Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Enemies No More

Enemies No More
Matthew 5:38-48[1]
We as a people seem to have a “terrible love of violence.”[2] Many of us have grown up watching TV programs and movies that are essentially based on the premise that there are “good guys” and “bad guys” in the world. And the natural instinct is that we want the “good guys” to win—even if it means using violence. We have been taught to believe in what one scholar has called the “Myth of Redemptive Violence.”[3] We’ve seen the story played out hundreds of times: the “bad guys” threaten innocent people; the “good guys” confront them; the “good guys” overcome the “bad guys” through some kind of violence; and the innocent people can live their lives in peace as a result.
This idea is something that is so ingrained in us that we believe it with the fervor of religious faith: when our safety is threatened, it takes some kind of violence to restore it. Whether that violence may take the form of war, or execution, or the excessive use of force, we believe it is the only way to ensure our safety. And yet the truth that has been repeated to our deaf ears throughout the ages is that violence can never overcome violence.[4] It’s like a virus: when we use violence of any kind it only breeds more violence. If we want to know the source of the violence in our society, I think we have to look at the hostility in our own hearts.
Our lesson from the Sermon on the Mount for today is the central text that has inspired a completely different way of being and living with our fellow human beings. Instead of dividing up our world into “us” and “them,” Jesus challenges us to approach the differences between us from the perspective of a basic recognition that we all are children of God. When we look at it from that perspective, there are no more “friends” and “enemies,” but only brothers and sisters in the one human family.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount continues Jesus’ call to those who would follow him to embrace the values reflected in God’s ways and purposes. In our lesson for today, he continues to teach us that obedience comes from the heart. It might seem initially that Jesus contradicts the teaching that said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But actually, he’s following the same pattern as before. We can see this when we realize that “an eye for an eye” did not require retribution, it actually limited the extent of vengeance that was considered appropriate. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” meant that you were not allowed to execute someone for taking an eye. If you did take revenge, its extent was to be limited by the extent of the injury.
The way in which Jesus goes to the heart of this matter is to teach those who would follow him not to take revenge at all. He says it this way, “Do not resist an evildoer” (Matt. 5:39). That might seem confusing on the surface of things. How can we not “resist an evildoer”? If we see someone committing a crime, or endangering a life, surely we have a responsibility to prevent it. But that’s not the kind of “resistance” Jesus was talking about. As the examples he uses make clear, he was talking about not retaliating against those who insult or humiliate or attack us personally. We’re not to take revenge against those who treat us wrongfully.
Many have debated whether Jesus’ surprising instructions here are actually practical enough to follow in real life. I would say it’s simple enough to “turn the other cheek”—in principle at least. But how can we give in to an unjust lawsuit or outright abuse by authorities? I think the answer lies in that Jesus was, to some extent, speaking ironically. The strategies he proposes are meant to shame and even ridicule the one who is in the wrong. This can be seen with the lawsuit over garments. What we may not realize is that to literally do what Jesus recommends would leave a man standing naked in court. But the point was that such an action would shame the person who failed to recognize the dignity of a brother by taking advantage of him in the first place.
All of this leads up to what Jesus has to say about the great commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We find many ways to limit the concept of our “neighbor” to those who are like us. But Jesus makes it clear that truly following this commandment means loving those who are different. It even means loving those whom we may consider our “enemies.” The most important reason for this is that it’s the way God treats people.[5] We’re to love others in the same way as our heavenly Father, without making distinctions between “us” and “them,” or “friends” and “enemies.”[6]
One consequence of our belief in violence as a means of ensuring our safety is that we tend to see the world in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys,” “friends” and “enemies.” Unfortunately, when we do that we fail to recognize that approaching our world in that way leaves us not with more safety, but with less. I think one of the easiest ways to reveal the error in that mindset is by asking “Whom would Jesus consider an ‘enemy’?” As Jesus pointed out, God pours out the blessings of his love on all people equally. As people who seek to follow Jesus, we can do no less. At the heart of his challenging teaching is the call to “see that every human face is the face of a neighbor.”[7] When we really take that challenge to heart, we can only respond to others as friends, with love. When we follow Jesus, we can be “enemies” no more.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/19/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] I adapted this phrase from James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War.
