A New Way

For the past 6 weeks, we have sat at the feet of our Rabbi Jesus.  We’ve learned he calls everyone who is willing to follow.  We have found freedom in the words from Matthew 11:28-30 (NRSV), 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  We have walked with our Rabbi Jesus and have gotten his resurrection dust all over us.  We heard a tremendous sermon basically flipping the script of life as we know it.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”  Then when the disciples began peppering him with questions we learned about loving our enemies, keeping our promises, and storing up not treasures on earth that moth and rust destroy, but instead storing up treasures in heaven.  These are all powerful lessons that it would take several lifetimes to learn and perfect, but we know we have hope in Christ alone to take our place, to teach us the way, the truth, and the life, to teach us how to do life together in community.

For the next 4 weeks up until Palm Sunday, we’re going to be studying Reuben Job’s Three Simple Rules:  A Wesleyan Way of Living.  It’s based upon John Wesley’s General Rules which are in our Book of Discipline.  The rules are do no harm, do good, and keep the ordinances of God or as Job says, “stay in love with God.”  “These simple rules then and now applied to everyone,” Job said. “No one was left out. No one was too good, too mean, too rich or too poor, too educated, too illiterate.”

Drawing parallels between Wesley’s time and the world today, Job says the feelings of disenfranchisement, doubt and fear are much the same.

“Our world is deeply divided, highly cynical about its leadership, greatly disappointed in its structures and systems that seem so flawed, broken and corrupt, broadly conflicted and gravely afraid of tomorrow.”

With so many hurting, frightened people Job says a radical change must take place. “There are two enormously encouraging truths for us to remember,” Job said. “One, God is with us. God continues to woo us, seek us out, love us, speak to us, enable us and lead us into the future. Second, it has been done before.”

Wesley’s three simple rules transformed women and men and started a movement that became a denomination and transformed a forming nation in North America.

“Today we also need a message that can be clearly understood by persons of every age, every educational and economic level, every condition and circumstance of life,” he said. “And today these three simple rules provide that message.”

Rewind back two thousand years ago to the two great commandments that our Rabbi gave us.

Mark 12:29-31

29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

From day one, Scripture tells us that God is the God of community. First, God is Trinity, this mysterious fellowship of three-persons-in-one. Second, as we hear in the opening pages of Genesis, God describes how we as human beings inherit that communal nature, saying, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Gen 1:26). No wonder when Adam finds himself without companionship in the garden, God recognizes “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Last, the entire history of God’s devoted followers, from the very first days until today, is one of covenant-making where the people are united together in intimate relationship with one another and with the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In Moses’ day, that meant a Law that largely focused on how to live in right relationship, and also how to mend those relationships when broken. The Law (and circumcision as a physical sign of initiation) meant that, for the first time, a “people of God” was born – not only of the chosen Hebrews but also of those along the way like Rahab and Ruth and so many others who chose God wholeheartedly. This continued through the centuries, despite periods of rebellion and exile on the part of God’s people, until Jesus’ day. That’s when Emmanuel showed us once again how personal and near God meant to be with us. He spent his entire precious life living among, eating with, and serving whomever he met, whether in crowds or in smaller intimate circles. He called us not just to believe in the idea of him that he would set the captives free and bring liberation to his people, but to follow him in close contact, as a Rabbi, to join the throngs of those following him. The result was a new covenant and a new understanding of “God’s people” as all those who put their faith in the Messiah. In the early church, this meant a powerful focus on living in koinonia or living in sacred community like family (Acts 2:43-47).

These first Christians were bound together not only by their faith but by its consequences. In the Empire of their day, whether one was a Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, Roman citizen or slave, making a Christian profession of faith became a grave risk. The earliest confessions that they made were statements as simple as, “Jesus is Lord.” But to say such a thing was tantamount to treason since the Emperor intended to be the ultimate ruler, savior, and object of worship throughout the world. Those three little words, if found out, could mean a total loss of one’s legal rights, loss of citizenship, forfeiture of property and assets, beating, torture, being sold into slavery, and even death. If one member of a household was identified as a Christian, then every member of the household could be liable to the same punishments. After all, in the Roman world the family unit was a single, legal unit, united together under the head of the household. If one person in the home was a practicing Christian it was assumed that the head of household was as well, and if the head of household was a practicing Christian then that would be true for all. In other words, early Christians had a deep understanding of shared fate, shared victory as well as shared suffering. But this underground movement saw massive growth because a person only joined it if they had a sincere desire, if they were ready to sacrifice all for Christ’s sake, and if they were ready to truly share life together.

Fast-forward more than a thousand years, and this same level of community was scarcely found in the Church. Over time, the Roman Catholic church eventually reached a pinnacle of corruption, so much so that the Reformation was sparked to revive the authentic Christian faith. It took on a unique form in England in particular, thanks to Henry VIII’s scandalous life (if you’ve seen any of pop culture’s recent depictions of the story, like The Tudors, then you know we won’t go into detail here). To summarize, King Henry continually wanted to marry a new woman, but the Roman Catholic leadership continually refused him an annulment or divorce. So what did he do? Henry declared himself King of the church in his own country, seized the Church’s property, and renamed it the “Church of England” or Anglican Church. So what? Well, what do you think are the drawbacks to having a single, nationalized church ruled by the King? Right. All those good “separation of church and state” things go out the window. The church becomes so embedded in school and politics and the economy that Christianity suddenly becomes a pretty mandatory part of society. There are benefits to that, sure. Kind of like growing up in the American South, there’s something to be said for a culture that revolves around church and raises its children in that environment. But there are serious downsides, too. Like having people filling the pews who have little or no conscious faith, who only participate because their parents make them or because everybody else is doing it or because they want to be a part of an exclusive club, and who are familiar enough with the Gospel that it’s lost its fresh appeal and who may have never stopped to wonder whether or not they actually believe in Jesus. They’ve been inoculated against catching a real case of faith, and they don’t even know it. That was the state of the Church of England.

By the 18th-century in England, it had become a place reserved for the affluent and well-to-do in society, who were expected to be present every Sunday and support the Anglican institution, but oftentimes with little or no personal Christian devotion. People were “in church” for a thousand reasons – to network for their businesses, to meet their future spouses or arrange advantageous marriages, to have a hearty covered-dish meal, to reserve their future plot in the cemetery – but few were necessarily “being church” as disciples of Christ. It makes perfect sense, then, that when two young brothers who had been raised in Anglicanism came of age, they decided it was time for some massive changes. John and Charles Wesley recognized that, starting on a personal level, it was time to reclaim “Scriptural holiness” that included the two key ingredients that the English were missing: first, the spiritual devotion of someone who believes fully in Jesus and, second, the kind of Christian service that would actually lift up the lives of those in need. While still ultimately college students, they started a group that became known mockingly as “Methodists” because they seemed too serious, too methodical, about their faith. They were disciplined to daily practices like journaling, fasting, prayer and Holy Communion. They dove into Scripture as a living, authoritative text. They went into the dark bowels of society, like debtors’ prison, not just to speak to the people but to know them and later to help remedy their real-world issues. Then, John Wesley began to preach.

