesus wipes a page from Bible, in one single statement.  If you recall, Leviticus 11 has all kinds of Kosher rules about what kinds of food are to be considered clean, and which are to be considered unclean.  Jesus show complete disregard for this entire part Moses’ law, declaring, “It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth defiles (Matt. 15:11). 

In the most important words Jesus ever spoke, a collection put together in what we call ‘The Sermon on the Mount”, clearly states that ‘he did not come to abolish Scripture, but to fulfill it’ (Matt 5:21), yet Jesus clearly offers his own interpretation, which lessens some parts of Scripture, while expanding upon, even going beyond other parts.   Now, before you think you can do this own your own, anyway you wish, you’d better remember and realize that YOU ARE, OF COURSE, NOT JESUS.   And as Jesus explained, he was not trying to abolish or negate Scripture, but he interpreted Scripture in ways that helped people build upon it, and even to ‘do greater works’, which led to ‘higher’ or ‘better’ ways of living, than were imagined in the Law.

When we read Scripture, taking it seriously, but not always literally, we can also see Paul, Peter, and the church following Jesus into areas of thinking, worshiping, and believing that were never given in Scripture, and going against some things that had been clearly written.   Just as Jesus challenged his followers to go beyond Scripture’s ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and to ‘love their enemies’,  Peter was challenged by the Spirit to go beyond Scripture to ‘kill and eat’ non Kosher foods, so he could welcome a believing Gentile into the faith.  Paul also went beyond established procedures when he called himself an ‘apostle’ and took the gospel straight into the Gentile world, ignoring strict rules about circumcision, teaching that the priority of the Bible is grace, not law.  Sabbath, Kosher, Circumcision, were knots that had been tied tightly, but were eventually loosed, and some completely untied, so that God’s love could be poured out to all.   We could go on, and on, but perhaps you get the point.  Perhaps you are getting the point so well, that you feel a little toward me, like they did toward Jesus, when he reinterpreted things.  But what you need to know, is that even when Jesus reinterpreted the Bible, it was still being reverenced, but constantly being reinterpreted, and fulfilled, as Jesus put it, so that love, grace and mercy, dominated its primary theme, long before the first word was ever printed on a printing press.

Sometimes I still see a old Bumper sticker which says, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it for me!”   While I can appreciate their enthusiasm for the Bible, what I learn from Jesus’ question put to these ‘teachers of the law’, is that God can still do new things.  As long as one sheep is still lost, nothing is settled.  As long as hate is still the norm, love needs to provide the breakthrough, not what has been said in the past. 

If we want to seriously anchor our lives in the Scriptures, in ways that makes sense, saves us, our children, and our children’s children, while making real difference in our world today, we are going to have to not only to quote Scripture, but we also need to learn how to interpret it wisely, faithfully, but also lovingly, and redemptively as well.   Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he scolded the Scribes and Pharisees, saying “Woe, to you hypocrites, for you pay your tithe…but have omitted the weightier (most important) matters of the law, judgement, mercy and faith; these ought to be done too, without neglecting either” (Matt. 23:23).  Isn’t this exactly the most important issue Jesus’ question raises for us.  How do we interpret and reinterpret Scripture, without neglecting any part of what ‘ought to be done’, especially since we are not Jesus, nor are we experts in the law?

Well, we need to say that being an ‘expert’ in the law, didn’t help them, nor does in guarantee any success at what matters most about Scripture.  Of course, there are some very basic, good, rules of Biblical interpretation that pastors, professors, and scholars learn in school, but this in no way means we will ‘get it right’, by getting to ‘what matters most’.  Right interpretation of Scripture means that we must consider needs, community, and wrestle with the text like Jacob wrestled with the angel at Jabbok.  Questions of right and wrong, and authority can never be reduced to saying words or mere rehashing them, no matter how ‘holy’ they are or seem.  Sometimes we can take Scripture at ‘face value’, but other times we need ‘fresh interpretations’. The hard work many refuse to do is to listen to the Spirit and to others too, so that we can have the wisdom to know the difference.

The need to do the hard work of ‘listening’ and ‘learning’ from God and others, is why we can’t always take the Bible literally so we CAN take it seriously.  Rachel Held Evans spent a year, as a woman, taking the Bible literally, following all the rules, commands, and customs, just as they were literally written.  She writes that this was one of the most difficult, painful, educational, and thoughtful years she had ever lived.  She also discovered that taking the Bible literally was impossible to maintain in real life.  I’m just glad she didn’t have a child that disobeyed her at the time, for she would have been instructed to literally stone her child to death.

Also, when you only take the Bible literally, but not seriously, you can make the Bible say most anything you want it to say.   I know most people think of it in an opposite way.  But when take it literally, but not seriously, you can use the Bible to get away with murder, literally.   This is exactly what King Henry the VIII did, when he ‘tied the knot’ in the Bible for his own purposes.  After his brother Arthur died, King Henry had to get the pope to allow him to marry his dead brother’s wife, Catherine.  When his marriage to Catherine still did not grant him a male heir, Henry used the text from Leviticus 20:21, which said, “If a man takes his brother’s wife in marriage, it is unclean, and they shall be childless.”  According to the Bible, so reasoned King Henry’s literalistic logic, she was a curse on his kingdom, so she had to go, that is die, like so many others.  Biology today tells us the whole problem was with Henry, not his wives.

Still today, people do all kinds of ‘shenanigans’ with the text, to prove their point, or argue the truth they want to hear or believe.  What strict literalism has done is divide Christians and split churches over fights that keep God on the sidelines of our churches, and out of our lives.  Could there be another way? The good news is that there is, and has always been a better way to find the meaning in a text without battling over for for a book.  John tells us that in Jesus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Or as Peter answered when many were leaving Jesus in the dust,  “To whom shall we go, for you have the words of eternal life.”    Or once more, as Jesus himself said, “You search the Scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life: It is they that testify about me (John 5:39).

Years ago, when some Southern Baptists were having battles over the Bible, some argued for a more literal, inerrant form of belief in the Bible, and others argued for a more serious, sincere form of belief in the truth in the Bible.  For most of the church, and the world, it was mere semantics---just arguments about words.  But this discussion became more than words, when one side gain political power and took “Jesus” out of it’s Confession of Faith, which named Him as the ‘criterion’ by which the Bible is to be interpreted’.  For without Jesus,  you can interpret the Bible any way you wish.

