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.

Momentum for Life: Who is your Elisha?

This morning, we continue to explore what DRIVES us… the momentum that Christ is trying to build in our life to help us keep following him.

 

Today, our focus is on how we INVEST IN RELATIONSHIPS. How are we reaching out and building up those who will be the leaders of the future? How are we teaching and mentoring our children so that they might carry this faith forward through the ages?

Just a few minutes ago, Doug/Pam shared with us a piece of the story of the prophets Elijah and Elisha.

Elijah knows that God is calling him away from this earth and he has been trying to prepare his protégé Elisha for the task of carrying on his work.

Elisha doesn’t think that he is ready and so he keeps clinging on to his master, his teacher. He isn’t quite sure that he can do it without him.

Most of us have had a mentor or a teacher, a parent or a family member who helped to shape us in our lives. One of mine was my youth pastor, Todd Rogers. He knew the lyrics to all the rap songs and would bust out in rhyme while we stood in line for events… which was a really strange thing for a tall, white guy to be doing. But he had this way of helping every person feel connected and important. He took our questions seriously… In fact, he helped me understand that the questions are just as important as the answers.

When I headed off to college, I wasn’t sure if I would find that same kind of love and support. But Todd laid the foundation, helped me to have confidence in myself I didn’t know was there, and had prepared me. I discovered, just like Elisha, that God was with me in this new phase of my life, too.

 

As we grow and mature in our faith, one of the tasks we are called to is to nurture the next generation. Like Elijah, like my youth pastor, like your own mentors…. We are now called to pass on the faith and share what we have received with others.

 

Our psalmist for this morning focuses his words on how we can do this in our families. So many of you have shared with me how your grandparents or parents faithfully brought you to church and formed in you the convictions that you have today.

One of the ways we are helping to equip parents to share faith with their children is our new children’s church curriculum. The truth is, we only get to see your children and grandchildren for an hour or two a week. You are the ones who are helping them to learn and grow every single day. And so our new curriculum provides some easy ways that you can reinforce the message we share on Sunday mornings. We send home with the children these sheets that include scriptures, prayers and thoughts so that together, you and your kids can grow together in faith.

 

But we are also called to mentor people outside of our families.   In every aspect of our lives… whether it is our work or our area of service, we can be on the lookout for those who are our Elishas.

While we might love what we do, we can’t do it forever.

We get to a point where we retire, or take a break, or transition to a new ministry and at every one of those points, one of the marks of our legacy is not what we ourselves have accomplished, but how we have prepared others to carry that work forward.

And that means we need to invest in the lives of other people.

This is one of the lessons I am learning as I grow in my ministry. It probably won’t shock you to learn that I’m not an expert at what I do…. And I’m grateful for how you have been patient and graceful with me as I learn what it means to be the lead pastor of a church like this.

Last November, I was at a continuing education event where I was reminded, just as Michael Slaughter was in the book, that I need to set aside more time to strategically invest in the work of our leaders in the church. There are so many tasks on the to-do list… but it doesn’t matter what we accomplish if we are not mentoring and moving together.

So one of the commitments I’m making this year is to meet one-on-one with the leaders of each of my committees and teams each month. And I’m encouraging each of our staff to do this with their leaders as well. My hope is that all of us will grow in our faith in the process.

And I started living out that commitment these past two weeks by setting aside time to sit down and talk with some of you about your ministry here at the church. So far, I have had about 30 of these one-on-one meetings and I certainly have been blessed in the process. I’m excited about continuing this work and want you to know that you don’t have to wait for a phone call or email from me… I’d love to sit down with you and talk about whatever is going on in your life!

 

Slaughter writes that there is an “invisible line of people standing behind you” who have helped to shape your life and your ministry.

But you also are called to stand behind others. “Who are you parenting, mentoring, coaching, encouraging, managing, or leading?”

Who is your Elisha?

The Blue Couch #NaBloPoMo

In my sophomore year of college, Brandon asked me to take a road trip with him.  We drove to Madison, where his sister was living, to rescue a big blue couch before it went in the dumpster. She called because she thought it was an awesome couch and couldn’t believe her office building was just going to throw it away.

At first, it lived in his dad’s house in Cedar Rapids, but before too long, Brandon was at Simpson College with me and the blue couch came along, too.  We lived in a co-ed theme house and the blue couch had center stage in our living room. Debates, drinks, friendships, and gamers sprawled all over that couch.  It was our senior year… a time of making decisions, finding new directions, and going different ways.