By this time he was an officially-ordained Anglican priest but did what few other dared to do: he took to field-preaching. It meant going in person to the places where the poor, unchurched masses were found – literally in fields, at the shipyards, outside coal mines. Suddenly, the “least of these” heard the Gospel, and heard their own stories in it, and they repented by the hundreds then thousands. They came forward to be saved, and the response was overwhelming. Based on his own experience, John grouped the new converts into small groups, classes and bands, so that salvation wouldn’t be a simple one-time rebirth but rather the beginning to Christian sanctification; and the movement ballooned. Christians were tasting real community for the first time in ages, and it was lighting the spiritual landscape on fire. But that’s not all.

Wesley realized quickly that the people needed to learn how to properly be community together. His journals reveal that, early in the movement, everyone started to notice a problem. His small group leaders would visit the homes of their class members in order to take up the weekly collection, and find their fellow disciples in all manner of spiritual disarray. One man would come to the door stone-cold drunk before 9:00 in the morning. Another woman was found with an “overnight guest” who was a man other than her husband. Another home was torn by domestic violence. In another, the children weren’t being properly fed. In other words, although the masses were converting and joining Methodist groups, the members of the groups weren’t actually sharing life together. They were entertaining one another with superficiality; they were wearing spiritual masks while darker realities lurked behind closed doors. They weren’t confessing to one another, or holding each other accountable. In the end, the Wesleys reshaped the “rules” for their groups. They refocused their efforts on deep relationship and vulnerability. The new question that became the focal point for Methodists, and it was designed to be answered in total honesty every single meeting, was this: How is it with your soul? And if anyone tried to respond with anything like “Pretty good” or “Just fine,” it wasn’t going to fly.  He set up these societies to truly share life together.

Every year at Annual Conference individuals who have felt the call of God to ordained ministry whether that call is to be a deacon or an elder in the United Methodist Church and wishes to be in full membership in the Annual Conference stands up before the Executive Session of the Annual Conference, all the ordained clergy, and has these questions asked of him or her by the Bishop. 1. Have you faith in Christ? 2. Are you going on to perfection? 3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? 4. Are you earnestly striving after it? 5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? 6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church? 7. Will you keep them? 8. Have you studied the doctrines o the United Methodist Church? 9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? 10. Will you preach and maintain them? 11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? 12. Do you approve our Church government and polity? 13. Will you support and maintain them? 14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place? 15. Will you visit from house to house? 16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? 17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God? 18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? 19. Will you observe the following directions: a. Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. B. Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

Do you know the General Rules of our church and will you keep them? Just three simple rules. It’s Wesley’s way of expressing the first and second commandment that are in Mark’s text for us today. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all our soul, with all your might, and your neighbor as yourself. Everything else is contained in these two. Rueben Job says that these rules have the power to change the world. “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God” are ancient simple words seldom put to the test, but words when lived out in this life, could transform the whole earth. We really do live in a world of divisiveness that separates, disparages, disrespects, diminishes, and leaves us wounded and incomplete.

Can you imagine the outcomes of our communities if every United Methodist worldwide would live into these 3 simple rules? If young and old, rich and poor, powerful and weak and those of every theological persuasion in the church would live out these words, we would have a transformed culture, we would together, change the world. Wesley believed this in his day so much that he took this as the blueprint of his societies, fleshed it out, taught it, and expected every Methodist to practice it. I’ve been told that it was the Methodism influence of living out these simple rules that kept England from breaking out in civil war against each other in those turbulent times of the industrial revolution.

“An interesting article was written in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Starr Concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live. It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, Children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation. And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.

“Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote and editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”

Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”

Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implication…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

Even our witness to the redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus loses its authenticity and its power in the wake of so much division and hatred. Those who follow Jesus are asking, “is there not a better way to live with each other?” “Is there not a better way to practice our faith?” a way so simple that none are turned away because of its complexity, and all can practice it because of its simplicity.   These three simple rules are one of the ways we tap into that.  Are you willing to go on this journey of discovery of actually practicing what our Rabbi taught us in a framework that is easy to understand but we will spend a lifetime perfecting?

At the Feet of the Rabbi – Matthew 6

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

 Concerning Almsgiving

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Prayer

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Fasting

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Concerning Treasures

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This is the Ash Wednesday text every lectionary year, probably because it talks about not being showy in one’s faith.  Lenten practices can sometimes be that way.  If you’re talking always about what you’re giving up or you’re talking about the day your fasting or you’re talking about the entire day of prayer, you’ve gotten your reward of those around you, those that you’re bragging to.  Our rabbi is teaching us to do things privately, not with pomp and circumstance.  He’s warning us of getting big heads playing I’m more religious than you are.

It’s not about that.  We don’t volunteer at the Lowcountry Orphan Relief or on work days in Nichols or Sellers or go to Ecuador to get pictures made, though it seems at times like we do, it’s because we want to give what we can or do what we can as we are able because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.  Simple as that.  The Message translation of the Bible seems to get at that idea.  Matthew chapter 6 is titled “The World is a Stage.”  Though I was an English major, I never fancied myself an actress.  Jesus wants us to be real and authentic in our faith.  He doesn’t want a full-fledged Broadway Show, an Oscar winning performance of Saint Narcie and yet the very action is not the thing that gets us into trouble, it’s being pious with the intention of looking down on others.  John Wesley said this, “The thing which is here forbidden, is not barely the doing good in the sight of men; this circumstance alone, that others see what we do, makes the action neither worse nor better; but the doing it before men, “to be seen of them,” with this view from this intention only.”

In his notes, Wesley writes, “In the foregoing chapter our Lord particularly described the nature of inward holiness. In this he describes that purity of intention without which none of our outward actions are holy. This chapter contains four parts, The right intention and manner of giving alms, ver.1 – 4. The right intention, manner, form, and prerequisites of prayer, ver.5 – 15. The right intention, and manner of fasting, ver.16 – 18. The necessity of a pure intention in all things, unmixed either with the desire of riches, or worldly care, and fear of want, ver.19 – 34.”  Let’s get to what our Rabbi was getting at.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

My grandfather was a man like that.  One time my grandmother let slip that he had paid for the carpet all throughout the Greeleyville UMC parsonage.  He helped lots of people, quietly and unobtrusively.

