Sermon on the Mount: The Golden Rule

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My sister-in-law has been staying with us all week while she completed a training here in Des Moines for her work place.  It was really nice to come home in the evenings and to be with not only my husband, but both of his siblings every evening.  We relaxed, had nice meals together, caught up on what was going on in each other’s lives and played a lot of cards.

One of our go-to games is pinochle.  You play the game with a deck made up of only 9’s through Aces, but we play with four of every single card.   There is a bid phase, a meld phase, and then a playing phase.  It’s kind of a complicated game, but once you get the hang of it, it goes fairly quickly.

Like any card game, there are endless variations on the rules.  And the thing about pinochle is that whenever we play at my sister-in-law’s house, we play with a different set of rules than when we play at their dad’s house.  In one case, a four of a kind can earn you anywhere from 40-100 points, and in the other, it’s worth absolutely nothing.  When I looked down at my hand about halfway through the game and saw four Kings of Hearts, I suddenly wished that we were playing at her house instead.

But, the house rules prevail.

A couple of weeks ago as we gathered here to explore the Sermon on the Mount, we talked about the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures, as explained by Jesus.  He took some of those well-known laws from the Ten Commandments and actually made them harder… in the end, reminding us that our aim is to be perfect, to be complete in our love.  Jesus puts his own spin or variation on them.

Now, the difference between a rule and a law is hard to distinguish.  Laws are official, because they are created and enforced by the political structure of the time – whether it is a democracy, like the United States today, or a theocracy, like the early Jewish monarchy and they have official consequences.    But rules, are standards of behavior that guide our actions and tend to be dictated by the community or environment or home that you are in.  There are consequences for rules, too, but they tend to be less severe – like a loss of privilege or opportunity.

In the case of a card game, you could think about the law being the standard way a game is played. In the game we were play, for example, a Queen of Spades and a Jack of Diamonds is a what is known as a pinochle and that is same everywhere you play the game.   But the variations, the house rules, vary and tell you a little bit about what that particular community values about the game itself.

Much of the Sermon on the Mount is made up of these “house rules.”  Jesus describes for us how it is that we play this game of life as people who are part of the Kingdom of God.  He lays out the variations that are going to guide our life and our relationships if we want to be part of this community.  These aren’t formal laws with defined consequences, but rather describe the standards that we should aspire to embody if we are going to be part of God’s Kingdom.

And the section of the sermon that we focus on this morning is no different.  When it comes to relationships, when it comes to how we live together in community, Jesus lifts up this idea of reciprocal relationship… that you should give what you want to get.

He talks about this in terms of judgment:  Don’t judge so you won’t be judged.

He talks about it in terms of seeking:  That just as you expect to get the things you need from your earthly parent, so your heavenly parent will give you good things.

And he talks about this in how we treat one another in general: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

 

Now, Christianity isn’t the only community to have ever expressed this rule.

In the Hindu faith we hear: This is the sum of duty:  do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain. (The Mahabharata)

In Buddhism: Hurt not others with that which pains yourself. (Udana-Varga)

Islam teaches: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. (Hadith)

Confucius says: What you do not want others to do to you, do not do to others.

And as a contemporary of Jesus, Seneca taught: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.

What is interesting is that in many of these other cultural and religious expressions of this idea, the rule is usually expressed in the negative.  Don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated.  It is about refraining and restraint.   And the section on judgment certainly fits that kind of characteristic when it encourages us to not point out the specks in our neighbors eye – to refrain from judging.  But Jesus also expresses this rule in the positive light – Treat others the way you want to be treated.  As MacDonald and Farstad write in their commentary on this passage, Jesus “goes beyond passive restraint to active benevolence.  Christianity is not simply a matter of abstinence from sin; it is positive goodness.” (Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments).

The Golden Rules that Jesus give us are proactive.  They invite us to take a situation and to pour God’s mercy, love, and grace into every aspect.  We should look upon every encounter with others and ask in every circumstance – how would I want to be treated in the midst of this.  And then, we are supposed to do it.  Not just think about it, but do it!  William Barclay notes that this law invites us to go out of our way to help others, and it is something that “only love can compel us to do.  The attitude which says, ‘I must do no harm to people,’ is quite different from the attitude which says, ‘I must do my best to help people.’” (The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 1)

And Jesus calls us to do our best to love all people, whether or not they deserve it.

Think about even the “law of retaliation” that comes earlier in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus reminds us that the reciprocal nature of our relationships in the past has been about an eye for an eye.  We give back what we have been given.  But Jesus challenges us to be proactive in our love… that if we are slapped on one cheek, to turn the other to them as well.  If we are sued for our shirt, we should give them our coat also.  In many ways, we are being asked to love first and ask questions later!

