Following the Rules

This is the message that I gave at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany (Year C), 15 February 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 17: 5 – 10, 1 Corinthians 15: 12 -20, and Luke 6: 17 – 26.

I believe in my heart and with all my soul that Jesus was a radical and revolutionary. Unfortunately, this view has gotten me into a lot of trouble, especially in my own family.

Some years ago, in one of my very first sermons, I suggested this very idea. That particular Sunday, one of my cousins was visiting. Paul is the patriarch of the Schüessler family, the oldest son of the oldest son of my maternal great-great grandfather. He, along with his father and two brothers, is a Lutheran minister, one of many that dominate the heritage of our family. After the service that Sunday, he commented that I really should not have portrayed Jesus in such a manner. Yet, a year later, in a sermon preached to the entire Schüessler clan, he raised the image of Jesus as a revolutionary. He did acknowledge that this view of our Lord and Savior came in part from what I had said the year before.

One of the reasons that I see Christ in these terms is that He challenged the status quo, He challenged the notions that people had about their relationship with God. The problem then and even now is that much of our understanding comes from what others have said or written. We willingly let others define what Christ should be for us when it should be up to us to make that definition.

When you get home, carefully reread the words of Jeremiah. He is warning us about relying on the thoughts of others to determine what our own thoughts should be. He starts by quoting the beginning of Psalm 1. But the Psalmist was emphasizing that a good life, the keys to blessing came from avoiding the wicked and studying the Torah. Jeremiah emphasized that the keys to a good life and well-being were found through trust in the Lord.

The “tree of life” that Jeremiah speaks of is the symbol of wisdom. Wisdom is meant to be the ability to perceive the order of God in creation, the intelligence to act in accordance with God’s order, and the moral behavior that leads to well being. Wisdom was not necessarily found in the hearts of mankind.

Jeremiah felt that you could not trust in both God and man. If you turned to one, you would turn away from the other. If we were to turn where our heart would lead us, than we are apt to turn away from where God is leading us or where God would have us go.

That might have been the rationale or reason for Paul writing about the resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians. There were those in Corinth who argued against the actual occurrence of the resurrection. Among the arguments presented was that it was not a physical resurrection but rather a spiritual one that we all go through.

But, and this is the central point to Paul’s rebuttal, if there is no resurrection, if Christ was not raised from the dead, then there is no hope in our faith, there is no promise in what we do. Even today, there are those in the Christian community who would argue that the basic tenets of our faith are no longer valid. They argue that science and the progress of civilization have made many of our statements of faith meaningless and mute. How can there be a loving God if there is war, violence, and repression in the world? If God so loved this world that He would send His only Son, how is it that we have sickness and death?

But wars are the consequences of mankind’s behavior, not God’s. God gave us the wisdom and the ability to act. If there are wars or violence, if there is hatred or repression in this world, it is because we have failed to be God’s servants, not because God has abandoned us. In sending His son, God said to us that He would never abandon us. Our own propensity for war or violence, repression and hatred; our own desires to put our thoughts first, to make the decision about what we are to do merely indicates that we perhaps have abandoned God. This is a world in which there is a lot to fear but putting the blame on an insensitive God does not remove or take away the fear.

When Jesus stood on the plain that day he knew the fears of the people gathered before Him. They were a people living under a tyrannical and repressive foreign government. The taxes imposed by Rome and their own leaders were so burdensome that there was virtually no middle class. Their own leaders worked hand-in-hand with the foreign governor, compromising their own values solely to survive.

Many felt that life was hopeless and adopted a cavalier, laziez faire, “what difference does it make” attitude. Some felt that it was necessary to fight back, to use the same weapons of violence as were used on them. And the Pharisees felt that only by slavish devotion to the countless, myriad, and often-contradictory laws was salvation possible.

This was the world in which Jesus lived; these were the people who gathered before Him that day. The Beatitudes, whether we speak of the traditional text found in Matthew or the shortened version that Luke wrote about in today’s Gospel reading, were not simply a collection of simple statements designed to comfort different groups of people. And they could not be read alone.

Think about the first time you read the Beatitudes and how you may have viewed them as individual statements. They seemed rather contradictory.

How can the meek inherit the world? Shouldn’t it be the ones that have the spirit in their lives who inherit the kingdom of heaven? But that is our thinking being applied to Jesus’ words. We fail to see the commitment that He put before us in order for us to reach the kingdom of Heaven.

Rather, they were meant to identify the stages of experience each person would go through in order to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus spoke of the poor but he was not speaking to the financially poor. Some may feel that he was offering pity to those that lacked resources for there were certainly many that did, but that would only give credence to their poverty. Rather he was speaking about those that lacked spirit and acknowledged that they were poor in spirit would find the ultimate in riches. Those were the ones who were more apt to find what they are looking for.

Some might have been hungry but it was not food that would satisfy their hunger. It was a hunger for righteousness in this world and the hunger would be gone when there was no injustice.