I’ll read you a story by Woody McKay, Jr. called “The Secret Benefactor.”

http://www.chickensoup.com/book-story/41639/the-secret-benefactor

Continuing in Chapter 6, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.
12     And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Our Rabbi Jesus teaches us how to pray and gives us a model or example. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes both the practice of a Rabbi teaching the disciples a prayer, and the language of this prayer, place Jesus in the context of others rabbis of his time.   “From the Talmudic parallels (Tosef., Ber. iii. 7; Ber. 16b-17a, 29b; Yer. Ber. iv. 7d) it may be learned that it was customary for prominent masters to recite brief prayers of their own in addition to the regular prayers.”  The Lord’s Prayer as it is now commonly referred to is the world’s most famous prayer of all time.  We would say it in the locker room before basketball games, we said it at the bedside of my grandfather after he died, and I remembered it even after my second brain surgery robbed me of my speech.  Its powerful words could be a whole sermon itself.

Madeleine L’Engle writes this about prayer.

In prayer the stilled voice learns
To hold its peace, to listen with the heart
To silence that is joy, is adoration.
The self is shattered, all words torn apart
In this strange patterned time of contemplation
That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me
And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Announcement in a church bulletin for a national Prayer and Fasting Conference: “The cost for attending the Fasting & Prayer Conference includes meals.”  Martha Moore-Keish, a Presbyterian minister, writes, “Our culture does not know what to do with Ash Wednesday. We do a pretty good job with the feasting right before Ash Wednesday, mind you — more and more people even outside of New Orleans celebrate Mardi Gras with beads and floats, and more and more people devour pancakes and waffles at Shrove Tuesday celebrations. Any excuse for a feast is welcome! But what to do with the depressingly titled Ash Wednesday? A few years ago I saw a restaurant sign that summed up our cultural uncertainty about this date on the Christian calendar: “Ash Wednesday Seafood Buffet: All You Can Eat!” …

The paradox of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent, is that we take on particular disciplines — fasting, prayer, service — in order to repent and conform ourselves more closely to the life and death of Christ, all the while recognizing that Christ has already come to us before we sought him. This is the paradox of the baptized life. We have been joined to Christ once, but we spend the rest of our lives trying to live into that union.

Turning to Christ means turning also to all our neighbors who suffer. According to Isaiah, fasting and praying that brings us to act on behalf of these neighbors is the fast that is acceptable to God.”

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Sister Wendy Beckett in The Mystery of Love: Saints in Art through the Centuries  writes, “When I was young, I longed to be a saint. What was I longing for? I think it was for certainty that my life had been, in the most profound sense, a “success” — that great and glorious success that is sanctity. We revere the saints. We imitate them. Theirs is the true and lasting glory. Very clearly, this desire is, unconsciously, as worldly as that of the writer who wants to write a masterpiece or the politician who yearns to be prime minister or president. None of these ambitions has the least to do with what Jesus preached — that lowliness, that love for last place, that readiness to die and be forgotten … . To be concerned with oneself in any way, to watch one’s growth in “holiness” or “prayer,” to be spiritually ambitious, all this Jesus earnestly sets his face against.”

We’re not holy because we know we store up crowns in heaven.  There is not a giant sticker chart for who says the longest prayers or who fasts the most.  We’re holy because Jesus is holy and he calls us to be holy, little by little, step by step.

There’s an old story about a man from the city who was out driving one day, in the country. The signs on the road weren’t very good, and he got lost. So he stopped at a farmhouse to ask directions. “Can you tell me how far it is to the town of Mill Pond?” he asked.

“Well,” said the old farmer, “the way you’re goin’ it’s about 24,996 miles. But if you turn around, it’s about four.”

And therein lies a lesson. If we want to follow our Rabbi we have to repent.  We have to turn around and see him for who he really is — our Rabbi, the example to follow, but more than that we learned last week in the Transfiguration that he is the Great God of the Universe come down in the form of a baby, our Emmanuel, wading through the muck and mire of our sin and reaching down into the mess of our lives to set our feet on solid ground.  Amen?  Our Rabbi Jesus, first proclaimed the Good News with the Beatitudes and that we are to be salt and light in the world and then expounded on the “real stuff,” when the rubber meets the road and when the ship hits the sand.  Real, practical life applications that are certainly not easy to practice but God gives us the grace, strength and courage to go out into the world and our very own hearts to practice what we preach, not in ostentatious ways, but with humility, standing our ground but shirking from the spotlight.  Wesley treated the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount and other passages as “covered promises.” That is, they are commands that we can obey because God provides the grace to empower us to fulfill what is required.  It’s God’s grace freely given.  As we go through the confession of Communion hear the words anew and afresh, search your hearts, see if anything has taken root there – bitterness, fear, anger, doubt, hatred, judgment –  but hear the rest of it as well.  Hear the Good News, “Christ died for us while we were sinners.  That proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”  Then hear God, our Creator, Jesus, our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit’s mighty works in the Great Thanksgiving.  We’re going to practice Communion every Sunday of Lent.  I invite you to pray the words…

Jesus Commands Crazy

Continuing on in our “At the Feet of the Rabbi” sermon series, I found these in the Jewish Standard.  Some people think that Yoda from the movie Star Wars sounds a lot like a Jewish Rabbi.  We’re going to play a game where you raise your hand if Yoda said it and you don’t raise your hand if one of the Jewish Rabbis said it.  Even if you’re not big Star War fans, you can get some of these simply because they’re embedded in pop culture.

  1. “In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.” Yoda
  2. “Accept the truth, you must, from whatever source it comes.” Rabbi
  3. “On three things, the world stands: On judgment, on truth and on peace.” Rabbi
  4. “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Yoda
  5. “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.” Yoda
  6. “For myself, if I am not, for me, who will be?” Rabbi
  7. “Size matters not.” Yoda
  8. “Preferable, the risk of a wrong decision is, to the terror of indecision.” Rabbi
  9. “Wicked, do not be, in one’s own eyes.” Rabbi
  10. “At the flask, look not, but at what is therein.” Rabbi
  11. “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.” Yoda
  12. “Wars not make one great.” Yoda
  13. “A master, assume for yourself, a friend, acquire for yourself, and every man, judge to the side of merit.” Rabbi
  14. “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” Yoda
  15. “A man, you must strive to be, in a place where there are no men.” Rabbi
  16. “Always two there are, no more no less. A master and an apprentice.” Yoda
  17. “Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…anger leads to hate…hate leads to suffering.” Yoda
  18. “That which to you is hateful, to your neighbor do not.” Rabbi

It’s all good advice.  Maybe Yoda is a Rabbi of sorts?  He’s definitely a spiritual teacher of the force.  Yoda and the other Rabbis couldn’t compare to Jesus, our Rabbi.  He teaches us all.  It’s not a lineage thing a la the Jedi nor a skill at memorizing thing like the typical Rabbi’s pupil.  He invites all of us to come sit at his feet.  He calls all of us to walk in his dust.  He calls each of us with authority and our response it to get up off of our mat and walk, just like paralytic.  We have to get over our fears and take that leap of faith and step out of the boat.  We have to leave the fishing nets of our old lives and follow Jesus our Rabbi.  No matter the cost.  No matter what.  Because what this Rabbi, this Jesus, is teaching is definitely counter-cultural.  No one teaches like this Rabbi.  Love you enemies?  Love the people who persecute you?  Don’t retaliate.  Don’t get even.  That goes completely against human nature. Hear now what our Rabbi, teaches us today.