As I saw it then, and still see it now, Jesus is the key to interpreting the Bible, and the living Christ still leads us to discover that the greatest truth of the Bible is about God’s love.   Even that great text where Jesus says,  “I am the way, truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6), becomes a word to love, rescue, and include people, not a word to hate, negate or exclude people.  Jesus is the truth, the way, and life, and the only way to the Father because Jesus is God, and God is love.  And since God is love, God did not come establish more religion, but to guide all religions to find true faith---as James, said, ‘pure religion that is undefiled is to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspoiled from the world.” This way of love: love for neighbor and love for God, is still the only right ‘way’ Scripture is to be interpreted.   Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

“Do You Want to Get Well?”

 A sermon based upon John 5: 1-15
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
9th Sunday After Pentecost, August 6th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #7)

 Who likes to go to the doctor?  Raise your hand.  Just as I thought, I didn’t think I’d get a very good show of hands. 

Still, we all know, whether we like it or not, that good medical care along with eating wisely and daily exercise, are all necessities for maintaining good health.  We know this, but still it can be hard to do.   Perhaps you heard about the follow who was more than a little overweight.   He told the doctor he was exercising daily, but the doctor refused to believe it. So, the the fellow listed all the the exercises he did every day: jump to conclusions, climb the walls, drag my heels, push my luck, make mountains out of molehills, bend over backward, run around in circles, put my foot in my mouth, go over the edge, and beat around the bush (Readers Digest Online).

A short time ago, I made a visit to the doctor myself.  It was not a routine visit.  I had an unexplained elevation in blood pressure along with dizziness which caused me to feel like I was going to pass out while pulling weeds from my garden. 

So, when the nurse and physician came in, they started bombarding me with all kinds of questions:  “Why did you come in?”  “What symptoms did you have?”  “Are they still going on?”  “Has this ever happened before?”  “Did you eat anything different?”  Questions, Questions!  They were full of many questions.  It made me remember what one of my doctor-skeptical relatives once said, when the doctor asked him, “What’s going on with you?”  He answered very smartly, “I don’t know, you tell me. That’s what I came to ask you.

For those who are a little smarter than my smarty-pants relative, we all know that asking questions is an essential part of making a proper diagnosis.   Doctors are not gods, and even more so, we rightly describe them as ‘practicing medicine’ because even medical science is not an exact science.  Illness and good health depend on many different factors, and even though there are some general rules to disease and wellness, every ‘case’ is different because people and their bodies are different.  

In the healing arts, and it is as much arts as it is science, there is just no such thing as ‘one size’ or ‘one case’ exactly ‘fits all’.  This is why there are so many warnings on medicine labels.  It's also why after you see or hear a new medicine being advertised on TV, right after you hear about everything this new drug might do for you, they also have to warn you what it might do to you.  This is also why you have to fill out so much personal and medical history when you visit a new doctor.  To help you, they not only need to know about what’s wrong with you, they also need to have some way of getting to know who you are.

What we know about Jesus, is that he was not only a “master teacher”, but he also conducted a healing ministry and is called ‘a great physician’.  And like any other physician, and even more so, Jesus most always approached the afflicted person with questions---different questions.   When Jesus approached the mentally ill man, possessed with demons, his first question was “What is Your Name?”   On another occasion, Jesus asked a blind man,  after he removed his bandages and applied a ointment of spittle and mud, “What do you see?”   When another Blind man cried out for Jesus to ‘stop and have mercy on him’,  Jesus ironically asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Just like those doctors to have to ask many questions in order to get a proper diagnosis, Jesus asked them too.

Think again about that demon possessed man who was living in the graveyard and continually cutting himself.   The very first question Jesus asked him was: “What is Your Name?”  How many of us have entered the emergency room and had to answer too many questions and fill out all those forms before a doctor would see us?  It’s frustrating at times, but in most cases it’s very necessary.  It was also necessary for Jesus to ask this mentally and spiritually confused person about his identity.  How that man answered, “My name is Legion, because we are many”, told Jesus and us as much about his spiritual condition, as it did his physical one.  Any good doctor will remind you, that a good treatment that promotes healing always starts with asking the right questions, and also not rushing to quick answers.

During my seminary training, I worked as a Chaplin in a major teaching hospital.  This short three months gave me a much broader pastoral experience than I could have ever gained in church-based ministry.  Sometimes I even got to rub shoulders with some very talented and busy physicians, some who were glad I was working with their patients, others who didn’t care, and still others who were willing to learn.  In one situation, I was called by a doctor who told me he had unanswered questions about why one of his patients would not respond to normal medical treatment.  It should have been routine to watch this man begin to get well from the medicines and therapy, but he didn’t.

After reading the charts with nurses reports, the wise physician, who knew nothing about spiritual matters, noticed that this fellow appeared depressed without any clinical reason.  Remembering that he was trained to ask for chaplains, as a frontline approach to signs of emotional or relational stress, he called me to ask if I’d make a visit.  I did, and I didn’t just make one, but many visits and found this man to be depressed, not for physical reasons, but for spiritual reasons, which we were able to talk and pray through quite extensively.  As several weeks went by, the doctor noticed that his patient’s physical condition started to respond to treatment and condition improved.  One day, when he saw me passing in the hallway, he stopped me and reported the favorable result, even though he couldn’t explain why or how?   His willingness to ask questions, beyond his own knowledge was as important to the healing, as my own training was to learn how to ask spiritual questions, without giving or suggesting easy answers.

This question Jesus asked in our text for today, “Do you want to get well,” sounds very strange.  But when you consider the answer the paralyzed man gave him, it makes a lot more sense.

 Jesus had just found this man lying near a unique pool of water where all kinds of ‘disabled’ people were always gathered around.  Especially on this special occasion,  many crippled and diseased people were seen waiting around the pool, until ‘the water is stirred’.  The stirring waters, perhaps had very natural causes, but were believed to have been moved by angels, or some other positive, spiritual forces.   For them, at least  this was a therapeutic whirlpool with healing properties.

