Saturday, February 26, 2011


Sorry about that. It wasn’t me. Honest. I wouldn’t be offering you a suggestion on how to ... well, I wouldn’t. Really. La Donna met me at the office door this morning telling me that someone hijacked the Late Night Bible Study. What? I said. OK, not the most “on the ball” kind of answer I could have given. But it was the best I could do early Saturday morning. “What?’

I mean come on, who would want to hijack something like the Late Night Bible Study? With a spam message about ... well, come on! Now that I think about it, I remember seeing something about a new member joining the Bible Study group. The online one, not the face to face ones. And whenever someone joins on their own, as opposed to being put there by me, then it is usually trouble. Thankfully, not major trouble - not malicious virus or hacker trouble; just usually spam trouble, email to the group advertising something useless or embarrassing. So, if I don’t recognize the email address that adds itself in, I’ll delete it. But I didn’t get around to it this time. Oops. Sorry about that.

And then, I just spent a little while going through the whole list to find out who was “bouncing.” That’s Yahoo’s term for the email isn’t getting through. There were a lot. Sorry about that. Many of them were the Verizon/Frontier switch that I didn’t change. Oops. So, some of you will get a notice saying you’ve been added. That’s what it means, I fixed an email problem. Some of you still aren’t getting it. If you aren’t getting this then ... you aren’t getting it ... and won’t know that you aren’t getting it ... and can’t then tell me to change your email address ... can you? Hmmm. Oops. Tell you what - if you have a friend who used to get this bible study and now isn’t, their email address may have changed. Tell them to email me and I’ll fix it. Unless they simply got bored with my rambling about nothing much important and decided to get Rick Warren’s bible study where he gets to the point right away. Actually, I don’t know if Rick has an online bible study, but if he did, he’d get to the point. I’m pretty sure. Sorry about that.

Maybe I should just get to the bible study and quit all this waffling. What’s the bible passage about this week, anyway? Being perfect. Oops. Great. Just great. Well, read these verses while I try to get back on track.

Matthew 5:38-48 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Out of all the things we wish he had never said, this is probably right up there at the top of the list. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” No wonder we prefer St. Paul. He said some hard things too, to be sure. But he is also the one who said “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23 - in case you want to go and embroider it or something) That is a statement we can get behind. That is a reality to which we can shout “Amen!”

We are painfully aware of our shortcomings. We know too well how far off track we are, how failings, our slip ups and our bad moments. We know, better than we would like to, just how out of reach perfection really is. So, we read verse forty-eight with a heavy heart. As though Jesus has laid a burden on our backs that is simply impossible for us to carry. It is surely beyond us.

Maybe we should just ignore that last verse. Maybe we could argue that it was added later. Yeah, that’s it, an editorial addition. Jesus wouldn’t have said something like that. He was kinder and gentler. He would have said something more like “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Umm.

Some commentators have made a great deal out of that “right cheek” thing. If a right handed person strikes you on the right cheek, it must have been a backhanded slap. Not a real punch, right? It was more about the humiliation than it was about the pain. Someone was trying to put you down. Someone was trying to make you look foolish. And you are supposed to ... well ... let them. Uh.

One writer said that by offering the other cheek you were turning around, and while you turned you were supposed to be reaching back to really let them have it. Right. That might make more sense in a TV kind of way, in a revenge movie kind of way. But it doesn’t really fit into the flow of the Sermon on the Mount. Does it? “Someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak as well.” “Someone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

We spend a lot of time trying to explain all of this away because it is too hard. Because it doesn’t fit in with a vengeance culture. It doesn’t match our natural inclinations to get even, to pay back. So, Jesus must have meant something other than what it seems like he said here. Or maybe this is the advanced level stuff. Only the Mother Teresa’s and the Martin Luther King Jr.’s can measure up to this grade. This AP Christianity class is beyond the most of us.

So, maybe we should just let it pass. Stick with remedial faith issues - basic level stuff, be kind, don’t say bad things, that sort of stuff. But then Jesus says that doesn’t get us what we want. “If you love those who love you what reward do you have?” So it IS about reward after all? What do I get out of this? We are doing all this faith stuff just to get into heaven? To be one of the children of the Father?