Brandon moved back home and his dad had long since replaced the furniture. So, the couch, our couch, came with me as I made the trek to Nashville for seminary.  It lived in the middle of my living room in my duplex on Poston. It was where we held Jeopardy Style study sessions, where my friend came out as Jewish, where we kept a long-distance relationship alive through phone calls…  And then the couch moved with me to the townhouse I’d share for a couple of years.

Brandon moved to Nashville too.   The couch was there… for the start of my obsession with Grey’s Anatomy… for the conversations with Glen where he kept reminding me I’d make a good pastor… for the night Brandon and I broke up (but just for a night) because we weren’t sure how ministry and marriage wedded together.

And then we did get married. We moved that blue couch into our first, little, one bedroom apartment.

Before the year was up, we moved again. Back home, to Iowa.

My first church, our first real house, and the blue couch.

Oh, and cats. We added some kittens when we arrived home.  And the couch was never the same. Claw marks, stuffing coming out on the ends.

I got up early on Sunday mornings and wrote sermons on the couch. I reconnected with old friends, and we made new ones on that couch.

It moved with us one more time to Cedar Rapids… tattered… grungy… and sat in a room we barely used.

So when the time came to transition again, to Des Moines, we thought about leaving it, for good, in the dumpster.

But that couch still has life in it.  This summer, I bought some new fabric and if I ever find time, I plan to reupholster the whole thing. The cats are declawed now and that couch has too many damn memories in it.

J&MES: Mercy & Judgment

I love to play games. Board games, video games, card games…

One of my favorite ways to spend time with family is to grab a deck of cards and play all evening long.

Pinochle and 500 in particular. In both, there is some luck involved in the hand you are dealt, but also a lot of strategy during the card play. The games involve bidding, communication with your partner, and risk taking. Because you never know when your cards might get trumped.

You see, in both games, there is a trump suit. And that means that whoever wins the bid gets to pick the suit… whether diamonds, hearts, clubs, or spades… that will automatically win anytime they are played.

No matter how high of a card you play… a trump card can beat it.

In our life of faith, there are a lot of trump cards we can play. Actions we take or words we say that stop a conversation in its tracks or change the trajectory of a person’s action.

As James writes to the people of God, he is basically telling them that they have two kinds of trump cards to choose from: Mercy & Judgment.

The question is… which is more faithful? And which are YOU going to play?

 

Each of us were handed a card as we walked in this morning. For the purposes of our message this morning, I want you to ignore whatever the number or suit is of the card you were handed and instead I want you to pick your own ranking.

I want you to think about the worst thing you have ever done in your life. The biggest sin you have committed. That one that stays with you. Maybe, it is the one others keep reminding you about. Maybe, the one no one else even knows about.

How would you rank that sin?

Is it a four of stealing?

Is it a jack of adultery?

Is it an ace of lies?

No matter how we have ranked our sin, no matter what suit it is, God has a word for us today.

Because no matter how high of a card you have or you play… a trump card can beat it.

And in our life of faith, we can choose between two suits of trump: Mercy & Judgment.

 

First, let’s look at what it would mean to play the trump card of judgment.

When you choose judgment as your trump card, then when you see sin in the world, you choose to name it. You choose to treat others based upon their obedience to the Law of God, because you are playing by the rule of Law.

And that means that every one of the Ten Commandments Moses chiseled into the stone tables, every one of the 613 laws of the Old Testament, every single rule of the scriptures applies.

Not just for other people, who you are judging…. But for yourself, too!

This is the same message Paul shares with the Roman community. In chapter 2 of his letter to the Romans, he speaks about the difference between living under the law and living under grace… and specifically is speaking to a Jewish community. “Those who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law… If you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law…. Then why don’t you who are teaching others teach yourself.” (Romans 2: 12, 17, 21)

If you choose to judge others by the Law, you are choosing to live under the Law. And that means all the Law applies to you.

One of the big problems that James sees with this is that Judgment is often arbitrary.

We pick and choose which laws we are going to judge by.

As The Message translation of James 2:1 puts it: “My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith.”

The laws we tend to judge by ARE influenced by the changing tides of culture. We can see how the important sins of the day have changed through time… whether we are focusing on slavery, prohibition, child labor, sexuality, abortion… some sins get elevated to the top and are THE standard by which we judge other people.

If we go back to the game of cards… they are the ones that we think are the Aces, Kings and Queens of sin.

But as James writes, “you can’t pick and choose in these things.”

