Palm Sunday: What King is This?
Dr. Douglas Ottati
March 29, 2015
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Luke 19:28-40
Some of us will recall that the German physician, Albert Schweitzer, turned his back on the comforts of Europe to become a medical missionary and provide needed care for thousands in east Africa. You may not know that Schweitzer was also an accomplished musician and theologian. He was an organist known for the restoration and study of historic pipe organs and also for interpreting Bach. As a theologian, he wrote a famous history of modern investigations into the life of Jesus. His book, entitled The Quest for the Historical Jesus, concluded that the quest had been a failure. According to Schweitzer, our attempts to find the real Jesus almost inevitably fail because, when we look at Jesus, we see what we want to see. We see ourselves, or at least someone who reflects back at us the things that we value and aspire to be.
Schweitzer’s book was about scholarly studies of Jesus, but his troubling conclusion also applies to more popular portraits of the man from Nazareth. Consider a recurrent American tendency to see Jesus as a master of commerce and industry. During the 1920s, an executive named Bruce Barton wrote a book called The Man Nobody Knows: A Discovery of the Real Jesus. He claimed that Jesus was “the founder of modern business,” a kind of prototype for Henry Ford. Jesus, said Barton, “picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.” Laurie Beth Jones’ book, Jesus CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership, presents an entrepreneurial portrait for the 1990s. Like Barton, Jones says that Jesus was particularly adept at developing the talents of his “staff.” Jesus, says Jones, “trained twelve human beings who went on to so influence the world that time itself is now recorded as being before (B.C.) or after (A.D.) his existence.” But Jones adds a more contemporary note: Jesus’ “Omega management style incorporates and transcends the best of Alpha (masculine) and Beta (feminine) leadership styles,” and this “leadership style was intended to be put to use by any of us.”
O.K., so when it comes to Jesus, people very often see what they want to see, and in America (although not, I think, in Ecuador) this means that, with some regularity, Jesus has been portrayed as a successful businessman, CEO, or Chairman of the Board. But, of course, this cannot be what most people have wanted to see in Jesus. For one thing, the modern corporation is a comparatively recent invention. Most people at most places and times simply would have had no idea what a CEO is. Success of the kind that people emulate and respect was therefore pictured in other ways. And, very often, successful leaders as well as their coveted qualities of power, prestige, and nobility were understood in royal terms. The great successes were emperors, princes, and kings. And, this is where our Gospel lesson comes in.
Luke recounts a royal scene, a king’s entrance into Jerusalem and, of course, Jerusalem is not just anyplace. Jerusalem is the capital city, the city where Pilate the Roman prefect now governs, and the city where kings David and Solomon once reigned. Jerusalem is the holy city, the home to the sacred Temple, the national shrine. What’s more, as he enters into Jerusalem, Jesus receives a hero’s welcome. Crowds line the street and shout with a loud voice, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” That is, they quote a verse from Psalm 118, and they combine it with words that the multitude of angels sang out at Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:14.
In fact, according to Luke, Jesus’ birth also had its share of royal elements. For one thing, Jesus was not born just anywhere. He was born in Bethlehem, the City of David, the hometown of Israel’s greatest king, and an angel announced Jesus’ birth by saying it was good news to all the people. Not to be outdone, the Gospel of Matthew says that King David is Jesus’ ancestor through Joseph. It also says that wise men (or astrologers) came from the East bearing gifts in treasure chests in order to pay homage to the child born “king of the Jews.”
So, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem with joyful crowds lining his path, it is a definitely royal scene – one that reprises Zechariah 9:9-10, where the king who shall command peace to the nations enters Jerusalem riding the foal of a donkey. It is, in many respects, exactly what many people have wanted to see. Here is Christ the king, the descendant of mighty David, the savior whose birth was announced by angels, entering the capital city in triumph.
But on closer inspection, a number of things seem odd. In fact, the whole business has been a bit strange from the very beginning. An angel and even a choir of angels announce Jesus’ birth, but only to a few shepherds. Two gospels say that, on his father’s side, Jesus is descended from Israel’s greatest king, David, but they also say Joseph is not Jesus’ true father and that Jesus was born out of wedlock in a barn.
The royal entrance into Jerusalem seems equally strange. There is no prince’s army and no marching band. There is no flashy stallion, no elegant saddle, no red carpet, and no royal coat of arms. No party of dignitaries comes out to greet Jesus and hand him the keys to the city. He rides into town mounted on a young (borrowed) donkey (Matthew 21:1-7). He sits on the cloaks of his disciples, and the crowds throw their cloaks on his path. (Matthew and John add that they break off branches and throw them onto the ground, too. Hence, Palm Sunday.) The whole thing is an almost comical spoof of a royal procession. Or, perhaps we should say that it’s a royal-procession-with-a-difference.
Some years ago at Grace Covenant Church in Richmond, Virginia we used to celebrate Palm Sunday like this. We gathered outside of the building on Monument Avenue with the members of some other area churches. We distributed palms, and then everyone walked around the block past impressive statues of Robert E. Lee and J. E. B. Stuart on horses. We hoped for a sunny morning, so that the girls and boys in their spring dresses and sport coats would look nice.