Matthew 5:38-48

Concerning Retaliation

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

Love for Enemies

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

You have to understand the context in Jesus’ time.  Jesus’ words are radical today for sure, but they were particularly radical in his day when the Roman Empire ruled Israel.  Roman soldiers could ask you carry their stuff up to one mile.  They could ask you to make them meals just like quartering during the American Revolution.  They could publicly beat you without the slightest provocation and it wasn’t against the law; it was perfectly legal.  Our Rabbi Jesus wasn’t talking generically about being nice and turning the other cheek, he was talking right then and there what was happening.  They were an occupied nation and many times we don’t take that into account when we read the Bible.  He’s specifically talking about their context when he says, “Go the second mile,” because that was unheard of.  The Roman Soldiers already had made you walk one mile and to think Jesus wants you to walk a second mile?  Our family went for a walk yesterday and before we were even out of the neighborhood, Enoch was complaining about how tired he was.

Like any occupiers, the Romans weren’t all bad.  The Roman Empire had conquered many, many lands and had shipped their troops far from home.  They were typically between the ages of 17 and 46 and it was an opportunity to prove oneself.  They had to be picked and fit to serve.  It was an honor to be picked and be set apart, but much like in the Hunger Games, they were frightened to go and they did all they could to survive.  They swore an oath of allegiance called the sacramentum that changed them from Roman citizens to Roman soldiers.  Once they had taken the oath, they were subject to their general’s authority.  Just the like the Empire in the Star Wars movies, they looked fierce.  A massive amount of men, like ants, all wearing the same uniforms, just like the storm troopers.

Wouldn’t you despise the soldiers that occupied you?  They could make you walk for a mile, they could beat you in public, they could do anything to you, and it was legal.  Doesn’t that give Jesus’ words an entirely different context.  However, the typical Jewish person dehumanized the Roman soldiers also, because they all looked the same, it was easy to make assumptions.  THIS is what our Rabbi Jesus is speaking to.  He’s COMPLETELY flipping the script.

Matthew 5:38-48 The Message (MSG)

38-42 “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

I think this speaks A LOT to us today.  We’re griping about the cost of medical care.  We’re griping about Donald Trump.  We’re griping about the liberal Hillary lovers.  We’re griping about the state of our world.  We’re griping but not doing anything, accept talking.  All blow and no go.  When Enoch was griping on our walk yesterday, I must have said 3 or 4 times that if he put his energy into walking and not in complaining, he would have the energy to walk.

Do not let fear of the other, lead you to the dark side.  Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”  Hate leads to suffering. Isn’t it exhausting to hold onto that critical, bitterness all the time?  I’m not saying we don’t have opinions, but opinions are like belly buttons, everyone has them.  I’m saying, couldn’t we use half the energy we waste on the 24 hour news cycle and channel it in to clothing, feeding and housing our neighbors?  That’s what our Rabbi calls us to do.  “Grow up.  You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”  We, as Christ-followers, that have the dust of our Rabbi, all over us are called to Love not Hate.  It’s part of our God-created identity.  It’s part of our DNA.  It’s who we are.

Jesus wants us to give what we can to our neighbors, not retaliate, and LOVE our neighbors as well as our enemies.

The following was purportedly posted on the Craigslist personals:

To the Guy Who Tried to Mug Me in Downtown Savannah night before last. Date: 2009-05-27, 1:43 a.m. EST. I was the guy wearing the black Burberry jacket that you demanded that I hand over, shortly after you pulled the knife on me and my girlfriend, threatening our lives. You also asked for my girlfriend’s purse and earrings. I can only hope that you somehow come across this rather important message.

First, I’d like to apologize for your embarrassment, I didn’t expect you to actually soil your pants when I drew my pistol after you took my jacket. The evening was not that cold, and I was wearing the jacket for a reason. My girlfriend had just bought me that Kimber Model 1911 .45 A CP pistol for my birthday, and we had picked up a shoulder holster for it that very evening. Obviously you agree that it is a very intimidating weapon when pointed at your head … isn’t it! I know it probably wasn’t fun walking back to wherever you’d come from. … I’m sure it was even worse walking barefooted since I made you leave your shoes, cell phone and wallet with me. (That prevented you from calling or running to your buddies to come help mug us again.)

After I called your mother, or “Momma” as you had her listed in your cell, I explained the entire episode of what you’d done. Then I went and filled up my gas tank as well as four other people’s in the gas station on your credit card. The guy with the big motor home took 150 gallons and was extremely grateful! I gave your shoes to a homeless guy outside Vinnie Van Go Go’s, along with all the cash in your wallet. (That made his day!) I then threw your wallet into the big pink “pimp mobile” that was parked at the curb … after I broke the windshield and side window and keyed the entire driver’s side of the car.

… [On your cell phone] I managed to get in two threatening phone calls to the DA’s office and one to the FBI, while mentioning President Obama as my possible target. The FBI guy seemed really intense, and we had a nice long chat (I guess while he traced your number, etc.). … I feel this type of retribution is a far more appropriate punishment for your threatened crime. I wish you well as you try to sort through some of these rather immediate pressing issues, and can only hope that you have the opportunity to reflect upon, and perhaps reconsider, the career path you’ve chosen to pursue in life.

Remember, next time you might not be so lucky. Have a good day!

Thoughtfully yours, Alex.

I’m not saying that wasn’t awesome in some ways.  Most of us would say that person got what he deserved.  Most of us would feel pretty good and satisfied with ourselves after that Craigslist post, but would Jesus see it that way?  Did Alex have to do that other stuff?  Would it be so crazy if he handed the guy the jacket, the purse, and the earrings, and then threw in his wallet?  That would really be crazy!  But Narcie, the guy held them up at knife point.  And I would answer, Jesus called all of us to do crazy things like that. Most of us would have a hard time walking that extra mile for a Roman enemy…..but if we did, wouldn’t that be a surprise for them.  Wouldn’t that maybe make the Roman question all of the times he’s “messed” with the Israelites?  If it happened over and over again, wouldn’t his heart grow bigger and bigger just like the Grinch’s in the Christmas cartoon.   Showing a mere glimmer of humility, kindness, and love when you’ve been wronged, will eventually break through to anybody’s hardened heart.  And isn’t there lots of reasons why somebody’s heart is hardened?  Prisoner turned President Nelson Mandela says this, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us can lead to changes, most of all, in ourselves.  It’s uncanny.  Even when people lose loved ones in the most violent of crimes, they see the need to forgive.  Not just for the other people, but for themselves, to free themselves of the burden of hate and revenge.  I’m not at all saying that such a Christlike response is easy. Heck no.  It takes courage and deep determination. In Uganda, Angelina Atyam’s daughter was abducted in 1996. According to Divinity magazine (Winter 2010), rebel troops took her and 29 other girls from a Catholic boarding school. Angelina met weekly with the parents of the other girls to pray for their daughters’ release.

