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?
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. 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.