But, you know, if we had wanted to reenact a contemporary version of Jesus’ entrance as it is portrayed in the Gospels, we would have had to do things differently. For one thing, Monument Avenue, with its respected generals and lieutenants and its stately homes, wouldn’t have been the right path. We would have needed to find a road with fewer official heroes and more street people. Some years ago, Grace Street would have done nicely, now perhaps Broad Street. We would also have had to find a young guy – say 30 or so – who had been travelling with friends and was dressed in inexpensive clothes. We would have had to get him to ride in on . . . say the roof of an old powder blue Ford Escort with rusty panels. Maybe he could have been seated on some soiled coats placed on the car by his friends. The street people could then have thrown their coats onto the road for him to drive over. And he could have ridden by waving and acknowledging the cheering crowds as they shouted, “Blessed is the CEO appointed by God! Prosperity and glory in the highest!”
That’s not all. Not only is Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem provocative and bizarre – the ramshackle entrance of a beggar king, a rabble-rousing nobody, having yet another good time with crowds of peasants. Not only that. But, as far as the Gospels are concerned, Jesus is entering the royal city not to be ensconced in a palace but to be arrested, condemned, beaten, mocked, and crucified. In fact, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will ride his borrowed donkey straight up to the national Shrine, straight to the Temple, the central place of established cultural and religious meaning. There, the instigator of the rambunctious street people will (violently) throw-out all of the businessmen who collect money and donations there in order to support the Temple and its religious services. (This will get him in real trouble with the cultural and political elites as surely as would riding a rusted Ford right up to the State House in Richmond and then throwing out the legislators, lobbyists, and tour guides.)
Not too long afterwards, Jesus will be betrayed and arrested. One of the principal charges brought against him will be that he proclaimed himself to be king of the Jews. While he is hanging on the cross, soldiers will mock him saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” Over him someone will have affixed a sign reading, “This is the King of the Jews.”
And then, not to look too far ahead, yet another strange thing happens. Sometime after his death, Luke tells us that this rabble-rousing failure appeared to his followers, and that they were gathered into a new community and empowered to undertake a mission.
So there you have it. On closer inspection, we find that Jesus is the royal rabble-rousing, bizarre, and civilly disobedient troublemaker, who enters Jerusalem on his way to being executed by the authorities. And, we find that this is the person whom God raises up into glory at God’s right hand. We find that Jesus is both an anti-king and a king. He is (to put it mildly) a king-with-a-difference.
We are ready now to consider the really big claim. In its classical and biblical form, it goes something like this: in Jesus Christ, God was reconciling the world to Godself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Here, in this person who was born in a barn and who rides into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, is the Word and wisdom of God. This provocative preacher who was born out of wedlock and receives praises from nobodies is the true light that enlightens the world. This anti-king who is nevertheless true is the decisive clue to both God and human existence.
What on earth can it mean? Well, some people say it means that Jesus was a political revolutionary who took aim at powerful oppressors in high places, and that faithfulness to God therefore means participating in the same sort of political revolution. Some say it means that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world and therefore that faithfulness to God has nothing at all to do with politics and business. Some say it means that Jesus is a CEO and that faithfulness means making use of his management style for corporate and commercial success.
What does it mean? Perhaps none of us can be entirely sure. But we do know this: the Gospel of Luke pictures Jesus as a king who is not a king who is a king. That is, when it comes to Jesus, Luke doesn’t want to make it too easy for us to see what we want to see. He wants us to catch a glimpse of something different. And so, maybe Schweitzer was onto something after all when he turned his back on widely recognized success and position in Europe in order to furnish needed medical care to people he had never met. At least this seems like an appropriately strange thing for a follower of Jesus to do. Amen.
The Perfect Season: The Blessed Life
Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 22, 2015
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 7:13-29
The rapids were ahead, so we steered our canoes to the side of the river and got out to survey what was ahead. Normally we would have simply pushed right on through, but these rapids were in the shape of a sweeping “S”. And at one of the curves of the “S” was a large cypress tree. And by large I mean with a diameter of between eight and ten feet. My older brother David and his canoe partner made the determination that the only way to navigate these rapids was to stay dead in the center of the channel, because on one side were the rocks and on the other was the tree. With the plan made we are got back into our canoes and set sail, my younger brother Richard and I in a canoe behind David and his partner who led the way. As we approached the curve something unexpected happened. My brother’s canoe began to drift further and further to the right and closer and closer to the cypress. I wondered what they were up to…until they hit the tree, while Richard and I sailed right on pass. A bit later when we were all together I made the mistake of saying, “I thought we were supposed to stay in the middle?” I don’t remember David’s exact response, but it was not brotherly.
For me, this has always been one of those great images of how life works. We plan, we prepare and then nothing goes as we had thought it would. We go and get an M.B.A. which offers us the best leadership and management techniques. Then we go to work for a corporation or business full of plans and hopes, until the culture overwhelms us and we get squeezed into the traditions of those who had come before us. Or, we go to college and get a degree in teaching. We learn all of the wonderful tricks and techniques that will allow us to be great teachers; until we get one of those classes. One of those classes filled with squirrely boys and all of our best laid plans go out the window. Or we decide that we will be the best parents. We take Love and Logic, we read the right books and we think we are doing well, until our thirteen year old daughter, rolls her eyes and sighs when we try and tell her something. And again, all of the best laid plans for being a non-anxious calm parent go to pieces. We know what we are supposed to do, but in certain moments cultures and events get the best of us.
