Losing Our Religion

Matthew 16.21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

But Peter? Peter wasn’t having any of that.

“Um, Jesus, Lord, I don’t mean to interrupt but, are you out of your mind? If you’re the Messiah I’ve confessed you to be, then you know that you can’t die. That’s losing. And in the kingdom you promised us there’s supposed to be nothing but winning!”

“Pete” the Lord calmly intones, “Get out of my way! You’re stuck on earthly things, but the kingdom is bigger and better than your feeble little head can imagine.”

Then Jesus looks out at everyone else, “Hey, listen up. This is important. If you want to be part of this whole turning the world upside down endeavor, then your world’s need to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, that’s what actually leads to salvation. Because, in the end, you can be the perfect version of yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”

We’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inaugurated in God’s Son because he was so wedded to the way things were. 

And we’re no different.

Think about parents compelling their kids to go to college even when they don’t want to go.

Or the rat race to earn more money to buy the bigger house and have the more expensive car. 

Or the never ending quest in the realm of the church to produce perfect specimens of Christians who never make the wrong choices and always make the right ones.

All of that has little, if anything, to do with Jesus kingdom.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five step program toward spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best versions of themselves by abstaining for everything wrong with the world.

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

Most preachers, myself included, preach a theology of Peter far more than a theology of Jesus. Which is just another way of saying, we preachers are also wedded to the ways of the world, to the ways we discern what is and isn’t successful, and we drop it on our dozing congregations. We tell people like all of you to shape up, start reading the Bible daily, fix your problems, pray with fervor, all that Jazz. 

We preach a Gospel where we are saved by our efforts to live the good and righteous life.

But that’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the strange good news that we are saved in our deaths.

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, spent some of his final years humbling preaching to prisoners in jail in Basel, Switzerland. A man whose tomes of theology line my shelves would stand to proclaim the Good News for a people who had been locked behind bars for making all the wrong choices.

In one such sermon, near the end of his life, Barth reflected on how all the crowning achievement’s of a person life will be nothing but a mole hill at the end. That, in time, all of the things we do in this life, whether great or small, will fade away and in our deaths none of it will do us any good. 

At that moment, all of us will stand before the throne of the Lord and we will have nothing better to do than to hope for something none of us deserve.

Can you imagine? This incredible theologian and pastor proclaiming a Word of truth to a people undeserving, that is prisoners, and he counts himself among their ranks?

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we all will stand before the throne and we will have nothing else to rely on, not our works and not our achievement, but only the mercy of God.

Karl Barth

That’s why Jesus can look out at the crowds and tell them to lose their lives for the Good News because the only one who can redeem their lives is Jesus. No amount of good works could ever put us back in God’s good graces, it’s only the unknowable love of God in Christ Jesus that makes us holy and becomes the mercy seat by which our lives and deaths become transformed.

Martin Luther one wrote, “The law says, ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

The world is forever telling us to do more to be better to earn and produce and reform and things largely stay the same.

Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing has already been finished, the only thing we have to do is trust him. 

Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own fate, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly kingdoms. But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same.

He came to raise the dead.

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

In this moment, Peter is losing his religion. Religion, properly understood, is the stuff we are must do in order to get a higher power to do something for us. And Jesus takes all of Peter’s religion, is former understanding of the way things work, and he flushes them down the toilet.

In a sense Jesus says to Peter, “You don’t get it. You’re so obsessed with it making sense that you think you know what I have to do and what you have to do. But here’s the deal Pete – I’m going to do everything for you and for everyone else.” 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether we stop sinning or not, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world and nails them to his cross. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in his Son and loves us in spite of ourselves. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what he wants because the Lord works in the business of raising the dead.

We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives, offering a Word of transformation, “Follow me.”

Jesus didn’t come to improve the improvable, or reform the reformable, or teach the teachable. None of those things work. 

He didn’t come to bring about a better version of whatever already existed but to transform the entire cosmos.

