A Theory of Change

Matthew 5.13-20

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

Jesus is in the middle of his proclamation. He is preaching his sermon on the mount. And whenever Jesus teaches there are fireworks, in large part because what he has to say runs counter to everything we think we know.

The sermon begins, innocuously enough, with a bunch of blessings. Albeit, a bunch of blessings don’t make sent according to the convictions of the world. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

And then Jesus turns the discourse over to a reflection on salt and light.

Ya’ll, Jesus says, are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. 

In other words, ya’ll bring the flavor and people are going to see me through you. It’s a beautiful bit of metaphoric reflection. Jesus takes these simple images and symbols and uses them to help us see who we are and whose we are.

But they come with warnings – the salt that provides zero flavor is worthless and the light that is hidden is nothing but more darkness.

And then comes the new teaching. It’s actually all new, but this is the beginning of the end for us. This is when Jesus’ sermon starts to make us squirm in our pews.

I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets. I’m not here to destroy the past or leave it behind. In fact, I have come to fulfill it.

What in the world does that mean?

We, the people of God, have always had plenty of trouble observing God’s commandments from the ten handed down on Sinai to the other six hundred or so from the Old Testament. And yet, Jesus says, if any of us break any of these commandments, or if we teach anyone to relax them, we will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven.

And that would be enough to cause us pause. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Listen – unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 

What if we tried to distill it a little more? What’s really at stake?

In another part of the Gospel, while not in the middle of a sermon, some do-goodery religious types try to trap Jesus with those questions: Which commandment Jesus is the most important?

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Thanks JC! Sounds easy!

But, of course, we can’t even do those two commandments. We all worship other things, thereby not loving God. And, when push comes to shove, we generally look out for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors.

Even John Wesley, founder of what became the Methodist movement tried to whittle it all down to three simple rules: Do no harm, do good, and observe the ordnances of God.

But we don’t do those either!

Jesus says, unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Oddly, within a few years of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, St. Paul will write to the church in Rome, “None of us is righteous, no not one.”

What then, are we to do?

Christians have, from the very beginning, struggled with this part of Jesus’ sermon. And, to be completely honest, it will only get harder next week as Jesus goes on his rant about “You have heard it was said, but I say to you…”

Maybe we can feel a little better about our meager righteousness, if we have any at all, because the scribes and the Pharisees, whom we are supposed to compare ourselves, weren’t very righteous to begin with. Sure, they had all the outward signs, they obeyed the law and they showed up for worship and they knew all the rules. But they followed the law at the expense of others, leaving behind the widowed and the orphaned to fend for themselves. 

And yet, if Paul is right that none of us is righteous, what in the world are we doing?

Every organization, and every church, subscribes to its own theory of change. We human beings are not static creatures, and there is always a gulf between where we are and where we can be. The theory of change that an institution embodies shows what they think works.

For instance, the self-help industry believes that we can help ourselves. We merely need to read the right books with the right tips and we will finally become the best version of ourselves. And yet, if those books worked, there would no longer be a self-help section in book stores.

And the church has a similar theory of change, or at least we do without knowing it or acknowledging it. We assume that if people read their bibles, or pay attention to sermons, or show up for the right small groups, they will begin to move in the right direction. 

The great challenge with this theory of change is that it doesn’t work.

Have you ever tried to have a rational argument with someone of a different political persuasion about why they’re wrong? Or have you ever tried to convince a smoker to stop smoking?

Have you ever tired to tell a bunch of sinners to start being more righteous?

We can’t will ourselves, or anyone else for that matter, into better behavior. We can’t get rid of our sin on our own. Only God can do that.

Therefore there is a difference between what we call the Law and the Gospel. 

Jesus is hammering his listeners with the Lawthere is no leniency whatsoever. Which should leave us shaking in our boots or, to put a more liturgical spin on it, it should bring us to our knees. Which, incidentally, is kind of the point.

The primary purpose of the Law, the call to righteousness, isn’t so much what the Law says. The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us. 

It reveals the truth of who we are – that no matter how many books we consume, or sermons we receive, we will forever be sinners in need of grace.

Basically, the function of the Law is to get each of us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we will ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”

When we are in a space to ask that question, we are not far from the Kingdom of God.

We are not far from the Gospel – the Good News.

The Good News is that Jesus makes us righteous because we cannot do it on our own.