I offer you this image because it is at the heart of both of our stories this morning. Each concerns people knowing what they are supposed to do, but finding themselves in places where it is not easy to do.
Our first story is of the people of God getting ready to leave the wilderness and head to the Land of Promise. What we need to remember here is that the people Moses is addressing are not those whining, complaining folks who had been liberated from captivity in Egypt and all they did was gripe. No the people Moses is addressing are those who have been with him for a generation; who had come of age with the Torah, the Law which gave them a vision of and instructions for how life was supposed to be lived. They had seen God’s providing for them. They had witnessed God’s miraculous leading and protection. Now they were headed to the land controlled by others, whose cultures would tempt God’s people to forget all that they had learned and go after other gods and other ways of being community. In a sense the danger was that their canoe would head away from the middle of the stream and into the tree. So Moses challenges them to make a conscious choice of how they will live. He refers to it as choosing life; as choosing the life they know that they are supposed to live. He wants them to do more than think about living appropriately. He wants them to choose to do it.
Our second story mirrors our first. Jesus, as I have mentioned before, is portrayed in Matthew as the new Moses. His Sermon on the Mount is the giving of the “new law” just as Moses had done at Sinai. Now we find Jesus getting ready to head down the mountain, thus sending the people out into the new land; a land whose culture is one that will draw them away from what they have just heard and back into ways that offer death rather than life. He warns the people that what mattered was doing what they had been taught by him. Just as the people of God were to follow the Law and not just believe in it, the people who had heard Jesus speak were to do what they had been taught to do. Listen again to verse 24, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts upon them, will be like a wise man who built his house upon a rock.” Similarly in verse 21 he says, “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” The focus is on becoming the fruitful tree and the luxuriant vine. The lives of God’s people were to actually demonstrate the love of God in the world.
Over the years I have found this scripture to be one that bothers people more than almost any other in the New Testament. The language about doing rather than believing and about people calling Jesus “Lord” and then being sent away seems to run counter to everything that we have been taught about being saved by grace through faith. It seems very un-Jesus-like. It certainly seems very un-grace-like. So in order to wrap our heads around this story what I believe we need to remember that this story is not about salvation in the traditional sense of the word. This story and Jesus’s comments have to do with living a blessed life. Let me explain. When Moses addressed the people of God, his focus was “life.” He says, “…therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God.” Moses understood that God’s plan for God’s people was a blessed life; that they have a life in community in which everyone had enough, in which there was love and compassion, in which there was justice and mercy. This was the blessed life. In order to have that kind of life, the people had to do more than believe Moses, they had to choose to do what Moses taught them to do.
Jesus is proclaiming the same message. If the people of God want to have a blessed life then they need to do what Jesus told them to do. They need to do more than say “Lord, Lord.” They need to consciously choose to be obedient. They have to choose the right direction for their canoes. If they do so then their lives and the life of the community will be one which is full of love, grace, equity and justice. It will be a blessed life.
When you and I walk out of these doors, turn our cell phones back on, get back on our ipads, open the newspaper and listen to our televisions, we will be walking into the land of promise just as surely as did those who listened to Moses and Jesus. We will be entering a land which can, if we let it, convince us, as I have said before that our worth and value are measured by achievement, accumulation and appearance; a culture that will see us merely as consuming machines; a culture that wants us to be afraid of everyone and everything, so that we live lives of insecurity. Or, we can choose to live into a life of blessing. We can choose to forgive as we have been forgiven, to share with the poor, to love our neighbors, to speak the truth, to live humbly, to be faithful in our relationships, to be in community…in other words to do what Jesus taught. And in so doing find the blessed life.
The challenge then that I would like to offer you for this week is this, to ask yourselves, how am I intentionally choosing life? How am I intentionally choosing to do what Jesus has taught me to do so that I might find a life of blessing?
Youth Sunday: Don't Worry
March 15, 2015
Isaiah 51:1-8, Matthew 6: 25-34
Good morning :) For those of you who don't know me, I am Katie Schlafhauser, and this is my last official year with the youth program, so I was really excited and also really nervous when the opportunity came for me to present a sermon to you (gesture towards crowd). Bethany told me the topic for this sermon was worry, and I sort of felt my calling, because, I am innately a worrier.
I think a big part of my worry is centered on my fear of heights. I have always been afraid of heights. I stare at the small cliff looming before me and imagine a thousand scenarios that ultimately lead to my feet no longer being attached to the ground but more so flailing as I fall to the solid earth below me. I was never the adventurous child, because I was so scared for my safety. Whenever we stayed at hotels, my little sisters would always run to the balcony, and to me they seemed to be running into the hands of death. I would immediately pull them back and keep them from falling to the not so forgiving ground below.
I think the strongest instance of worry I ever felt was when my fear of heights was exponentially increased on our family trip out west. For those of you who have not been out to Colorado or Utah or Arizona, they do not like safe, flat ground there. No… They like cliffs, and arches and canyons and gorges and mountains. That's how they do it out west.