We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to raise the dead. 

And that’s Good News. Amen. 

The Hardest Part Of Being A Christian

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28, Psalm 105.1-6, 16-22, 45b, Romans 10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Coronatide, NOVA, the case for Karl Barth, narrative theology, dreamers of dreams, church leadership as evangelism, different righteousnesses, exegetical grammar, and God’s oddness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Hardest Part Of Being A Christian

Church People Are Gonna Church People

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with John Carl Hastings about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1.12-17, Luke 15.1-10). John Carl serves as one of the pastors of Bluff Park UMC in Alabama. Our conversation covers a range of topics including College Football message boards, hot winds, discomfort for the Lord, pretending all is well, colloquial liturgy, praying for others, the sneakiness of works righteousness, and the impracticality of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Church People Are Gonna Church People

Screen Shot 2019-09-09 at 7.44.18 AM

Devotional – Amos 5.23-24

Devotional:

Amos 5.23-24

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Weekly Devotional Image

Yesterday morning, while countless Christians were passing the peace, or humming the hymns, or celebrating communion all over the country, a man carried a Ruger assault-style rifle into a small Baptist church in southern Texas and murdered 26 people. Officials have reported that the associate pastor was walking up to the pulpit to preach when the gunfire began and that the victims ranged in age from 5 to 72.

Within a short period of time people all across the country flocked to social media and news outlets to share reflections, condolences, and prayers. Politicians tweeted their thoughts, parents held onto their children a little tighter, and pastors started thinking about how in the world they could address what happened in their own churches.

It was about a month ago that we were all reeling from the news that a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas leaving 58 dead and 546 injured.

And within a short period of time people all across the country flocked to social media and news outlets to share reflections, condolences, and prayers. Politicians tweeted their thoughts, parents held onto their children a little tighter, and pastors started thinking about how in the world they could address what happened.

maxresdefault (6)

Is God tired of all our talking (and tweeting)? Are the prayers that we offer in the midst of a crisis, and then forget about until the next thing comes, being heard? Is God listening to all of this noise?

What would it look like to let justice roll down like waters in a world that lives in the shadow of the cross? When did we let the words we offer become more important than living lives of righteousness? Is the noise we produce so deafening that we can no longer hear what God has to say?

There’s no easy solution to the recent horrific shooting tragedies. We are clearly a people divided on just about everything these days, and in particular when in comes to gun rights and gun control. But when it comes to the realm of the church, when we think about what this all means for the kingdom of God, we have to ask ourselves if God has grown tired of all our talking.

This is not to say that we should cease to pray. In fact, we should pray without ceasing. But our prayers that we offer to God cannot be limited to words we toss around while our hands are clenched together. Sometimes the most faithful prayers are the ones we make with our actions.

Devotional – Psalm 145.1

Psalm 145.1

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.

Weekly Devotional Image

On Saturday afternoon, the United Methodist Churches of Staunton, Virginia hosted our 2nd Trunk or Treat at Gypsy Hill Park. Over the last few months we collected monetary donations and countless bags of candy in order to distribute candy to all the children who would come to the park. Each trunk was uniquely decorated and when it was time to begin you could see the excitement in the volunteers and the children snaking in a long line around the lot.

For the better part of 2 hours we gave out candy to over 2000 children. I saw Annas and Elsas, at least 7 Marshalls (from Paw Patrol), a bunch of Darth Vaders, every princess you can imagine, and enough football players to make two full teams. Most of the children were remarkably polite, thanking each and every person as they made their way from trunk to trunk. And through it all we, as the church, lived into the reality of the body of Christ and loved our community through candy and fellowship on Saturday afternoon.

img_1982

When the line finally dwindled down to the last few families, we started to clean up our respective areas and prepared to leave. I had a few bags of candy left and my wife suggested bringing them over to the older boys who were skateboarding in the park. Too old to trunk or treat, most of them had watched us over the last two hours and were still skating as we were leaving. So I drove the car over to the skate area, and carried the largest bag of candy right up to who I imagined was the leader of the group (FYI I was still wearing my Hagrid costume). I handed the bag over and said, “Hey, I’m a pastor from town and we just finished this big trunk or treat and I’ve got some extra candy. I know you don’t know me, but I want you to know that God loves you.” To which the skater replied, “That’s like, righteous, man.” And I said, “You have no idea how appropriate that word is in this situation.”