When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God on earth, he was not offering to make the people more comfortable in their sins. He was calling them to a new life in the Spirit, to a citizenship in His beloved community. The peace that they sought could be found in this community; it was a community that could bring peace to the world. Each of the Beatitudes was a step in the path towards that citizenship.

Each step was not merely an acknowledgement of what they lacked or what they sought; rather, it was a called to action. You cannot be a peacemaker simply by changing the environment; you must also change your heart.

To those whose loyalties lie with this world, those who are citizens of God’s kingdom are subversive agents, dangerous enemies that cannot be tolerated. They must be persecuted, ridiculed, ignored, or removed.

But Jesus warned those who make such citizenship an act of martyrdom to be carefully as well. It was not our task to go out into the work and deliberately seek persecution. To seek abuse in the name of God is hardly what the Word of God is about. That would, again, be our thinking; that would be our telling God what to do.

What Jesus told us to do then and what tells us to do now is to preach the Word and lead a life in great contrast to the world around us. Look at what Jesus said in the next passage in Luke. When we are struck on the check, we should turn the other check. When we find someone naked and cold, we should give that person the coat off our back.

We have a hard time with this approach because they are new rules and they are rules to a game that we may not want to play. They are not simply rules to follow, they are words of action. And it requires that we see the world in new terms, terms that we do not define.

God did not mean our lives to be solitary devoid of human contact. If others cannot see us, we are just as well hidden from God. Jesus’ words this day are a call to action, to do more than just listen. No matter what the cost might be, the words that Jesus spoke are how we should live. It is not simply a matter of course to preach the words; rather, we must demonstrate that we are living the words.

The Pharisees put forth a series of rules that defined each day. But in defining each day, they thought nothing of tomorrow. Jesus gave a set of rules to follow that would give us much more than today, following his rules gave us eternal life. Which set of rules do you wish to follow?


“Two Roads”

This was the message that I gave at Walker Valley UMC for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 17: 5 – 10, 1 Corinthians 15: 12 – 20, and Luke 6: 17 – 26. It was also Boy Scout Sunday.


Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost has always been one of my favorite poems. I suppose that is because of all that times that I have chosen roads not traveled by others. But though the roads that I have walked have been different from my counterparts, I know that I have traveled them with Christ as my companion.

The same is true for all of us. As we journey through life, we come to points were decisions must be made. One reason we are here today is that, at some time in our life, we decided that the journey we would make, the road we would take would have a singular destination. And just like the tree draws its strength from the stream, so too does the strength we need to complete our journey come from the presence of Christ in our lives.

As Paul said, our faith is built on the singular idea that Christ died and was resurrected for us. Jeremiah stayed true to the task put before him because his roots drank from the deep, life-giving water that assured him of God’s faithfulness to his people.

Paul reminded the early Christian community that this living stream is the firm belief in and commitment to Christ’s resurrection. Without the resurrection, our faith is truly in vain and we are “the most pitiable people of all.” With belief in Christ’s resurrection, the Sermon on the Mount is not just counter-cultural but utterly senseless as well. To claim the resurrection is to know that the least of people will truly will be first, and that our tears truly will be turned into joy. It is the certainty that those mired in death will be raised into new life, that God’s kingdom will reign on earth, liberating the captives and rescuing the poor.

We have to remember that the word “disciple” does not mean “a student of a teacher” but rather “a follower of someone”. Discipleship in the New Testament meant following Jesus and journeying with Him. As a journey with Jesus, discipleship means being on the road with Him. It means to be an itinerant, a sojourner; to have nowhere to lay one’s head, no permanent-resting place. To journey with Jesus means listening to his teaching — sometime understanding it, sometimes not getting it. It can involve denying Him, even betraying Him.

Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. While the road we take with Jesus may be an individual one, being a disciple means we make our journey in a company of others. Though we may travel a road less traveled, we are part of a community that remembers and celebrates Jesus. That is why we are here this morning; we have chosen to be part of a community that celebrates the presence of Jesus in our lives.

It is a journey in his company, in his presence. There is a joy in his presence. It is impossible to be said in Jesus’ presence. Perhaps one might feel sadness, but not sadness about existence itself. Jesus spoke of the joy that we would receive when the journey was completed and he warned what would happen to those who felt that the rewards they had gathered on this earth were the rewards that they would get in heaven.

As we invite others to join in this community, to walk with us on the road we have decided to take and share in this joy, we have to realize that each of our journeys is unique. Though we share our journey and celebrate our being a community together, we have to realize that we cannot make someone walk the path that we are walking. Each person chooses to walk his or her own road and we cannot command them to walk road that we walk.

The challenge is not to get others to walk on our road but rather to share in the journey, to arrive at that same destination. Like Paul and Jeremiah before us, we cannot wait for the kingdom to come to us. The waters of our baptism, our understanding as Methodists compel us to start construction here and now.