Anyways, we went to visit the Delicate Arch, and as my five year old sister stumbled dangerously close to the edge, I walked as far on the inside of the path as I could shouting for her to join me on the safe side. I now understand why child leashes are so popular.
Anyways, we stopped when we were in view of the arch, and we sat down for a picture. In hindsight, we probably could have gotten a postcard and I would have many fewer traumatic memories.
We were sitting on a rock, and there is about five feet of flat, sturdy ground to the ledge. This isn't a one-two foot baby drop, this is a "I can't tell if that's the ground" kind of a drop. Also, to make it better, there were no railings. The man taking our picture must not have had the smallest amount of fear because not only was he at the five foot mark of safe ground, he was leaning back to capture the whole scene. I think the picture captured my face perfectly. Horror. Pure horror. My face was red, hair was frizzy, and I can't really tell if I was smiling or just grinding my teeth really hard. Of course, my mother looked good in that picture, so it became our Christmas card photo that year. It was great for the most terrifying moment of my life to not only be captured forever in photograph, but also distributed to a variety of family and friends who could share in that raw fear and worry I had.
Worry. It can consume us. It can control us. It can define us.
Everyone, at some point, experiences worry. It is in our instinct to try to survive, and if we feel that something is threatening that survival, we panic and formulate solutions to get around the particular obstacle. I think the biggest factor promoting worry is the "what if" tendency we tend to take towards certain situations. What if there is pain? What if we go hungry? What if we don't have enough to provide for our families? What if there is loss? What if there is joy that we don't think we deserve?
From the youth perspective, there tends to be a lot of fear and uneasiness towards the future. What do we want to do with our lives? What if we pick the wrong path and can't change it? What if we aren't good enough?
Jesus says not to worry about where we will get our food or water. This seems like a great practice on the surface. It would be great to get my weekly salary and not immediately think about where each bit will be siphoned off to. This chunk goes to college. This chunk goes to my food for the week. This chunk goes to buying gas. This chunk goes to prom. Imagine if that conscious and unconscious worry could disappear. This is what God is promising through Jesus, and I want with every ounce of my being to achieve this nirvana of worry free peace.
It all sounds so easy, if we trust in God than we will be fed and clothed with the most holy of things, but then I stop and think. What about the millions of people in America alone that are going hungry every day. This isn't a once in a while struggle for them. This is an all-consuming worry that never goes away.
The fact of the matter is Jesus is asking us to stray away from our human instinct and find peace knowing that ultimately God will provide for us.
Provide us what?
This question keeps resonating through my mind. We are taught that we need food, water and shelter, yet so many go without those basic needs.
Is God breaking his promises, or is there more to this sermon than the surface level.
Throughout his sermon on the mount, Jesus presents basically a how-to-be-a-true-follower-of-God handbook, and this particular passage comes from that. It seems overwhelming seeing all of these unattainable characteristics laid out. Jesus tells us what true happiness is. He tells us how we are supposed to follow the Law of Moses to a tee, remove anger from our lives completely, remove thoughts of lust, and in essence, be a perfect person.
I am not an expert biblical theologian, but, to me, I see these as more guidelines than rules. Jesus knows it is impossible to master even one of these characteristics. All of them seems to be an unreachable goal. Jesus is showing us all that is possible when we are truly followers of God. When we follow God in the most pure and perfect sense of the word, we can achieve all of the things on the checklist of how to be a good follower.
Jesus is telling us not to worry. The birds don't spend their time worrying, and they live just like us. Won't God take more care of us because we are his children? After I read the passage a few times, I started to realize, hunger is only controlling if we let it poison the mind as well as body. Thirst, while deadly, will only truly bother us if we spend all of our time thinking about it. Sure we can only live three days without it, but if we live those days not focused on the growing dehydration, then we have evaded worry's encompassing grasp.
If we give up on constantly obsessing over every curveball life throws us, we have achieved the peace God promises us. He promises that we will never go hungry if we trust in him. To truly trust in God and know that temporary hunger will be alieved is to beat the hunger. You are no longer hungry if you stop focusing on it.
I know how mind controlling it is to go even one morning without breakfast. We sit in classes and work and contemplate all of the savory meals we could be having while our stomachs rumble on. If we go more than a few hours without drinking something, our throats become dry and our minds become filled with images of gently rushing streams or waterfalls or water bottles. But regardless of how hungry or thirsty or sad or worried we are in the moment, we always survive. We have all made it through varying degrees of hardships when we didn't know what the future held. We all made it through those.
Some of you may be going through current periods of time when the future has not revealed itself to you. Currently, I am still deciding where I want to go to college, what I want to do, and who I want to become. I am so worried I will make a wrong decision and end up somewhere that is not suited for me.
I think what Jesus wants us to take from this passage is that in order for God to keep his end of the bargain, we have to keep up our end. His promise is not a promise saying "Oh, as long as you exist, you will be taken care of". This is a two way promise. We have to trust God. We have to trust that these situations will unravel themselves, and they always do. We have to remember the number of successes on God's scoreboard and compare that with the hopefully infinitely small number of losses to worry.
