Measure This | 7th after Epiphany

Luke 6:27-38

27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.

32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.

37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” (CEB)

Measure This

Yesterday, in Saint Louis, Missouri, the Special Called Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church opened for a day of worship and prayer. They didn’t get to any business—that part begins today. Yesterday, they spent the hours worshipping and praying together. What they’ll be discussing and voting on today, tomorrow, and Tuesday, are four plans for A Way Forward for the United Methodist Church. The conversation is about one issue: human sexuality. How will we, as United Methodists, move forward?

I have to admit that I don’t know the answer to that question. Depending on how the General Conference votes, we might allow for the ordination of LGBTQ persons or we might not. We might move forward together as one United Methodist Church, or we may move forward on divergent paths by separating from those who think and believe differently from us regarding human sexuality. So you’re aware, the Council of Bishops recommended the One Church Plan, including our bishop, Julius Trimble. They don’t want to see a divided or segregated church. They believe we can move forward together, as one United Methodist Church.

As for me, I hope our bishops are right. I don’t want to see division. I don’t want to see the pointing of fingers and other actions that would inevitably follow a path that leads our church to break apart. I’d rather our church not rename itself The Divided Methodist Church. So, I ask you to pray for General Conference. I ask you to pray for our delegates. And I ask you to pray for yourselves. Ask God for the grace to see you through whatever the General Conference decides for our church.

Yesterday Bishop Gary Mueller said, “One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as a human being, as a Christian, as a bishop, is to set my desires aside and to seek God’s will. I have a hard time surrendering to God’s purpose. I think it’s because I like what I like. I think it’s because I can dress up whatever I like with fancy-sounding theological words, with eloquence and beauty. And I think it’s because I find myself able to convince myself that what I want is also what God wants. I suspect that many of you can identify with that.”

And I think he’s right. Sometimes, we put our desires, our beliefs, our thoughts, and our ideals into a box and label it with God’s name. We assume that God must be on our side of whatever issue we’re examining in the moment. Prophets throughout Judeo-Christian history have smashed religious ideas that everyone else knew to be true. In Jesus’ day, everyone knew that people who were handicapped, sick, or poor were in that state because God was punishing them for their sin. God is just, and obviously God doesn’t let bad things like that happen to good people. Yet, the prophet Jesus challenged that notion several times (c.f. Luke 13:1-5; John 9).

So, whatever convictions you hold, whatever you believe to be true, we all need to ask God for grace. God’s grace is the only thing that will see us through this process as one body.

It’s probably not without some irony that the Gospel lesson for today is Luke 6:27-36. That’s just what the Revised Common Lectionary provides for the Seventh Sunday after The Epiphany in Year C. I think God must enjoy making real-world events and the lectionary texts collide in potent ways. It happens enough that I’m fairly certain God does it on purpose.

The first words of this text, “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27 CEB) contain a paradox. You see, the word enemy here is ἐχθροὺς, and the root meaning is hate. Jesus tells us, “Love the ones you hate. Do good to those who detest you” (my trans.).

One thing we need to be careful of when we look at this text is that Jesus is not encouraging a passive response to violence, evil, or abuse. In no way does this text suggest that an abused woman should stay in a relationship with an abusive man and meekly offer her other cheek every time the jerk beats her. We need to keep the context of Jesus’ words in mind.

So, let’s put this in its proper context. Slapping someone on the cheek was a way of mocking them and paying them back for blasphemy. Two instances of this kind of religious retribution come to mind. One was when Kings Jehosephat of Judah and Ahab of Israel were considering military action. First, they consulted the prophets who all said the kings should attack because they would win.

Except for one. Micaiah said that he saw all of Israel scattered like sheep without a shepherd (cf. 1 Kings 22:17). “Then Micaiah said, ‘Listen now to the LORD’s word: I saw the LORD enthroned with all the heavenly forces stationed beside him, at his right and at his left. The LORD said, “Who will persuade Ahab so that he attacks Ramoth-gilead and dies there?” There were many suggestions until one particular spirit approached the LORD and said, “I’ll persuade him.” “How?” the LORD asked. “I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets,” he said. The LORD agreed, “You will succeed in persuading him! Go ahead!” So now, since the LORD has placed a lying spirit in the mouths of every one of these prophets of yours, it is the LORD who has pronounced disaster against you!’ Zedekiah, Chenaanah’s son, approached Micaiah and slapped him on the cheek. ‘Just how did the LORD’s spirit leave me to speak to you?’ he asked.” (1 Kings 22:19-24 CEB).