[3] Cf. Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, 42-43, where he describes the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” as “the dominant religion in our society today”! Cf. ibid., 39, where he describes the “domination system” it is intended to support: “unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.”
[4] Cf. Wink, Powers that Be, 134: “violence can never stop violence” because its very success only breeds more violence. See further, Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? , 67: “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Cf. also Dhammapada 5: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.”
[5] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 562, where they say, “To obey Jesus words ... is, therefore, to love utterly: no more can be asked.”  They further observe (p. 563) that “The motivation for being ‘perfect’ in love is grounded in the Father’s ‘perfect’ love, in his giving without measure.”  See further ibid., 560, where they suggest that what actually lies behind the “be perfect” of Mt. 5:48 is the command to “be holy” in Lev. 19:2.
[6] Cf. Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, 128, where he quotes the 1981 Declaration of Peace by the Society of Protestant Theology: “There are no conflicts of our life, neither personal nor political, which are not embraced by God’s will for peace with human beings and his whole creation. There are no enemies, neither personal nor political, for whom God’s will for peace does not apply.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope, 202: “We are not the enemies of our enemies; we are ‘the children of our Father in heaven’, ... . If we do not react to enmity with enmity, we creatively make it possible for our enemies to turn away from their enmity and to enter into the life we share.”
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 41: “compassion … breaks through the boundaries between languages and countries, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. This compassion pulls people away from the fearful clique and into the large world where they can see that every human face is the face of a neighbor.”

At the Core

At the Core
Matthew 5:21-30[1]
Anyone who has had extensive dealings with children knows that rewards and punishments have only a limited effect. Especially if the rewards and the punishments have no logical connection to the behavior that is being encouraged or discouraged. Rewards set you up for a continuing cycle of trying to “buy” cooperation from a child. And punishments only work if they are connected to something that our children actually value. Even then, many children know the right buttons to push to “get out” of punishment. These “extrinsic” motivations—so called because they relate to something separate from our children’s own attitudes—rarely succeed.
Truly shaping a child’s character takes far more wisdom and effort. It takes “intrinsic motivation” to actually shape a young life—meaning values and attitudes that they embrace for themselves. Teaching our children that their actions have consequences is more important than arbitrary punishment. And it’s just a fact of life that children learn what they see. That’s why “do as I say, not as I do” never works. Children will learn from what they see us doing. They will make the choices that shape their character based on the way we choose to treat them every day. Either from respect for our integrity or from a desire to go a different way when that is lacking, children choose their path in life based on the values they embrace at the core of who they are.
I think Jesus’ approach to how we respond to what God expects of us is similar to this pattern of shaping character in children. There is always a tendency in religion to make obedience to God’s ways a matter of rewards and punishments. We do “the right thing” so that we will get to enjoy eternal rewards in heaven, not because it’s the right thing. And we avoid what is “wrong” in order to avoid eternal punishment, not out of a desire to do no harm. As is the case with children, this approach to the Christian life rarely produces people who actually follow Jesus’ example.
And so in our lesson from Matthew’s Gospel for today, Jesus calls on those who would follow him to go beyond the “letter of the law,” beyond a merely external show of obedience. He calls on us to embrace the values reflected in God’s ways and purposes at the core of who we are. Jesus knows that it’s too easy to put on an outward religious show so that others will think of us as “godly” and “Christian.” What God expects and what Jesus demands of those who would follow him goes far beyond any merely external action. Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter, which is the character of our fundamental attitudes and opinions toward others.[2] He knew the value we place on others (or lack thereof) would always reveal itself in the way we treat them.
So he begins with the true “starting place” for any Jewish person of his time seeking to obey God: the Ten Commandments. It’s not enough at the end of the day to keep the commandment, “You shall not kill.” We can go our whole lives without ever taking a human life, and still not come close to the kind of relationship God intends for us to have with fellow members of our human family. All of us have ways that we can “hate” certain people. We may not think of it that harshly, but when we essentially disregard the value of another human being for any reason whatsoever, we have missed the point of the commandment to value and honor and respect human life—all human life.