What was most revealing about this crippled man’s response, was exactly why Jesus asked him such a strange-sounding-question.   The man, no doubt, had someone to bring him to the pool called “Bethesda”where many other blind, lame, and paralyzed were already gathered.  But the man answers Jesus’ question, not with an affirmative answer, but with an excuse.   He answers that ‘when the water is stirred’ he has ‘no one to help him.’  This must mean that he has no one to help him quickly get into the pool before the movement stops.  He can get to the pool, but he couldn’t get into the water.

I once had a aunt that I loved dearly.  She had never been married.  My grandmother, her mother died when I was two years old.  Her father, my grandfather, died when I was six.  Because my aunt still lived on the farm, my parents would visit every other Sunday during my childhood.  One Sunday we would visit my still living grandmother, my Father’s mother in North Iredell.  The other Sunday, we would visit my aunt, my mother’s older sister who lived a few miles west of Statesville.

I loved how rustically, and independently my aunt lived.  She didn’t have a bathroom.  She didn’t have running water, except in the kitchen.   She also didn’t have central heating; only a wood stove extending from the fireplace in the living area.   In the wintertime, I loved fetching wood from the woodshed.  I also loved feeding the chickens and slopping the hogs, as well as pulling fresh cherries from cherry trees, picking apples or pears in season.   It was one of my favorite places to be.

I loved it so much, that once, as a child, I decided I wanted to spend the night with my aunt.  I almost made, until she started telling me how bad she felt, how her back or head was hurting her.  I’m sure she made have had some real health problems from time to time.  But the real issue was that she was lonely.   She liked to complain a lot.  I noticed it, even as a kid.  When she started into a ‘fit of complaining’, as mom called, I couldn’t take it anymore and I had my aunt call my parents to come and get me.

Again, I’m sure my aunt had some real health problems from time to time, as we all do.  But it seemed that every time the doctors helped her, she quickly developed something else to complain about.  She even once ordered a prayer cloth from healing evangelists Oral Roberts.  When I suggested, with tongue in cheek to my aunt that it must not worked, my mother stepped on my toe, which signaled me to keep my big mouth shut.  Did my aunt really want to get well?   It seemed to me, that at least sometimes, she didn’t.  She really wanted to keep reminding us how lonely she was.

Perhaps the reason Jesus opened with the question: “Do you want to get well” is because, for this fellow, as for us too at times, the sickness can seem easier than the cure.  Sometimes its easier to give up.   Sometimes the treatment is overwhelming.   Sometimes we get so wrapped up in blaming somebody else, we forget how to take responsibility for ourselves and our own actions.   Coach John Wooden used to tell his UCLA basketball players, on their way to become men, not just athletes: “Nobody is really defeated until they start blaming somebody else.”   So, he said,  “Try to fix the problem, don’t lay the blame.”  Losers can blame, winners never do.  I can’t ever remember a winning team saying, “Well, it’s their fault that we won!” 

This man is not helping his situation by laying blame, but as the story unfolds, I love how Jesus didn’t say a single thing negative to this man up front.  What he does offer him is healing without any up-front requirements at all.  Without another word, Jesus turns to him and commands:  “Get Up!  Pick up your mat and walk!”   This is one of the stronger, double commands, Jesus ever gives, and he gives it to a crippled man.   It is not a command to insult him, but it is a command to challenge the limits that has gotten into his mind and heart, as well as, to challenge his physical situation.  In directly, Jesus is saying: Stop blaming anyone and ‘get up’ and you can walk!

One of my smart school mates, Robert Setzer Jr., comments in his own sermon on this text, that ‘the measure of Jesus’ greatness is that sometimes (I’d say often), he bets on a loser.’  He continues, (I’m paraphrasing) that many of us, he and me included, would still be lying beside our own pools of desperation, paralyzed with blame, fear or self-defeat, drained of all our spiritual strength and emotional resources, had not Jesus’ love and challenging words of grace not come to us.  Many you’ve been there, like I have and most have, when unexpected sickness comes, with depressing diagnosis comes, when you lost your job, when you lost a loved one, or when others let you down.  It’s easy to get lock into to laying blame---even blaming yourself.  But Jesus will not let you lay there for long.  He says to me, like he said to this cripple, and he says to any of us when life cripples leaves us paralyzed with hurt: “Get Up!”  Stop blaming them!  Stop blaming yourself!  Stop blaming me!  Just get up and you will be on the way to healing and hope. (Based on Encounters with the Living Christ, Robert B. Setzer Jr., Judson Press, 1999, pp 58-59).  

If you are the one lying around, blaming yourself or others for your problems and your pains, would you let Jesus challenge you today?  Would you let him challenge you with a friend to walk beside you, with a church family who not only talked about grace, but makes it happen.  Would you let Jesus challenge you with a word from Scripture that could leap off the page and find a lodging place in your heart?   Would you hold your head up just long enough to look into his eyes or reach out, and feel the touch of grace in his hand? 

An old legend tells of hiker who lost his way and fell into some quicksand.  Confucius found the man in this predicament and offered him a word of wisdom: “If I were you I’d stay away from places like this?  Buddha also saw his plight and said, “Let the plight of this one be a lesson that you should not repeat such folly!”  Mohammad came by speaking with great resolve: “Alas, this must be the will of Allah for an infidel.”  But then, finally Jesus came up to the man, reach down his hand, saying “Brother, take me by the hand and I will pull you out.”

Isn’t this the gospel?  Isn’t this the good news of Jesus Christ, that not only does not leave us in our dying or hurting place, but offers us a way to live and to heal.  And this is we know we need a savior, and we know that we can’t save ourselves, when life has fallen in around us, and there’s no one left to blame, and in no way will Jesus leave us there, but offers us a way, when there is no way, and someone, when there is no one.     
Just like Jesus skipped the big party in Jerusalem and went around to the places of hurt and pain to find someone to save, Jesus can find us too, no matter where we are lying, and no matter how all alone we might feel.