Even if there was a time when we were careless and suffered for it, many times the pain of the moment fades away through time and we gain invaluable experience for it. Initially, I was so worried for the man taking that awful picture of me, and that awful picture of me being circulated between all of our family and friends. Now, when I look back on it, I laugh and know that the worry was self-created, and even though it was difficult in the moment and for time following it, I can look back with fondness at that memory and I have learned to next time, just take a selfie. No unnecessary fear in that scenario.
We have to remember that God loves us, and his love is pure. Sometimes human love can be selfish, but God's love is perfect. He wants what is best for us, and he has the means to make sure that happens. If we stop worrying about what tomorrow might bring, we can see that today has unanticipated joys of its own.
I think a nice way to wrap up this sermon is to offer a challenge. My challenge is for everyone to pick one thing, however small it might seem, and focus on it. Really analyze it and believe the part of you that says it will turn out fine. My theory is, if you can beat worry once, you know you can beat it again, as many times as you wish because you know you have done it before. Thank you very much for your time, and I hope everyone enjoys this warm weather:)
The Perfect Season: Dancing for God
March 8, 2015
They are the four words that no contestant wants to hear. “You really entertained us.” On the surface those would appear to be a very positive expression of support. Yet on Dancing with the Stars they are the kiss of death. For those of you unfamiliar with Dancing with the Stars it is a show that pairs celebrities with professional dancers whose task it is to teach the celebrities how to dance. Sometimes they are successful, such as with Meryl Davis and unsuccessful as with Michael Bolton. Regardless when the judges say, “You entertained us”, what they actually mean is, you cannot dance worth beans. It means that you have no rhythm, no style and essentially that you are either walking or stomping through your routine. Though Cindy and I are not great dancers we are usually pretty accurate in being able to tell which contestants are dancing and which are simply going through the motions.
In some ways this is a perfect image for the life of faith. Some people dance before God and others simply go through the motions. When I say dance before God, what I mean is that God plays a tune of grace, love, forgiveness, compassion, justice and tender care for the world. God then calls us to dance to that tune. God calls us to allow that music to infect our souls and change us so that rather than dancing to the tunes which the world plays, we follow where God’s music leads. And just like any dance it is learned and practiced and we have those around us who will show us how to allow the music to guide and direct our lives. The issue for all of God’s people though is that we are tempted to quit dancing and simply go through the motions. It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt, but I believe familiarity breeds complacency. We become complacent and simply act. This is the complaint that Amos brought against the people of Israel. Even though they followed the sacrificial rituals, they were not dancing. They were not allowing justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. They were just going through the motions.
Jesus, I believe, was faced with the same issue; the people were tempted to simply go through the motions of faith. They knew what they were supposed to do. They were to give alms to the poor. They were to pray to God. They were to fast. These were Jewish religious practices that had been practiced for almost half a century. They were the hallmarks of Jewish life…and have become the hallmarks of our own spiritual lives. We are to give money to the church and to those who serve the needy. We are to pray continually. We are to occasionally fast in order to allow ourselves to focus on what really matters in life. The problem was that because these were practices with which the people had become overly familiar, the people had either ignored them or had come to use them in order to receive the approval of others. The people had ceased dancing and had returned to going through the motions, often, if you will, to entertain others rather than for dancing for God. Jesus then offers the people some techniques which would assist them in returning to the dance.
The first technique was to dance in secret. As a pastor, one of the things that I have noticed across the years is that when people are called upon to dance in public, here meaning let’s say, to pray, one of two things often happen. One, these people become intimidated. There is a sense that only those of us who are professional prayers ought to talk to God. Two, people believe that they have to pray the whole Bible. They want to make sure that all of the bases are covered. Jesus gets this and so he tells the people that they are to remember that God is their only audience and so they can dance in secret. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites (which as Joanne told us on Ash Wednesday) means actors, for they love to stand and pray on the street corners so that they may be seen by others. 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.” What Jesus wanted them and wants us to understand is that we only dance for God and that it is much easier to do in secret than in public.
The second techniques is to keep our dance simple. On Dancing with Stars the concept is that as each week of the competition passes, the dances will become more and more difficult. There will be more difficult routines and techniques. Sometimes this is how we view our dancing before God; that we have to make it more and more difficult and if we do not, then we have somehow failed. Jesus however, urges us to keep it simple. “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think 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.” “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face…” In other words keep it simple. As the Nike commercial says, just do it. We are not to worry about the perfection of our technique, but instead we are simply to dance for God.
The final technique is do dance sincerely. We are to dance from the heart. For many of us this is the most difficult technique. It is the most difficult because we live in a world of feelings. Loving others is about feelings. Forgiving is about feeling. Serving is about feeling. Society teaches us that in the end sincerity is not about what we do, or how we do it, or how often we do it, but only about how we feel when we do it. Jesus though makes no mention of feelings. Jesus asks people to give, to pray and to fast because they are the right things to do. They orient our hearts and minds toward God and others. They align us with the tune because they are mirrors of what God does for us. God gives to us, so we give to others. God listens to us, so we speak to God. God speaks to us, so we fast in order to hear what God is saying. These are the melodies of God’s song. Sincerity then does not mean that we have to feel a certain way about these actions, it merely means that we do them because we know that they will assist us in dancing for God; that if we are intentional about their effect they will allow us to become the dancers God desires us to be.
