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Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
October 13, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

No transcript is available for this sermon. Audio to come soon, hopefully. . .

Through the Ears of a Child

October 28th, 2011 No comments

“Through the Ears of a Child” (Matthew 7:12-29)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
August 28, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

As this is Back to School Sunday, we wanted this service to be especially oriented towards and to honor the children and young people of our congregation. For Jesus said it is the children and those who become like children to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. And so in preparation for this sermon, I thought it would be especially fitting to preach this sermon through the perspective of a child who has just heard Jesus speak on the mountain:

Mother! Mother! I heard him! I heard the man called Jesus who has been going about the countryside and healing all the people with diseases and demons! I heard him! There, on the mountain by the sea! There were crowds and crowds of people there, Mother, all crowding around so that they could hear him too, but you know what? When he saw me and the other children being pushed out of the way so the adults could get better spots to hear, do you know what he said? He said, “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs!” Isn’t that wonderful, Mother? So we got to go close to the front and to sit near to Jesus.

I wish you could have been there too! Then you could have heard all the amazing things he said! He speaks so beautifully, Mother. He speaks with an authority that the scribes don’t even have. Mother, it’s as if he speaks for God himself!

But you know what? He didn’t just say that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the children. Do you know who else it belongs to? It belongs to those who are poor in spirit, to those who mourn, who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, who are merciful and pure in heart, who are peacemakers, who are meek, and who are persecuted! Isn’t that fantastic?

What’s that, Mother?

No, I know that these aren’t the people who seem to be blessed or who others say are blessed. But you know what? Jesus says that they are blessed! And that the Kingdom of Heaven is also theirs and that they will see God!

And then Jesus said that everyone in the crowd, everyone who hears him, that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Well, no, I don’t think that he actually meant that we’re salt and light, but that when you’re “salty” you live in a way that’s different from the rest of the world. And just like a light on a hill, we live in a way that everyone can tell by the way that we live that we have God in us and that they too can have God in them so that we can all glorify God together!

And then Jesus talked about how he came to fulfill the Law and the prophets, not to abolish their teaching, but to really get at the heart of what it was Moses and the prophets were trying to teach us. And ya know, in a way, Jesus reminded me of Moses; you remember, when they tell stories of Moses on Mt Sinai when he gave the Law and taught people how to follow God? Well here was Jesus, on the mountain, teaching people how to follow God and talking about how what he says fulfills the heart of God’s Law.

Well, Mother, it was after he said this that he really got into teaching us how we can follow God. He started out saying, “Ya know the commandment, ‘do not murder’?” Well, really what’s at the heart of this commandment is that we shouldn’t be angry at others and insult them. And that when we’re having a fight with someone or we’re mad at someone, we should go and try to make friends with them again even before we go to worship!

Mother, do you think that Jesus was talking about even the people who take our toys without asking?. . . Yea, I do too.

And Mother, do you think that Jesus was talking about even the people who hurt is really bad and make us cry?. . . Ya know… I think he was.

And ya know, Mother, that’s not always going to be easy, is it?

But ya know what? Jesus lives this way, and he believes that we can live this way too. And that’s a powerful thought, isn’t it Mother? We too can live like Jesus.

He kept going then, after he said that. He didn’t just say we were supposed to make friends with the people we’re angry at, the people we were friends with before. We’re not just supposed to love our friends, because everybody does that. Do you know who else we’re supposed to love? We’re even supposed to love our enemies.

Mother, do you think that Jesus was saying that we should love even the people who are different than we are? The ones who the priests and the scribes say are evil because they think differently and live differently and worship differently than we do?. . . Yea, I do too.

And Mother, do you think that Jesus was even talking about the Roman soldiers who walk around with their swords taunting our people and sometimes even hurt them?

Ya know what?. . . I think he was.

That’s going to be even harder than loving some of our friends even when we’re angry at them, isn’t it, Mother? I think even Jesus will find it harder to love his enemies (than to love his friends.)

But you know 1 way that Jesus said we can start to love our enemies? He said we can pray for them, even when they’re mean to us. When we pray for our enemies, God will work in their hearts, and maybe they’ll begin to love their enemies too!

But Jesus wasn’t done speaking after he said this, Mother. He also said we’re supposed to “let our Yes be yes and our No be no.” We’re supposed to be truthful, when we live like Jesus.

And when we do deeds of worship like fasting and giving alms to poor people and praying, we’re not supposed to do it so that others will notice what we’re doing and praise us for doing them. Instead, we’re supposed to do them in secret. But you know what? It won’t be a complete secret. You know why? Because Jesus says that our heavenly Father will see what we do in secret and that he will reward us.

And Jesus even taught us a new way to pray. He prayed like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one. For the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours forever. Amen.” Isn’t that a beautiful prayer, Mother? And isn’t that wonderful to pray that God’s will be done even on earth just as God’s will is done in heaven? Ya know, I think that if we keep praying like this, that when we pray that God’s will be done on earth, that we will begin to do God’s will on earth, just like what we prayed for!

And then Jesus said some lovely things about treasures and birds and lilies. And I thought of you, Mother. I know how much you like flowers. And he talked about how the flowers are clothed more beautifully than even king Solomon! And it’s God who clothes the flowers, and since God clothes the flowers, then God will clothe us too. And it was the same thing with the birds. That they don’t gather a lot of food and put it into little bird barns, yet they have enough because God feeds them. And ya know, God cares for the birds and the flowers, Mother, but He cares even more for us; and since God takes care of the birds the the flowers that He will also take care of us.

What’s that, Mother? What about the poor people who don’t get enough to eat? Well, of course God still cares for them!

But I guess this also goes back to Jesus’ prayer. When we pray that God’s will is done on earth, we want to see that God’s people are taken care of. I think that one of the ways that God cares for people is through the people who follow Him and seek to do His will on earth. And maybe that means sharing our daily bread with those who are hungry.

In fact, I think that Jesus does mean for us to share with others, Mother. He said we shouldn’t be devoted to our things or to our money, because they can get rusty and be stolen. But that we should have our treasure in heaven, because where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Isn’t that a neat thought, Mother? When we live like Jesus lives, our treasure is in heaven.

He wasn’t done speaking yet, though, Mother. Jesus also said that we shouldn’t judge people, because each of us have logs in our own eyes.

He also said that God hears us when we pray, and just like you give my sister and me good things to eat when we’re hungry, our heavenly Father also gives good things to his children.

And then, Mother, Jesus started to end his sermon by summarizing everything he’d already said in one sentence: he said, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus said that this is what God’s Law is all about; that God’s people treat others just as we want to be treated. So when we tell the truth and love our enemies, and see even the people who don’t seem to be blessed as blessed and loved by God, then we live like Jesus. Cause that’s how we’re supposed to live when we’re a part of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And when we live like this, other people will see us, and they’ll know that we follow Jesus. They won’t even have to ask, Mother; they’ll just know because of the good fruit we bear and the way we let our light shine.

And Jesus said that if we act on these words that he said, we’ll be like a wise person who built a house upon a rock. So that even when the storms come, and the rains fall, and the winds blow, the house won’t fall because it has been founded on rock.

Ya know, Mother, I think Jesus’ teachings are the rock. And that even when storms come and bad things happen to us, we have a solid ground to stand on because we’re living like God wants us to.

But you know, I wonder if Jesus has some storms up ahead for him too, because some of the things he was saying, and how he was asking us to live, are really different from the way a lot of people live. And he could get in trouble for saying these things. But you know, Mother, I really liked what he said, and I think he is right. I’ve seen the way people treat others, and it’s really sad the way that they hurt each other. But if we live like Jesus, it would be like heaven on earth.

He really said some amazing things. I wish that you could have been there. I really think that Jesus is going to change people’s lives. In fact, I really think he’s going to change the world!

May we become like a child, for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. May we not just hear Jesus’ words, but act upon them and live like he lived. May we choose the narrow gate. May we live so that the world will know us by our fruits. May we be built upon the firm foundation laid for us that is Jesus Christ our Lord. And may God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Practicing Compassion

August 27th, 2011 No comments

“Practicing Compassion” (Matthew 7:1-5)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
August 14, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Laugh at yourself – it’s good for the soul!
I’m a sucker for a good laugh. Every Sunday, it was a rush to see who’d get the comics page first after we got home from church. I even tried sneaking a Garfield comic book into worship, but that didn’t last long after I was trying to suppress chuckles during a prayer. And you know how it is when you’re trying to suppress laughter. The longer you try, the harder it gets.

So I remember a feeling of everyone in the pews around me trying to see who it was that was snickering – you know, maybe trying to peek with one eye or shift nonchalantly to get a better angle. Needless to say, that was on of those parental “We don’t think we need to say much about this since you’ve already learned your lesson” moments. So I don’t recommend it.

But I think that when we hear these words from Jesus from this morning’s sermon on the mount, we have to enjoy them with a little bit of imagination. Can you picture people walking around with planks or logs in their eyes trying to find a tiny speck in someone else’s eye? This would be great stuff for a Far Side cartoon or the political cartoons section of the newspaper. So for this morning, I offer a blanket pardon for any chuckling!

Have a little humor, Jesus says. Don’t take yourselves so seriously, or you’ll miss God’s mercy and grace! Laugh at yourselves! It’s the best way to break through our judgmentalism and our defensiveness against admitting our own errors.

Our own foolishness and boneheadedness is something we need to confess and to laugh at. And Jesus’ teaching is also something to take to heart. You see, I think this is one of those teachings that we Christians, we followers of Jesus have struggled to really take to heart, and from across the spectrum – not just the more strict, doctrinaire churches or periods in our history, but all of us.

I see a “speck” of irony in Amos and Romans!
I sometimes like to imagine that as Jesus was telling this mini-parable about taking the log out of your own eye before helping your brother or sister with the speck in their eye, that maybe he had in mind the first couple of chapters of Amos. So, in Amos’s day, there were two rival Hebrew kingdoms – the south, called Judah, and the north, called Israel. Amos was probably from Judah, but God called him to prophesy in Israel (you can imagine how that went over).

The book begins dramatically, “The Lord roars from Zion, and thunders from Jerusalem!” and then continues with a harangue against Israel’s rivals and enemies: “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn back what is to come!”