Still, just like the ‘stirring waters’ can’t really heal except perhaps psychologically, or as auto-suggestion, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is no magic nor miracle cure either, unless it has our own active participation. This is why Jesus later locates the once crippled man in the temple and reminds him: You’d better ‘stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (v.14).  

Does it sound like ‘your Jesus’ or ‘my Jesus’ or ‘the real Jesus’ to show up at church, after you and I have been saved, healed, or made whole, and then to find us, look us straight in the eyes and directly say in no uncertain terms: “You’d better stop sinning, or something worse, worse than even being paralyzed or being lost, might happen to you.”   Do you think Jesus is threatening this fellow?   Do you think Jesus would be threatening us?  Or could this be a sober, realistic, friendly reminder that, as Bonhoeffer once said, “Grace is free, but it’s not cheap!”  

Do you see why Jesus said this to the man.  Ever since he was healed, he still hasn’t gotten out of the old pattern of placing blame.  When religious leaders started asking him why he is carrying his mat on the Sabbath, instead of describing how he was healed, he blames ‘the man who made him well’ for commanding him ‘to take up his mat and to walk’ (v.11).  But when question further, he did not know who ‘this man’ was because Jesus had quickly ‘slipped away into the crowd’.  But when the man came into the temple, perhaps to give thanks, Jesus sees him, and challenges him ‘to stop sinning’ or ‘something worse could happen’. Right after than, falling into his habit again, the man went to the religious leaders who wanted to kill Jesus and squealed on him saying, ‘it was Jesus who made him well’ (v.15).

What happened to his man after this?  We can only assume, as my school mate Bob Setzer writes, “This is one man whom even Jesus couldn’t cure.”  Yes, you heard right.  Like the Rich Young Ruler who went away sorrowful.   Like the Rich man in Jesus’ parable who went to the Hell of unending torment.  And even like Judas, whom John later will say ‘was a devil’ for betraying Jesus, and died only to ‘go to his own place’, here is one of the few people Jesus healed, but didn’t cure.   Perhaps it was the same for those nine lepers, who didn’t return to thank Jesus too.  We don’t know.  But what we do know is that Jesus not only didn’t cure everybody, he couldn’t cure everybody, because some did not want to be cured.  They wanted to stay the way they were, or to go back to the same old unhealthy patterns and irresistible habits.  The wanted their own way, or it was the highway, as we say.  What they didn’t get, was the endurance of the saints, who are those will are not only saved by grace, but have been changed and transformed by that grace, and will be saved, because they will endure to the end.
So, hearing Jesus’ warning of grace,  can you really understand his question?  Do you really want to get well?  Or is this just the same, o same o? 

I conclude with a story, I also owe to Dr. Setzer, about a great surgeon, who was about to perform plastic surgeon on a young boy who had lost his arm in an accident.   When the surgeon came in to question the young man, he looked at him, and asked, “Now, would you tell me about your handicap?” The young fellow look the famous doctor with a look of surprise, and then with fire in his eyes answered, “Sir, I don’t have a handicap.  I just don’t have a right hand.”

Now, that’s the kind of healing that is more than skin deep.  It points us straight to the deeper, spiritual, and more personal kind of healing, that Jesus came to give.  Do you want this kind of healing?   Do you really want to get well?  You can, but you must ‘get up’ and ‘you must walk’ it, and not just ‘talk it’.  Amen.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

“Will He Find Faith…?”

Luke 18: 1-8
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
8th Sunday After Pentecost, July 30th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #6)

In the movie Kicking and Screaming, actor Will Ferrell plays Phil Weston, a father and coach of his son’s soccer team.  Phil grew up with a very arrogant and dysfunctional father, and continues his ways of ‘kicking and screaming’ his way through life.   In one scene, Phil is at the back of a long line at a coffee shop, and begins to demand that the line ‘move along’ so he can be served.  As his frustration boils over, he shows his frequent visitor card demanding for quick service.  It happens to be a video store card, because the coffee shop has no frequent visitor card.  Phil keeps venting his frustration and making loud, obnoxious verbal demands, until the line turns against him and everyone throws him out of the shop. (

We’ve all been there, haven’t we?  Perhaps we didn’t speak outlandishly out of turn in a public line, but we’ve all been up against life in a way that we become frustrated, and perhaps even angry.   Germany is known as the land of well-established bureaucracy.  Anytime I had any kind of government business, I had to prepare myself to wait for hours in long lines.  Once, I walked into an office to renew my passport and took a number. “I took the number 27 early in the afternoon, but they were only at number 4.”  Another time, on a Monday, when I went to complain to Apartment administrators about a loud neighbor, I discovered they only took complaints on Tuesdays and Thursday.  I returned on Tuesdays and found a room full of people.  They didn’t get to me until Thursday and then they said there was nothing they could do.  I needed to use ear plugs. 

In the question of Jesus we are considering today, Jesus also sounds ‘frustrated’.  It may seem strange, even upsetting to some, that Jesus, the Son of God, could be having
‘one of those bad days’ but here it is. 
After Jesus has told a very unusual story about a widow trying to capture the ear of an unjust, unwilling, and unrighteous judge, whom he preposterously compares to God, Jesus turns the story upside down saying, God is much better than this, so you should ‘always pray, and not give up.’  But then, right after this, comes a dramatic shift in attitude with a very cynical sounding question:  “However,” Jesus asks, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

If you listen closely, there seems to be a ‘pessimistic’ tone in Jesus’ voice.   It is not conclusive, but there is a question about ‘faith’ and the future that is still open, but headed in a negative direction.  Most of the parables in Luke’s gospel have been ‘parables of grace’ (Robert Capron).   You know some of these well, like the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son.   But now, this pleading widow stands in the transition stage between those beautiful ‘parables of grace’ and an increasing amount of more harsh ‘parables of judgment’.  Is Jesus beginning to feel the heat and frustration in his ministry that will ultimately lead to his betrayal, crucifixion, and death?
This frustration appeared even more sharply in the gospel of John, which was written sometime after Luke’s gospel.  After Jesus gave some hard lessons in faith, many of his disciples began turn away.  Seeing what was happening, Jesus turned to the small group of 12 he had left, and asked, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?”  (John 6:67).  You could ‘cut’ frustration tone of his voice with a knife.