Well, yes. But not as we usually think about it. The reward isn’t a ticket to heaven when we die. The reward is a life that is more complete, a life that is full of joy and hope and peace. The reward is a life that is bounded by love, choices that are made by love, decisions that are motivated by love. When we choose to love even those who don’t love us, then we are freed from a desire for revenge. If we are always seeking to serve out of love, then we can’t be taken advantage of because we’ve already surrendered.

Which is really what perfection means. It isn’t about never making a mistake, or never doing anything wrong. When Jesus invites us to be perfect, he is asking us to always be motivated by love. If our intention is always to do the loving thing, then we have reached the kind of perfection that Jesus describes. In other words, despite one of the worst movie lines of all time, love doesn’t mean never having to say your sorry. There will still be a need for an oops, even if we were to aspire toward perfection. Mistakes will be made, because our knowledge is always less than perfect. The Sermon invites us to allow his love to live in us perfectly. Which means it isn’t us, but Him. It isn’t our doing, it is His loving that lives in us. It isn’t our effort, it is our surrender to Christ. Be perfect. Now there was more I was going to say, but I’m out of room. Ooops.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Birthday Wishes

I am writing this on my birthday. 53, in case you are wondering. Only 53? To some of my readers. Holy cow, 53!? To others. Incomprehensibly 53 to me, to be honest. It doesn’t seem possible, except that I can do the math. Still, my son Rhys asked me if I felt any older. Actually, he asked me that at midnight last night, so I was feeling older then. But now? Not so much. Really.

But I have been spending most of my time responding to Facebook birthday greetings. I’m not quite sure what the etiquette is for this sort of thing. But the 21st Century method of acknowledging birthdays is a Facebook post. I’ve gotten a few cards in the mail, a couple email “e-cards” but nearly 50 Facebook posts and it isn’t yet noon.

Like I said, I’m not sure what you are supposed to do with these things. Do you just send a general “thanks for all the posts” on your status? Do you “like” each one? Or do you send a note? I don’t send a note back to those who send me a card, but I’ve been responding to each one. It’s kind of fun. But they keep coming and I have to stop writing here to get to them.

I’m not the greatest Facebook person around. We’ve got some folks in the church who are excellent at it, both in posting their own stuff and in commenting on others. I’ve been told something about someone and asked, how did you know that? I checked their Facebook page, is the response. It’s a pretty amazing tool. We even have a Facebook page for the church. Did you know that? You can “friend” Aldersgate, and make comments or get information. La Donna updates it every Sunday after church with the announcements for the bulletins and then with the youth stuff that Amanda has been sending out. It could be useful instrument for the church. We’re not sure who all is looking at it, but you should check it out.

Like I said, however, I don’t know all the rules of Facebook, real or unwritten. I can still embarrass my kids by doing something “not cool” with my Facebook page, or theirs. I don’t always update everyone on my status - partly because I have trouble believing anyone really cares. But some folks obviously think they do, because they’ll tell the whole world anything and everything on Facebook. And I do mean everything. People have gotten into trouble via Facebook, but then apparently regimes have been overthrown in part due to Facebook. At least if you believe the reports, and it is hard not to see something significant happening on the world stage.

That’s quite a range, when you think about it, from “Having a bad hair day!” to “Join the revolution to depose the dictators!” But the same instrument serves both causes. No wonder we want to know the rules. We don’t want to run the risk of misusing this powerful instrument.

Learning the rules is a common exercise. Jesus knew that, which is why he took the time to talk about the rules in the Sermon on the Mount. He knew he was in a rule based society, so he decided to take a look at the rules. And to mess with everyone’s head at the same time. “You thought you knew the rules?” he seems to be saying. “Well, listen to this!”