And you can hear the audience cheer as Amos goes on to list the grievances of Israel against Damascus.

And “For three transgressions of Gaza, and for four, I will not turn back what is to come!” And more cheering as the grievances are listed.

“For three transgressions of Tyre, and for four, I will not turn back what is to come.” More applause.

“For three transgressions of Edom, and for four. . . For three transgressions of the Ammonites, and for four. . . For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not turn back what is to come.”

And Amos would have the crowds worked up against their rivals as well as any politician could. And then he brings the house down: “For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not turn back what is to come.” And you can imagine how much the crowds in Israel applauded the judgment against their rival-neighbors to the south.

But Amos has one more yet: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn back what is to come!” Imagine the sudden shock, the sudden cutoff of applause, the sound of crickets and cicadas as the crowds realize the whole speech has been zeroing in on Israel, and they have been cheering not just the judgment of their neighbors, but ultimately of themselves. Sorta the same ironic humor. Indeed, the rest of the book of Amos calls Israel to take the log out of its own eye.

You may have noticed that Paul does something sort of similar in writing to the Romans. The church in Rome was suffering some significant division, roughly between Jews and Gentiles. Paul begins by announcing God’s judgment on the Jews’ favorite criticism of Gentiles: their idolatry and its self-punishing fruits of their impurity, their sexual immorality, their greed, malice, murder, slander, deceit, and much, much more!

You can kind of imagine the Jewish Christians in the audience cheering all this on – at least giving their heartfelt approval.

And in chapter two, it all reaches its climax and conclusion. Paul begins, “Therefore, without excuse!” And the Jews have to be really smiling contentedly now. . . until the irony comes: “Therefore, without excuse. . . are you, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” There’s that same twist of ironic humor.

Finding the Log in Our Own Eye
Of course, it becomes a little less funny when you realize that we’re in that “you” also. . .

We realize that we also seem to think we have the corner on God’s truth, that we also are much quicker to pass judgment on others than to repent ourselves, that we’re just as judgmental. And, at times, in a strange twist of irony, we’re even judgmental about people who are judgmental! See, you just have to laugh sometimes!

But, the real danger of the judgmental spirit is that it strangles our love for one another. We come to love being right more than we love one another, like Jesus told us to do. We come to think that we have more special insight into God’s truth, all-the-while forgetting God’s words through the prophet Isaiah long ago, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:9).

More importantly, we forget that we ourselves struggle with the power of Sin, that we ourselves stumble along the path of discipleship, that we ourselves have been forgiven and welcomed by Christ.

And friends, the world sees it. The world sees our judgmental spirit, and thinks it’s characteristic of all Christians – that we’re judgmental, authoritarian, and self-righteous. The world remembers how much blood we’ve spilled trying to determine by force who is Christian and who isn’t.

But Jesus has warned us that the judgmental Christians who are not practicing forgiveness toward others are not themselves forgiven. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Luke’s Gospel has it this way: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

The point isn’t that God’s forgiveness and welcome is somehow limited or measured by our own, but rather that God’s forgiveness and welcome is to be the measure of our own, and Jesus tells us where to begin.

Taking the Log Out
“First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Glen Stassen poignantly observes:

When he says, “Take the log out of your eye,” Jesus is calling for repentance-acknowledging our own need for change, and actually making the change. The way of repentance is central to Jesus’ announcement that the reign of God is at hand: God is present, graciously delivering us; repent and believe the good news. When we repent and allow Jesus to loosen our defensiveness, stop hiding our real selves from others, admit that we have a problem, and allow God’s grace to bring about a turning in our lives, that is participating in grace. The reign of God then breaks into our lives. When we allow Jesus to convert our judging into openness and gratitude, it really is the grace of God breaking into our shame.1

Perhaps when we notice that we’re spotting a speck in someone else’s eye, that’s our own call to repentance. Minimally, when we find ourselves unable to offer gracious words about another person, that is our own call to practice quietness. But maybe once we see clearly, we find that the speck we thought we saw was just the shadow of our own plank, or maybe it was a tear.

Jesus has this vision for our disposition – for our character, that we have an orientation of compassion and repentance, rather than judgment and arrogance. And building character takes practice. Jesus says that practice is the continual discipline of taking the log out of our own eyes. When we start seeing specks in others’ eyes – when we start judging others or feeling ill toward them, that is our call to repentance, and that is how we form character.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be – and we don’t want to – be the kind of folks who regularly condemn others, but rather the kind who regularly practice forgiveness and repentance. I hope we’re glad that the days are behind us when couples who had conceived out of wedlock (or sometimes just the mother) were forced to confess their sin before the entire congregation, while husbands who abused their wives sat apparently blameless in the pews.

Drawing Near, Wiping away the Speck
But I wonder if we’ve really learned to follow Jesus yet. Have we interpreted Jesus’ teaching as “My business is my business” and “What’s right for you is right for you – none of my concern”? I don’t know if that’s what we’ve done or not, but I do believe that Jesus has something much more transformative in mind. Jesus really does want us to practice the transforming initiatives of mutual accountability and forgiveness. But it’s the way in which we do it that’s so important.

Preacher Thomas Long observes, “When we recognize that we, too, are broken and flawed, that we do not stand on unspoiled moral ground, then we move from harsh judgment to a tender concern to help the neighbor.”2

We’ve learned again and again from Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups that those struggling with addiction aren’t really helped by people who scold and judge and tell them how to live, but rather by those who have confessed their own complete powerlessness, “those who confess that the springs of moral refreshment come only from God.”3

When we finally feel the weight of the log in our own eye, when we finally realize the enormity of our own struggle with sin, when we finally acknowledge that we’re utterly lost, were it not for the mercy of God, then we’re able to get close enough to reach out to our neighbors, and instead of jabbing them in the eye with our finger of judgment, to gently wipe away the speck and the tears along with the speck (and those of us with contacts are acutely aware that when there’s a speck, there’s a lot of discomfort and a lot of tears).

But we can’t assume that others know we’re also working with our own planks. Good friends who can be blunt with each other know it’s because they’ve earned each other’s trust through the practice of mutual accountability and forgiveness. They know there’s no pretense of self-righteousness or arrogance because they’ve been helping each other with planks and specks for a long time.

But for others, we must go out of our way to communicate first and foremost our love and our own repentance when gently wiping away specks. And it works.

Some of you may recall the great struggle our churches went through in the aftermath of the Second World War. Young men were returning both from CO Civilian Public Service and from military service. Congregations were wrestling with whether or how to dispense with church discipline. Some say it’s the most divisive issue the conference has faced. I don’t know how Grace Hill handled it, but I know the story of the congregation I grew up in.

The senior pastor favored disciplining those who had served in the military. The congregation initially voted to wait and see what the other two Goessel churches would do (and again, we need to laugh at ourselves a little). But later, something much more interesting happened. At the December 1945 business meeting, the congregation adopted the following resolution:

I freely confess that I have failed in the past in regard to the seven points set forth in the statement of our position on Peace, War and Military Service passed by the General Conference at Souderton, Pennsylvania, August 17-22, 1941, and promise to do better in the future both in word and action. (Emphasis added)

Each church member was given the opportunity to sign the statement, and nearly every member signed. The senior pastor, regretting his previous position on disciplining those who served in the military, was among the first to sign, followed by a member who had served in the military, followed by the other pastor, H.B. Schmidt, who had given much of his career to helping young men secure CO status and alternative service opportunities.

The congregation had the opportunity to jab their fingers in the eyes of their brothers (and it seems some wanted to). But instead, they took the log out of their own eyes. Rather than judging the actions of others, they confessed their own failure to follow Christ’s command to make peace and love our enemies. The most important decision that was made was the decision to repent, rather than to condemn. The issue wasn’t ignored; the congregation’s witness was not compromised. The pastor later remarked that this Sunday morning, when the congregation could have fallen apart, had united the church more than anything else in his tenure as pastor, despite significant differences in perspective and practice.

And that, friends, is the transformation that happens when we participate in God’s grace by repenting and following Jesus.

Paul’s council to the church in Rome came amid controversy and division as difficult as the church has ever experienced – over circumcision, dietary laws, and what it means to be God’s faithful covenant people. The issues then drove people to judge one another as much as anything we deal with today. I close with Paul’s timelessly wise words to the Romans, and for all of us. From the concluding chapters 14 and 15:

Welcome those who are weak in faith. . . Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. . . Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another. . . For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification. . . May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Amen.

Notes:
1. Glen Stassen, Living the Sermon on the Mount, 151.
2. Thomas Long, Matthew in Westminster Bible Companion, 77.
3. Long, 78.

Praying with Jesus

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Praying with Jesus” (Matthew 6:1-18)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 31, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

I need to come clean on something here. I have never done well with bedtime devotions. I’m afraid that more often than I’d like to admit, I fell asleep during family devotions before bed. And I’ve been on spiritual retreats where you’re supposed to sit and reflect and pray, but all my mind does is wonder and wonder, and my eyes persist in drooping. I doubt if becoming a contemplative spiritual master will ever be in my future.

But I remember one night my freshman year in college. I had been just swamped with schoolwork, and I knew I’d been struggling to keep Jesus at the center of it all. Late at night, after I had finished my studying and writing. I felt a nudge to just go outside and take a walk around campus, and I found myself praying. And then I was outside again the next night. And the night after that.

And all four years, I continued to find myself on the sidewalks at Bethel late at night before going to bed. I never told anyone what I was doing until the end of my senior year, and I would get the strangest looks, like “What are you doing going outside at 2am in the middle of winter when it’s 0 degrees outside?”

So I’d go and traipse around campus, and the buildings would help guide my praying as I passed them, from simply listening to God, to prayers for mentors and professors and folks suffering around the world, and friends and family. And on my way back to my dorm, I’d pause across the green from the Administration building, and I’d remember the college’s motto from 1 Corinthians: “Other foundation can no one lay, than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” And I’d ponder if Jesus really was my foundation, or if school or friends or work had replaced the stone foundation with the sands of transience, of self, of busy-ness. And God would call me again and again to build my life around Christ, to center my learning, my relationships, my work around God, to let God breathe in me and through me.

And I would wonder what it means to build a life around Jesus. I’d wonder what it means to live a life of prayer, of radical simplicity, of service, of peace and witness, of justice and love. I’d wonder and try to listen for what it means to take up my cross, and what it means to be made alive again, what it means to be a child.