But there is a question that lingers: How?

I mean, I recognize the irony in preaching a sermon about how sermons can’t and don’t make us change. But if you’ll bear with me for a just a bit… The sermon on the mount, this proclamation from the Lord, is what begins to constitute the community we call church. The sermon is not about giving us tips on how to be better people, instead it functions to help us see that we’re not very good to begin with and yet we are welcome in a place, this place, despite our inability to be good. 

The law, the call to righteousness, drives us and downright forces us to the gospel. It requires us to rest in and trust Jesus’ amazing grace to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves. 

In other words, the only way we can ever change is through our hearts, and not our minds. 

Change is only ever possible through relationships, not requirements.

But even that is almost impossible. Its so difficult that only God can really do it.

Change, transformation, occurs through the gift of the Holy Spirit such that our desires, not our minds, start to shift. 

Or, as Paul says “Our hope does not disappoint because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

People are changed not through their will, their choices and actions. And neither are people changed through their minds and the consumption of knowledge. People are changed through their hearts, through love. 

And judgment kills love. When we feel judged, ie when we are told what to do, we hide our love away and we put up walls and we resist.

St. Augustine says, “The law commands rather than helps. It teaches us what is wrong without healing it. In fact, it increases what it does not heal, that we might seek the gift of grace with even greater attention.”

The church, then, exists not to judge the world, but to proclaim the gift of God’s unending power and love in the person of Jesus Christ. We do what we do to help others encounter the profound wonder of Jesus. The experience of being met by God in our need is the heart of our faith. 

Basically, guilt only ever produces more guilt. Love, on the other hand, is full of impossible possibility. 

Love actually changes things.

A few years ago I was listening to the radio when I was bombarded by a story of grace, a story of love, a story about a man named Daryl Davis.

– Daryl Davis Picture – 

Davis is a black blues musician and, for the past 30 years, he has spent his free time doing something outrageous – befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. And, a result of those friendships, 200 Klansmen have given up their robes.

How did he do it?

Did he go to Klan meetings with pamphlets about their racism? Did he encourage them to read certain books that would help reframe their thinking? 

No.

He did something much harder and much more dangerous.

He befriended them.

It all started in a bar call the Silver Dollar Lounge when, after playing a set of music, a white man walked up to thank him for his performance and told him that he couldn’t believe a black man could play the blues so well. Davis was so confused by the comment that he asked if he could buy the man a drink and they sat down to talk. And talk they did. They talked about music and musicians, about how the blues originated with black musicians, and after offering a set of recommended records to buy the white man said to Davis, “You know, this is the first time in my life I’ve ever had a beer with a black man.”

Again, Davis pushed to find out why, and the man pulled out his KKK membership card from his wallet.

However, that conversation led to a friendship that led to the man leaving the KKK behind forever. Not because Davis judged him, but because he befriended him. The man’s heart, to put it one way, was strangely warmed and he was never the same.

Why do we give ourselves over to wondrous music? Why do we make friends and invite them over for dinner? Why do we ooh and ahh over various sunrises and sunsets? 

We do so out of the simple delight in the goodness of creation but also because half of the planet’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become.

In short, we fill our lives with loves out of a delight for what they point us toward: the kingdom of heaven.

But make no mistake: love, the kind of radical love that leaves to KKK members turning in their robes, the kind of delight that actually leads to any change is downright dangerous.

And yet, ultimately that’s the kind of radical love that God has for us, a people completely undeserving. But God keeps showing up, even to the point of the cross, with nothing but the Gospel.

In the bread and cup, in the singing of our faith, through the hard wood of the cross, we all receive a righteousness that far exceeds anything the scribes or Pharisees could ever hope to accomplish – the righteousness of God.

The Gospel does not promise the possible – it deliver the impossible. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ gives what the law demands.

That’s why the love of God is strong enough to change things, even us.

Or, as Luther put it: God accepts none except the abandoned, makes no one healthy but the sick, gives sight to none but the blind, brings life to none but the dead, and makes no one righteous except sinners.

Sinners like you and me. Amen. 

You’ve Got A Friend In Me

John 15.9-17

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and bide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Fred Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and breakfast. He found a no name diner in the middle of a no name town and decided to pop in. 

It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the short order cook. While Craddock sat at the count, making his way through some soggy eggs and very strong coffee, a black man entered the diner, sat down at a nearby stool, and ordered an asked for a coffee. The cook promptly turn around, looked at the man in the face, and said, “Get outta here! We don’t serve your kind.”