How often do we extoll our God and King? Many of us are willing to take an hour out of our busy weeks to sit down in a sanctuary to praise the Lord, but how do we praise the Lord from Monday to Saturday? Some of us proclaimed the love of the Lord in each little piece of candy we distributed on Saturday afternoon, and even some skateboarders experienced our willingness to praise the Lord. After all, we learn to be generous from the One who is ultimate generosity. But extolling the Lord does not, and should not, be a rare occasion.

If we extoll the Lord, we do so knowing that the Lord is the giver of all gifts, including the gift of life. We praise the Lord because the Lord is the one rightly to be praised. We bless the name of the Lord forever and ever because the Lord has blessed us again and again.

Candy and Trunk or Treats, in and of themselves, can never bring us closer to God. Only when we extoll the name of the Lord, only when we realize that we are making the Word incarnate by becoming the body of Christ for our local communities, will those ordinary things become extraordinary avenues by which others can experience the powerful grace and mercy of the living God.

 

img_1985

When Should We Pray? – Sermon on James 5.13-20

James 5.13-20

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

00030228_h

 

Sunday morning: 11am. The gathered community of faith was sitting patiently in the pews waiting for the worship service to begin. Week after week the people sat in the same pews with the same expressions on their faces. Year after year they listened to preachers come and go telling the same stories about Jesus from different perspectives.

It was just like every other Sunday morning. Mr. Smith sat all the way up on the right hand side in the front pew with his notebook and pen in hand ready to take notes on whatever he heard. Jimmy, John, and Josh were midway back on the left quietly giggling while drawing stick figure battles all over the bulletin. And Miss Ethel, old and frail, was still slowly making her way up the center aisle while the first hymn was being played.

Worship is repetitive; for nearly two millennia Christians have gathered once a week to say the same prayers, hear the same stories, and sing the same songs. Worship is just like any good habit, and the longer you have it, the more fruitful it will become.

The congregation sat attentively while the pastor preached on the power of prayer. The seasoned Christians had heard sermons like this one before; they could almost imagine how the preacher would tie it together before he even spoke the words. The newer Christians were getting a little tired of hearing about prayer week after week, they wondered about when the pastor would call for them to lead a revolution to turn the world upside-down, they wanted to hear about power, not about prayer. And the youth, bless their hearts, if you had called their names from the pulpit in the middle of the service they would have looked up with bug-eyed expressions as if their teacher had singled them out in the middle of class.

The preacher was getting to what he imagined was the pinnacle of his proclamation, the words were flowing accordingly, and he no longer needed to look at his notes to drive the point home. As he stood up in the pulpit, gazing out over his gathered flock, he lifted up his fist for the final paragraph and froze in mid-sentence when he saw Miss Ethel slowly slump over in her pew having taken her final breath on earth.

Hands

When are we supposed to pray? James would have us pray all the time. Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.

No matter what is going on in life, whether we’re on a mountaintop of joy, or in the bottom of a valley of sorrow, we should pray. We pray in celebration and in defeat, we pray during the mundane, and we pray during the extraordinary.

The end of James’ letter is a favorite among preachers because it explains itself. There’s no need to go digging through the grammar to exegete a strange or divergent meaning. James means what he says:

We should pray all the time.

            Prayers of deep faith will bring about salvation on earth.

The Lord will raise us up.

            Through prayer, any sin can be forgiven.