It was the strangest thing (and probably looked a little creepy – a solitary person wondering around campus late at night), but I encountered God there, and God reminded me of the things that are most important – to seek first the kingdom. And at the end of every walk, I would pray and ponder the Lord’s Prayer.

Well, I don’t do late night walks any more, but this simple prayer that Jesus taught us has remained an important part of my life. So this morning’s sermon will be a little different. I would like for us to pray this prayer together. After we pray each phrase, there will be silence for us to ponder and listen, and the I will share some of what I have heard as I have prayed this prayer over the years, and I invite you also to be listening, and to share what you hear during our sharing time this morning. So let us pray and listen together.

Our Father in Heaven

[Silence]

We pray to our Father, so that even when we are praying alone, we are reminded that prayer is something we all do together. Together, we are God’s people, where “my” and “mine” are things of the past. There’s so much in the world that tries to rob us of the divine gift of community, subtly “seducing us to settle for independence over interdependence,” for “security over sacrifice.”1 But our praying reminds us that we are living members of Christ’s body – the beloved community of the new creation.

We address our Father in Heaven. God’s name is so holy that it is not even spoken. Yet to call God “Father” is not to keep God at a safe distance. If God is our Father, then God is drawing near to us. As I pray to our Father, I’m reminded that in Jesus’ culture, fathers were the lifeline of the family. In a patriarchal society, fathers were the authority and centerpiece for provision. Jesus suggests that we have one Father. We have been reborn, and only God may be seen as Father, our Provider and Authority. And if God is our Father, then think just how big our family must be!

Let your name be hallowed –

[Silence]

Our prayer does not begin with our own requests, but with worship and the dream of God’s kingdom. The Old Testament scriptures long for a coming time when God’s name will be hallowed as it should be. When we honor and worship God, we become a little foretaste of that future.

In the stories of promises and covenants, we discover that out of all the peoples of the world, God chose Israel to be God’s own and to bear God’s name. God revealed the law to Israel, that Israel might be a light to the nations. Their life together was to be a witness to how God desires all people to live. “To know the life of Israel was to know the love of Israel’s God.”2 Jesus came and fulfilled this calling, living a life worthy of God’s name. Those who live by faith in him are also branded with the name of God. To pray, “Let your name be hallowed,” is to pray that we would be holy, that God would teach us a new way of life.

Let your kingdom come –

[Silence]

Jesus came and announced a kingdom that’s not of this world. It’s the kingdom that Israel’s prophets dreamed of, a kingdom of deliverance and salvation, a kingdom of peace and joy, a kingdom of God’s light and healing, a kingdom justice and righteousness, of forgiveness reconciliation and restoration and coming home.

Jesus talked about his disciples as being a city on a hill and a light for the world. It’s like we’re little colonies of God’s Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Paul had said that we’re ambassadors for Christ. We get to become coworkers in the kingdom.We’re little outposts of God’s reign and God’s future.

The book of Revelation ends with the fulfillment of our common prayer: The New Jerusalem descends from heaven and becomes a city on earth. God’s reign is to be a reality right here among us. It’s like Jesus is the trailblazer of God’s kingdom, and he has given us this glimpse, this vision of the kingdom like what John, the author of Revelation, had, and Jesus taught for us to pray for that vision to come in full, and he has invited us to participate in his redemptive work for God’s kingdom.

Let your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven –

[Silence]

As I pray, “your will be done,” I am reminded that this is the very prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest: “not what I will, but what you will.” As we pray this prayer, we are training ourselves to follow Jesus in yielding our will to God’s will, God’s will might become our will, that our desires might be conformed to God’s desires. Praying this prayer raises our awareness of where our will is out of sync with God’s will, so we pray to have the mind of Christ (Php. 2:5).

Praying for God’s will to be done reminds us that we don’t have to pretend to know all the answers; instead, we pray and listen for God’s will, especially in the life of Jesus. And we pray and listen earnestly, “Let your will be done. . . in our marriage. . . in how I speak to others. . . in my use of money. . . in how I share your love with all my life.”

Give us this day our daily bread

[Silence]

Praying for daily bread reminds me of the overwhelming poverty of Jesus’ listeners, and of many of our neighbors as well. Most of us have pantries and deep freezes and fridges so stuffed with food cuts of meat and fruits and vegetables and casseroles and ice cream that we can’t even imagine what it means to pray for bread. But we can’t possibly pray this prayer on Sunday, and then neglect those in need on Monday. I’m reminded of how this prayer became reality for the early church – how the believers gave to all in need and found abundance in sharing God’s generosity.

This prayer is a prayer of total trust and dependence on God. We struggle with this. We hedge our bets with storehouses of provision in case God’s runs out. Jesus warned his disciples about seeking recognition and status – even the temptation to turn God into an idol serving our ambitions. But Jesus says to pray alone – to rely solely on God instead of human recognition.

We might also translate this, “Give us today our coming bread.” What does it mean to pray for tomorrow’s bread to come today? What does it mean to taste something of God’s future? What does it mean to taste the kingdom coming? How can we live now in a way that gives other a foretaste of the coming Kingdom?

And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors

[Silence]

When I pray this, I’m reminded of Jesus’ first proclamation of the gospel: “The Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent, and believe the Gospel!” (Mark 1:15). To repent means to change one’s course and one’s mind – to follow a new path. In my imagination, I see Jesus pointing to the Kingdom, and saying, “Good news! God’s Kingdom is coming! Turn around! Change your direction, look over here, and follow a new path!”As we pray this prayer, we become aware of when we aren’t living as Kingdom people – when we’re selfish, unfaithful, hateful, lusting, greedy, hostile, vengeful, hypocritical, pretentious, anxious, dishonest, and prideful.

Forgiveness frees us from our broken ways to follow Jesus. So often we miss just how radical the message of forgiveness is. But in a culture bent on retribution, cool application of justice, getting what I deserve, and lusting after punishment, forgiveness is a radically different orientation for life. It’s interesting that quite often when Jesus preached about repentance, he was addressing peasants – folks forced off their land, controlled by foreigners, always at risk of falling into debt slavery – oppressed people. Oddly enough, he didn’t usually preach to them about how their evil oppressors needed to repent, but rather that they themselves needed to repent. They themselves needed to repent of their hostility, seek forgiveness and learn to forgive, and participate in God’s grace by living as kingdom people now already. That’s where they would find their freedom and fulfillment.

Jesus reminds his followers that the power of prayer depends on our own practice of forgiveness (Mt. 6:14-15). Kingdom people don’t carry around grudges. They weigh us down too much and prevent us from giving ourselves full and energetically to the work of God’s Kingdom.

And lead us not into temptation

[Silence]

Sometimes, I think this maybe means, “Let us not sin when we are tested,” and we will be tested, just as Jesus himself was. As long as we are praying for God’s Kingdom, we will be tested, because not everyone wants God’s Kingdom to come, and the kingdoms of the world have perfected their art of seduction.

If we believe ourselves to be above temptation, chances are the Tempter has already won. We need to beware of the “almost good” things. The Tempter is craft and sometimes knows better than to tempt us with the clearly evil things, but rather to settle for the “almost good” – just shy of God’s Kingdom. Or the Tempter keeps us busy with “important” work to distract us from Kingdom Work.

Jesus wasn’t tempted in the wilderness to hurt anyone; he was tempted to make bread and dazzle the public and rise to power, by giving his allegiance to Satan. Instead, he chose to trust God’s Kingdom and God’s ways. I sometimes wonder what Jesus’ last temptation was. Was it in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before his arrest? Did the Tempter whisper in his ear that his followers wouldn’t understand his death? Did he show Jesus the centuries of blood spilled in his name, and say, “Do you really want to die for this?” Or was the last temptation at the cross, as nearly every sort of onlooker imaginable paraded by to mock him, bearing the Tempter’s words on their lips: “If you are God’s son, come down from there!” Was he tempted to prove himself in displays of power?

Our faithful obedience is to be conformed to that of Jesus, who remained faithful even unto death. This, I think, is what we are to pray for.

But deliver us from evil

[Silence]

The way of the cross is not the way of safety and comfort. Jesus was not delivered from evil (apparently!); instead, he was handed over to evil that he might deliver us. Evil seemed to triumph, but it did not have the last word. Deliverance from evil may initially look different than what we imagine. Paul understood it this way. Deliverance from sin and evil involves suffering, crucifixion, dying with Jesus (e.g. Rom. 6; 8:13; 1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 4:11; Gal. 2; 5:24; Col. 3:5).

Jesus warned us not to worry about those things that can destroy the body – we’re to worry about those things that can destroy the soul (Mt. 10:28). Maybe the scariest place for a follower of Jesus to be is in safety and comfort, securely removed from the suffering of the world, where we forget to pray for daily bread because we do not need to.

For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.

[Silence]

What would happen if every person at Grace Hill Mennonite Church – from age 2 to age 92 – would pray this prayer every day for one month – or even for a year? What would happen if this prayer that Jesus taught us would come to define us? What if this prayer would become like our mission statement as we seek God’s kingdom and God’s will here in Kansas or in Texas? What do you think would happen? How would God use such a simple act of obedience and worship? How would we be changed?

Our Father in Heaven
Let your name be hallowed –
Let your kingdom come –
Let your will be done –
      on earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.

Amen.

Notes:
1. Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove, Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers, 19.
2. Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove, 28.

Loving Our Enemies

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Loving Our Enemies” (Matthew 5:38-48)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 24, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Audio: Loving Our Enemies

I wrote out the introduction to this peace sermon. Several folks found it helpful for our context:

As many of you know or could guess, today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount, which is the climax of the first part of the Sermon, touches on what I consider to be not merely a distinctive, but a core Christian conviction grounded in the teachings of Jesus, in the New Testament’s understanding of his death and resurrection, in the claims God’s grace has on us, and in our hope for God’s future.

And that conviction is the thoroughgoing Christian peace witness, which includes Christian pacifism. This is my heartfelt conviction I find to be revealed in Scripture and above all in Jesus Christ. This is the teaching and conviction of our church. This is our historic understanding for which we have suffered. This is an understanding and more importantly way of life that was the norm for the first generations of the church and has found expression in various ways throughout the entirety of Christian history.