You and I are called to dance before God; to let the music of God’s love and grace infect our souls and change our lives; to guide all of our steps. The perfect season then is not to have others tells us what god dancers we are, but to have God reward us for keeping our dance secret, simple and sincere. The challenge that I want to offer on this day then is this, to ask yourselves, “How am I dancing before God? How am I allowing God’s tune to guide my life?”
Rev. Amy Morgan
March 1, 2015
Genesis 3:1-7, Matthew 5:38-48
Helicopter parents. We all know them, right? They are those parents who hover over their children, the whooshing blades of their over-involvement cutting away at their child’s emerging independence.
Psychologist and parenting expert Wendy Mogel says, “College deans have nicknames for today’s incoming students. They call them ‘teacups’ and ‘crispies.’ The teacups have been so managed, overprotected and supported by their parental handlers that they lack the basic life skills needed to survive away from home. The crispies are so exhausted from grade grubbing and worrying about what is going to be on the next test that they are burned out.”
Hundreds of books, studies, workshops, and blogposts have been devoted to combating this parental urge to hyperparent the children of this generation, and yet it continues, and even seems to get worse.
At the heart of this need to over-parent is a drive for absolute perfection. A perfect storm of marketing and media, technology tethers and shifting cultural norms have convinced us that perfection is not only possible but necessary for our children’s happiness, success, and overall well-being.
Perhaps somewhere under the surface we sense this is a complete falsehood, but it’s challenging to turn those suspicions into outright doubt that exposes the truth that we are really destroying our children in our efforts to perfect them.
Believe it or not, we are not the first people to struggle with this tension.
In the first century, the very real threat of Jewish life and culture being assimilated into Roman society caused some factions of the religious leaders to emphasize strict adherence to the Law of Moses both in temple observance and in domestic affairs. They looked to observance of the Law as a way to achieve the righteousness necessary to please God enough to gain freedom from their oppressors. This might sound like a crazy idea to us, but the Old Testament is filled with examples of the Israelites turning back to God, following God’s Law, and receiving God’s favor and rescue. This was a long-standing pattern in the relationship between God and Israel. Some religious leaders became like helicopter parents, driving the Jewish people toward righteous perfection, hovering over their personal and public affairs, even at times bragging about their high standards.
Now, there were others in Jewish society who favored relaxing the observance of the Law in order to help the Jewish people survive and even thrive under Roman occupation. As the saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” They wanted to remove the barriers to advancement within Roman society while maintaining their Jewish faith and identity. Their helicopter parenting came in the form of excuses and accommodation, protecting the people from the reality of their differentness and the challenges their identity presented in their current situation. Their aim was to be the perfect Roman citizen while maintaining their religious self-esteem, acceptable to everyone, comfortable and happy.
Then along comes Jesus, and in typical Jesus style, he teaches a third way that pleases no one.
To the Law keepers, he says, “what you’re doing still isn’t good enough.” Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees if we wish to enter the kingdom of heaven. The passage we read today is part of a longer series of teachings involving this “you have heard it said…but I say” pattern. The law says “you shall not murder,” but Jesus says that anger, insult, and name-calling all come with judgment as well. The law says “you shall not commit adultery,” but Jesus says that lustful desires should be taken just as seriously as lustful actions. The law allows for divorce and oath-making and retaliation, but Jesus offers a more challenging interpretation that restricts easily walking away from a commitment, and emphasizes straight talk, peaceful resistance, and impossible generosity. Jesus even dares to teach us how to love, shaming his audience into holding themselves up to a higher standard than the Gentiles and tax-collectors they disdain. He says they must love not only their friends and neighbors, but their enemies as well.
This is clearly not a welcome teaching to those who hoped to relax religious observance and blend into Roman society. In an honor/shame society like the Roman Empire, insult and argument were the tools of advancement. Family was important, but pleasure-seeking was prominent and, for the most part, perfectly acceptable. Swearing an oath was essential, and if one couldn’t retaliate an offense, that weakness would be exposed and exploited. Keeping your friends close but your enemies closer may have been a useful tactic, but actually loving your enemies would have been unthinkable.
Jesus closes all this teaching with the instruction to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
When I read this translation, I’m ready to throw out this whole section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes we heard last week are great. There’s good stuff coming up about prayer and anxiety and the Golden Rule. But if what Jesus is saying here is that we are supposed to be as perfect as God - well, I just can’t get behind that.
Which is why I’m glad I was required to study Greek in seminary.
The word used here for “perfect” also means “complete or mature.” It is related to the word “telos,” which means final or ending, as in the end goal or final accomplishment of purpose. Grammatically, I get why this is always translated “perfect,” but it’s a really unhelpful translation. And I think it has contributed to helicopter Christianity.
Helicopter Christians, much like first-century Jews, can be divided into two groups with competing concerns but the same aim toward perfection.
The first group is concerned with upholding a distinct religious identity in a rapidly changing global and pluralistic culture. They drive one another to memorize and regularly reference scripture. They strive to fulfill Jesus’ call to avoid anger and name-calling by encouraging the display of “niceness.” They hold one another to a high standard of sexual purity and marital bliss. They push each other to give more – of their time, their money, and their lives – to the church.