            We should confess our sins to other people, and pray for others to be healed.

            Righteous prayers are powerful and effective.

            Elijah was just like us, and he prayed for a drought for three years and it did not rain, and as soon as he prayed for the rain to fall, it did.

            If anyone begins to wander away from faithful life, we do well to reach out and bring them back out of love.

            That’s it.

So, then why is prayer such a last resort for many of us?

James clearly outlines that if Christians do anything, they should pray. As individuals and as a community we are defined by the fact that we believe in relying on something bigger than ourselves being active in the world. Yet, more often than not, Christianity has been compartmentalized into just having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (something you can do without the church). But having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, though wonderful, is not what Jesus wants from us. Instead, we are called to be people of prayer who live like Jesus in community with our brothers and sisters in faith.

James clearly outlines what prayer can accomplish: it keeps us humble when life is full of success, and it keeps us hopeful when life is full of disappointment; it encourages us to open our eyes to the ways God is moving in the world, and it encourages us to be active participants in God’s kingdom here on earth.

Prayer is about relationship; it’s about connecting with God through the people around us.

The pastor stood in the pulpit and did not know what to do. He was trying desperately to string the final thoughts of his sermon together when Ms. Ethel fell over in her pew and died. He could feel all the eyes in the sanctuary look from her pew, to him in the pulpit, expecting him to do something. But he panicked and froze.

This was not something they covered in seminary, there was no class on ministering to the dead in the middle of a worship service, so the pastor stood in the pulpit and stared back at the church.

One of the ushers immediately called the rescue squad, but the rest of the church slowly stood up from their pews and began to gather around Ms. Ethel’s pew. No directions were offered, no specific pages of the hymnal were referenced, but as if God’s was orchestrating the entire thing, the congregation gathered around her lifeless body and began to pray and sing.

The words of faith came pouring from their mouths, thanksgivings were uttered, and intercessions were demanded. The great songs like Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art were sung and hummed by the church. And by the time the ambulance had taken Ms. Ethel away, the pastor and the entire church were holding each other in tears of pain and joy, recognizing the loss of life while acknowledging the hope of the resurrection.

When asked later about the moment of prayer, the parishioners simply explained that in the midst of something so profound, the only thing they could do was pray.

james-4x3

Prayer can be beautiful, but it can also be uncomfortable. We don’t like having to wrestle with our finitude, we don’t like having to admit that one day we will die, that’s why weddings are much more crowded than funerals. But prayer, done rightly, is the most faithful thing we can ever do as Christians.

If James had it his way, we would spend more of our time confessing our sins to our fellow Christians. Talk about uncomfortable. When I encouraged all of you to take time to walk up to the pulpit and proclaim your sins, I did so in jest, but it would make us a more faithful community.

Look around the room: you all are beautiful. On the surface you’ve got the right outfits and dispositions. But on the inside, everyone is facing a battle that they rarely share with anyone else. It is a mistake to assume that we are eager to surrender our privacy to the church, but imagine (if you can) what it would be like if we trusted each other enough to do so.

If we could find just one person to confess to, we would make ourselves vulnerable and ready for healing. Confession is the beginning of transformation.

How are we, as a church, shaped by prayer?

Worship is structured around prayer. We pray for God’s presence to be made known to us in this place on Sunday mornings. We pray collectively for the world toward the beginning of the service. We pray silently from our pews lifting up our own joys and concerns. We pray for the offering that is collected by the ushers. We pray through the hymns we sing and the creeds we confess. The best sermons we hear are the ones less about our lives and more like prayers offered to and about God. And we end worship with a prayer.

In addition to worship we pray before our bible studies and youth meetings. We pray before every committee and before the church council. We are a people of prayer… but are we being shaped by prayer?

We are now going to try something that will probably make us uncomfortable.