And, there are many committed Christians who see much differently than I do. We are blessed to have veterans as members of our congregation. Many of our neighbors and friends in our community are deeply committed to Jesus, and do not share our church’s peace convictions.

And I want to be clear that because this is a conviction I hold deeply, I want to hold it with open hands rather than closed fists. I believe that as long as the Holy Spirit is present in the world, no one can claim to have a corner on God’s truth, and that belief begins with me. So we cannot claim to have everything figured out, and we welcome and value and want to hear everyone’s thoughts as we all seek to be faithful followers of Jesus.

So this morning, I will offer my reflections and heartfelt convictions about this text, while at the same time wanting to fully welcome, love, respect and accept anyone whose heartfelt convictions are different from my own as a brother or sister in Christ. And I humbly ask that we all extend this grace to one another, not just with this, but with many discussions.

There is no transcript for the remainder of the sermon. Enjoy the audio!

Following the Way and the Truth

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Following the Way and the Truth” (Matthew 5:33-37)
By Pastor Katherine Goerzen
July 17, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

One of the biggest lies that I ever told was in the 5th grade. This was the year that we first got our instruments and started playing in the band and as 5th grade students we were required to practice our instruments 20 minutes a day at least 5 days a week. And it was the weekend, and I had already practiced most of what I was supposed to, but I still had to practice once or twice yet that week. And, like a typical 5th grader, instead of wanting to practice my trombone on this particular Saturday evening, I was much more interested in watching TV. My parents were gone, and my sister and I were the only ones home. So I thought, I’ll just tell my folks that I already practiced, and if they ask my sister, I’ll just have her back up the story. So I convinced her to tell my parents that I had already practiced. Problem solved. I could watch as many Looney Tunes episodes as I wanted. That is, until my parents came home and they asked whether I had practiced that evening. Well, my sister and I were only able to keep up the charade for a little while, and eventually my folks found out that we were lying. Which resulted in me needing to practice my trombone after all, and which resulted in my sister crying, because I had asked her to lie for me. And I felt terrible, because I had been caught, and because I had forced my sister to participate in this lie. I remember very little from the 5th grade, but I do remember this night. And all of this could have been so easily avoided had I simply practiced for 20 minutes (I mean, really, that’s less than 3 Looney Tunes episodes), or it could have been avoided if I had simply told my parents that I hadn’t yet had a chance to practice. But I had believed that this lie would make things easier for me, that it would get me what I wanted, and I really had not thought at all about what the consequences would be. It had seemed much easier for me to believe that if I tweaked the truth just a little bit that everything would turn out fine.

After all, isn’t this what we tend to tell ourselves? And isn’t it easy to tell ourselves this? It seems so logical at the time, to tweak the truth just a bit so that it becomes more convenient for us? Besides, everybody else is doing it. We are surrounded by a culture where it is expected that people will lie. People in the Media tweak facts to make things more entertaining or to skew them to suit their own particular bias. Politicians mince words so that they get more votes or to rile up their constituents. And it doesn’t really take much effort to think of stories where famous people have lied because it suited their purposes better or because they didn’t want to get caught doing something wrong.

And it is not only celebrities or media moguls or politicians where this type of behavior is expected; this lying to suit our own purposes seems to be expected of everyone. In our culture it is assumed that people won’t always tell the truth. When someone tells us something, we sometimes find ourselves wondering whether they really meant that, or whether they will keep their promise. We don’t always know if we can trust their words, because we’ve been lied to before.

And this mistrust at the validity of people’s words certainly carries over into the legal system, where people in our courtrooms are asked to swear “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” The assumption is that people won’t tell the truth unless they are made to do so because people are, by nature, going to try to suit their own purposes, or so that they can avoid getting caught at what they’ve been doing, or that they might skew reality to suit their own view.

We assume that people won’t always tell the truth; we assume that people will flat-out lie to our face. And because society assumes this, we come up with ways to make people believe us by saying things like, “I swear on a stack of Bibles” or “I swear on the grave of my sainted grandmother” or “Cross my heart, and hope to die.” And this has been going on for perhaps most of human history. In the Old Testament times, there were oaths sworn on “God’s house” or “The Lord’s name.” And apparently in Jesus’ day, people swore by “heaven” or by “earth” or by “Jerusalem.” And Jesus must have been frustrated by the casual use of such phrases (after all, we sometimes tend to utter such without really thinking about it) and here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers, “but I say to you not to swear at all.” Now this exhortation here in verse 34 is where many people tend to place the emphasis of this passage. Many view these few verses as a prohibition of oath taking or of any kind of swearing, and so perhaps we write these words off a little bit because they don’t seem quite as important as some of the other things Jesus has taught. And people have interpreted this passage in different ways. Some believe that this applies to swear words. Some have believed that this is a good teaching, but that it perhaps shouldn’t carry over into the legal setting, because reality is that people can’t necessarily be trusted to tell the truth unless they are under oath. Some take this passage literally. The early Anabaptists refused to swear oaths of loyalty to the cities where they resided, in part because of this passage from the Sermon on the Mount.

But I wonder whether Jesus’ focus was not so much on “not to swear at all’ as it was on “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no” (from verse 37), that Jesus was most concerned that his followers speak truthful words and live truthful lives.

When we interpret this passage to emphasize that Jesus’ focus was on telling the truth, his exhortation, “not to sweat at all” begins to make more sense than a simple prohibition. For there is an inherent danger in living in a culture where oaths are seen as a necessary way to guarantee truthfulness. If someone swears that their words are true, than those who are hearing their words are supposed to have confidence in what they are saying. But what about what they say when they are not under oath? These words seem to carry less value, they may or may not be true. “The very existence of an oath-level of speech threatens to render everyday speech as less trustworthy.”1

Oaths really only exist because people believe that others cannot be trusted to speak truthfully under normal circumstances. But if people cannot be trusted under normal circumstances, can they really be trusted to do so when they are under oath? If the truth is not valued at all times, then can anyone’s words really ever be trustworthy? And we know of situations where people do lie under oath, or that they lie even when they have sworn that their words are true. So what then? How can we trust people’s words in a society whose underlying assumption is that people lie?2

Jesus is offering an alternative way of life to the broader culture’s mistrust of our words and deeds. Jesus has another vision in mind, where all words are trusted to be true, and where all people seek to tell the truth at all times. And this is the way of those whose citizenship is in heaven are called to live. We are to be in the world, but not of it. The world may lie because it appears to be more convenient, but the way of God’s kingdom is the way of Truth. Jesus envisions the church as a place where we can trust others as citizens of God’s reign to be completely honest with us just as we are to be honest with them.

So how do we begin to live truthful lives? Well, I believe it goes beyond simply not telling lies and following “the letter of the law.” As people who are called to be ambassadors for Christ and to follow The Way and The Truth, we need to live lives where we proclaim the truth, and that both our words and our actions convey the truth. Truth-telling is important, because this is who God has called us to be.

Truth-telling is important for accountability. How can we hold each other accountable if we are not honest with one another? How can we lift up one another in love and in prayer, if we are not being truthful about the places where we are experiencing pain and brokenness? Do we wish so deeply to be seen as someone who has it all together, or that our lives are much better than they actually are, that we have forsaken the truth for living a lie just to affect others’ perceptions of us? Is it honest to pretend that everything is fine when it is not? Are we being true to ourselves and to who God created us to be?

Truth-telling is also important when it comes to reconciliation. If there is someone who we feel has hurt us; how honest is it if we are seething quietly under our breath, or we complain about this person to others, when we act as though nothing is wrong when we talk with this person face to face? Is it honest to pretend that everything is fine when it is not? Are we being true to ourselves and to who God created us to be?

One of the primary reasons that I did not want to become a member of the church when I was about to be baptized was because of what I had witnessed within the church when I was growing up. I watched as people within the church were very friendly to those with whom they had a grievance, or who they disagreed with, or who they disliked; they were very friendly to their face. But as soon as the person they disliked left, they complained about this person, or they sought to undermine them, or they stabbed them in the back. And when I saw this happening as a high school student about to be baptized, I thought to myself, “Why would I want to be a part of something where we are not honest with each other, where people say one thing and act in a different way, where people pretend that things are going well when they are not?”

And when I took classes on Reformation history in college, I was convinced that some of the early reformers got it right when they said that the true church is invisible, that only God knows who is in and who is out, because my experience of church growing up included people who acted in selfish and untruthful ways that were not true to the Christ whom they said they followed.

But I later learned in that class that the early Anabaptists had a different take on things. They said, “No! The true church is not invisible. Those who are in the church are those who follow in Christ’s footsteps, who live as he lived.” And I have since become convinced that the true nature of the church is visible to the watching world, and that all within will be faithful witnesses to our Lord and Savior through the way that we live our lives. And since then, I have witnessed many instances where people within the church are faithfully following in the way of Truth.

But it is still important for each of us (myself included) to be reminded that within the church, we should not buy into the thought that lying is simply the way of the world and thus there’s nothing we can really do about it, or that when we lie, it will make things more convenient for us, especially when we do not consider the many ways that our lies hurt ourselves and those around us. The church of Christ is called to be salt and light. And we cannot be salt and light if we are not honest with ourselves and with each other. Jesus is the Way and the Truth. And if we honestly take Jesus as seriously as we say we do, we will follow in his footsteps, and we will embody the truth that he was. Our commitment to the truth should be made known to all who watch us by what we do, what we say, and how we live our lives.

Now this isn’t always as easy as Sunday School lessons or sermons make this out to be. And what about the times when we really do worry about telling the truth, because there are times when we worry that the truth won’t set us free at all. There are times when we fear that the truth would bring worse consequences than a lie. There are times when the truth can be painful, whether it was something we have done that has caused pain, or whether it is something painful that has been done to us. There are times when we lie to ourselves to bury that pain, lest it rise to the surface of our consciousness and continue to haunt us. But I would hope that even in such painful circumstances, the church continues to be a place of healing and hope, as our Lord and Savior is one who heals and one who brings hope into the world.