“I was confused, bitter and very deep in my heart I was thinking, ‘How do I avenge this?’” says Angelina. “Yet we continued to pray and call upon the [rebels] to release our children, protect them, bring them home and make peace again.”

One day, a priest was leading the group of parents in the Lord’s Prayer. When they got to the words “Forgive us our sins,” the parents suddenly stopped. They couldn’t say “as we forgive those who sin against us.” Realizing they were asking for the forgiveness of their sins yet were unable to forgive the rebels for stealing their children, the parents filed silently out of the church. It was simply too difficult. They couldn’t be Christlike enough to forgive the rebels’ sins.

The parents went home and began to examine themselves. And something amazing happened: By the next meeting, they started to pray to forgive the rebels. They also began sharing their story of forgiveness with others and became leaders in a national movement to secure the release of abducted children. After seven years of captivity, Angelina and her daughter were reunited.

In his book The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner, theologian, says, “The love for equals is a human thing — of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.

“The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing — the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.

“The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing — to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints.

“And then there is the love for the enemy — love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer.

This is God’s love. It conquers the world.

We need to search each of our hearts and take these lessons very seriously because we are all guilty of making assumptions, demonizing the other, and of having our default be hatred and judgement because of fear and misunderstanding.  Jesus is very clear on this.  No excuses.  No explanations.  No rationalizations.  We are to love our enemies.  Our Rabbi Jesus wants our default, our resting state to be love and grace and we see this love most clearly on the cross.  The fact the Great God of the Universe came to live among us and we whipped, stripped, and persecuted him, should be grounds for him saying, “Beam me up, Scotty!  Get me out of here.”  Instead, he says, “Father, they do not know what they are doing.”  That is the biggest act of non-violence, that is the biggest love for enemies ever because we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God and sinned against our Rabbi Jesus, but he turns the other cheek and loves us anyway.  He loves us no matter what.  He died for us no matter what.  And for that, we say, THANKS BE TO GOD!

At the Feet of the Rabbi: Part 3

Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. 

I want you to be everything that’s you, deep at the center of your being. 

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. 

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

When anger rises, think of the consequences.

Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.

I remember Mrs. Rhodes in 6th grade teaching us about Confucius.  I remember distinctly her teaching us about, “Confucius say.” Confucius was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history.  The philosophy of Confucius emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. He espoused the well-known principle “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”, i.e. the Golden Rule.

We’re continuing in our sermon series “At the Feet of the Rabbit.”  Remember what was said last week, 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” He speaks with authority, not just moral sayings.  He doesn’t just list “the rules,” he fulfills them.  He speaks authoritatively on the word of God because he’s not only a part of the Triune God, he is God’s son, whom God broke through the Heavens at his baptism and said, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I’m well pleased.”  This is our Rabbi, whom we’ve chosen to follow, whose dust gets into the nooks and crannies of our hearts and lives, who shows us the way to live.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus preaches some pretty harsh-sounding warnings to us about the consequences we face should we fail to practice righteousness within every aspect of our lives.  This is not the Beatitudes and not the aspirational salt and light passage, this is where our Rabbi gets gritty. 

Matthew 5:21-37

Concerning Anger

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

Concerning Adultery

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

Concerning Divorce

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Concerning Oaths

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Have you seen those “Stop Smoking” commercials?  They were much more frequent in Florida because of a statewide initiative “Tobacco Free Florida.”  Every time I hear or see one of those commercials, I want to change the channel or mute it and not watch because I don’t want to put the images in my head of the effects of smoking.  It’s much like this passage, it’s like Jesus giving us real talk, not putting into a list of rules, but explaining why we should do or not do something because of the EFFECTS.  He wants us to lead righteous lives.  Even more graphic are the remedies Jesus prescribes as treatments for our righteousness-deficiency. We are wrong if we read Jesus’ words about cutting off our right hand or plucking out our eye as just the reflection of some ancient barbaric code of justice. Jesus’ directives are violently vivid metaphors that tell us that we must simply stop doing the things that harm others or ourselves before those old behaviors or destroy us.

Speaking of those old behaviors, how are those new year’s resolutions going?  Many of our resolutions and our Lenten practices of giving something up or adding something are about creating habits.  It’s easy for us to throw away a broken piece of furniture or shoes that need to be resewn or resoled.  It’s much harder to fix it.  It’s much a harder to take it to the carpenter or the cobbler and give them our broken pieces.  Have you ever restored a car or painted a piece of furniture or the kitchen cabinets and it feels like it’s transformed?  It’s like it’s a whole new thing.  As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”  It takes the hard work of putting in place life-giving and life-transforming habits, and not nasty, will only lead to you hurting yourself or others habits.

– If you want to be healthy, … stop doing those things that harm you or inevitably will hurt you.

– If you want harmony in your life, … stop doing those things that cause discord and agitation.

– If you want peace in the world, … stop doing those things that lead to war in your relationships and within yourself.

– If you want a closer relationship with your children, … stop doing those things and saying those things that build up walls between you and spend quality time with them.

– If you want to rekindle the romance in your marriage, … stop doing those things that create animosity and monotony, drop the masks and start really connecting.

– If you want to live in a close-knit, caring community, … stop hiding behind your front door or your masks and get out there in the land of interpersonal risks.

– If you want a spiritual life that fills you up, … stop pouring all your energies everywhere but toward God and the rest of life will fall into place.

Sure it’s easier to say, than do, but if you have the right motivation, you can do anything.

Ida was recovering from a heart attack. “Doctor,” she pleaded with her cardiologist, “you must keep me alive for the next two years. I want to attend my grandson’s bar mitzvah.”

“We’ll try,” he replied. And in due course, Ida did indeed attend the joyous rite of passage.

Sometime later she again spoke to her doctor. “My granddaughter is to be married in 18 months. Please help me to be able to attend her wedding.”

“We’ll do our best,” he replied.

Sure enough, 18 months later, Ida proudly presided over the reception in a sparkly gown.

Ten years passed. Ida continued to thrive. She visited her cardiologist regularly and carefully followed all his instructions. One morning she called him. “Doctor,” she began, “I’m feeling fine, but I have another request to ask of you. Remember how you saw me through to my grandson’s bar mitzvah?”

“Yes.”

“And, later, how you helped me attend my granddaughter’s wedding?”

“Yes, that was a great day for you.”

“Well, as you know, I’ve just celebrated my 80th birthday. And I just bought myself a new mattress.”

“And …?”

“It has a 20-year guarantee.”