You can see other ‘hints’ of Jesus’ growing frustration in the surrounding context.  Hear, Jesus envisions a widow in an unjust society.  He also likened the current times approaching the times ‘like the days of Noah’ when the flood came as a sign of God’s judgment (17:21).   Just before that, Jesus healed 10 lepers, but only 1 returns in gratitude (17:19).  This immediately follows a story about a Rich man who enters hell because he didn’t care about his poor neighbor (Luke 16).  A most direct references to Jesus frustration is when he outwardly sorrows over Jerusalem,  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.  How often, I’ve longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate (Luke 13:34-35).  Note, this is not frustration at how bad the world is, but it is frustration for how bad things are among God’s own people.

In our own time, way back in 2008, evangelical news reporter Julia Dunn, wondered why so many of the so called faithful are ‘Quitting Church’.   Even she admits not going to church much anymore herself, though she grew up with a strong evangelical faith, and still professes to be a believer in Jesus Christ.   In the opening of her book, she quotes a Barna Survey printed in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today back in 2002.  It was a survey among Christians who were leaving the church, and sometimes the faith.  Hear the reason why:  
(1)Worship was stale; the ‘same old same old’. 
(2) Evangelicals watered down their beliefs—wouldn’t talk about the ‘hard’ issues.   (3) Most churches were segregated in a multi-cultural world. 
(4) Christians take the Bible literally, but not seriously, especially on issues of divorce and sex.   
(5) The Christianity of most people is ‘comfortable’ without any built-in costs.  (6) (6) There is little expectation for God to act, or Robert Capron said, “In seminary they teach you want God can’t do, and then in church you ask God to do it”, but you now believe he can’t.
(7) No one is ready or willing to allow the next generation to remake the church.
(8) US churches would rather compete than cooperate, and finally
(9) Churches don’t desire or allow their leaders to lead(As reported in Quitting Church, by Julia Dunn, Baker Books, 2008, pp 21-22).

We too, if we are observant to what is happening with Christianity in North American, might be wondering alonge with Jesus: “In the next few years, will there be any faith left on this earth?”  Will the church survive?  Will my faith survive? 

We could liken the ‘faith’ situation around us these days to that unforgettable gospel story in the gospel of Mark (4:35-41), where Jesus is in a boat with his disciples headed across the Sea of Galilee when an unexpected storm comes up.  Rembrandt beautifully captured the moment in his famous painting, Christ in the Storm.  If you take a look at the painting (which we only now have photos of, since it was stolen in 1990 and has never been found), you will see a dramatic contrast between the disciples struggling in the storm tossed ship on one side of the painting, and the relative serene, sleeping Jesus, on the other side.  At the stern of the boat, there is a calm around Jesus, even though he sits in the dark.  Another interesting point is that there are 14 figures on the boat, the 12 disciples, Jesus, and in the middle, between the raging storm and the calm surrounding Jesus, is a fellow with his hand slapping his own forehead, as if he is saying, “Hu’oh!  What have I got myself into?”  If you look closely, you’ll see that this is Rembrandt himself, putting his own ‘fears’ into the painting.

If you remember how the gospel depicts this scene, you’ll remember that the disciples awaken Jesus, screaming out, “Teacher, do you not care that will drown” (4:38)?  In response, Jesus doesn’t sound the least bit sympathetic, answering with questions, “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith” (Mark 4:40)?  The same kind of questions were put to Simon Peter, when Jesus came to them walking on the water during a similar storm (Matt. 14: 22-33).  Peter asks Jesus’ permission to join him and jumps in the water to walk and meet Jesus.  Peter does quite well, walking on the water for a while, but when the winds and waves pick up, he panics and begins to sink.   When he cries for help, Jesus scolds Peter, asking him:  “O you of little faith, Why did you doubt” (14:31)?    Well, can’t you just imagine Peter answering “Because I was walking on the water, that’s why!” 

So, why was Jesus so exasperated with his disciples in such situations?  I agree with Martin Copenhaver, who said the disciple’s failure of faith meant a lack of trust in their relationship with him.  Jesus is not simply frustrated, but he is hurt.  He takes this personal.  After all he has tried to teach them, and all the love he has shown and promised them, and they still don’t trust him.   Jesus is frustrated because a lack of faith in hard times really comes down to a lack of trust in him.  Jesus is not simply asking, do you believe in me, but do you trust me?  Faith is not just a matter of belief about him, but it is a matter of trusting (From Copenhaver, Martin B.. Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Kindle Locations 718-719). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition).

William Sloane Coffin put it this way: “Faith isn’t believing without proof— it’s trusting without reservation.”  Imagine you are at a circus.  A skilled high-wire artist has accomplished so many marvelous feats that the audience has come to believe that he can do almost anything. The ringmaster addresses the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, how many of you believe that this daring man can ride safely over the high wire on his bicycle while carrying someone on his shoulders? If you believe he can do it, please raise your hand!” If you were in the audience you might raise your hand along with all the others, a great silent chorus of belief. “Very well, then,” says the ringmaster, seeing an almost unanimous vote of confidence, “now who will be the first to volunteer to sit on his shoulders?” The difference between belief and faith is the difference between staying in your seat and volunteering to climb on the shoulders of the high-wire artist.

Ultimately, faith is not about believing certain things; it is about putting our trust in someone.   Faith is not a possession; rather it is a capacity.  Faith is not something we permanently carry around in our pocket or even in our heart, because it is stronger on some days than others.   No, faith is a living, dynamic, relationship that we must live and do new each and every day.  

Interestingly, in most other languages, faith is not only expressed as a noun, like we often say:  “I have faith’, but faith can be more accurately expressed in other languages as a verb:  You can say something like “I faith sometimes. I wish I could faith more often.  In fact, I’m working on faithing in God in all that I do.”  I know it sounds grammatically crazy and painful it this way, but it is both biblically and theologically correct.   (As quoted in Copenhaver, Martin B.. Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Kindle Locations 725-733). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition).