Or what about the times when we wonder whether there are exceptions to truth-telling, when telling the truth would endanger the lives of other? The classic example is about those who harbored Jews during the Holocaust. Wasn’t it better for the people offering them shelter to lie to the Nazis who came looking for them rather than to tell the truth and forfeit the lives of those they had sought to protect? Now there are creative ways that people have attempted to remain true to the truth, and one such story is told about Menno Simons when the authorities came looking for him to capture, imprison, and possibly even execute him. One version of the story says that when the authorities came to Menno Simons’ house, they knocked on the door and Menno answered. They asked him, “Is Menno Simons in this house?” And Menno stepped through the doorway, and stood outside the house, and said, “No, Menno Simons is not in this house.”

But what about the times when we are too paralyzed by fear that we cannot be creative, or that circumstances simply do not allow for us to answer truthfully without risking our own life or the lives of others? For there are times when there is such a dramatic imbalance of power, when people abuse their power and people find themselves horrendously oppressed. Now different Christians, each seeking to be faithful to Christ, would answer this question in different ways. But one wonders whether there is a difference between telling a lie simply because it seems as though it will make things more convenient for us, and telling a lie to save lives, for life is sacred. After all, there is biblical precedence for this, and one such story is the story of the faithful Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, which is told in Exodus 1. These women had been ordered by Pharaoh to kill the Hebrew boys after they were born, but they “feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them” (Exodus 1:17). And when Pharaoh asked them why the baby boys were not being killed, they said that the Hebrew women were giving birth before the midwives got there. They lied in order to save the lives of the children of Israel. But one wonders what Jesus would have said about this.

I do not think that we should focus on asking when there are exceptions for us to tell the truth, but that we should instead focus on Jesus’ charge to us to “Let our ‘yes’ be yes and our ‘no’ be no” and that we seek to embody the truth in our words and actions. And so I end with this challenge for each of us (myself included), that for this next week and beyond we consciously seek to be truthful in all circumstances, that we are mindful to speak the truth in love, and that we intentionally make sure that our words and our deeds match up (that we don’t say one thing and do another). And may we be honest with each other, here in the church, so that we can offer a witness to those who are watching us so that all of our words and actions are truthful, and that we offer healing and hope. May we be the light of the world and beacons of truth.

May God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Notes:
1. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, p. 376.
2. This paragraph and the previous paragraph are based on ideas from Stassen and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics, and their chapter on “Truthtelling”

Pathways to Kingdom Fidelity

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Pathways to Kingdom Fidelity” (Matthew 5:27-32)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 3, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Sermon on the Mount: High Ideals? . . .

When I was in college, I took a class on Christian ethics. Our main text for the class was a fantastic book called Kingdom Ethics, written by Baptist scholars Glen Stassen and David Gushee. Following an Anabaptist tradition, the authors sought to orient Christian ethics around the Sermon on the Mount.

And they suggested a way of reading the Sermon on the Mount that really got me excited about following Jesus. Traditionally, this collection of teachings has been thought of as a set of high ideals or hard teachings. Interpreters would talk about the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount – the “you have heard that it was said. . . but I say. . .” – where Jesus would give a traditional teaching, then give his own antithesis, or new authoritative and more rigorous teaching, followed by some sort of illustration or application.

So, in the first teaching about anger (5:21-26), Jesus states 1) a traditional teaching, “You have heard that it was said. . . you shall not murder. . . and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” 2) Then, his own antithesis, or new authoritative and more demanding teaching, “But I say that anyone being angry. . . will be liable to judgment.. .” 3) And finally an illustration: “So if you’re offering your gift and remember a conflict with someone, leave it and go to be reconciled first, then offer your gift.”

So also with other teachings, like lust, adultery, oaths, and not resisting evil.

When we read the Sermon in this way, it’s those who keep these teachings that will be the ones who are rewarded with the blessings of the beatitudes at the beginning of the sermon. But sooner or later we realize that this cold reading of the Sermon is impossible, that we do get angry, and we get discouraged (or work out various ways around the teachings). We realize that we’re in fact no better than the scribes and Pharisees whose righteousness we are to exceed. For in approaching the sermon in this way, we have simply traded preoccupation with one set of rules for preoccupation with a stricter set of rules. We praise the high ideals of Jesus, yet fail to keep them ourselves and thus become the worst sort of hypocrites.

. . . Or Transforming Initiatives?
But, Stassen and Gushee describe a different way of reading the Sermon in Kingdom Ethics. What if Jesus wasn’t preaching legalism and impossible high ideals but instead God’s deliverance from vicious and sinful cycles in which we become trapped? What if he wasn’t demanding perfection (which is impossible), but rather preaching a message of the coming of God’s grace, which is now already present among us, rescuing us from anger, lust, etc.?

Jesus never said, “Don’t be angry,” as we have assumed. Instead, his command is a transforming initiative: go and be reconciled. Jesus diagnoses a vicious cycle of anger, hatred, and resentment that ultimately leads to judgment and disaster. His command is to participate in and embody God’s grace through reconciliation. And that’s not a high ideal that’s nice but impossible. That’s a practical way we can practice, rehearse, and be blessed now already by God’s grace! Rather than emphasizing something impossible, Jesus is emphasizing practices that deliver us from anger.

What happens when we read today’s passage about lust in this way?

Traditionally, we have read it, “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. . . but I say to you that everyone who [even] lusts has already committed adultery.” Is this what Jesus really meant? How many a devout engaged couple would be guilty of a very serious sexual transgression as they simply long for their wedding night? Or how many moral and faithful people would be wracked with guilt for feeling a momentary sense of attraction?

God’s Covenant Character: The Heart of Fidelity
But Jesus didn’t say, “Don’t lust” (read it carefully). What he did say, however, is incredibly important if we are to live as faithful kingdom people. Jesus begins by quoting the traditional teaching from the ten commandments: “You shall not commit adultery.” In quoting this commandment from the ten commandments, Jesus reaches into the very heart of the biblical covenant, which is shaped by God’s character and God’s action:

God cares for the needy, delivers the weak and the oppressed, acts with mercy and forgiveness and righteousness and justice, and is faithful; therefore, in covenant relation with God, we are to care for the needy, deliver the oppressed and act with mercy, forgiveness, righteousness, justice and faithfulness.1

Fidelity to the marriage covenant is used more broadly as a metaphor for the shape of covenant fidelity in general (e.g. Hosea): One is to be faithful to God and to the community with a similar passionate fidelity that one has one’s spouse, and vice versa. Understanding sexual relations in terms of a covenant shaped by God’s character and will means that 1) we are created for community, “for bonding in covenant relationships, and not merely for self-advancement in a consumerist and profit-seeking market.” And 2) Sexual relationships go with the grain of God’s creation and our own nature when they “care for the needy, deliver the oppressed [and at times we are needy or oppressed even in relationships of love], and are merciful, forgiving, just and faithful.”2

Moreover, our covenants of marriage, like God’s covenant with God’s people, are not just for our own sake, but are to be a means by which God blesses others. Adultery to God or to one’s spouse is strictly ruled out, though the Old Testament contains much evidence of falling short of this command, as well as the tragic consequences of doing so.

Vicious Cycles: The Compulsive Gaze
Jesus quotes this commandment to uphold it. What follows is a not a command per se, but a diagnosis of the vicious cycles and patterns of behavior in which we get stuck and that lead us to unfaithfulness. Yet this short verse, “I say to you that everyone looking upon a woman with the intent to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart”3 is widely misunderstood. Many translations say simply, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully,” while the verse has an important dimension of intent: it is one who is looking with the intent to desire, to lust, to possess. This is no accidental notice, but an intentional, willful gaze.

It’s not an initial spark of attraction – noticing another’s beauty – that is the concern, but what happens after that spark. If that initial spark is not appropriately directed or redirected, then one starts to get trapped in a pattern leading to adultery. An initial look becomes an intentional look, and then desire and search for another encounter for the purpose of looking out of desire to possess.

Looking turns to sexual fantasy, and what began with an unchecked spark leads to seeking out sexual opportunity, and a person has become one with “eyes full of adultery,” as Peter put it (2 Peter 2:14). The heart turns from commitment to covenant fidelity to follow the eyes instead. And when the heart turns, so also our actions. The snare of adultery is sprung, and families and communities become trapped in circles of deceit, scandal, and misery.

It is little wonder, then, that Jesus calls this ensnaring pattern of behavior “adultery in the heart:”

It is not the initial spark of attraction [or momentary notice] that is equivalent to adultery, but instead the downward spiral of behavior resulting from a heart that has turned from covenant fidelity to covenant breaking. This is the vicious cycle that leads to adultery, and many there are who lack only the opportunity to act on the path to which they have already given their hearts.4

Jesus diagnoses the problem of compulsiveness, with which we are all too familiar today as well. All too frequently, misdirected glances become compulsive gazes, and the heart turns to infidelity.

And it is not only our eyes that may get us into trouble. Sometimes it is a loneliness and the longing for community that leads us to seek wholeness in unhealthy ways. Sometimes it is the delight of a new friendship that becomes more than friendship.

Transforming Initiatives: Disciplining Temptation
So Jesus names and upholds the traditional teaching on adultery, and also shrewdly diagnoses those patterns of looking with the intent to desire that trap our hearts and turn us toward sexual sin. Then he turns to offer transforming initiatives that free us from those traps and enable us to follow Jesus with joyful obedience. And here we find the commands, the climax of the teaching: If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away. . . and if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.

And this serves as a good reminder to us that not all of Scripture is to be interpreted mechanically. Jesus speaks in hyperbole here to underscore the importance of marital fidelity and sexual wholeness. In order to be free from the trap of lust, we are to deal in a very disciplined manner with whatever causes us sexual temptation. Even naming the temptation for what it is goes far beyond most who fall into lust’s trap all the while believing themselves beyond temptation.

In a culture becoming increasingly blatant with sexual promiscuity and a media becoming increasingly sexually explicit, we need to continually acknowledge and name that source of temptation and thus find freedom from it. We are not to actually gouge out our eyes, but we need to gouge out the premium cable channel and avoid viewing pornography or other sexually explicit or suggestive material, just as we need to avoid viewing explicitly violent material.

Likewise, we need not cut off the hand, but we should cut off any questionable personal contact. For those who are unmarried, it has to do with setting life-giving boundaries in relationships, as well as fundamental questions as to what kind of contact makes it more difficult to maintain a commitment to reserving sexual intimacy for the marriage context.