Jesus wants us to follow and act and live as his disciples because he wants the best for us.  He wants us to jump into the deep end of the pool, not so that we can tread water all our lives, but because he wants us to swim and then float and rest in his grace.

Concerning anger, Jesus says that the rules of the shallow end are “you shall not murder” and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment” (v. 21). These seem like completely sensible rules, especially since no one wants to swim in a pool in which people are drowning each other. He moves into the deep end where it gets harder: “If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment” (v. 22). For Jesus, avoiding murder is not enough. We are also supposed to control our anger. For Jesus, the goal is not revenge but reconciliation. He always wants us to work for peace. “When you are offering your gift at the altar,” says Jesus, “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (vv. 23-24). In a similar way, Abraham Lincoln advised that the best way to destroy an enemy is to turn him into a friend, and Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Concerning adultery, Jesus says that the rule of the shallow end are that “you shall not commit adultery” (v. 27). This is a very sensible rule, since faithfulness in marriage is the glue that holds families together. When the covenant of marriage is broken, people suffer — men, women and especially children.

But Jesus is not content to enforce the rule against adultery. If we are going to swim with him in the deep end, we need to see that “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (v. 28). Jesus is warning us that it is not healthy to do one thing with our minds and another thing with our bodies as it is in Platonic dualism. Instead, we are to keep the two together.

Bromleigh McCleneghan, the author of a book called Good Christian Sex, believes that the rise of “emotional affairs” proves that Jesus knew what he was talking about. When you hold mind and body together, says McCleneghan, “you don’t actually have to commit adultery to sin against your partner.” This is a tough goal, for sure, but it leads to healthier relationships.

Concerning divorce, Jesus reminds us of the shallow end rule: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce” (v. 31). This rule seems reasonable, although it does make divorce a rather easy thing for a person to do.

But in the deep end, Jesus says that “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery” (v. 32). Here, Jesus is saying that divorce should not be an easy thing for a person to acquire, because marriage is one of the foundations of family and community life, and it’s a loss in way or another.

Finally, concerning oaths, Jesus notes that the rule of the shallow end is that “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord” (v. 33). Once again, this is a very sensible rule that encourages people to keep their promises.

But Jesus offers a higher challenge: “Do not swear at all” (v. 34). Instead, “let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (v. 37). Jesus is saying that all words should be truthful, not just words spoken under oath. When we jump into the deep end with Jesus, everything we say should be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — not just the things we say with our hand on a Bible.

A cleaning woman who’d been converted at a Salvation Army meeting was asked what difference Jesus made in her life. She said, “I don’t sweep dirt under the carpets anymore.”  There should be a change.  There should be repentance.  Anger, adultery, divorce and oaths. The words of Jesus on each of these can challenge us, stretch us and sometimes make us feel inadequate. But the good news is that Jesus is always swimming right beside us, helping us float in his love and grace. He will stretch us a little more each day, until we are able to achieve the goals he sets out for us: Working for reconciliation, being faithful to our partners, strengthening our marriages, and speaking the truth.  As Oswald Chambers says in My Utmost for His Highest, “A gilt-edged saint is no good; he is abnormal, unfit for daily life and altogether unlike God. We are here as men and women, not as half-fledged angels, to do the work of the world, and to do it with an infinitely greater power to stand the turmoil because we have been born from above.”  It’s a high calling, sure, but God’s grace is enough to cover all of our mistakes and he spurs us ever on to repentance.  Even when we’re afraid to jump into the deep end, even when we can’t remember how to swim, it’s always enough.

Amen.

 

The Beatitudes

We continue this week in our series on the Sermon on the Mount, entitled, “At the Feet of the Rabbi.” If you weren’t here last week or don’t remember, we introduced the idea that it was no accident Jesus chose to operate out of the role of the Jewish Rabbi. Remember, Rabbi means “my great one” because these guys were the best of the best, and the most honored in society. We also talked about the “yoke” of a Rabbi being the body of knowledge and work that the Rabbi had soaked up over the course of his life, and that he then passed on through teaching and experience. Each Rabbi wanted his yoke to live on in his disciples, so disciples were expected to follow the Rabbi, word for word, move by move, step by step, all over the countryside to soak it all in. That’s why the ancient blessing was: “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.” It meant following so closely in his wake, or sitting so near his mud-caked sandals, that you lived and breathed your Rabbi and his yoke. THAT was discipleship, and isn’t it a good deal deeper than spending an hour on a Sunday every now and then? Absolutely.

This Rabbi is important to our series because the Sermon on the Mount is a tricky name. The truth is, WE have given it that name. Bible translators have said, “Hey, this guy is doing a bunch of talking  starting in Matthew 5, and the people are crowded around like a congregation, and he says great, quotable sayings…sounds like a sermon to me!” The problem we have today is that the word sermon doesn’t always carry a lot of weight anymore. A sermon for us can just be a 20-minute pop-off with some good jokes, and a 1-2-3 moral punchline. The first thing many of us think about a sermon is, was it a good one or a bad one. That was not the atmosphere in Matthew 5. If these people were intent on being disciples, of sitting at the feet of a Rabbi, of taking up a new yoke that would utterly direct their entire lives, this time on the mountainside was far more authoritative and substantial and moving than we can even imagine. That’s the attitude I want us to bring to this text too. I want us to sit at the feet of our Rabbi, hear his yoke, and very truly decide if we’re going to take it up or not.  Amen?

Matthew 5:1-12

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

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Is EVERYTHING that seems successful or “winning” really a blessing? Every “good” thing? Look at the hashtag on Twitter at any given moment and see the crazy examples, some appropriate, some a totally false attribution. We’re speaking for God when we claim something is a blessing. Conversely, is every seemingly bad thing a lack of blessing? Aren’t we blessed even when we lose our job or fail in the eyes of the world?

In Jewish culture, failure or poverty or deficiency of any kind was a sign of a lack of blessing, a sign of sinfulness or God’s particular judgment.  Health problems could be traced back to our ancestor’s sinfulness.  For example, if someone were blind or had leprosy, they or their ancestors did something to deserve it.  Jesus is overturning this kind of thinking. He’s not just telling us about these poor downtrodden people groups, so that we’ll be “nice” to them, he is actively blessing them. He’s speaking the blessing into being. Or putting into words the heavenly reality that already is.  And it’s just the “other” people, he’s speaking truth into our lives as well.

He’s taking these seemingly “bad” things and flipping them on their heads and he’s giving us encouragement all the while.  Hear verses 3-12 from The Message version of the Bible.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

I can definitely relate to some of these.  Being at the end of my rope for one.  But don’t you see, Jesus is flipping the script, knocking the traditional understanding of blessing on its head and lifting up the tired, the poor, the downtrodden.  Not only that, he’s telling us to hunger and thirst after righteousness, be peacemakers, and willingly undergo persecution.  These are all earthly states with a heavenly reward bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

The Beatitudes are not just blessings but a call to action.