In a few moments I will ask us to find someone else in church and ask for their prayers. We tried this on Wednesday night at The Circle meeting and it was a challenge. I asked for the youth to give me just one thing that I could pray for regarding their lives. Immediately I heard about friends or family members that needed prayer, but that wasn’t what I was talking about. I asked, “How can I pray for you right now?” and I want each of us to ask that same question right now.

So, as your able, I encourage you to find someone else in the church, you don’t have to wander too far, but find someone that is not in your immediate family. Once we’ve paired up, I want both people to take an opportunity to share something they need prayers for. This doesn’t have to be an ultimate confessional moment, maybe the thing you need is more patience with your children, perhaps you feel confused about decision and you could use some discernment, or maybe you’re unsure about what God is doing in your life.

Whatever that thing is I want you to share it, and the person who hears it will pray about it. The prayer can be as simple as “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” Or it can be filled with other words. The point is, I want everyone in this church to have the opportunity to share a need they have, and have someone in this church pray for them right away.

I know this is uncomfortable, but sometimes the most faithful things we do as disciples are born out of discomfort. So, let’s give it a try….

In the words of James: Are any of us suffering? We should pray. Are any of us filled with joy? We should sing songs of praise. Are any of us sick? We should call for our brothers and sisters in Christ to come and pray over us. We should confess our sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that we may be healed and transformed. Amen.

Devotional – Amos 5.23-24

Devotional:

Amos 5.23-24

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  

Weekly Devotional Image

For me, music makes the worship service. I can listen to a mediocre sermon, but if the organist has been hitting all the notes perfectly I can walk away feeling filled with the Spirit. I can be ignored as a first time visitor, but if the gathered body sings with full vigor I can leave the service feeling that I have encountered the living God. I can witness borderline heretical theology in a bulletin, but if the musicians are truly glorifying the Lord through their instruments, I can believe that the service has been redeemed.

I started playing drums for contemporary worship services when I was in 9th grade. I played all through high school, college, and seminary for a variety of churches in a variety of places. It is difficult to describe the doxological feeling that I experience when playing drums during a service, but suffice it to say that I feel closer to God in those moments than many others. Contemporary services are not for everyone, even I will admit that I enjoy playing for those services rather than experiencing them in the pews, but they help connect a large portion of Christians to the living God in a way that shapes, molds, and grows their faith.

2885_1103206311354_8091672_n

When I was in college I began playing for the Crave service that was a part of the Wesley Foundation at James Madison University. Every Sunday afternoon the band would get together at Asbury UMC to practice for a few hours before the service began in the evening. We would play songs that got people placing their hands in the air and praising God. We would play songs that got people dancing in the pews. We would play songs that were so familiar and catchy that I could actually hear people singing the words over the volume of the drum-kit.

However, even when we were playing at our best, our music paled in comparison with the one night that we left the church and wandered around downtown Harrisonburg. Instead of gathering for the typical service (3-4 songs, prayer, sermon, communion, 1 song, benediction) we met on the steps of the church and walked downtown to pray for our city. We stopped at specific locations and joined hands to prayerfully lift up our community, and in particular we prayed over the local courthouse so that “justice might roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

You can have the best music in the world at your church, but when the music becomes the only life-giving part of your discipleship formation, when acts of justice and righteousness have gone missing, we limit the depth and beauty that we can experience. Music is most powerful when it points away from ourselves to God, and when it inspires us to be righteous outside of worship.

This week, let us look for the moments when we can let justice roll down like waters for others around us. Let us truly listen to the words of our Christian songs and live them out so that our righteousness can be like an ever-flowing stream.

But I Say…2 – Sermon on Psalm 119.33-40 & Matthew 5.43-48

Psalm 119.33-40

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you. Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good. See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.

Matthew 5.43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sister, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

257760778642631661_Ag9PBVg2_c

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Annual Conference is that one time of the year that all the diehard Methodists get together for a weekend of facts, faith, and fellowship. Representatives from each church gather in an effort to discuss contemporary issues facing the church, learn from various speakers, and celebrate the ordination and retirement of particular clergy.