For those who are married, it has to do with the avoidance of undue intimacy and inappropriate contact outside of the marriage relationship, as well as the development of extramarital private relationships, rather than public ones. Even those things that cause us merely to stumble and not to fall completely into adultery need to be done away with.

This is not to be done out of a pursuit of legalism, nor out of fear or guilt. If this is what it becomes, then we have missed the point, just like the scribes and Pharisees. Nor is it a desire for sheltered naivete; rather, it is done out of a desire to live as a kingdom citizen in concrete ways, as well as the conviction that it is naïve to believe that our eyes do not affect our hearts, and naïve to believe that we are beyond temptation.

We are also clearly called to be in the world for the sake of the world. We cannot shelter ourselves to the exclusion of others from God’s people. Jesus himself spent so much time with sinners, drunks, and prostitutes that he got himself a bit of a negative reputation with some folks. The covenant people of God is to be an inclusive body of believers; however, the covenant people are invited to give their hearts exclusively to one God. Likewise, the marriage covenant is an exclusive relationship for the sake of others, and that exclusivity in the marriage bed must be maintained if the marriage covenant is to serve God and others.

Divorce: Asking the most Important Questions
In closing, I would like to make a few brief observations about divorce, and also about singleness. When the church speaks about things like divorce, we have too often forgotten that we are talking about the lives of real people who experience deep personal pain and who need God’s grace and healing as much as anyone else.

Nor have we taken seriously enough the reality of domestic abuse and God’s desire for healing, safety, and protection of victims and redemption and transformation for offenders. Moreover, the texts involved are remarkably nuanced and challenging to interpret.

When asked later about divorce, Jesus responded, “What God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mt. 19:6). Clearly, in a world where every commitment seems to have an asterisk next to it, and individuals seek merely their own momentary self-fulfillment in relationships, God’s people are to be counter-cultural as they uphold marriage as a life-long commitment and build joyful, just, permanent marriages to fulfill God’s purposes. That much is clearly affirmed by Jesus himself.

Yet much ink has been spilled in debating the so-called “exception clause” of when divorce is permissible. Christians from across the spectrum have developed complex outlines of rules and exceptions to rules concerning the question of when divorce is permissible. Yet ironically, that is the very same question the Pharisees were asking, and the very same line of rule/exception kind of thinking that “characterized the Pharisees rather than Jesus.”5

It’s as if Jesus was saying that those who would follow him as kingdom people need to focus their attention on a different question. We need to be doing God’s will for marriage and asking how to build strong marriages that reflect God’s intent for this covenant rather than asking when it is permissible to do less. What are some patterns of behavior that we fall into that trap and prevent us from doing God’s will for marriage, and what transforming initiatives deliver us from these vicious cycles?

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon begins once again with a traditional teaching (from Deut. 24:1-4).6 He also diagnoses a trapping pattern – a cycle of divorce and adultery. Jesus wanted to free his followers from such unfaithfulness and relational impermanence. However, this is the only teaching in the Sermon on the Mount where the main emphasis, the command, the transforming initiative is missing.

We’re left to wonder whether Jesus had in mind the initiatives from the two previous teachings: go and be reconciled and the hyperbolic plucking out of one’s eye. Or do we imagine that the scribe trying to get down this Sermon was so busy trying to catch all of Jesus’ rapid teachings that he missed one sentence? Or is it in some manuscripts that we haven’t found or that no longer exist?

Glen Stassen used to joke that in suggesting “go and be reconciled” to complete the triad, he had discovered something lost for nearly 2000 years. Then one day, when studying 1 Cor. 7, he found Paul apparently quoting Jesus saying to those in marital strife, “be reconciled.”

Often alienation is at the heart of a struggling marriage. Sometimes this alienation happens because of an illicit affair or because of domestic abuse, which severely undermines God’s will for marriage to the point of destruction, but often alienation happens through a “gradual hardening of the marital arteries” as resentment builds up and conflict goes unresolved. The “unresolvable differences” often given as reason for divorce do not generally show up just overnight.

“The miracle of forgiveness is its ability to ‘unclog’ the arteries of human relationships and remove the built-up resentments, and thus enable peaceful interaction once again in a reconciled relationship.”7 This happens as we participate in God’s grace by taking initiative to go and seek reconciliation, affirming the other, refusing vengeance, repenting rather than judging, praying for the other, forgiving the other, and holding all things in love.

Singleness: The Witness of Jesus and Paul
And finally a brief word on singleness. The New Testament upholds both marriage and celibate singleness as appropriate for kingdom people. Paul identified himself as being single, and there is no indication that Jesus was ever married (unique in his culture). Yet tragically and ironically, the church has often misconceived singleness and marriage, sometimes requiring all leaders to be single, and sometimes assuming that marriage is everyone’s calling (we often err in this direction).

We too often exclude single people because we implicitly or explicitly favor and structure our church life with the assumption of marriage. We simply assume that our children will be married. How often do we talk about someone as one who “never married,” or “married later in life,” as though marriage is the expected norm for wholeness for everyone even though Paul and Jesus himself were not married? Those who are single too often do not have a place to fit in, even though we know that those who are single are among our true saints.

We need to acknowledge and nurture other covenants beyond the marriage covenant, such as those of friendship, professional covenant, and, especially, baptism and communion as covenant with one another and with God.

Pathways to Kingdom Fidelity
Sexual morality is one part of kingdom living. Jesus did not name sexual teachings among the greatest commandments, nor did he name sexual transgression as the most severe sin, as we have often made it out to be. But sex does matter, and it is one opportunity for the church to embody God’s desire for wholeness and fidelity in a culture of promiscuity and self-interest, and one way in which we may offer an alternative to the “permissive ethic of egoistic self-fulfillment across the board, from sex to economic accumulation to consumption of the world’s resources to nationalistic disregard of other nations.”8 We also need to provide places of healing for those who suffer abuse, while holding accountable and working for transformation in the lives of abusers; just as importantly, we need to be shaping good character in order to prevent abuse before it happens, prevent lusting before it happens, and prevent divorce before it happens. Stassen and Gushee offer ten pathways to sexual wholeness and faithfulness:9

  1. Shaping whole, healthy, committed Christian disciples with the skills and character necessary to succeed in sexual fidelity.
  2. Radically reorienting the church’s moral vision vis-a-vis [sexuality] away from self-centeredness and toward a kingdom vision
  3. Developing relational and conflict resolution skills useful in marriage and in other aspects of [kingdom living] as well;
  4. Emphasizing and modeling sexual purity and fidelity while deemphasizing the expectation of. . . sexual utopia;
  5. Nurturing a climate of relational equity and justice in marriage, which is critical to long-term success in married life;
  6. Creating and maintaining support relationships of intimacy and accountability as well as processes to intervene in severely stressed marriages;
  7. Recovering a covenantal understanding of marital permanence
  8. Emphasizing second-chance discipleship and a future orientation rather than focusing on excluding persons for past mistakes;
  9. Lifting up models of healthy marriage at each developmental stage and perhaps employing such persons as mentors
  10. Nurturing a radically countercultural ecclesial ethos in which discipleship is understood to include lifetime marriage and all married disciples are helped to get there.

May we find strength in God’s grace as we seek out pathways to kingdom fidelity in all of our covenant relationships. Amen.

Notes:
1. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 293.
2. Stassen and Gushee, 294.
3. Ibid., 295.
4. Stassen and Gushee, 298.
5. Ibid., 282.
6. It seems that the original intent of this “concession” was actually to limit divorce and protect women from serial divorce. It simply assumes to practice of frivolous, patriarchal, and misogynist divorce and seeks to limit it, without commenting on its morality.
7. Stassen and Gushee, 287.
8. Stassen and Gushee, 304.
9. Stassen and Gushee, 289. Modified here to apply more broadly than marriage.

Salt and Light

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Salt and Light” (Matthew 5:13-20)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
June 26, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Audio: “Salt and Light”

Light is often connected with the presence of God:

  • God is the source of light (Gen. 1:3)
  • God’s presence is likened to a bright shining light (Isa. 60:1-3)
  • Isaiah refers to the Light of the LORD (2:5)
  • Israel is to be the light of the nations (Isa. 49:6)
  • God’s word is light (Ps. 119:105)
  • Doing deeds of obedience means walking in the light (Ps. 112:4; 1 Jn. 1:7)

No transcript is available. Enjoy the audio!

Blessed Are. . .

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Blessed are. . .” (Matthew 5:1-12)
By Pastor Katherine Goerzen
June 19, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

When Jesus ascended and took his place upon the mountain side, you knew something momentous and earth-changing was going to happen. In Matthew’s Gospel, mountains are the places of some of the most significant moments in Jesus’ life, the places of revelation. It is upon a high mountain peak that Jesus experienced the “third temptation,” where he was promised all of the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down to the devil, yet he passed the test. It is upon a mountain peak where Jesus is transfigured to shine like the sun, and where a voice from the clouds proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” It is upon a mountain where Jesus commissions his followers to go and make disciples of all nations and where he promises that he will be with us always. And here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it is upon a mountain where Jesus gives one of his longest discourses with teachings about the Kingdom of God. This testifies to what Jesus and his calling are all about. With this mountain top revelation, one hears echoes of Moses ascending to Mt Sinai and giving God’s people the Holy Law; for here, Jesus proclaims the fulfillment of the Law, the true intentions of the Law given on Sinai.

Anabaptists throughout the centuries have found deep meaning in the Sermon on the Mount, for we take Jesus and his life and teachings very seriously. We do not believe that these words preached from the mountain are only meant for some future age yet to come, but that they are also profoundly relevant for Jesus’ followers in the present. We believe that Jesus meant what he said and that he was talking to all of his followers. And the same is certainly true for the beautiful introduction to this “sermon”, this series of blessings, or beatitudes, upon those who the world itself does not consider to be so blessed: the meek, the poor in spirit, the mourning, the peacemakers, the persecuted.