The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while point over toward Craddock. The cook remained firm and pointed at the door, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!”

And with that, the black man sighed and slowly removed himself form the stool and the diner.

Craddock continued to sit at the counter, he finished his meal, paid, and then he left. But right before he was about to get back into his car, in the still and quiet of the early morning, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.

This is where I pause for a moment.

Did any of you feel any chills at the conclusion of the story? Some of you will undoubtedly appreciate the narrative and it’s enduring reminder about racism in this country, but for some of you this story will hit even harder. It will hit harder because it connects, deeply, with the strange new world of the Bible.

Fred Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism, bigotry, and belittling that happened a few feet away realized, in the rooster’s crow, that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before the crucifixion.

The story of Craddock’s experience becomes power particularly in light of its biblical connections. For, had Craddock been unfamiliar with the stories of God, he could’ve heard that rooster in the distance and drove away without giving the whole thing a second thought.

But Craddock knew his Bible, he knew his Bible because he was one of the most important preachers of the second half of the 20th century and eventually became a teacher of preachers. 

And when he heard that rooster all those years ago, it changed his life forever.

I read that story of Craddock’s for the first time in a collection of his sermons years and years ago and the story has always stuck with me.

Which makes me wonder: Can any of you remember any particular sermons? 

Pause for a moment, if you don’t mind, and try. See if you can recall a particular phrase or story or major point. And, should it prove helpful, you can literally pause the audio or the video feed if it helps. Which, frankly, is not something I ever thought I would ever say in a sermon.

Can you remember a particular sermon?

More often than not we tell stories, or preachers preach sermon, in order that they might be remembered. Ellen Davis, a professor from Duke Divinity, believes that sermons and stories should actually function differently: She makes the case that a successful story, and a successful sermon, is one that isn’t remembered. 

Sounds a little strange doesn’t it?

I mean, I’ve stood in this pulpit nearly every Sunday for the last four years in hopes that you all might actually remember at least some of what I’ve said. But, to be perfectly honest, I can’t even remember much of what I said last Sunday!

Perhaps Dr. Davis is right – the best sermons are forgettable. They are the best because part of the Christian journey is showing up Sunday after Sunday to hear the Good News because it is the story that makes us who we are. We listen to it again and again because there are countless other narratives vying for our allegiances, but this story, the Gospel, the Good News, is the one that is the difference that makes all the difference. 

And yet, there are some things we receive, from the pulpit or all sorts of other places, that do stay with us and reknit us into who we can be.

That’s what happened to Craddock. Somehow, someway, the story of Peter and the rooster from the Gospels stuck with him such that he could recognize something profound in his own life. 

God, in a sense, worked through a story to speak a truth about Craddock that he needed to hear.

When Jesus gathered with his friends for their final evening before the crucifixion they shared bread and wine, Jesus washed their feet, and he left them with parting thoughts about what it would all look like on the other side.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. I’ve said all of this to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And you are my friends.”

Friends? 

Jesus calls the disciples, us, his friends?

It’s one thing to sing “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” but it’s another thing entirely to think “what a friend Jesus has in us.”

The friends around the table that night with the Lord will shortly deny him, betray him, and abandon him.

In our own lives, like Craddock, we regularly fail to see the Jesus in one another as we constantly deny the value/worth of other people, we chose to look out for ourselves far more than we do for other people, and when all is said and done we’re far more content knowing Jesus is our friend than trying to imagine ourselves as Jesus’ friends.

The words we hear in one time and place can take on an entirely different meaning if we receive them in another time and place. 

Imagine the times you’ve heard a friend remark, “It’s so good to see you.” We can easily brush that aside because we’ve heard those words countless time before. But now imagine getting to see a friend having not seen them throughout the entirety of the pandemic and they greet you with, “It’s so good to see you.”

It becomes something all together different.

Or think of Craddock – He probably heard, read, and even preached the story of Peter’s denial many many times, but it was only when he was in the diner that the words became real.

Consider those first disciples – on their final evening with Jesus, he calls them his friends. Maybe that meant a lot to them at the time, but chances are that it didn’t. It didn’t because within 24 hours Jesus was hanging on the cross. 

But then consider the disciples cowering in the upper room on the evening of Easter when the resurrected Jesus returns to those so-called friends and offer them a word of peace. 