I know it sounds strange, but it’s much more correct to say I‘faith in Jesus’ than ‘I have faith in Jesus.  It is more correct because faith is about being in an active, living, daily, trusting relationship with Jesus than like having a faith that you carry around in your back pocket.   The parable about the Widow and the Unjust Judge makes exactly this point: the relationship we have with God is a relationship this widow couldn’t have with the unjust Judge.   The judge only heard her case, because she kept nagging him.   God hears us, because he loves and cares for us. 

Faith is about prayer, and prayer is about faith because we trust that when we pray we trust that God is listening and will respond to us.  Unlike Huck Finn, who concluded, ‘it don’t do no good’, we pray because we ‘faith’ that God is at the other end of our conversations.  This doesn’t mean that we always get what we want when we pray.  Like any true relationship, we don’t always get what we want, but because we trust, and we keep our trust, we always get the relationship.  And this is what matters most of all.  The great poet Tennyson wrote out a trusting relationship with God in a way that reminds us that God is always more than who or what we can imagine:
“Our little systems have their day, They have their day and cease to be
They are but broken lights of thee, And thou, O Lord, art more than they.”
             (As quoted in Day, J. Daniel. If Jesus Isn’t the Answer…: He Sure Asks the Right Questions! (Kindle Location 742). Smyth & Helwys Publishing.).
Trusting in a great, living, and loving God which Tennyson spoke of poetically, the Apostle Paul wrote about with some of the greatest biblical prose ever written, saying: “I am convinced that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 38-39).  Those words are great, only because they are more than words, but speak of a God whom we can trust, and entrust with our whole lives, who is greater than any problem we will ever have. 

And because we can trust in this love, and in this God, who has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ, interpreting the meaning of Jesus parable about the widow and unjust judge for us,  Luke not only says that we should ‘pray always’, but also we must never give up.  We must never give up on prayer, because of how much God loves us.  Such love does not mean that we will not experience death, troubles in life, terrors or powers that threaten us in creation, but that none of these troubles or terrors ‘will be able to separate us from’ God’s love.  In other words, no matter what happens, or whether our prayers are answered as we will or not,  God loves us and God is the most promising power of love that will always have the final, last, and ultimate word.  God and His love is the ‘who’, the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ we should never, ever, ever give up. 

A final story from early in Martin Copenhaver’s ministry is a story I can’t resist retelling.  He paid a visit to Dorothy, a beloved member of his church.  Her doctor had just left the room, leaving a dark cloud behind him.  Even as a young minister he could not miss it.  Dorothy was an actress with a big personality who was used to commanding a room, but not this room, not now.  She said in a voice softer than I had ever heard her use, “Have a seat, Martin. We’ve just gotten some difficult news.” The young pastor perched on one side of her hospital bed, and her husband, Ed, sat on the other side. Then the two of them relayed some of what they had just learned, news that they themselves could not yet begin to take in fully.  Dorothy’s cancer had recurred after years of remission. A most unwelcome visitor was back. Treatment would begin the following week.

For a moment the three of them sat in silence, while contraptions connected to Dorothy with wires and tubes continued a steady rhythm of drip and pulse and beep. Then Dorothy, looking straight at Ed, said, “I’ll be OK.” Ed replied with his deeply soothing voice, “I know you will be. The doctors assure me that you will . . .” “No, Ed,” she said, her voice gaining in strength, “I mean, I will be OK either way.”  Dorothy did not elaborate, but of course, what she meant was that she would be OK if she lived and OK if she died.  Gratefully, Dorothy ended up living quite a number of years longer, but that was hardly certain on that day— or on any of the days that followed. You never know what a day may hold, which means you need to know something else, which Dorothy did.
(Copenhaver, Martin B.. Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered (Kindle Locations 770-782). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition).

Most of us have faced similar moments with our loved ones, and some of us have faced them ourselves.   When such fearful moments come, whether they be physical or relational, we have two options of faith: One form of faith is that reassure ourselves that everything will be all right— the surgery will be successful, the relationship will be mended, the storm will pass, your worst fears will not be realized.  But there are a few circumstances when that kind of reassurance is not ours to give, either to ourselves or to others.  Then, is when we have nothing else to do except to hold fast to the love of God.  It is to say to ourselves, come what may, God will remain with us, and God will not let us go.  God gets the last word. God is greater than any problem we have.  Or, as Dorothy put it, “I will be OK either way because God is with me.” Isn’t this the kind of trust Jesus was looking for from his friends, even in the midst of a most terrible storm.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a news cast about a young girl, suffering from a disease that left her unable to walk and get around.  A young teen, for his School Science project, had taken a child toy, known as a Big Wheel and converted into a wheel chair to give that young child some mobility.  Even though she still had the disease and face many health problems, the smile on her face, because of the gift of new mobility was tremendous.  That smile was made possible by another person’s showing concern and accepting the challenge.   For me, the great gift was the love behind it.  If we humans can love like that, think how much more God’s love should mean.  Why do we doubt?  Because Jesus has come, why shouldn’t we still have and keep faith?  Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

“What Reward Will You Get?”

Matthew 5: 43-48
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
7th Sunday After Pentecost, July 23th, 2017,    (Series:  Questions Jesus Asked  #5)

Perhaps you’ve heard about the perfect man and a perfect woman.  They met each other at a perfect party. They dated for two perfect years. They had the perfect wedding and the perfect honeymoon. They had two perfect children.

One day the perfect man and the perfect woman were driving in there perfect car, they saw an elf by the side of the road, being the perfect people they were they picked him up.  Well, as the perfect man and the perfect woman were driving with the elf, somehow they got into an accident.  Two people died and one lived.

Who died and who lived?  The perfect woman, because the perfect man and elves don’t exist.   (

If Jesus had said ‘be perfect’ right at the first of his sermon, hardly anyone in that world or ours, would have listened to the rest he had to say.   For we all know that ‘nobody’s perfect’, not even women.   But Jesus did not start with images of perfection, he started with what everyone knew was the most obvious, most acceptable standard of moral living clearly written in the law: ‘love your neighbor, and hate your enemy’ (v.43).  