The prophet Zedekiah slapped Micaiah because, to him, Micaiah blasphemed against the Lord by accusing the entire company of prophets of speaking in the Lord’s name by a lying spirit. These prophets were called by God to speak God’s word, and Micaiah said they’d been infected by a lying spirit so they couldn’t speak God’s word. It was blasphemy. But, as it turned out, it was also the truth.

The other instance is when Jesus stood before the High Priest and answered his questions. “After Jesus spoke, one of the guards standing there slapped Jesus in the face. ‘Is that how you would answer the high priest?’ he asked. Jesus replied, ‘If I speak wrongly, testify about what was wrong. But if I speak correctly, why do you strike me?’” (John 18:22-23 CEB). The Gospel of Matthew records that, when Jesus was mocked by the chief priests and council, they spit in his face and hit him saying, “Prophesy for us, Christ! Who hit you?” (Matthew 26:68 CEB).

So, in this text from the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus told the people in the crowd that when someone strikes them for blasphemy because they believed in the kind of healing and salvation that Jesus offered, or the kind of faithful living that Jesus demanded, they should offer the other cheek and get on with living faithfully. Christians are not to participate in that kind of religious retribution, which is often born of self-righteousness rather than true faithfulness to God.

Jesus does not call us to suffer endless cycles of violence. Rather, Jesus calls us to live faithfully even when others mock us or declare to the world that we’re wrong, that we’re blasphemers, that we’re not holding to religious law and propriety as we ought.

“Love the ones you hate. Do good to those who detest you” (Luke 6:27 my trans.). It’s not only a paradox, but also a challenge that acknowledges there are people whom we—yes, even we wonderful and innocent disciples of Jesus Christ—there are people whom we hate. And there are people who hate us. The challenge of discipleship is to love those we hate, and to do good to those people whom we know—beyond the shadow of a doubt—detest us. That’s. Not. Easy.

That’s why Jesus goes on to say, “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:32-36 CEB).

Sometimes loving others is difficult business. Yet, the demands of being a disciple of Jesus Christ demand this bigger picture of love, and broader inclusion of those whom we love.

The last verses of this text have to do with judgment verses forgiveness, and it’s really about the way these two disparate things work. These words are as difficult as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12 where we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others, and the place where Jesus said, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15 CEB). “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned” (Luke 6:37a CEB) is a tall order to fill because we’re really good at making judgments, whether is unfiltered and voiced or the inner monologue of our minds that we don’t dare speak out loud.

The reason we’re told not to judge is because only God is good (c.f. Luke 18:19). Only God is capable of making right judgments. So, when we live into a religious or social culture based on judgment, the inevitable result is condemnation for everyone and everything. As one scholar put it, “A world bent on justice through judgment fulfills the anonymous maxim “And eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless.” (Allen in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke vol. 1, p. 172). When we live into judgment, we draw lines, define purity, and defend the borders that separate righteousness from sin.

But disciples of Jesus Christ must live into a different reality than that of judgment. When we live into God’s generosity of forgiveness and grace, we can find goodness that overflows. When we remember that we, too, are sinners, yet God has deigned to forgive us and include us in God’s coming dominion, we’re set free from the bondage of judgment. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return” (Luke 6:37-38 CEB). When God’s people live into the overwhelming abundance of grace and forgiveness, we’ll find that God’s good measure is overflowing in our lap and spilling all over those around us—even those we hate and those who despise us.

Can we live with that?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

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Wealth | Proper 23

Mark 10:17-31

17 As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”

18 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 19 You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”

20 “Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 22 But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

23 Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” 24 His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! 25 It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

26 They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”

28 Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”

29 Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news 30 will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.”

Wealth

Believe it or not, I pick the Scripture texts from which I’ll preach several months in advance. In fact, I chose to preach on this text back on June 1st. So, I didn’t plan for this to be the consecration Sunday reading, but I guess it works. After all, Consecration Sunday is when we present our giving pledges for the coming year, and in this text, Jesus addresses something about faith and wealth and the values of God’s kingdom. But this isn’t an easy text to hear or to understand. So, let’s walk through it together.

When this exchange with the man takes place, Jesus had just blessed the children after scolding the disciples to let the little children come to him and explaining that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a little child will never enter it (c.f. Mark 10:15).