A few summers ago, while serving a church outside of Detroit, Michigan, I was invited to attend the Detroit Annual Conference session. I listened to members of the conference debate whether or not to give more money to fight against malaria in Africa, how to address concerns over our pension system, and arguments about what it means to pray for physical healing in the church. Toward the end of the session, we came to my favorite part of every Annual Conference, The Service of Ordination. People, young and old alike, who felt the call of God on the lives to pursue a life of ministry, folk who have worked and sacrificed for years to be standing in front of all the people, were preparing to be commissioned and ordained for work in the church.

Detroit Annual Conference

Detroit Annual Conference

As the small group of adults stood shoulder to shoulder on the stage I wondered about their backgrounds, where they might be appointed, and what kind of ministerial careers they would have. Dressed in their robes, the candidates prepared to answer the traditional Wesleyan questions that thousands of Methodist clergy have had to answer over the last two centuries.

“Have you faith in Christ?”

The candidates definitively responded with a resounding “Yes!”

“Do you believe in the ordinances of the United Methodist Church?”

“Yes!”

“Are you going on to perfection?” 

Most of the responses we completely in sync, except for one woman toward the end. Instead of answering like her fellow peers, she shook her head as if to say no, while her voice said yes. 

YES

YES

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.

For that one clergy candidate, achieving perfection was something that she was clearly unsure about. I imagine that she understood her own fallibility, her sinfulness, as preventing her from ever being perfect. Moreover she probably thought that only Christ could be perfect and that it would never be possible for her.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.

 

Here we are again, caught up in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It was hard enough that he told his disciples to not lose their tempter, to not lust, and to renounce the right to retaliate; but now Jesus is instructing us to love those who hate and harm us. Really? Jesus is like that boss or parent that knowingly give us a list of things to do that we can never accomplish. Why does Jesus expect the impossible from those who follow him?

Using the same formula that we talked about last week, Jesus establishes the current expectations of the law and then he enhances them: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be the children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Two important questions arise from Jesus’ declaration: Who is my enemy?; Why am I supposed to love them? 

Enemy number 1: Those who are evil. Anyone who takes advantage of the weak, anyone who promotes violence in power struggles, and anyone who exhibits evil in the world is my enemy. They are the ones who actively seek to work against God’s love and kingdom in the world. They are the people who participate in destructive tendencies toward others and are fans of violence, subjugation, and selfishness.

Enemy number 2: My friends and family. In many ways, some of our greatest enemies are those who are closest to us. Our friends and family are the ones who set expectations for what our lives are supposed to look like. They are the ones who know whether or not we are living up to our potential. They see our truest sides, they know about our weaknesses, they remember our history. When we create walls between ourselves and those who are close to us, we often do so because we are afraid of being too vulnerable with them, we fear what they can do to us.

Enemy number 3: Ourselves. I am my own worst enemy. I am the commander of my life. I am responsible for the choices and decisions I make. I know my own weaknesses better than anyone else, I hold myself to a standard that, when not met, leaves me feeling down and blue. I have more power than I should regarding the hearts, minds, and souls of so many people in my life, and if I abuse that power, I become an even greater enemy than anyone else in my life.

When we hear that Jesus calls us to love and pray for our enemies we do well to not relegate our enemies to far away and distant peoples. Our worst enemies might be sitting here with us in church this morning. We all have enemies in ways, that sometimes, we cannot even imagine. That neighbor who always trims your bushes, or that acquaintance who always takes advantage of your hospitality, or that stranger who belittles people at the supermarket are just as much our enemies as those who bring and promote terror across the world. For the Christian, the words neighbor and enemy are synonymous and are remarkably far reaching.

And Jesus tells us to love them, and to pray for them.

So, why? Why are we supposed to love those who hate and persecute us? Why does Jesus call us to love the people who often make our lives miserable?