This passage is certainly beautiful, but what did Jesus mean when he said it? Are these the entrance requirements to get into God’s kingdom? Will we be blessed only when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, or we are merciful, or pure in heart, or persecuted? Are these the ideals that we need to strive for? Would good things start happening if only more people would act according to these ideals? If these are the ideals we need to live by, then who could possibly fulfill them all besides Christ himself? If this is indeed how Christ meant the Beatitudes, I wonder if this focuses more on our own good works rather than on God’s abounding grace. If this is how Christ meant them, I wonder if they cause more feelings of guilt or futility since we cannot live up to these standards, rather than causing feelings of joy and blessedness.1

So what did Jesus mean? “Is Jesus saying, ‘Happy are those who mourn, because mourning makes them virtuous and they will get the reward that virtuous people deserve?’ Or is he saying, ‘Congratulations to those who mourn, because God is gracious and God is acting to deliver us from our sorrows?’”2

Now I certainly believe that Jesus does care about how we live, and that he was trying to teach his disciples and the crowds who had gathered what the lifestyle of one whose citizenship is in the Kingdom of God looks like. But I believe here, at the beginning of his “sermon,” he is focusing more on God’s deep and abounding grace. Jesus is emphasizing God’s saving action: what God has done, what God is presently doing, and what God will do in the future. Before we act, we are already experiencing God’s blessing. Just as before the Ten Commandments were given on Mt Sinai, God spoke through Moses to say, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”3 before the commandments were read; so also Jesus is reminding the people of God’s grace, that God is already working to deliver us, before he goes on to speak of what faithfulness to God’s kingdom looks like. God’s grace and mercy come first, even before we act in ways that “deserve” it.

If Jesus had meant that these blessings were only for those who most deserved it, he probably would have waited to give these blessings at the end of the sermon, saying, “If you have done all these things… then blessed are you.” But instead, he has chosen to use these blessings to introduce the teachings that are to follow, as if to say that God’s grace precedes all that we do. We respond to God’s grace by living in ways that are in keeping with the kingdom, not because we have to in order to be blessed, but we respond because we are already blessed.4

God is already acting to save creation, and that is indeed reason to be joyful. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Congratulations to you, because God will see to it that all that you hope for will happen, and that it is happening already through my life, ‘at least in mustard-seed size.’5” God’s grace goes before all that we do.

While Jesus is emphasizing God’s grace at the beginning of the “sermon,” these blessings still give us a glimpse of what it means to respond to God’s grace, what the lifestyle of the citizens of the Kingdom of God look like:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven6

Now the poor in spirit “are those who experience poverty in many forms.”7 It refers to those who are economically poor, “those who are pushed to the edges of society, … those whose lives have come apart”8, as well as the spiritually humble, those who acknowledge their complete dependence on God. For who realizes their dependence on God better than those who have very little? For many of those who own a great deal of possessions believe that they have come by these either through their own doing, or because they have deserved them. And for those of us who have more possessions than most of the world, this is a good reminder that we should hold them lightly, to remember humbly that we are completely dependent on God, and not upon our own doing or upon our possessions.

The poor in spirit are not blessed because they are virtuous, but because God especially wishes to rescue the poor. God’s deep compassion for the poor was shown through the way that Jesus cared for them, how he fed them, and healed them, and made them his disciples. Jesus is indeed bringing good news to the poor because God is already seeking to deliver the poor, the humble, the lowly. And because God is already doing this, we can participate in this deliverance.

The poor in spirit are those who acknowledge their complete dependence on God, who surrender themselves to God, and thus participate in God’s deliverance in caring for the poor and the humble. They do not focus on their own humility and virtue, but upon God’s grace and redemption, both now and in the future. Our humility should not call attention to us, but to God’s grace in our own lives and in the lives of others.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted

Mourning means the grief of those who have lost someone or something that they care about deeply, those for whom the power of death is very present and very real. And mourning also means the grief of those who see that the world is not as God has intended it to be. Those who mourn are those who see and feel the deep pain and the brokenness of the world, those who cry out, “God, do not let your creation hurt like this forever!” But God has promised that every tear will be wiped away, and that death and mourning will end, and that all who grieve will be comforted. Indeed, God has already begun to accomplish this through the deliverance brought through Jesus, and the promise given through his resurrection.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth

Often those described as “meek” are thought to be passive doormats, those who let others walk all over them. Yet nothing could be further from the way that the Bible uses this word. There are two people in particular who are described as “meek”: Moses9 and Jesus.10 “One of them defied the might of Egypt and the other couldn’t be cowed by a powerful Roman official. … Both … seemed absolutely fearless … and completely surrendered to the will of God.”11

To be meek is to be humble, or to completely surrender to God’s will. Or as the early Anabaptists liked to talk about this using the word “gelassenheit” which refers to one who is “yielded” to God, or one who places his or her life completely into God’s hands. Those who are meek patiently trust that God will act, and who “surrender their will to God so completely that God’s will becomes their will.”12

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled

This refers both to those who literally hunger and thirst, as well as to those who hunger and thirst for God’s delivering justice in the world so that hunger and thirst might be no more. God’s righteousness was shown to us first through acts of saving deliverance, and we respond by participating in God’s righteousness. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are those who are generous with what they have, who speak out on behalf of God’s saving justice whenever possible, and who seek to do good to those around them.13

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy

We are called to be merciful, just as God is merciful.14 the merciful are those who show kindness and love to others, those who are more eager to forgive than to punish or take revenge, and those who show compassion rather than seek first for their own good. Our mercy grows out of the deep awareness that God’s own self is merciful. It is God who first showed us mercy, thus citizens of God’s kingdom are themselves merciful in response.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

Jesus said, “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,”15 which suggests that a person’s whole being can be defiled, or that the heart can be corrupted. The way to purity is to surrender ourselves to the One who is pure. Those who are pure in heart are those whose faith is genuine, those whose outward deeds match their inner commitments, those who desire to do God’s will above all else.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God

During Jesus’ day, there were those who thought of themselves as the “sons of God” who sought to bring about God’s kingdom by violently overthrowing their oppressors or eliminating anyone who they saw as opposed to God’s will. But Jesus proclaims that it is those who actively seek peace who will be called God’s children. Citizens of God’s kingdom “abandon the effort to get our needs met through the destruction of enemies.”16 Those who are peacemakers are not just those who live in peace, but who actively seek that there will be peace in every corner of creation, those who imitate the God of peace 17by seeking reconciliation and by loving even our enemies and persecutors. “Being a peacemaker is part of being surrendered to God, for [it is] God who [ultimately] brings peace.”18

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

The world will not understand the ways of God’s kingdom, for the world preaches a different set of beatitudes. Instead of “Blessed are the meek,” the world proclaims, “Powerful are the self-assertive, for they will get their own way!” Instead of “Blessed are the merciful,” the world proclaims, “Advantaged are the ruthless, for nobody will get in their way!” Instead of “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” the world proclaims, “Safe are those who do not stir the waters, for their lives will remain convenient.”19 I was struck this past week during a class session in Bible School when, after telling a number of stories where people from the Bible followed the way of the cross rather than the way of the world, one of the second graders responded by saying, “These people are weird.” But he’s only expressing what we’re taught by the world; for we have two conflicting and completely different kingdoms vying for our attention and allegiance. But as all of the beatitudes testify to, we are called to ultimately surrender ourselves to God and to God’s kingdom and to God’s justice. And the world won’t always understand the way that we are living, and so there will be times when the world will lash out at us. And we will be in good company when that happens, with all of the other prophets who have gone before us, including THE Prophet himself, the One so committed to God’s kingdom that he died for it.

So blessed are you. And because you are blessed, you are empowered to be poor in spirit, to mourn when the world is not as God intended it to be, to be meek and surrender your will completely to God, to hunger and thirst for righteousness and God’s justice to be done, to be merciful, to be pure in heart and purpose, to be active peacemakers, and even to be persecuted for righteousness sake. It is ultimately God’s grace that all of these things point to, for God’s grace goes before us in all that we do. And because of this grace, we joyfully respond to God. We are blessed so that we can participate in the deliverance that God is bringing in Jesus Christ.20 “We love because God first loved us.”21

May God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Notes:
1. Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context.
2. Ibid., page 34.
3. Exodus 20:2, NRSV.
4. Fred Craddock, “Hearing God’s Blessing” from www.christiancentury.org
5. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 34.
6. Ideas for this section, and all the following sections on the Beatitudes come from Stassen and Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics, and Thomas Long’s commentary on Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion).
7. Long, Matthew, page 48.
8. Ibid.
9. Numbers 12:3 (the word translated “humble” in the NRSV is the same word for “meek”)
10. Matthew 11:29 (the word translated “humble” in the NRSV is the same Greek word used here)
11. Clarence Jordan quoted in Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 40.
12. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 40.
13. Long, Matthew.
14. Luke 6:36.
15. Matthew 15:11, NRSV.
16. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, page 45.
17. Romans 15:33, Philippians 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 13:20.
18. Ibid.
19. Written by Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg, and taken from Words for Worship 2, edited by Diane Zaerr Brenneman.
20. Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics.
21. 1 John 4:19.

Go and Be Reconciled

March 15th, 2011 No comments

“Go and Be Reconciled” (Matthew 5:21-26; 18:15-20)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 13, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

I’ve always thought a little well-placed humor goes a long way when it comes to conflict. Apparently John Paul Lederach, long-time Mennonite peace maker and peace instructor, thought so too. He retells the passage we just read together, according to what he calls the “Actual Practice Version.” It goes as follows:

Actual Practice Version

When you have a problem with somebody in the church, check it out first to make sure you are not alone in this problem. There is a good chance that if you have had a problem with this person, somebody else has as well. Go and pick a good friend who is likely to understand and agree with you. If she agrees with you that this person is a real turkey, then talk to some more people to see if there is broader consensus. . . If a friend, a small group, and a lawyer agree, then tell it to the church, preferably in private to the pastor and elders. When you tell them, say it is a concern that you have prayed about for some time and that there is a group of people who share the concern. . . Truly I say to you, from that point on, it is the responsibility of the pastor and elders to take care of the problem. Your task is to make sure they do it right.

Anger/Conflict Denial
The contrast between the Jesus version and the Actual Practice Version “shows the many ways we tend to avoid and actually extend the conflict within the community.”1 That is to say, conflict in our relationships with one another is tough. And Jesus doesn’t seem to make matters any easier on us. His teaching here in Matthew 18, and also in Matthew 5, sounds tough. Why, skip back to Matthew 5, and it even sounds like Jesus says you’re not supposed to ever be angry!