Matthew 5:21-37 "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 "Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.' 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Oh my. Rules are one thing. But this ... This seems a bit much. Doesn’t it? Extreme rules. Intense rules. Rules only for those who are really into rules. Or something like that. I mean, we’ve evolved as a society, haven’t we? We’ve kinda let most of this stuff slide. No big deal, we say. Live and let live, we believe. To each their own, we believe.

But should we? We don’t want to be stick in the muds, I don’t think. And yet, reading these verses it seems like this higher standard is something more than just adding to the list of rules. It is like Jesus is trying to get us to realize something about ourselves and about our relationships. And that something might be something as simple as “pay attention.” Or “these relationships are precious, treat with care.” Or maybe even “community is a gift from God, don’t waste it, don’t abuse it, don’t ignore it.”

You see, maybe I’m just wired this way, but it seems to me that all these rules, all these higher ways of living are about community. They are about relationships. And Jesus is saying that we ought not take anyone for granted. Ought not run the risk of hurting anyone. Ought not treat anyone as less than the child of God that they are. These aren’t rules so much as a way of creating a community that resembles the kingdom of God.

Hmm, creating a community. I guess that means that Jesus was into Facebook before Facebook was around. And like Facebook, the community of faith can be about the little details of daily living or about revolutions and transformation. And maybe even both at the same time.

The birthday wishes kept coming in all day. Some from folks I haven’t seen for a long time. Others from ones I encounter each week or even more. And yet there is this connection. Woven together by birthday wishes and the body of Christ, we are a community of respect and of joy. A caring community of hope and affirmation. We are a Christ breathed community of transformation and spiritual growth.

I doubt that is what Zuckerberg had in mind. Now Jesus on the other hand ...


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Road Salt

I heard on the radio today that there was another snowfall, snarling traffic and shutting down businesses and schools. Added to the snow problems was the cold. It was so cold that the salt wasn’t melting the ice on the roads. Salt, apparently, needs a certain temperature to actually be any good. If it goes below that level, then the chemical reaction that leads to ice melting just doesn’t work. This report indicated that the air was too cold, that the brine they were spraying on the road was freezing and that the salt just added to the grit but not the grip. And, wait for it, this was in Oklahoma and Arkansas!

Yikes. Of course we are now supposed to interject some apocalyptic scenario and invite everyone to hunker down for the duration. But I’m not going to do that. I’ve got other fish to fry. Or other vegetables to flash freeze, as the case may be. In fact, I brought all that up so that I could talk about salt.

I love salt. More than is healthy for me, I know that. And if I didn’t know that, I have a wife who is good at telling me. But still, I love it. Given a choice between a salty snack and a sweet one, I’ll go for the salty almost every time. So, naturally I was excited when Jesus called me salt. Well, ok, he called you salt too. But what was he really saying? What does it mean to be salty Christians?

Matthew 5:13-20 "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

You’re right, I could have gone with the light image and saved a potentially unhealthy situation. But, like I said, I’m a salt guy. Besides it is winter, and you can’t help but be salt minded in these cold and icy days. But then the first question is what does salt (or light, if you’re on a low sodium diet) have to do with the law?

The second half of our passage doesn’t seem to be about the same subject as the first half. It is like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is one of those stream of consciousness kind of sermons with a whole bunch of stuff that are only connected because they are presented by the same preacher. A sermon I wouldn’t give high marks to, by the way. (Yes, a part of the timing of this Bible Study is because I am heading off to teach my preaching class again this weekend. Let’s just say I’m steeling myself for a wide range in preaching ability.)

Some, in fact most, biblical scholars claim that this was indeed a collection of random sayings that Matthew constructed into the form we call the Sermon on the Mount. That the original sermon was mostly the beatitudes (some argue) or some of the other sayings, but that Matthew just piled on anything he remembered. Or, others argue, Matthew had an agenda and shaped the sayings of Jesus to meet that agenda whatever it was.

Well, could be. But I prefer to take the stance that says this is the sermon we have so lets listen to it. Which brings me back to my question, what does salt have to do with the law?