In Matthew’s version of this encounter, the man is described as “young” (19:22); in Luke’s Gospel he’s described as a “ruler” (18:18). So, in Christian tradition, this man is often called the rich young ruler. But, in Mark’s Gospel, he’s simply identified as a man with no other adjectives.

There’s no reason to doubt the man’s sincerity, as we often do when reading this story. When he approaches Jesus, he kneels. When he addresses Jesus, it’s with great respect. And when he questions Jesus, it seems—at least to me—that he genuinely wants to know the answer to a very serious concern.

But, as I said a moment ago, Jesus had just taught that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom—a better rendering of the Greek word is receive—whoever doesn’t receive God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it. It’s a lesson this man obviously didn’t hear because the man asks Jesus “What must I do to obtain eternal life” (Mark 10:17 CEB). Instead of receiving the kingdom in complete dependence, like a child, the man wanted to know what he could do.

It’s a mindset that’s typical of the privileged, in whatever capacity that we’re privileged. I think it’s important that we recognize our privilege over others: I’m white, I’m male, I’m ordained clergy, and there are certain amounts of privilege over others that go with each of those. Early in my marriage, when Joy would tell me about an issue she was having, I would try to solve it for her. Like an idiot, I would try to figure out what to do to fix her problem when all my wife wanted was for me to listen to her. Privileged people can have a mindset that we can do our way out of any problem. If the problem is obtaining eternal life, tell me what to do. I’ll put that on my list and check it off once it’s done.

Eternal life obtained. Check!

What’s more, the man wanted to know what he could do to inherit eternal life. While I like the Common English Bible, obtain probably isn’t the best translation here. The man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. My grandmother had her twelve grandchildren in her will, so I received a small inheritance. I didn’t do anything to inherit it. It’s what Grandma wanted to give. An inheritance is usually something a person can only be given. There’s not much anyone can do to inherit something. Inheritances are received. So, the man’s question is a little odd even if it is sincere.

Jesus responded to the man’s question by referring to several of the Commandments: specifically, the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth commandments (c.f. Exodus 20:12-16; Deuteronomy 5:16-20) along with a comment against fraud (c.f. Deuteronomy 24:14; Amos 8:5). These commandments remind us of the requirements of authentic and vibrant community life, and justice within our community. For authentic community to exist, we can’t kill each other, we can’t commit adultery with another person’s spouse, we can’t give false testimony to wrongfully convict our neighbors, we can’t defraud each other (the command against fraud in Deuteronomy 24 includes Israelites and immigrants), and we show honor to our parents by caring for them in their old age.

When the man responded that he had kept these things since he was a boy, Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. While we expect Jesus to love everyone, the statement by Mark suggests that Jesus honored the question and the questioner. This was a man who was trying to be faithful, who wanted to do what was right, and it seemed that Jesus saw that in him. But the requirements of discipleship can move us beyond the law. Jesus noted the one thing the man lacked, which was the utter trust in God he described earlier when teaching about how we must receive the kingdom of God like a child. It was this lack of trust that Jesus sought to bring to completion in the man’s faith.

Jesus said, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me” (Mark 10:21b CEB). Out of his love for this man, Jesus gave him something to do. And we’re told that the man was dismayed at Jesus’ words, and he went away sorrowful because he had many possessions.

Only now in the story do we find out that this man was wealthy. Like the majority of interpretations throughout Christian history, our interpretation of this man’s sorrow and dismay stems from an assumption that he went away in sorrow because he was unwilling do what Jesus told him to do. That’s how we often interpret these lessons.

I’d suggest that one judgment against us might be that we hear these lessons, we think: Well, that person should have done better, they should have obeyed Jesus. Then, we walk away without even attempting to obey the same command. I wonder if our assumptions about other people in these Biblical accounts is our unconscious attempt to comfort ourselves for failing—actually, for not even trying—to be faithful in the same ways as those we’re judging in the text.

The truth is that we don’t know if the man walked away sorrowful because he wouldn’t sell off his possessions and give the money to the poor. It’s entirely possible that the man walked away sorrowful because he intended to do exactly what Jesus told him to do: to sell his many possessions, to give to the poor, and to come back and follow Jesus. That kind of bold decision, that kind of radical action, that kind of leaping out into the deepest waters of faith would not be emotionless, would it? It’s difficult enough for many of us to throw away our junk, which is why we have mini-storage units all over the place. To sell our possessions would be a monumental relinquishment. It could be incredibly painful.