The same thing applies to the commandment “You shall not commit adultery.” Beyond what we would traditionally define as “adultery,” there are all kinds of ways to betray the covenant of marriage. Jesus knew that infidelity doesn’t have anything to do with parts of your body you can simply “cut off.”[3] It comes from an attitude that sees others as objects to be used. The only answer is love that springs from a heartfelt commitment to honor and cherish another person. But when that is lacking, it’s easy to justify minor “indiscretions” and “little white lies.” What is so easily dismissed as “minor” usually has a major impact on the one betrayed.
If you’re thinking as a result of this that Jesus makes obedience to God more difficult than the Ten Commandments, you’re right. Part of the reason for that is when we measure our relationship to God solely by our actions it can be too easy to find loopholes. We can come up with all kinds of “what if’s” and “how about’s” to excuse our actual disobedience to God. When our hearts are not really devoted to God and his ways, we put our efforts into covering up our true character, all the while maintaining the disguise of faith.
Jesus makes it clear that this is not the path he intended to lay out for his disciples. Following Jesus means not only that we don’t take human life; it means we conduct our relationships in such a way as to honor the value of every human being. Following Jesus means that we not only avoid breaking our marriage vows; it means we truly love and honor and cherish our spouses from the heart. Following Jesus means actually practicing purity of heart and the intention to make peace. We who would follow Jesus are called to embrace these values not for any reward but simply because they are right and good.[4] We are called to live in such a way as to actually obey God, and that means embracing the commitment to treat other people with genuine love at the core of our very being.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/12/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 508-9, where they insist that these verses do not “offer us Jesus’ interpretation of the law,” because although “the Torah supplies him with a point of departure,” his demands surpass the Torah. “Obedience to rules, even to the Torah, does not automatically produce the spirit that Jesus requires of those who would follow him. Or to put it another way: purely legal norms, … , can never convey how life is to be lived by those who are genuinely poor in spirit, pure in heart, and full of mercy.”
[3] Cf. Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of The Sermon On The Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12),” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003): 275, “Of course, literally getting rid of the right eye or right hand would not prevent what causes the sin.” Cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 524, where they point out that the imperative to tear out your eye or cut off your hand “is not to be taken literally. … Jesus and the NT writers knew well enough that amputation would scarcely curb the passions since the problem is not with the body itself but, as Paul put it, with ‘sin that dwells in me’ (Rom 7.17, 20 …).”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:696: “these examples are intended to make clear that the grace of Jesus Christ, the grace of the kingdom which has dawned, claims the whole man absolutely.” Cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, “life in strict accord with legal observances is not enough. God demands a radical obedience that cannot be casuistically formulated.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Light for the World

Light for the World
Matthew 5:13-20[1]
Most of us are private people. We tend to keep what is most personal very close. Many of us don’t even want to feel our emotions, let alone talk about them. Even when it would do us good to do so, we prefer to keep them private. We don’t easily share our deepest problems, because we don’t want other people to know our business. We certainly don’t want others to know about our health problems, because we find it embarrassing. In some respects, this tendency to keep some things private can be healthy. There are some aspects of our lives that simply aren’t meant to be shared in public.
Unfortunately, we carry that privacy over to our faith. For example, it has been generally agreed that we don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company. We may find that to be especially true at large family gatherings, like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Most of our families are diverse enough that they represent a range of political and religious convictions. And some of us know by experience how uncomfortable it can be to get into a “discussion” of religion or politics with our extended families. So we talk about sports, or the weather, or anything else that’s “safe.”  Unfortunately, this tendency toward privacy also means that we don’t talk about our faith much at all. Except at church, because that’s where you’re “supposed” to talk about those things.
The problem with this is that our faith was never meant to be kept private.[2] We cannot simply set it aside when we walk out the doors of this building. The kind of commitment that the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ seeks from us is one that is by definition public. It affects every area of life. There is no line that separates what is sacred from what is secular, that separates our faith from our lives. Our faith is meant to be lived out in our lives—and that means every facet of life.
I think this has something to do with what Jesus was saying in our lesson for today. If you pay close attention, Jesus did not shy away from talking about topics that were controversial. His teachings upset the political and religious status quo. That’s what got him killed. Think about it—people don’t get riled up enough to execute someone for simply telling them to love God and to love other people. Jesus got into trouble with the political and religious leaders because he spelled out what that was supposed to look like in a way that exposed their hypocrisy. In the words of Isaiah, they acted “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness” but the reality was that they had forsaken God’s ways (Isa. 58:2).