Now of course, I think most of us have tried not being angry, and all the variations upon that theme. After all, isn’t the first unwritten commandment of being Mennonite, “Thou shalt always be nice?” So we deny our anger or frustration. We go ahead and just bury that nasty thing someone said, that disagreement we had, that time we weren’t listed to like we should have been. We just go ahead and bury that under a nicely finished veneer of smiles and “Oh, it’s no big deal”’s. And it works great for a while. Years, maybe.

But have you ever noticed what happens little by little when we pretend to deny our anger or our frustration, when we bury it and pretend everything’s OK? Have you ever noticed, how lots of little things start adding up, and before you know it, you’re questioning the motives of everything the other person does. You get that tight feeling in your stomach every time you see that other person. Before you know it, just about everything the other person says is an attack on you.

They say something innocent enough like, “Hey, nice haircut,” and you start wondering why on earth they would say such a terrible thing – such horrible sarcasm. Soon enough, you’re disagreeing with everything the person says, and no doubt sneaking in a few snide remarks now and then and maybe even start doing those sorts of things that we call “passive aggressive.”

And sometime down the road, there’s something that comes up – maybe even something totally unrelated – some disagreement or discussion, and you feel compelled not to give an inch. But you’re not angry. No, you smile and say, “Oh, it’s no big deal.” Yeah, right. Surely some of us have been down that anger and conflict denial road.

Transforming Initiatives
Well, I sure hope Jesus didn’t mean never to be angry, because that road of denial just doesn’t end well. And I recall reading about a few times when Jesus himself got angry. Well, you know, if you read it closely, you discover that Jesus didn’t actually say, “Don’t be angry.”

What he did was to warn about what happens when we get angry with each other, how angry insult comes after angry insult, how things start spinning out of control. You know how conflict tends to escalate. Insult follows insult. Accusation follows accusation. One person draws in one friend. The other draws in another friend.

We know the same thing is true even if we try and pretend there’s no conflict. It still escalates, just more subtly. Anger multiplies whether we insult someone directly, or whether it’s the inward bitterness and fear that grows over time. Jesus knows where all kinds of outward anger and inward bitterness lead. He knows how it corrupts our character over time, how it distorts our relationships with one another, how we start seeing everything in terms of conflict, how that coil of bitterness winds its way inside us and starts to choke out the life. How ultimately it compromises our unity, our witness before a watching world, and our faithfulness to Christ.

Jesus knows how frustration eventually comes to express itself in verbal, emotional, and physical violence. Like a doctor diagnosing an illness that will lead to death unless the patient takes certain actions, Jesus diagnoses a vicious cycle that will lead to judgment and destruction if not dealt with.

But he doesn’t say, “Don’t be angry,” either. He doesn’t say to pretend everything’s OK. Instead, here in Matthew 5, he says to do five things to transform the relationship from anger to reconciliation:

1. Leave Your Gift
First, if you’re offering your gift at the altar, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there. Now, the best way to tell if your brother or sister has something against you is probably if you yourself have something against a brother or sister.

And if your brother or sister has something against you, and you feel yourself getting frustrated about it, you could continue on and offer your gift as if nothing is wrong. You could respond in kind with more anger and frustration and bitterness and take another loop around the anger spiral.

Yet Jesus seems to be saying that the anger and frustration we have against others affects our worship and our relationship with God. How are we glorifying God by harboring bitterness towards others in the church? How is the Body of Christ honoring its head if its members see each other as the enemy. Anger and frustration are normal, but when they spin out of control, we don’t worship God.

Jesus says that rather than going on like usual and offering the gift, rather than letting the vicious cycle of bitterness continue, stop. Leave the gift on the altar. Break up the ordinary by deciding that as far as it depends on you, this bitterness will come to an end.

Last week, you may recall, we reflected on Jesus’ teaching about forgiving one another, about how forgiveness puts an end to the vicious cycles of bitterness and vengeance. I think leaving the gift behind at the altar is a lot like forgiveness. Leaving the gift, letting go of the claim on the other person, forgiving, is what makes reconciliation possible.

And yet, Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf adds,

Forgiveness is necessary, but will it suffice? Forgiveness is the boundary between exclusion and embrace. It heals the wounds that the power-acts of exclusion have inflicted and breaks down the dividing wall of hostility. Yet it leaves a distance between people, an empty space of neutrality, that allows them either to go their separate ways in what is sometimes called “peace” or to fall into each other’s arms and restore broken communion.2

“Going one’s own way” may be the “boldest dream. . . a person caught in the vortex of violence can muster.” That sort of separation may be “all that is possible or even desirable”3 at times for some relationships, but it is clearly not yet the peace and reconciliation Jesus desires for God’s creatures.

2. Go
Second, Jesus therefore says, “go.” It’s also the first step of the so-called “rule of Christ” in Matthew 18. Go to that person who has caused you pain, and the way these things usually work, whom you’ve probably hurt as well, whether intentionally or unintentionally, or simply by the bitterness you harbor in your soul. Jesus says to do the one thing most of us would much rather not do: go to the person with whom you have a conflict. Go to the person with whom you’re frustrated or angry or bitter.

We’re called, oddly enough, to move toward “the very source of our fears.”4 Isn’t it just so much easier to go and talk to a friend or someone who will take your side? Doesn’t it just feel so much better to unload all that bitterness and anxiety on someone who will take your side? Isn’t it just so much easier to talk about people than to talk with them?

We drag other people into the conflict to take some of our anxiety, and maybe even some of our responsibility. Soon enough, we’ve got a whole group of folks sharing our bitterness and probably not fully understanding what’s going on. So there are secrets and half-truths and behind-the-back whispers, when we don’t go directly to the person.

Of course, there may be times when we need a trusted friend to help us figure out how best to respond – how to find the strength and grace to move toward the other – how best to “go,” but that’s different from unloading our bitterness and getting like-minded folks on our side so we don’t have to “go.” Instead, Jesus says, “go.” Go.

Now, I don’t think that Jesus means we have to go and have a big discussion with someone every time we’re walking down the sidewalk and someone bumps into us. There are lots of things that we can just let go without any trouble. But when you’re up at night mulling it over, or when it’s eating at you the next day, and the day after, that’s a good sign that it’s time to leave your gift on the altar and “go.”

3. Be Reconciled
Third, Jesus, says, “be reconciled.” It’s one thing to go to the brother or sister with whom you have the conflict; it’s quite another to go and be reconciled. Our instinct is go to accuse and blame our brothers and sisters, and to defend ourselves, or we seek to show that we were right.

Reconciliation is more difficult, more risky because we go and become vulnerable. We become vulnerable to having our efforts to reconcile rejected, or to admitting that we had some role in the conflict and perhaps that we were in the wrong, or to giving up some of the certainty we thought we had, or to seeing things differently.

When we go for reconciliation, we make ourselves vulnerable, going with open arms, making space within ourselves for our brother or sister. But reconciliation cannot be forced. We go with open arms, and then we must wait for the other person. And that waiting may take years. In Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son, the father had to wait for a long time for his son to return. The process of reconciliation takes dedication, prayerful vulnerability, self-awareness, and grace.

4-5. Offer your gift; Make peace quickly
Then, Jesus says, come and offer your gift. Our worship of God is the most genuine when we are in right relationship with others. And finally, Jesus adds additional counsel: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser.” Don’t force reconciliation when it cannot happen, but don’t delay it either. Delayed reconciliation allows for bitterness to mount and vicious cycles to spin out of control. Jesus urges us to act quickly. When you sense hostility rising between you and another person, drop what you’re doing, go to the other with open arms, talk with the other, and seek peace, Jesus says.

Handling conflict in the church
In closing, Jesus also knows that sometimes reconciliation doesn’t happen. Sometimes wounds are so deep, misunderstandings are so immense, that we can’t find reconciliation on our own. So, hopping back to Matthew 18, he says to try it alone first, and then ask someone to help. The additional person involved must create a holy space where the parties in conflict can safely be vulnerable and honest. The additional person is not there to solve the problem but to be a source of accountability for all involved.

Then, Jesus says, if that doesn’t work, tell it to the church – perhaps a small group, or Sunday School class, or leaders, or the entire congregation. What this means for all of us is that conflict resolution is spiritual work. It requires prayer, discernment, openness, growth, and transformation. It also means that “the church is a place to process and work with conflict, not a place that is free from conflict.”5

And Jesus says an interesting thing – if you can’t solve the conflict, the church is to treat the offending parties as Gentiles or tax collectors. And I think we know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. He reached out to them, healed them, ate with them, and died for them.

Sometimes we’re embarrassed by conflict – either in the church or in our families. We see conflict as a symptom of weakness, of lack of discipline, even of sin. But that’s often not the case. God has created and shaped us all in beautifully different ways. And when we all get together, we’re not going to see and do everything the same way, and there’s going to be conflict. In fact, I’ve wondered if you could find a family or congregation that truly trusts and knows one another and has absolutely no conflict.

When you go to the gym to lift weights, your muscles tear just a little bit. And if those tiny tears are allowed to heal, the muscle becomes stronger. But if they are not allowed to heal, the muscle becomes injured. Conflict is a natural part of growth, and it can be healthy if it is handled properly; if it is not handled properly, it causes injury.

As we continue to reflect on the reconciliation we share in Christ this Lenten season, when we encounter conflict or bitterness or anger, may we find deliverance from vicious cycles of living in anger and resentment, and deliverance into “transforming initiatives that build community.”6 Reconciliation is challenging and risky and often seems impossible. This Lenten season, as we look to the cross, we are reminded that it is impossible apart from the saving work of Christ.

May God grant us the healing empowerment to leave our gifts and drop what we’re doing, together with our claim of vengeance; may God give us the courage to face our fear and anxiety and go to the brother or sister; may God give us the grace and creativity and compassion to find reconciliation; may God give us the joy of worshiping in right relationship; and the wisdom to seek peace sooner, rather than later., and hopefully a touch of divine humor and grace to lift us up. Amen.

Notes:
1 John Paul Lederach, Journey Toward Reconciliation, 123.
2 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 126.
3 Volf, 127.
4 Lederach, 124.
5 Lederach, 131.
6 Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 196.