The world that we live in today is starkly divided.   There is a lot of pain and disagreement and conflict that is not only reflected in national politics, but it often takes its root in our homes and families and churches, too.  When I was in Chicago a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues shared that their family has cancelled their annual reunion because they have such differing political views they can’t be in the same room together any longer.    Our larger United Methodist Church is so divided about whether and how we will welcome people of varying sexual orientations that we are in a season of deep discernment about if we can even remain a united church and what it might look like if we did.   I experience this in my own family, too.

And maybe that is why a commentary piece from foxnews.com really hit home with me.  The author describes how she and her husband find a way to live together in the midst of their disagreements and I’ll share the article to our church facebook page if you are interested in reading it.  What struck me about the piece, and why I share it today, is that it lifts up that you have to start with love.  You have to start with the Golden Rule.  You have to start in a place of generosity and mercy and kindness, treating those who radically disagree with you with the same respect and graciousness that you would hope to receive back.

Jennifer Dukes Lee calls us to resist trying to be right and to not judge others by putting them in boxes.  She calls us to think before we speak and to ask if what we say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind.  And she tells us that when we truly live in these ways, when we let love define what we do, that we can show the world that it is possible to live in the midst of diversity, if we put others first.  (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/02/16/trump-or-never-trump-what-to-do-when-cant-agree-with-people-love.html)

In this season of our national and state and home life, we need to  remember the house rules that define who we are as people of faith.  The rule of love and compassion.  The rule that invites us to put others first.  The rule that leads us to treat any person we meet the way we would want to be treated… whether they deserve it or not.

Empty. #umcgc

So far at this conference I’ve been given a few nicknames.

Mama-Pastor.
Interloper.
Bridge-builder.

I feel called to be United Methodist and I have always felt called to hang out in the middle and help various sides hear one another.

Maybe that is why my subcommittee experience was so powerful.

We connected across cultures.
We shared from our contexts.
We listened more than we talked.

And maybe that is why today has been so terribly hard.

Yesterday evening, word started spreading about conversations between the Council of Bishops and various caucuses. They are trying to help us find a way forward and viable separation was on the table. As Bishop Ough said this morning (and this is a paraphrase): we risked being vulnerable enough to go there.

Last night was full of denial and shock.

We began worship with the room buzzing and a whole host of ecumenical guests.

Unity. Oneness. Unity. Oneness.

Oh, and an absolutely incredible and challenging sermon by Ivan Abrahams of the World Methodist Council.

I wept through most of worship.

My heart was broken.

The bridges seemed to be disintegrating.

And yet we were singing “I need you to survive.”

Bishop Ough came to the mic after worship and shared with us a letter from the Bishops. A word that they were committed to unity. And yet, it felt to me like they were also saying… whatever you decide to do, we’ll help you navigate through.

Except, we don’t know what to do.

Friends, our conflict is not about the lives of LGBTQI people. At this moment, their value, calls, and relationships are at the center of our conflict, but the church needs to grow up and say to our children: it is not your fault that we are so divided and torn.

My siblings are not issues and they are not the cause of our pain… although we are causing them pain.

Our conflict is that we have radically different ways of understanding what it means to be United Methodist. Across the connection, we view the primacy of scripture differently. Some of us see the Discipline as gospel and some of us see it as a living breathing document that helps us adapt to changing context. Some of our conferences are lay led, others clergy, other focus their power in the episcopacy. Some of us are in cultures that have forgotten the Christian tradition, others in places where the way of Jesus is barely taking root and trying to create space for Christianity. Some of are studying liberation theology and some of us can’t see our privilege when we look at ourselves in the mirror. Some of us have the freedom to make choices and others face scrutiny from their governments. Some of us are worried about kids spending too much time and energy on soccer camp and others are just praying for their five year old not to die from malaria.

We’ve found a way together before.

What I love about our tradition is that we hold together all sorts of both/ands… personal piety AND social holiness… making disciples AND transforming the world… potlucks AND fasting…

So I came to General Conference committed to finding a way forward… together.

I have to admit, however, that I need the church to change. Yes, to be more inclusive. Yes, to end the pain upon our LGBTQI siblings. But even more, I need the church to change because the Holy Spirit is calling and pushing and challenging us to step to the margins and let go of our rules and power and privilege and actually go do the things Jesus freaking asked us to do!

If the church refuses to change and adapt… well…  I have started to feel like maybe we can each be more faithful on our own.

Watching us celebrate the 200th anniversary of the AME Church, we lifted up how they thrived a part from us. We pushed out our siblings (in horrendous acts of racism) and they are  fine. God continues to move and work in both of our traditions. God is bigger than our denominations and conflicts. God can unite us even if we have different names for our churches.

So, friends, tomorrow we start the conversation again.

The Bishops might come back with a proposal. We might discuss it.

Only God knows what our future holds.

And tomorrow, having heard the pain and frustration, I don’t know where we’ll end up.

All I know is that I’m letting go of any desire to stay together at all cost, any stubborn clinging to unity in name only.

There is a way forward but I no longer pretend to have a “right answer.”

Lord, put us to what thou wilt… let us be employed for thee or laid aside for thee… let us have all things, let us have nothing… thy will be done.