In our lesson for today, Jesus proclaims that those who follow him and embrace the values of God’s kingdom of justice, mercy, peace, and freedom as laid out in the Beatitudes are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” It’s a little hard to tell what Jesus meant by saying that we are “the salt of the earth.” One use for salt that I think of in this connection is to purify that which is contaminated. We still use saline rinse to cleanse wounds. I wonder if Jesus didn’t intend his followers to be the “salt of the earth” in that sense: to live in such a way as to “cleanse” society of the prejudice and hatred and injustice and violence that plagues the human family. It may be painful, like salt in a wound, but the goal is to promote healing.
Jesus also said that those who follow him are the “light of the world.” I think this also has a dual emphasis. Light shining in the darkness exposes that which we would like to keep hidden. Most of us don’t parade our wrongdoing for all to see. We much prefer to keep it hidden. And we don’t much like it when what we want to keep hidden is exposed. But when the wrongs that are hidden in society are allowed to remain secret, they have a way of festering and getting worse. In a sense, I think Jesus intended for his disciples to shed light on the wrongs in this world by speaking the truth about them, rather than allowing them to remain hidden. In this way, they also serve as “light” by showing the world the way God intends for life to be.
An interesting feature of this text is that Jesus doesn’t say “You shall be the salt of the earth,” or “You are to become the light of the world.”[3] He simply stated it as truth. Those who follow Jesus are salt and light for the world. When we place our faith in Jesus and align ourselves with the kingdom of God, that decision means demonstrating the difference it makes in our lives. We cannot help but be salt and light for the world.[4] And if you’re wondering what that means in terms of specifics, Jesus said it this way: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:35-36). You can’t keep that private!
The truth of the matter is that we simply cannot keep our faith to ourselves.[5] In doing so, something happens that is similar to salt becoming insipid: it saps the life out of our faith. It makes about as much sense as turning on a lamp and covering it with a tarp. Jesus calls those of us who would follow him to a life that puts our faith out there in public. Our faith is not meant to stay in the realm of “interesting ideas” we talk about only at church. For our faith to be real, it has to be put into practice in every facet of our lives, from work to family to community to politics. We’re meant to demonstrate the difference faith makes in every way possible. When we live out our faith in that way for all to see, then we are salt for the earth and light for the world.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/5/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Fred Craddock, “Two Arenas for Faithfulness,”  The Christian Century, (Jan 31 1990):98, where he says, “There is no way that Christ’s cause can be converted into an individual or community lifestyle of self-interest, self-protection and defense against vulnerability. To do so is not to interpret Christ differently, but to abandon him. The way of Christ is to take the initiative and rather than hide from the world let the light shine in the hopeful trust that the praise of God will be increased.”
[3] Cf. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 472: “Jesus’ followers are not the salt and light of Israel … but of the whole world.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 125-26; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.2:804-805.
[4] Cf. Paul Louis Metzger, Christ, Culture, And The Sermon On The Mount Community,” Ex Auditu 23 (2007): 25-26. He says, “Being ‘relevant’ does not necessarily suggest that we let culture shape the gospel to make it appealing. The gospel creates its own relevance. Followers of Jesus are not salespeople who sell a product but witnesses who are promoting a kingdom and who are participating in the life of the king as his people who give and receive from his abundance.”
[5] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 478: “Jesus’ disciples are to live in the world so that the world will see them and be moved to glorify God. Closet Christianity and self-directed service are excluded.”

Because We're Blessed

Because We’re Blessed
Matthew 5:1-12[1]
I’m not sure we can hear much when we listen to Jesus preaching the Beatitudes. For one thing, I think it’s hard for some of us to hear them because we cannot possibly accept that we are “blessed” in any real way. Life is hard, and it disappoints us in many ways. Beyond that, it can feel at times like life crushes us beyond our ability to bear. Some of us have been so thoroughly broken by life that we may not even be able to get out of bed in the morning. Being told that we’re “blessed” sounds like someone speaking a completely foreign language at us. We can see that they’re talking, and we know they’re saying something, but we simply cannot grasp it
On another level, it’s hard for us to appreciate how radically different the Beatitudes are from our perspective on life. We believe that the “first” come first and the “last” have to go last. Jesus said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16). And in the Beatitudes he painted a picture of what that looks like. But we are people who believe in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, so talk about being “poor in spirit,” or “meek” doesn’t really compute. We’re too busy out there working harder to achieve more, because it’s the only way to get ahead. That’s the way life works.