And helicopter Christians in the South have a genius way of dealing with this “love your enemies” teaching. You have this person with whom you have an antagonistic relationship. Typically, this involves a power struggle within the life of the church. You can malign this person, demean them, undermine them, and all sorts of nasty things. But here’s the catch: before each negative comment about your opponent, you insert the phrase “bless her heart.” It’s brilliant. “You know, bless her heart, but Jane just really has no idea what she’s doing trying to run the church Rummage Sale. If she’d just let some new leadership take over, we could raise so much more money.” “Bless his heart” – yes, this works for men, too – “if George weren’t such a disorganized mess, maybe the church finances would be in better shape. I wish he’d just listen to me about how to put things in order.” This is loving your enemies – “bless their hearts.”
Spiritual perfection is the aim of these helicopter Christians, but it often results instead in spiritual burnout, those “krispies” described by Wendy Mogel.
The second group of helicopter Christians is concerned with making life easier for Christians today, making it less embarrassing to admit publicly that you are a follower of Christ. Avoiding anger and insult is about being a good citizen. Jesus’ teachings about lust and divorce are about healthy relationships. Civic peace is at the heart of turning the other cheek and loving our enemies. Now, we think about enemies like ISIS and Russian separatists. Maybe we’re willing to admit enmity against certain political parties or groups of people with opposing viewpoints. But we’re rarely willing to make our enemies personal, to admit that the relationships we have with people in our neighborhoods, families, and church could be defined with as strong a word as “enemy.”
And Jesus’ call to perfection? Of course, that’s impossible. Clearly, the deeper meaning Jesus is getting at here is that we should try hard and do our best. Everybody gets a medal.
Where does this kind of helicopter Christianity lead? To “teacup” Christians, whose faith has been so overprotected that when it is challenged, it easily cracks.
The real problem with helicopter parenting and helicopter Christianity is that they don’t accomplish their goal. Helicopter parenting tries to make children “perfect” within a socially-constructed and completely false definition of perfection. And it fails. It fries their self-esteem and prevents them from developing fully into mature, independent, unique and whole people. Children are encouraged to accomplish the goals parents set for them rather than accomplish their “telos,” their true purpose in life.
Helicopter Christianity constructs an equally false and damaging set of values and standards that lead to hypocrisy, judgment, defeat, or irrelevance. When we become helicopter Christians, we are aiming at exactly the wrong goal. We are trying to be perfect, like God, rather than aiming for the maturity, completeness, and wholeness that God embodies and that God has designed for us by creating us in God’s image.
What Jesus calls us to is spiritual maturity and achievement of our God-given purpose in life, which, according to the Westminster Catechism, is “to enjoy God and glorify God forever.” Try putting that down on your list of accomplishments on a college application or professional resume.
Our children don’t need perfect grades. They don’t need to be the star athlete. They don’t need to get a full ride to an Ivy League school. They don’t need to be recruited by multiple Fortune 500 companies before they graduate.
They also don’t need to be shielded from the realities that work is hard, people can be mean, everyone will not like us or agree with us all the time, and not everyone gets a medal for participating and trying hard.
Likewise, as Christians, we aren’t judged by how much of the Bible we know by heart, how nice we are to other people, how pure our desires and perfect our marriages seem, how extravagant our charity, or how much we “bless her heart.”
At the same time, we are called to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, to recognize and confess the ways we fail to live in right relationship with God and with one another. We are actually called to be different, to be radically counter-cultural, and be deeply involved and immersed in this culture that is contrary to the Christian gospel. We must be realistic about the challenges of this way of life and the tension we will live in each day of this struggle.
There is an end goal, a “telos,” toward which we are all striving. It is a life of wholeness, of the completeness of our God-given purpose. A life in which animosity is overcome with reconciliation, broken relationships are overcome with fidelity, broken promises are overcome with trust, retaliation is overcome with strength and humility, and hate is overcome with love. Not for the sake of perfection. But for the sake maturity of faith, of complete devotion to Jesus Christ, the One who lived and died and rose again to bring heaven to earth and give us abundant life in him. To whom be all glory, forever and ever. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 22, 2015
Isaiah 42:5-9, Matthew 5:1-16
We begin today with a quiz. And the quiz is what do these football teams have in common? And by the way this is a Michigan quiz. The 1904 Michigan Wolverines, the 1913 Michigan State Spartans, the 1925 Eastern Michigan Hurons, the 1913 Western Michigan Broncos and the 1918 Central Michigan Chippewas. The answer is that they all had the perfect season. They were all undefeated. Now for those of you who are statewide football fans, each of those schools had at least two more perfect seasons. All of which is rather remarkable considering how difficult it is to accomplish that feat. Yet, the perfect season is what every team hopes to accomplish before the season begins. And in some ways it is what all of us hope to achieve in every area of our lives. In school we want the perfect 4.0 season. In business we want the “this year’s sales and profits are better than last year’s” perfect season. With our children we want the “they are happy and healthy” season. And there is nothing wrong with this because we are supposed to strive for the perfect season.