If you are going to live under the law, you have to live under the ENTIRE law. And Paul says it is impossible: “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” (Romans 2:23)

But we keep trying to play the trump cards of judgment, and we point out to others the exact rank and suit of their cards.

The problem is, we tend to use our life as the measuring stick, rather than the law. We pick out their suits by the Laws we choose to follow and rank them based on our own obedience, success, and failures. Who is rich and who is poor… who is deserving and undeserving… all of these distinctions depend on where we stand and what we believe about ourselves…. Not how God sees them or us.

And God sees all sin equally. It doesn’t matter if you are a serial killer or committed adultery or if you stole a candy bar when you were seven… we are all sinners.

Every single sin, no matter how we rank them… whether it is an ace or a three… they are equal. They all get trumped by judgment.

 

The other option is to choose mercy as your trump card. When you do so, it is grace that sets the rules of the game.

A very simple definition of mercy is to give someone something they do not deserve.

And as we just heard, none of us deserve grace. “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory,” Paul writes… and then continues, “but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace.” (Romans 3:23-24)

The Law of God helps us to see how far away from God’s intentions we have fallen, but it is only the Grace of God that gives us the freedom to get back up and reclaim who we were truly meant to be.

On Tuesday of this week, Pastor Todd and I were in Ames to hear a presentation from Bishop Ken Carter who presides over the Florida Annual Conference.

First and foremost, Bishop Carter reminded us that we were all made in the image of God. Before the fall, before sin entered the world, we were made in God’s image.

And in our tradition, we believe that no sin, no matter how big, can ever take that image of God away from us. It is there… deep within our lives.

Every person has it… whether they are aces by the world’s standards or fours and fives.

And God’s grace enters our lives while we are still sinners and sets us free.

In our tradition, we talk about the justifying grace that saves us, but again, grace has nothing to do with anything we have done, with our gifts or our merits…. It is simply our acceptance of the fact that God has already accepted us.

It is our decision to stop playing by the rules of Law and to start living by the rule of grace.

Or as James puts it, “talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free.” (2:12)

When we live by the rules of grace and play the trump card of mercy, then again, we have to treat every person in this world the same. No kings or threes here, either.

And the trump of mercy allows us to see others not as the worst thing they have ever done, but instead to see the image of God in their lives.

 

Bishop Carter also shared with us this past week a really concrete picture of the difference between playing the trump of judgment and playing the trump of mercy.

He pointed to two well-know, important people of faith: Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.

Both of them are holy men. They have both dedicated their lives to God’s word.

Yet, their words of response to one of the big “sin questions” of our time are striking.

In regards to homosexuality, Pope Benedict said: “although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil.”

Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?”

The world saw Pope Benedict as a continuation of a church that was declining in relevancy, pointing out the sins of the world and judging without paying attention to its own sins.

But we have seen the world respond in a different way to Pope Francis, and his focus on mercy has everything to do with it.

He washed the feet of prisoners on Good Friday. He lives a life of humility. He has declared a season of mercy and forgiveness of those who have had abortions. He is calling the church to treat every single person with mercy, love, and grace.

He has not abandoned the churches official positions on any of these controversial subjects, but he has let go of the trump card of judgment. He refuses to play it.

Bishop Carter pointed out that the more we approach holiness, the more humility we should have and the more we leave judgment in the hands of Jesus.

And what we see is that others’ lives are transformed not by playing a trump card of judgment and pointing out their sins.

No, transformation happens in the presence of holiness and grace and love… when the trump card of mercy wipes away whatever suit or rank has defined us and allows us to remember the image of God that is in our lives.

 

Mercy or Judgment?

 

James is pretty clear… Mercy trumps everything…. Even Judgment.

What season do you inhabit?

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Today in my organic ministry class, we were invited by Diane Glass to notice what season best describes our hearts, our relationships, our work.

It is one thing to notice the physical and environmental season that surrounds you… even on a cool and muggy July day. But I had never considered the seasons as a metaphor for my internal life before.

Personally, while I do not feel like I am coming out of a winter time, I do sense the awakening and longing of spring.

I am sensitive to the new life all around me: new babies and expecting friends.

I have the sense in my marriage during this time of renewal of a clean slate, a fresh start, and of nurturing a different way of being with one another.

Even our home, which has been lived in for a year now, is finally ready for some projects that feel like they have potential. We are preparing to finally put up curtains, refinishing some cabinets, deciding what kind of a space and environment we want to create. Outside, I’m doing clearing work and imagining a different sort of landscape and discovering what might be showing up.

So, how do I honor this “springtime” ?