Jesus’ words and invitation to this man begs questions. What is the relationship between faith and possessions? Why would this man need to sell his possessions in order to follow Jesus?

I have heard Christian people say that they don’t think pastors should talk about money from the pulpit. I’ve heard that sentiment about political policy, too. Yet, the fact is that Jesus spoke about money and possessions more than any other topic except for the Kingdom of God. (In fact, many of his teachings about the Kingdom of God have to do with money and possessions). And, Jesus promised the disciples that they would stand before the political leaders of the world, (c.f. Matthew 10:18-28; Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12-19), just as the prophets stood before—and often against—the politicians of their day (c.f. 2 Samuel 12:1-12; 1 Kings 18).

If Jesus taught so much about money and possessions, we can be sure that our relationship with wealth is a deeply spiritual concern. In fact, it seems to be such a serious concern that nothing less than our salvation is at stake. Why was this man told to sell his possessions and give to the poor? My guess is that his many possessions were what kept him from relying on God and receiving the kingdom like a child. Remember, the man wanted to know what he could do to receive eternal life. Jesus told him that he needed to let go of the things that held his heart captive. Jesus told us in another place, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21 CEB).

Where is our treasure? What do we value most? If we value God’s kingdom, eternal life, salvation—those words seem to be used interchangeably in Mark—then we’ll be able to let go of the things that can be a stumbling block to receiving it. Jesus told the rich man that, if he sold his possessions and gave the money to the poor, then he would have treasure in heaven because that’s where the man’s heart would be after such a bold act of faith. After that, the man was invited to become a disciple of Jesus: to follow him.

Even the disciples were startled and shocked when Jesus told them three times that it’s difficult for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom. In their world, the prevailing theology of the day said that the wealthy were wealthy because they were good people and God was blessing them. Their wealth was a spiritual blessing and proof that they were faithful. Or course, they knew of exceptions just as we do. The book of Job is, seemingly, one big exception. But, for Job, it all worked out in the end, so it’s really not much of an exception.

In many ways, the teachings of Jesus take the theological assumption that good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people, the good are rewarded with wealth and health, and the bad are punished with poverty and disease, and he turned it up-side-down. When everyone thought the wealthy were blessed, Jesus said, “Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours” (Luke 6:20b CEB). Jesus preached a radical divine reversal of our human assumptions about who and what is valuable and important. Jesus said, “many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first” (Mark 10:31 CEB). And the stark-yet-exaggerated language Jesus uses ought to tell us that Jesus is serious about this stuff.

At the same time, Jesus reminds us that salvation isn’t ours to earn. There’s nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. The kingdom of God is a gift, and we must receive it like a child would receive a gift. Salvation is impossible for human beings, but all things are possible with God. Now, that does not mean that we get to ignore the demands of faithful discipleship because we can’t earn the kingdom no matter what we do. That’s like Paul arguing against the idea that, because grace is more powerful than sin, we should sin more so that we can get more grace (c.f. Romans 6:1). On the contrary, we are called to repent, to change our hearts and minds, to walk in newness of life, among other things.

The challenge for us as followers of Jesus is to get rid of the things that hinder our full trust in God. For those of material means, wealth and possessions is almost always a hindrance. Does that mean we should sell everything we own and make ourselves poor? No. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. The disciples were fishermen, and they still fished throughout the Gospel stories so they obviously didn’t sell their boats. Peter had a house, and his mother-in-law lived there (c.f. Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:30-31; Luke 4:38). The disciples didn’t impoverish themselves and their families. But they did give up what they needed to give up so they could be about the work of Jesus Christ and follow God’s teachings.

In a way, we can turn our stumbling blocks into blessings. At times, we all worry about money, and we usually take pride in our possessions. How easy is it for us to give our wealth away, and do we give as God requires of us? Ten percent is a lot. I know because my wife and I give 10.7% of my income to church, and we give more to support other ministries that we think are important. (I don’t say that to boast. I say that so that you know that your pastor practices what he preaches). I learned a long time ago that, if you can give wealth away, if you can give generously, then your treasure won’t be in your money and possessions. Your treasure will be in heaven.

It’s important that we consider where our treasure is. May God give us the grace we need to value most what is truly valuable.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Rev. Christopher Millay