I say this because, as Protestants, we believe that we ought to pursue excellence in all things. We are to do so because it means that we are fully using the gifts that God has given us. This is what Presbyterians believed in educating everyone. This is why Presbyterians started colleges and universities. This is why we produce so many leaders in a variety of fields, because we believe that all human beings ought to pursue excellence in their lives. The problem with this pursuit however is we human beings often lose sight of the pursuit and instead focus on the prize, the perfect season. And in so doing, we risk any hope of truly having the perfect season. How so…let me give you a name, Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong was a great cyclist. His metabolism and physical gifts were extraordinary. He was always pursuing the perfect season…victory at the Tour de France. Yet somewhere along the way, the prize became more important than the pursuit. He cheated, lied and even sued people who challenged him. He was willing to sell his soul for the prize.
This is the human condition. It is the tendency to confuse pursuing excellence with the prize itself. We see this in businesses overstating their earnings in order to drive up share prices. We see this in Little League baseball teams that cheat by recruiting ineligible players. We see this in students at the Naval Academy who cheat on their ethics exams. We see this in television anchors who create fictional events in order to bolster their reputations. We see this in children, youth and parents who confuse excellence with perfection, which is so often seen as the prize…and they are not the same. Yesterday I was visiting with Hank Borchardt who related a story to me about this that he thought would help me, and here it is. For those of you who may not know, Hank was a long time sailor. At one regatta he was on the dock when a group of 9-10 year olds finished their race. Hank watched as a boy, who had finished fifth out of 35 boats, was approached by his father who said, “We spent good money on your lessons and this boat and all you can do is finish fifth?” This is complete focus on the prize and not the pursuit. The question then becomes how can we insure that we do not lose focus?
I believe the answer is to practice the virtues of kingdom people, the virtues of those people who are part of the kingdom that God is bringing to earth in and through Jesus the Christ. By practicing kingdom virtues we become reoriented to what truly matters in life. The virtues are like a compass which points us to true north. And where do we find these virtues? One place where we can find them is in the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are, as N.T. Wright puts it, “…a summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future (God’s kingdom); because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth.” (Matthew for Everyone: Part One, pg 38). In other words, the Beatitudes shape us into particular kinds of people who live in a particular way; a way which corresponds to God’s kingdom rule and reign in the world. We become kingdom people living kingdom lives. If we allow these virtues to guide us, then we will be rooted and grounded in the kingdom in such a way that the temptation to confuse the prize with the pursuit will be greatly lessened.
So what does a kingdom life as defined by the Beatitudes look like? The easiest way to find out is to take a quick, and I mean a very quick tour through the Beatitudes. I realize that while this is doing a bit of a disservice to them, it will allow us to catch a glimpse of what the kingdom life looks like. So here we go.
The poor in Spirit are those who know that they are not spiritually self-sufficient and thus are in need of God’s presence and guidance. Those who mourn are those who take upon themselves the hurt of the world. They mourn not only for themselves but for the world around them as it hurts. The meek are those who stand firm in their faith but do not dominate others. They know that they do not have to have their own way in all things. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who work for justice in the world. They are those who provide a voice for the voiceless and seek to empower the powerless. The merciful are those who see the needs of the world around them and offer help where and when they can. They see the best in people and are willing to forgive and show kindness to those others would pass by. The pure in heart are those who have oriented their lives to God and have worked at casting out hate, fear and prejudice. The peacemakers are those who build bridges between people who are estranged because of any reason. Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake are those who are willing to stand for the love of God regardless of the outcome.
Jesus expands on these images of what kingdom people ought to look like with two often overused, yet seldom fully appreciated images. The first is that of salt. Kingdom people are the salt of the earth. In our normal lingo salt of the earth means sort of down to earth, average Joe kind of people. But here it means that kingdom people are to be those who are to strive to keep the world from going bad just as salt was used to keep food from going bad. We are to be the preservative that keeps the world looking and acting like it ought to look if God is in charge. The second image Jesus offers is that of light to the world. This is a theme which Jesus picked up from Isaiah. The kingdom people are to be those who shine God’s light on those places in the world where darkness reigns. We are to be those who show people the way to full and abundant life. We are to show them what excellence looks like so that they too can be kingdom people.
All of this being said, this vision of being Kingdom people runs up against one of the great controlling myths of the world which is, in this world one cannot reach the prize of the perfect season while at the same time being kingdom people. Instead one has to be ruthless because this is a cut-throat, dog eat dog kind of world. One of the most often refrains I have heard over the years is, “I cannot afford to be a Christian out in the business world.” I would argue just the opposite, and if for no other reason than what all of you demonstrate. Over the past six years I have come to know many of you…and some of you rather well. And what I have seen is that you are able to both strive for excellence in a multiplicity of ways, and at the same time live as Kingdom people; being salt and light to the world and making a positive difference in God’s creation.
That being said, I want to challenge you to pursue the kingdom virtues found in the Beatitudes. In general, I challenge you to pursue them all. Specifically I challenge you to choose one of the Beatitudes and make it a focus of your living during Lent. Whether it is a striving to be more merciful or to work for justice, I challenge you to choose one and pursue it with excellence, knowing that in so doing it will ground you as a kingdom person now and always. Oh, and then either email me so I know which you are pursuing or put it on our Facebook page so others can be encouraged by your pursuit of kingdom excellence.