This is the pattern of teaching that flows throughout this ‘Sermon on the Mount’.  Jesus began where people are, with the standards of morality, ethics, and religion everyone knows are conventionally expected, like do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not break an oath, or eye for eye, and tooth for tooth (See vs. 21-42).  These were the most widely agreed upon morals long established in the Hebrew law, since Moses handed them down.  And in most every way, they still hold true.  You can’t have a civilization without basic moral rules, human rights and civil laws.  And as human beings, we can’t be remain civil, or even survive, without protecting these basic human rights and sharing a common set of basic moral laws and values.   

Recently, when Americans learned of the tragic return and death of the University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, all our hearts broke for his family and we share a sense of moral outrage that North Korea should be held morally responsible for his death.  A regime that does not care for the basic needs of its citizens, will not treat its prisoners fairly.  This is a government that has lost and should lose its credibility.   We know this, and we we should also know that this is the most basic moral ‘standard’ Jesus refers to when he quotes the basic moral norms of the Hebrew people, handed down from Moses, recorded in the Old Testament. (
But when Jesus refers to the law, he does not settle for it alone.  Jesus does not intend to contradict the law, nor diminish the law.  He does expect his disciples to respect it and uphold it, but he also expects his disciples to take the law as a platform to build upon, to both uphold and also to supersede it—that is, ‘to fulfill it’, he says, and that means to be able to use for what it was intended to do, create the opportunity for building an even better world, better society, and to become even better people too.

This is what Jesus means, when he ends this passage, by saying ‘be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’   This is, as one Australian pastor named it, PLAN B, that is ‘Plan BE’, which is no less, but even more than plan A.   Jesus’s Sermon on the Mountain raises the ethical standard of living, so that Jesus’ disciples can not only be compliant with the law, and respect the law, but that Jesus’ disciples can become ‘salt and light’ encouraging and leading by example to show the world an even higher ethic and morality that can bring new possibilities and new opportunities for life and living.

In fact, the word used here for ‘perfect’ means to be ‘complete’, or ‘mature’, which is to become the kind of people we were meant to be, as we live on a moral level that allows us to reach our fullest human potential.   What Jesus means here, is not to be absolutely flawless, which no one can achieve, but this the meaning here is more like the catchy television jingle, ‘to be all that we can be’, and even more, to discover not only what is in us, but also to discover what is out before us.

A few months ago, I told the Young Adult Bible Study about a Movie I had watched recently about the incredible world famous athlete, the Brazilian Olympian and soccer player, Pele.  Interestingly, Pele was not his real name.  It was his nickname used to make fun of him, but it stuck.  But what was most interestingly about his life was how he developed his amazing talent based upon what native Brazilans call ‘the beautiful game’.  Not only did he learn much of his natural playing skill from and Father and from ancient native defensive fighting techniques, when he tried only use conventional forms of soccer, some of his coaches recommended, it back fired.  Only when Pele was able to use his creativity to surpass the conventional forms of soccer, was he able to play and score better than any who played before him, or any who have played since. 

This need to surpass the conventional laws of Moses and morality is exactly what Jesus means by ‘perfection’.   When Jesus said that he came ‘not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it’, he did not mean to simply comply to the law, but to live on a higher level, to go beyond it, and to use the law to live a life that did not settle for how things are, but living the law in a way that your life reached beyond to how things ‘should be’.   In other words, when Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect”, he means more than obey the law in a way that you settle for less, but he means to obey the law in a way that you will achieve and also obtain more. 

This idea of ‘obtaining more’ brings us right to the heart of this question Jesus asked, when he asked right in the middle of this text: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”

Right in the middle of this text and in the middle of this question is a word that is not very popular in religious settings these days; the word ‘reward’.  Some people think it cheapens or might even wrap true faith.   And this is possible, isn’t it?   Think about the negative connotation of the suicide bomber who goes into a crowded market, or onto a crowded street and blows themselves up in hopes of going to heaven and getting some nice reward, which helps him or her to accomplish the cause of their god in the world, no matter who gets hurts, including themselves.   But also think of a good person, not a crazy person, but a good person who settles for less than they could do or accomplish in this life, because they know that at the end of life, there is, as Scripture says,  a reward, or a ‘crown’ of victory or faithfulness, waiting for them.   There reward is not something they should live for here and now, but there ‘reward is in heaven’.

And isn’t this what Jesus also advises at the end of this great ‘Sermon’, when he says,  “Seek, God’s Kingdom, first,” (6:33), or  ‘Don’t store up treasures on this earth…but store up treasure in heaven?’ (6:19-20).  Some say that this whole idea of rewards, if misunderstood, will lead to a faith that is only based on ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die’ and cheapens faith, and lessens our human drive to work, to achieve, and to ‘be all we can be’.   Many suggest that true religion, updated for today, should refrain from teaching about ‘rewards’ on earth, or in heaven, and should be faithful and live righteously simply because this is right, whether there are rewards or not.

While there are dangerous misunderstandings about ‘rewards’, I think we deny, not only part of the Bible, but we also deny part of what it means to be human, if we neglect to take Jesus’ teaching about ‘reward’ seriously.   Besides, Jesus is not simply speaking of ‘rewards’ in heaven, but, as I’ve already tried to explain, Jesus is speaking about the heavenly rewards in ways that break into our lives now, as we live toward God’s future,  by living out a higher level of morality and ethic in the here and now.  What Jesus is trying to do is not to negate heaven or heavenly rewards, but to help his disciples realize that God’s kingdom, rule, and way of life, can break through and come near now, ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’

Faith, hope, and love are the ways we live toward God’s heavenly kingdom now.   And, as it is written, “The greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).   But it is a particular kind of ‘love’ that Paul meant, and Jesus means, not just love by any definition. 

For as we all know, the world is full of talk about love.  We use the language of love to speak about loving our animals, our cars, or some other object, in the same way we speak of loving our family, our friends, or loving God.   We know we don’t mean it in the same way, but how do we rephrase it when language can be so limited?