Matthew presents Jesus as pretty concerned with obedience. Salt and light seem kind of free form, just get out there and be, just influence, just mentor. Do as seems good to you. But then to follow that up with that bit about not changing even a pen stroke of the letter of the law, well, that doesn’t seem terribly Jesus-like, does it?

Maybe it was a mood swing, maybe it was a change in the wind. Maybe he didn’t mean it just like it sounded. Or maybe he did. Maybe he was trying to get us to understand the connection between law and spirit. Maybe he was trying to help us understand the urgency of living our faith in demonstrable ways. Maybe he was hoping that we might grab hold of the seriousness of salt.

Wait. What? Yes, the seriousness of salt. That’s what I said. What was the invitation here, or the call and challenge here? Normally, when I hear about the call to be the salt of the earth, it is presented in terms of preservative and flavor. Those are functions of salt. So, as followers of Jesus, we are called to bring flavor to the world around us. Our presence ought to enhance our surroundings, ought to flavor our communities. Our surroundings ought to be difference because we are in them, because we are a part of them. Salt adds to the taste. That’s what we ought to do.

Secondly, salt is a preservative. More so in earlier times, before refrigeration, salt was used to make sure that food would last into the winter months. So, Christians who are salty are those who preserve what is valuable, what is nourishing for our wider community. We are the storehouse of traditions, not simply for the sake of those traditions, but because those traditions feed God’s people. Those traditions sustain God’s people in difficult times, times of scarcity when we can no longer rely on our own resources, but need the resources that come from beyond us.

Like I said, that is what I usually hear and preach. And I like them, they make sense, but I want to add two more understandings of salt. Or perhaps two more uses of salt that might be a little beyond the traditional understandings.

Did you know that in Jesus’ day salt was used as fertilizer? It is true, says one historian. In our day we see an overly salted field as a bad thing. But in those days salt was often added to the mineral mix of the land in order to produce better crops. So, perhaps Jesus had in mind this use and was encouraging His followers to be fertilizer, to be that which enhances growth. We are in the seed planting business, in the crop tending business. We try to make things grow. Relationships, community, service, commitment, covenant, understanding, hope – all kind of things need to be tended to grow more fruitfully. Be the salt of the earth that together we might help peace grow.

And then, of course, February in Indiana, you can’t help but think of one more use of salt. Road salt. It is everywhere. We hate it on our cars. We don’t like the stains it makes on our carpets in the church. But we are awfully glad it is there on the roads and the sidewalks. Because we all need help getting a grip. You are the salt of the earth. You are the ones who help people get a grip. Who help our neighbors maintain their footing. Who enable the journey to continue. Without this salt, we might slide into all kinds of things. We might slip off the paths, we might crash into the ditches. We need help getting a grip. We need one another. We need salt. You are the salt of the earth. Get a grip.


Saturday, February 5, 2011


Taking pictures has gotten both easier and harder than it used to be. It is easier because you don’t have all that film any more, you don’t have to take it to a developer and wait for the pictures to come back to remember what it was that you took pictures of. You just take them and immediately can look at the back of the camera and see the picture. If you don’t like it, you can delete it and it is as if it never happened. If you do like it, then you download it onto your computer and there it sits, a collection of electronic signals. You can print it, or send it, or just sit and look at it. Or forget that it is there.

That’s the harder part. I’ve got folders and folders of pictures on my computer. Some that I took, some that people sent me, some that I found on the internet somewhere and liked. Most of which I forget are there until I stumble across them looking for something else. We usually put a somewhat current picture of the kids on our Christmas letter. So, I went looking for pictures to use, and got lost in the remembering of what they used to look like. There were pictures there that I forgot I took. There were pictures of a time I didn’t remember. There were pictures of times that seemed so long ago, a lost innocence we’ll never reclaim. There were pictures of people we barely resembled any more.

I suppose you could argue that it has always been that way. The whether the pictures are filed away in boxes in a closet somewhere or tucked away in an album the gathers dust they are just as inaccessible as the ones hidden in folders with cryptic names you can’t decipher anymore. But it seems worse somehow, even more insubstantial, less grounded in reality than a faded photo you can hold in your hand. But either way, recognizing yourself as you were, or thought you were can be a daunting task.