“I have called you friends” takes on a whole new meaning. 

In another part of scripture, Abraham is called a friend of God. That might not seem like much, but the friendship between Abraham and the Lord was made manifest in a bizarre and confounding set of dynamic moments.

Abraham is a content octogenarian who is told to leave the comforts of him behind in order to become a stranger in a strange land, he is told that he will become a father in the twilight of his life, he is told to sacrifice his son, the one he loves, all because of his friendship with the divine.

It’s all too easy to water down the faith into being a call to just love one another a little bit more. But that’s not what faith is about. Sure, we have to love one another, that’s literally what Jesus says to the disciples before and after he calls them his friends. It’s not a question of where or not we love, but whether or not we love rightly.

We, the church, exist to welcome all people with love. But that love usually looks like a bunch of judgments. We talk about one another behind each others backs, we make assumptions that really have no basis in reality, and we are far too content to let whatever those relationships look like remain within the realm of Sundays and never to be found Monday through Saturday.

We, however, can know what real love and real friendship looks like because we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

Love, to put it bluntly, is cruciform. 

Love is coming down into the muck and mire of this life, being betrayed, and then returning to the betrayers and calling them friends.

“I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard form my Father.” In other words: friends of Jesus are those who share in the remarkable knowledge of what God is doing in the world.

And what is God doing?

God is intimately involved in the creation of a community predicated on a cruciform love, a love that really embraces everyone. A friend of God has this love and offers it toward other and it is not easy – it comes at a cost.

The world is not prepared for this kind of love and, more often than not, it will reject this love just as it rejected Jesus. Jesus, to use his own words, shows ultimate love by laying down his life for his friends, his friends who did not to deserve that title in the first place.

Jesus did that for us.

Chances are, you won’t remember this sermon. Frankly, neither will I. Our brains can hardly handle all of the information that we consume on a regular basis. But, at the very least, I hope we all rest in the somewhat discomforting knowledge that Jesus has called us his friends.

And I’ll end with the enduring words of Randy Newman:

“And as the years go by / Our friendship will never die / You’re gonna see its our destiny / You’ve got a friend in me.” Amen. 

This Shall Be A Sign To You

Psalm 107.1

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 

On Sunday countless churches across the world (at least those who follow the Revised Common Lectionary) were treated to the Gospel reading when Jesus reminds those with ears to hear that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor.

Jesus does so in the Gospel of Matthew as a response to a lawyer who was seeking to trap him in his words. And Jesus, being Jesus, not only responds with an answer that left everyone speechless (“No one dared ask him another question”) but he stole his answer from other parts of the Bible. 

Which is to say, Jesus’ pronouncement about loving God and neighbor isn’t unique to Jesus. 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might,” come straight from Deuteronomy 6:5. And “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is from Leviticus 19:18. 

The more you read the scriptures, the more you enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more you realize that it is indeed strange because it is constantly repeating and re-interpreting itself. Karl Barth put it this way: “The Old Testament does not end in the New Testament but continues in it, just as the New Testament is already present in the Old Testament.” 

The whole of the revealed Word of God is a living and confounding witness to the repetition of God with God’s people.

A few days ago, after putting the finishing touches on my sermon about Jesus’ treatise on love, I came across an image that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. Some enterprising Christians took the time to diagram out all the chapters in the Bible (from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22) and draw connections backwards and forwards between all the cross-references. In the end, they produced an image with 63,779 connections throughout the entirety of the scriptures and, in God’s strange and wonderful way of doing things, the image came out looking like a rainbow.

How perfect.

The sign of the first rainbow in Genesis after the flood was and is a sign for us of the covenant God has made with God’s creation. And now, seeing another rainbow connecting scriptures, we are reminded of God’s promise to dwell among us, to redeem us, and to love us in spite of us.

The Bible is complex and diverse. It is not something to be consumed just like any other book from front to back. It is a mine that never stops producing incredible gems.

The Bible also contains just about every kind of literary genre from poetry to pose to genealogies to aphorisms and on and on. It can remind us of the same things over and over again or it can smack us in the head with a new insight for the very first time.

The Bible is alive and ever new even though the canon was finished a long time ago. That it is alive and ever new is indicative of the Spirit’s power to bring forth light on something previously shadowed.

Basically, the Bible is awesome.