Laws about love can be limited too.  With the law, then and now, we can tell, and even demand what people are not supposed to do to each other, but you can’t use the law to make people, or even help people know how they should love each other.  In other words, we have laws about how to get a divorce, and we even have laws about what a marriage means legally, but we don’t have laws about how to make a marriage work or how to make a marriage last.   In other words, when a Lawyer or a Politician says we are ‘nation of laws’, halfway quoting Thomas Jefferson, or some other patriot who said, ‘we are a nation of laws, not men’, we know they mean something very important, because we can’t just be a nation that makes up the laws as we go, based on what we want when we want it.  But what we must also realize is that to be a ‘good nation’, maybe even a ‘righteous’ one, we must not only settle for being ‘a nation of laws’, but if we want to ‘be what we can be and should be’, we must also be a ‘nation of laws’ that keeps using the law to continue asking ourselves what love means or we lessen or cheapen the laws we have.

Again, Jesus does not intend to cheapen the law, nor to lessen any moral law, which says for us, ‘to love your neighbor’, but he does commands his disciples to go beyond this.  Jesus says there is no real, lasting or enduring reward, ether here and now on earth, or in heaven, by only settling for a definition of love that means loving only those who love me back, or who are able to give to me in return.  The ‘rewards’ of love, which only God gives, comes to those who learn to define love in bigger terms; that is much bigger and broader terms, that begins by ‘loving those’ who don’t or can’t pay you back (v.46-47). 

Most everybody wants a better neighborhood, and we will try to love our neighbors.  Most everybody will try or want to love their own family and their own people.  Even people we think little of, will try to do this.  We need our family, and our family needs us.  But to love those who don’t love us, or can’t love you or pay you back, now that’s a higher form of living and loving, which Jesus says, brings the potential, possibilities, and the perfections of kingdom of heaven, right down to earth, right where we live and where we love.

We can think about Jesus command in various ways, can’t we?   We can think about going to a nursing home to pay a visit, or to pay our respects to someone who has died, or to pay tribute to someone who has done something worthy of respect and admiration.    What is interesting is this idea of ‘paying’ a visit, paying respect, or paying tribute, or even the idea of ‘paying our dues’.   The most basic idea in our language is not only that we owe this to people, but what we are also doing even more.  The more recent phrase, saying that by doing something good, showing mercy, hope, faith, and love to someone, even someone we might not know, we might ‘pay it forward’ so that a better world comes into being.   Interestingly, this term ‘Pay it Forward’, that was used recently in a popular movie, goes back to an older practice of people who have received a loan, paying to loan off to someone else who might need the money, rather than paying the money back to the original lender who most obviously, doesn’t need the money (  This idea of paying a good deed forward, can be found in many inspirational writings and people, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Franklin who wrote, in a letter to Benjamin Webb in April of 1784, 
“I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you.  When you…meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity.  I hope it may go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. 
This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

But what Jesus means is not a ‘trick’ nor it is only something that can be done with ‘money’.  It is about love, and love that really makes a difference in this world and in the world to come.   It is a love that loves for the sake of loving, of being merciful, and of showing the kind of love that not only settles for how things are, but a love that reaches out to how things might be, if more people were living for, and showing love to each other, regardless of the ‘pay back’.

The other day, when I was leaving Home Depot in Statesville, a man was standing at the intersection with a brochure in his hand.  Because I had to stop at the traffic light, he was apple to approach my car window.  As he flashed the brochure into my face, I saw that it had some words about supporting a Mission, but it was a brochure that was so poorly done, that I realized the mission was probably about him.   The whole thing could have been a lie, with the ultimate truth being that he needed the money.  
Then I recalled what my professors, Don Cook once advised in class in Seminary.   He told us that in our pastoral ministry, we would sometimes come upon people asking for handouts, who were ‘taking us for a ride’, as they say,  but he added, as long as you are not letting them take advantage of you and you are ‘taking the ride’ for the sake of loving and caring, then it will do you no real harm, and will bless you anyway.   Perhaps, it will even open up an opportunity for you to share your faith, or to show them what love will do, even for someone who does not know what love means. 
Remembering this, I took out a small ‘bill’ from my pocket and offered it to the fellow standing at my car window.  He said ‘bless you’ and ‘thank you’ and waited for the next car to stop.
Who knows whether or not that dollar went to a Mission cause, or he was the mission cause.  It really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I gave it and that was a small blessing.  It’s like the time when someone stole the Bible commentary writer, Matthew Henry’s wallet.   In reflecting on the incident, Henry said, “One, I am thankful that he never robbed me before. Two, I am thankful that although he took my wallet, he did not take my life.   Three, although he took all I had, it was not much.  And fourth, I am glad that it was I who was robbed, not I who did the robbing.” (   

But as we come to finally accept the full challenge of Jesus’ question, “What reward have you when ONLY love those who love you”, we need that this challenge is not obeying the law, abiding by the law, living the law, or especially not settling for way things normally are.   No, Jesus is not only talking about ‘loving those you love’ or trying to love those who don’t love you, but Jesus actually challenges the possibility of bringing about a whole new situation, a whole new and different reality, a better reality, by calling upon those who would follow him, to not only ‘love your neighbor’ but to also accept the challenge of loving ‘your enemy’.

I started out this message, speaking about the tragic death of Otto Warmbeir at the hands of the world’s current enemy number one, North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un.  Most of us feel that this regime is worse than irrational, and that somebody needs to stop him and his current dangerous build-up of nuclear weapons.   I think it is most interestingly, and has been upsetting to some, that President Trump has suggesting that he would like to sit down and talk with the dictator.  What is even more interesting, as I write this message, South Korean president, Moon Jae-is, is on his way to the United States to meet with President Trump, perhaps to suggest that South Korea and the United States, take a softer approach and try to negotiate with this ‘irrational dictator’.  Moon has already suggested in his country, that the US should withdraw some troops and lessen the threat against North Korea by a show of good-will.   Now this might seem crazy, just as crazy as Jesus’ command to ‘love our enemy’, but we must remember that South Korea is the one with most to lose.  President Moon believes that showing some good-will could transform a nobody wins situation, and might help move North Korea from being the world’s worst enemy, to inviting them to a whole new possibility of becoming a friend.

Now, of course, who would dare suggest such as thing?  I’m glad you asked.  His name is…, well you know?   But do you know him enough to trust him, and to trust him not just enough to love those who love you, but trust him enough to cast some love toward someone you know doesn’t love, who might even hate you?  Could you do this, for the sake of transforming your world, or the world?   Now, that’s the real question?   Amen.