We launch a new sermon series this weekend, one that will take us up to the beginning of the season of Lent. Easter is very late this year, so we have another five week block to fill. The Gospel readings in the lectionary (which is the tool that some churches use to follow a guided reading throughout the whole bible - or most of it - every three years) for these weeks all come from the fifth and sixth chapters of Matthew. These chapters make up the bulk of what we have come to call the “Sermon on the Mount.”

The Sermon on the Mount has been called the “quintessential Jesus,” the true center and core of what he was about. It was both his message to those who would follow and a description of himself. If you want to know what it means to be a Christian, some argue, you have to wrap yourself around the Sermon on the Mount. One commentator called it “The Jesus Manifesto.”

I liked that, so I decided to use it for the title of this series. Taking a pseudo political slant, I’m inviting the community at Aldersgate - the online latenight bible study community - to pledge allegiance to the Jesus Manifesto, to vote for the platform of the Jesus Party. Oh, don’t worry, I intend to conduct this campaign with civility. None of the usual rancor and mudslinging we have become used to. In fact, as we take a look at how the sermon starts, we will discover that anything less than a civil discourse would be a denial of the very message itself. Take a look:

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Someone said that in all the furor to post the Ten Commandments in courthouses and on city lawns, that perhaps what we ought to post in our courts of law would be the beatitudes instead. “Blessed are the merciful” might read differently on the wall of a criminal court, don’t you think? But then, we couldn’t do that, some would argue, that would simply be impractical. It wouldn’t fit in that place, that is a place of law, not grace.

And that is just the problem with the Beatitudes. They aren’t really practical. Some argue they are impossible. How in the world are we supposed to live up to that kind of standard? It is not within us to capture all these elements, no matter how great our desire. So, do the beatitudes function like the law? Do they simply show us how far short we fall from what we are supposed to be? Do they layer guilt upon guilt on us so that we turn in utter despair to the savior confessing our complete worthlessness?

That is how some have presented these verses. A measuring rod for entrance into the Kingdom of God. But if that is true, then why did Jesus introduce each verse with the word “blessed”? Actually the word is Maka,rioi (makarioi) which can also be translated as “happy.” You’ve seen that before. Happy are those who... It could even be translated as “blissful”. It doesn’t seem to me that Jesus would set us up for layers of guilt and then use the word “blissful” to describe the condition we can’t reach.

So, maybe these aren’t law. Maybe the beatitudes are something other than a challenge to better living, or - as some have presented them - a psychology of happiness. Maybe they are something more.

What if Jesus began his teaching ministry with a word of encouragement instead of an impossible standard to attain? In the previous chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, before the Sermon on the Mount begins, an amazing amount of events transpire. Chapter four begins with the temptation in the wilderness, where Jesus declares the kind of Messiah he intends to be - to himself, to God, to Satan, to all of us. Then he returns and calls together the community of followers within which he will work his earthly ministry. Finally he teaches and heals and draws increasingly larger crowds. And then chapter five lets us know his teaching. But in between the wilderness and the calling of the disciples he makes this statement: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (4:17) And “repent” in this case isn’t “shame on you” but rather, get on board, turn around and follow me.

What if the beatitudes were a snapshot of the community of faith instead of a measuring rod? What if Jesus was saying, blessed is the community who makes room for peacemakers? Blessed is the community who makes room for the meek, for those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, who are poor in spirit. Blessed is the community who makes room those who mourn at the brokenness of the world, who are unstained by the impurity of the world. Blessed is the community who knows persecution is inevitable and still decides to make room for those the world thinks are unimportant.

Jesus was getting out the albums and inviting us to look again and see who we are, see what is among us. He was opening those folders we had forgotten and showing us our true selves. Sure, there is a call here as well, I’m not dismissing that. But it is not an impossible call because it is already among us in the community of faith. We learn from each other because we are gifted, we are blessed in different ways.

So, take a look at the snapshot of the community of faith. You might be surprised how blessed you are.