Despite these very real obstacles to our understanding, there Jesus is, declaring that we are blessed. I think Jesus knew that all who would try to follow him would desperately need those words. I think he knew that those of us who find it impossible to think of ourselves as “blessed” would need to hear that we are supported and surrounded by God’s grace every hour of every day of our lives. And I think he knew that those of us who feel like we’re doing just fine on our own, thank you very much, would need to hear that the only source we have for a life worth living is the God who loves us.
And so it is that in our gospel lesson for today, Jesus makes clear the gift of God’s amazing grace because he knows how overwhelming his call to follow him is going to be. Make no mistake about it; his call to follow him demands a great deal of us. That’s why Jesus starts his most famous sermon with a striking reminder of how much we truly are blessed. He was spelling out for us the many ways in which we benefit from the gift of God’s grace. He was describing the blessings we find when we align ourselves with God’s purposes in this world: the blessings of a life that finds all we need in God and God alone.
It might not be obvious that the Beatitudes are even addressing us at first glance. The kind of reality that they describe is so very different from anything we know it may seem like Jesus is talking about an impossible dream. We just cannot relate to what he’s saying in any meaningful way. And yet this is part of what makes the Beatitudes so powerful for all who hear them: Jesus turns the world upside down![2] He says that those whom this world deems unfortunate are the ones who benefit from God’s gift of grace. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). I like the way the Message translation puts it: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
Immediately after the Beatitudes, Jesus is going to tell us how very demanding it is to actually put his teachings into practice. But there’s a pattern runs throughout the Bible: before the demand comes grace. Before the call to obedience on Mt. Sinai, God was moved to compassion and acted out of his great love to set his people free from slavery in Egypt. Before there even was a people of Israel, God made a promise to Abraham, a promise that came from grace and from grace alone. And before Jesus taught his disciples to follow him by loving their “enemies” as well as their neighbors, he “went throughout Galilee, … proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matt. 4:23). [3] That good news is that God blesses us all with his grace.
And yet, while the Beatitudes are filled with the grace that God freely offers, there’s a subtle shift that focuses on our response. Jesus also says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. …Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:7, 9). These statements imply action. The Beatitudes shift from describing the blessing for those who know how much they need God’s grace to describing the blessing for those who put God’s grace into action. That is also a pattern that runs throughout the Bible. Those who receive the blessing of God’s grace are called to put that grace to work in the way they live their lives.[4]
We have plenty of obstacles that keep us from recognizing that we are the ones who are in need of God’s grace. It can be hard to believe that there is any grace in a life that can be as difficult as this one. It can be hard to admit that we are the “poor in spirit” who have nothing apart from God. And most of us prefer that our faith not make demands that challenge us the way Jesus does. Yet gift of grace brings with it a clear demand: we are called to extend God’s mercy to the left out and beat down in this world. We are called to seek to establish God’s peace and justice for those whom the world despises and rejects. We are called to share God’s grace with those in our world who need it the most precisely because we are blessed with that grace.

[1] © 2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/29/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Patricia Farris, “Be Happy (Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12),” The Christian Century (January 26, 2005):18.  She says that “the Beatitudes turn the world upside down with their shocking promise of hope to the hopeless, comfort to the bereaved, power to the powerless.” 
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, “Hearing God’s Blessing (Matt. 5:1-12)” The Christian Century (January 24, 1990): 74: “If the blessings were only for the deserving, very likely they would be stated at the end of the sermon, probably prefaced with the conditional clause, ‘If you have done all these things.’ But appearing at the beginning, they say that God’s favor precedes all our endeavors. In fact, all our efforts at kingdom living are in response to divine grace.” Cf. also W. D. Davis and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 440, where they argue that the function of the Beatitudes in the structure of the Sermon on the Mount is “to put grace before imperative, greeting before confrontation, blessing before demand.”
[4] Stephen Shoemaker, in GodStories, 217–18, says, “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy.  One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.  The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”