Like with the crocus blooming, I can take delight in these signs of spring.

I can be curious about what I am discovering and learning, open to possibility, listening more carefully.

I can intentionally decide what to nurture and what to pull; where I want to really invest my time and energy.

And I can, like every farmer in the spring, test the waters, throw out possibilities, be flexible, expectant and hopeful that what is beginning will eventually bear fruit.

paying attention

Today, in my devotional reading this thought from The Spiritual Life struck me:

To be human is to pray… prayer is the disciplined dedication to paying attention.

As I sit here and try to write this morning, I must admit I am distracted.

Distracted by the remnants of water in our basement (our backup sump pump failed to switch on, leaving some standing water in the unfinished areas).

Distracted by the squirrels and birds fighting with one another on the fence.

Distracted by the pings from Facebook because I left the tab open in my browser.

Distracted by the waiting and anticipation for a SCOTUS decision.

Distracted by the garbage trucks making their way up and down the streets in my neighborhood.

 

What if instead of being distracted, I focused on paying attention in prayer.

 

Gracious God, be with my husband and I and help us to be patient and wise as we clean up the water and as he fixes the pump.

Holy One, thank you for the creatures of this world who play and bring joy to our lives.

Blessed Redeemer, be with my friends and family and acquaintances.  Help them to know your grace and mercy.  Be with them in their struggles.

God of Grace, you teach us that love is patient and kind. You teach us that love is sacrificial.  You teach us that your love has no boundaries.  Be with us today as so many of us wait and dream of a nation that recognizes the many kinds of love and families that bring joy and support and stability and hope and companionship to our lives.

Almighty Savior, be with those who serve us today. And help each of us to think carefully about the waste in our lives. Help us to treat this world and its possessions with respect.  Help us be less wasteful with the precious gifts we have been given.  Help us to focus more on relationships and less on things.  Forgive us for our reckless use of resources others are dying without.

 

Westerhoff and Eusden write in The Spiritual life that “unless our identity is hid in God we will never know who we are or what we are to do.”  It is when we pay attention, maybe especially to the things that distract us, that we discover God’s longing for our lives, we hear the still small voice calling us to a transformed life, and we see our neighbors through new lenses.  Prayer is the foundation of our faith, the beginning of change, the roots of justice, and the core of our belief.

2 days, 3 houses, 7 niblings

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This weekend, we made a road trip to spend some time with family.  Since we have moved, it has been harder to make a quick trip over to see our parents or siblings and the kids.

One of my primary goals during renewal leave was to spend more time with family and to re-establish patterns for seeing and communicating with them.  As I shared with my congregation when we announced the leave:

this is a time to enjoy the simple beauty of spending time with those I have been called to love.

I do believe that our families are part of our calling.  You almost never got to choose who they were.  Some of them were around long before you and some have come into your lives as you have grown and changed.  But each one of them are part of your responsibility to care, to teach, to listen, to play, to love.

Since my husband and I are child-free, I have in particular embraced the role of aunt to my niblings. I love their little footsteps pattering towards the door as we walk in to get hugs.  I love the sloppy messes.  I love the silly things they say and their wild imaginations. And as I have watched them grow… including the one who now towers over my head… I have loved to see how kind and responsible they are and to hear all about the things that they now love.

A dear friend, who is also a child-free aunt, posted this to my facebook wall the other day and it made me tear up.  I do love my niblings. And this weekend, I got to be that aunt.   I loved their snotty faces and their tears and their shrieks of joy.  I loved hanging out on the floor and putting together legos with them.  I loved writing silly stories with them.  I loved the cuddles. I loved teaching them something new.  I loved listening to what is going on in their world. And, as a pastor, I also love that I can bring the gifts of my work into their lives and can wrestle with questions and be a part of blessing them… literally!

That is what the picture above is… a celebration of new life as we blessed my newest nibbling.  We gathered around him and prayed for the life God has in store for him and for his parents and grandparents as they all love and care for him.

But I also love my brothers and sisters and if an ounce of what I can do and share with and for them makes their lives any easier, that brings me great joy, too.

 

Sabbath

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Still and quiet in the cove.
Every now and then a sprinkle.
Lazy breezes blow by and the birds talk to each other.
They catch up as we catch up. Goldfinch and cardinals, sparrows and blue jays.
Dancing and playing in the trees.
They feast on the gnats until the gnats feast on us.
So we leave the cove and return to the river.
Kick it into gear and the wind whips by.
Hands in the air, catching the currents.
Fragments of conversation drifting past.
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