We are not called to love them in order to change them. Thats not the point. Certainly the conversion of an enemy to a trusted friend can be the result of our discipleship and call to love, but it is not necessary, nor should it be our motivation for loving our enemies. Love is not a weapon or a tool. Genuine love has not ulterior motive; its purpose is simply to benefit the one being loved, regardless of the response. We are called to love unconditionally.

If you love someone, enemy or not, in order to change them, they will never change. Our love for others should not come with baggage but must be the same as the free and unconditional love and grace that comes to us from God.

We love others because God first loved us. Elsewhere in the world, it is normal to return love for love and hate for hate. Christians who do no more than this fade into the background of life. They cannot be the light of the world and salt of the earth.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. This kind of love is less about feelings and more about actions. For the early Christians to love the Roman oppressor or the face slapping persecutor was not about having “warm and fuzzy feelings” but to react in a positive way. I know that we have been trained to think of love as a feeling, particularly in the wake of Valentine’s day, but love is something you DO. That why Jesus calls his disciples to go the extra mile and turn the other cheek; physical embodiments of love for our enemies. Whatever else you can do to love your enemy, Jesus leaves it up to our imaginations as to how we can do so. Our love for others is called to be abnormal, above and beyond what the world would be satisfied with.

In addition to the embodiment, the DOING, of love, we are also called to pray for our enemies. You have heard it said that if you do this its enough, well to Jesus we can always do more, we can always be better. Loving our enemies is one thing, it is difficult and taxing, but praying for our enemies is another thing altogether.

love-your-enemies_dvd.original

Praying for our enemies requires us to seriously attempt to see them from God’s point of view. The sun rises on the evil and the good, and God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. We cannot truly pray for our enemies without acknowledge our common humanity; our enemies have been created in the image of God, just as we were. And no matter how bad they are, no matter how nefarious, no matter how sinful, nothing can ever erase God’s image from their lives, nor from ours.

The call to pray for our enemies is like being a parent who can earnestly say to their child, “I love you, but I don’t like what you’re doing.” Praying for our enemies will always fall short unless we remember that God love us just as much as our enemies. Seeing them in the light of God’s love is the first step toward loving them, and praying for them.

So, is this even possible? Are we capable of loving and praying for our enemies? Can we be perfect? If we try to do it on our own, it is impossible. Only by the grace of God, only with God’s help, can we heed Jesus’ call to love and pray for our enemies. Truly I tell you, this is one of the most difficult aspects of being a Christian. We are called to an impossible life, if we try to do it on our own. Christ is not asking us to simply “like” everybody, but rather to act and pray in love toward those we like and those we do not like.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

At our Lectionary Bible Study this week, we sat in one of the Sunday school rooms and read this text out loud. As usual, many of the comments and questions were quite profound leading toward a greater understanding of the text for all of us. As we were coming to the end of our time together, Betty Hairfield offered a story regarding this idea of perfection.

Years ago, while Betty was in college, she began worshipping at a United Methodist Church because it was closer to campus than the denomination she grew up with. One day Betty was told about the question of perfection that all ministerial candidates were asked about. Like the woman who shook her head while saying “yes,” Betty kept the words close to her heart and she began to understand the depth of the question: “Are you going on to perfection?” For Betty, this was a transformative moment. If perfection is not our goal, then whats the point? Why should we continue to worship a God who loves unless we try to live better lives. That realization, that question of perfection, is what led Betty to join the United Methodist Church.

We are not called to be content with the mediocrity of discipleship but instead we are called to live radical and abnormal lives. Like the psalmist we need to pray for God’s wisdom and grace to be the kind of people who can change the world. We need to strive to be better than good, to live into the new reality that Jesus established with his life, death, and resurrection. Love and pray for those who are evil, for your friends and family, and for yourselves!

Are we going on to perfection? Yes, but only with God’s help.

Amen.