In the season of Epiphany, the Beatitudes are a call to action to point out just who Jesus really is.  Who God really is.  The Great God of the Universe.  The Beatitudes are a call to action to be Church, a call to action to make Jesus present and visible and manifest in our lives.  The Church gets the privilege of being on the front lines of these blessings bringing God’s kingdom to Earth.  Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” writes, “There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning…”

The Beatitudes are a call to action for the sake of creating the world God imagines.  These days, we need this reminder — when our imagination may be squelched. When our hope for the future might have been dimmed. When we think what we do and what we say and what we believe does not matter.  Jesus calls us to himself and asks us to walk in his ways, to sit at his feet, and put his teachings into action.  Jesus gives us the strength to stand with the voiceless; those he seeks to bless.  But too readily, we give up at the slightest opposition. We give up when we don’t understand or don’t want to do the deep work to know what our neighbor truly faces.

Jimmy Carter writes, “Christians who truly follow the nature, actions and words of Jesus Christ should encompass people who are different from us. It is not easy to do this. It is a natural human inclination to encapsulate ourselves in a superior fashion with people who are just like us — and to assume that we are fulfilling the mandate of our lives if we just confine our love to our own family or to people who are similar and compatible. Breaking through this barrier and reaching out to others is what personifies a Christian and emulates the perfect example that Christ set for us.”

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I look the other way?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I assume someone else will?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or do I explain away my perceived indifference because I don’t want people to think I take sides, because I choose to play it safe?

Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness or keep silent so as not to offend, not to disappoint, in fear of not meeting expectations?

Christ teaches that the greatest joy and happiness is not in the conveniences and pleasures of this life, but it is laid up in heaven for those who willingly to take up their cross and follow him.

I read a story about Mother Teresa when she first began her work among the dying on the streets of Calcutta, India.  She was obstructed 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 rabble withdrew but soon the harassment increased with 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 the 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, and eventually he recovered. Over and over again he would say to the people, ‘For 30 years I have worshipped a Kali 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.”

The rocks still hurt.  The grief of losing a loved one is still sometimes raw years later.  Even though we know that God is with us and it’s not a punishment, it’s still hard to receive that diagnosis.  Perhaps we can’t even understand these words until we become poor or meek or contrite or mourning or persecuted. Perhaps we don’t know what they mean until our stomachs ache with a roaring hunger and our tongues stick to the roof of our mouths with thirst. Maybe, maybe we cannot understand the words when we feel the most blessed. Perhaps they only make sense to us when we hit rock-bottom. When we too are persecuted.  When we’re so ashamed of what we did the night before that our lips tremble. When we are about to lose the home  where we were raising our children. When we finally realize that we have no control over our addiction. When we are in such mourning, that we stare at the ground as we walk and we cannot look up.

We can trust in the words of the Beatitudes and in the arms of the One who has the final word.  On earth we may temporarily suffer, but we have the hope of glory.  Just before his death, John Wesley, an ardent abolitionist, wrote a letter to William Wilberforce describing American slavery as the most vile in the world.  Grasping the hands of those who loved him, he repeatedly told them farewell.  At the end, when nearly all his strength was gone, his last words were: “The best of all is, God is with us.”  The best of all God is with us.  Romans 8:31 says,31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”  Even if we face trials in this life, even if we feel like all hope is gone, when we call on the name of the Lord we will be #Blessed beyond measure.

Something is Different about this Rabbi

Matthew 4:12-23

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

Did you notice how Matthew made reference to the prophet Isaiah?  Matthew’s gospel in particular is geared towards a Jewish audience.  The other gospel authors don’t reference the prophet Isaiah in this passage, but Matthew wants to create a compelling case for his people that this man, Jesus, is whom the prophets foretold.  This is the person we have waited for.  In verse 16, “16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”  People in darkness crave the light with an unquenchable thirst and he’s letting the world know that the Light has come – by his use of prophets and stories and parables and miracles.  He’s making a case that Jesus is the Messiah.

People sometimes wonder why God chose to come to earth when Jesus did. Do you ever wonder what was special about that time and that place? Was it a dark time in history?  Did they have massive amounts of turmoil in all the world?  What was so special about first-century Palestine that made for the perfect time for the in-breaking of the Light of the world? There are all sorts of great answers in hindsight. For one, the world was primed for the spread of the Gospel. The Greek and then Roman Empires had built an infrastructure that spread across continents. There were established roads and trade routes and seafaring technology, common languages and schools, military protection and the rule of law. These Empires persecuted the Church, yes, but the Church was also able to kind of harness the systems in place to spread the Good News guerrilla-style.

There are lots of other interesting facts in the first century that made it a prime time for Jesus’ ministry, but the one that particularly interests us today, and for the next several weeks of our series together, is something that was a central piece in the Jewish culture. I’m talking about the role or the office of the rabbi. The Rabbi. Now, up front, I want you to know that this isn’t a focus and function sermon.  What is the text saying and what does that call us to do as Christians? Rather, it’s about following a sort of trail that will lead us into our “At the Feet of the Rabbi” sermon series. Not a rabbit trail, but a rabbi trail. HA! No, but seriously, if this is the main role that Jesus lived out of in his culture, it can tell us much about what he was doing, teaching, and living and what it means to actually follow him.

To unpack this, we start our trail in the childhood of the average Jewish kid in Jesus’ day. For the ancient Jews, much like us, a person’s introduction to God and faith started as early as possible. Not only that, but the Jews believed that teaching their kids the Word of God was their first priority in life. They believed that you had to really embed Scripture deep in the bones of the next generation, because if you didn’t, you were only a generation away from being extinct as a people. For example, Dr. Thomas Thangaraj was one of my favorite professors at Candler.  He helped shape immensely the inter-religious ministry I took part in during my Contextual Education with Religious Life at Emory.  He is a 7th generation Indian Christian from Nazareth, India.  The disciple Thomas of Doubting Thomas fame was said to have visited all over the coast of India and he comes from a town that was discipled by the Apostle Thomas.  He did most of his work on training Christians to talk with people of other faiths, specifically Hindu, and he wrote The Crucified Guru.  He shared this personal story during one of our class times, as he studied Hindu more and more, his father urged him, begged him not “to mess this up” because their family had been Christians for 7 generations.  How much more so, would it have been for God’s chosen people, Israel?  This wasn’t overblown anxiety, it was real. It was their heritage.  Where they came from.  Remember, Israel’s history was one of persecution, battle, exile and enslavement.  They were in a continuous spin cycle all throughout the Old Testament where they disobeyed God’s laws, God sent them a prophet, they didn’t listen, and they were conquered, exiled, and nearly wiped out completely. It was the real deal for them, saying “Our children HAVE to KNOW who our people are, and who God is, and what God commands.” The children of Israel needed to know their rich culture, deep heritage, the oral history of their past, present and future story.

So, they started early. One teacher gave this advice:  “Under the age of six we do not receive a child as a pupil; from six upwards accept him and stuff him (with Torah) like an ox.” Ha. Awesome, right? This was taken very seriously. There were three phases of education for Jewish kids, and the first one, kind of like elementary school, was called Bet Sefer. Repeat after me: Bet Sefer. It means “House of the Book” and in Bet Sefer, kids ages 6-10 were tasked to learn the Torah, the first five books of our Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. And when I say learned, I mean really they had to memorize it. All of it.  If we had to memorize the begats or all of the laws in Leviticus, could we? Could our kids hack it?  Well, as Rob Bell said in his NOOMA video, it’s not that we don’t have the mental capacity for this anymore – how many of you know every single word to the albums you played over and over in high school? How many of you can recite every line from your favorite movies?  Mike and I were stunned when we heard the song “Peaches” that I knew all the words.  I don’t know which brother had the tape, but I remember it was an orange tape and we listened to it over Christmas when we were trying to create a hangout place in the shed in our back yard.  What a ridiculous song to know.  So we have the capacity, it’s a determination of what’s important to us and if we want to do it.

Just to instill how important God’s Word was, in that first phase of education, even on the first day of class, the Rabbi would take honey and cover the slate or desk of the students. Now, honey was incredibly exotic and valuable and seen as the most pleasurable thing to eat, like Turkish Delight in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  After covering everything the Rabbi would say, “Now, lick it all off.” And as they went to town licking it all off, he would say, “May the words of Scripture be like this to you” – exotic and valuable and pleasurable.  Words that you treasure.   Powerful, right?  That was Bet Sefer.

Now, the second phase of education was even tougher. This was like middle school, and it was rarer for kids to make it this far. Only those who passed Bet Sefer advanced to Bet Talmud, which means “House of Learning.” It was for kids 10-14. In Bet Talmud, the students were tasked with memorizing all the rest of the Hebrew scriptures, through Malachi. Not only that, but they started to really dig into the text and use the art of question and answer. For instance, our Western style of education says, “here’s the exam, spit out the info.” The test says, “2+2=___.” But the Rabbi’s method was to ask something like, “What is 2+2?” and he expected to be answered by a question, “Well, what is 16 divided by 4?” Tricky, right? They were creating this working knowledge. One of the scriptures my mom made us memorize as kids was Luke 2:52, “Jesus grew in wisdom and knowledge, and in favor of God and man.”  Remember Jesus at the age 12 was in the temple, is there among the wise men, and we get the sense that this is what was happening. Bet Talmud.

Finally, for those who passed middle school, there came phase three, like high school and an Ivy League college combined. It was called Bet Midrash, meaning “House of Study.” These kids were the best of the best of the best. At age 13 or 14, they would apply and hope to be invited by a Rabbi to go into apprenticeship.

Late one evening, a rabbi is sitting out with his students, watching the stars appear in the heavens one by one. “Tell me this,” asks the teacher: “how can we know when the night is ended and the day has begun?”

One eager young man jumps right in. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when you look off across the pasture and can tell which animal is a dog and which is a sheep.”

The teacher says nothing, gazing off into the distance.

“Is this the right answer?” the young man asks, after a time.

“It is a good answer, but not the answer I am looking for,” replies the teacher.

“Let me try,” says another student. “You know the night is over and the day has begun when the light falls on the leaves, and you can tell if it is a palm tree or a fig tree you’re looking at.”

“That too is a fine answer, but not the one I am looking for.”

“Then, what is the right answer?” demand the students. “Rebbe, answer your own question!”

The teacher looks out over the eager young crowd of disciples and replies, “When you look into the eyes of a human being and see a brother or sister, you know that it is morning. If you cannot see a sister or brother, you know that it will always be night.”

In this phase, it wasn’t just about knowing Scripture. Your Rabbi would teach you everything he knew. Everything he had learned from his Rabbi. Everything he knew about other Rabbi teachings. As well as, his own unique interpretation of it all. This special kind of course of study was known as the Rabbi’s “yoke.” The Rabbi hoped to have a strong school of apprentices, because one day when the Rabbi was no more, he wanted to be sure the yoke was passed on. Some yokes were about perfectionism and rigid rule-following. Others were about pride and being well-known. Some Rabbis were incredibly selective because they wanted their yoke to be the most rare and unattainable. Others were interested in having the biggest following. Whatever the case, this was like making the NBA or NFL for Jewish children. So many of them didn’t make the cut. And when a kid was told they weren’t good enough at some point, the Rabbi would come to them and say, “I’m sorry, now it’s time for you to return home and learn the family trade. Go and have many children and if God blesses you maybe one of them will one day be a Rabbi.”

Do we start to hear just how much the office of the Rabbi was revered?  The word Rabbi itself actually comes in two parts. The first half is rab. Repeat after me. Rab. It means, great in every way: much, many, big, strong, powerful. You might even say “yuge.” Rab. The second half is the little sound i. In Hebrew, adding the sound i to the end of a word made it personal and possessive. It could be translated as “my.” In other words, the Rabbi was “MY great one”  — the best of the best of the best, who was also the personal one that I’d chosen for myself, or who had chosen me.

Y’all, all of that makes up the backdrop of understanding who Jesus was and is.

For one, why were the disciples in Matthew 4 by the sea fishing? Because they hadn’t made the cut at some point. They were “didn’t make its.” Not only that, but why did they abandon everything, and their dad, and just jet off after Jesus? Because when a Rabbi said, “Follow me,” this was your chance. Why did Jesus say things like, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light?” Because his yoke, his teaching, wasn’t weighed down with human nonsense or empty rules…his was built on his own sacrifice and grace. But to understand him as Rabbi also lends a lot more weight to statements like, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Because following a Rabbi wasn’t just sitting in a classroom with a teacher, it was physically and emotionally and spiritually, full-bodied following. Going where they went, learning what they taught, doing as they did.  It was more than rules; it was embodying how Jesus lived.

I once saw a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown says to Violet: “Just think of it: the dirt and dust of far-off lands blowing over here and settling on ‘Pig-Pen.'”

“It staggers the imagination!” Charlie continues. “He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon or Nebuchadnezzar or Genghis Khan!”

Pig-Pen: “That’s true, isn’t it?”

In the next frame he’s saying with unaccustomed pride: “Sometimes I feel like royalty!”

We should feel like royalty too, because if we follow our Rabbi, we really follow Jesus.  We will have his dust all over us.  What it means, y’all, is that when we listen to the Sermon on the Mount the next few weeks, we aren’t just hearing words or teaching like any old sermon. We are joining the people in sitting at the feet of a Rabbi. Our Rabbi. And that makes us more than just students or listeners, but disciples, actively walking in his ways.  People charged with taking up his unique yoke, living it, and passing it on.