Following Jesus requires a strength, passion, and courage that is not of this world. Without it, we would all be “done for” after the first week. This source of life and strength is the stream which Jeremiah and the psalmist speak, and only when we plunge our roots deeply into it do we have any hope of being God’s instrument of justice and peace in this troubled world.

Being a disciple is also about being compassionate. “Being compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of a follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus. Ours is not to command others to walk on the road that we have chosen to walk but rather to invite others to share our journey with them and to be a part of a community of sharing and compassion.

Discipleship means eating at his table and experiencing his banquet. That banquet is an inclusive banquet, including not just me and not just us, but those whom we might want to exclude. It means being nourished by him and being fed by him. Such seems to be the point of Jesus feeding the five thousand in the wilderness, just as Israel was fed in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt. It becomes a powerful symbol of journeying with Jesus and being fed by him on that journey. “Take, eat, lest the journey be too great for you.”

As we come to the table this morning, knowing that it is open to all, we are sharing in that journey and the community who make that journey. At some time our roads may separate and the paths we take vary, but we know that it is the destination that we are headed to that counts, not the path we take.

A Brief Discourse

These are my thoughts for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany
A number of years ago I purchased the book “The Passover Plot” by Hugh J. Schonfield. I bought it because it seemed interesting and it was cheap (the latter reason was just as important a basis for buying it as was the first reason). I was in graduate school, attempting to complete a Master’s Degree in Chemistry and I was having a hard time doing it and with my life. Neither my faith nor my belief was strong. I don’t know if I bought the book thinking that it would help solve this quandary.

But, after reading it, I came to the conclusion that there was a Christ and that He died for my sins. Now, for those who are not familiar with this work, it is an attempt to disprove or discredit the Resurrection story. The essence of the story is that Jesus planned the whole event and worked out a way to fake his death on the cross. But the plot was messed up when the Roman soldier stuck his spear in the side of Jesus (1) and Jesus died before the other conspirators could complete the plot (the story of this sword is another interesting story).

The book was written by a skeptic seeking to disprove the nature of the Crucifixion. But after reading it, I was the skeptical one. Even some thirty years later, I am still a skeptic when one suggests that the Crucifixion was a plot. If science theory has taught me one thing, it is that the more complicated an explanation is, the more likely it is to be false. On the other hand, the simplest explanations are often the best explanations.

And the simplest explanation is that Jesus is, was, and will always be the Son of God and He died on the Cross so that I may live free from sin and death.

When it came out, I bought “The DaVinci Code” because it was intriguing (though most definitely not cheap). And, then I bought the book “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, the work from which the “DaVinci Code” was based. Buried in this second book was a reference to that very book that started this discourse, “The Passover Plot.” It would seem that conspiracy theories never change, just reappear from time to time.

Since at least two of the documents upon which the “DaVinci Code” and “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” are based have been proved to be forgeries from the mid-1950’s, the whole concept of this conspiracy would seem to be false as well. Yet, it won’t go away.

And we are back to Paul’s words to the Corinthians for today (2). If the crucifixion is not true, then our faith is in vain. And if our faith is in vain, there isn’t much to hope for in this life. That is the problem today.

Too many people are willing to seek what seems to be an easy explanation, such as there is no God, Jesus was not the Messiah, and there is no hope after death. Some would say that it is much easier to put your faith in what you see and the evidence around you. It is much easier to preach a Gospel of wealth and fame than one that only offers hope. And the skeptics who hear the preachers extol the prosperity gospel cry out fraud and phony and suggest that it only offers more proof that there is no God. The skeptics cry out that it would be much, much easier to simply trust in the empirical evidence.

Now, I will agree that those who preach a gospel that offers wealth and fame to the righteous are frauds and phony. But their distortions of the Gospel message do not mean that there is no God. The fact that so many people over the last two thousand years have come to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior should say that there is proof of a God.

Yes, you cannot necessarily prove by empirical reasoning that there is a God. But that is why we have faith. Faith is never a substitute for logic and reason. Nor is logic or reason ever substitutes for faith. The two work together.

Those who would seek to substitute logic or empirical reasoning for faith must be aware of what Nehemiah was saying (3). If you put your trust in the world around you, you will be like a plant in the middle of a dry desert. Without the Living Water found through God, you will wither and die. And Jesus, in the Gospel reading for today (4) , points out that those who seek riches and glory now will be lacking when the time comes to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

A life without faith is an incomplete life. It is incomplete because our society encourages material well-being above spiritual well-being. It encourages the accumulation of wealth for one’s own purposes above the carrying for others. But the Gospel message speaks of what is to come, not what is now. And the Gospel message speaks of others before self. The Old Testament and Gospel readings for today tell us that those who seek first for themselves will be lacking when they are called to account for what they have done on earth.

Is there a God? Yes, there is a God. We see his presence in our lives through the beauty of the earth and sky and the wonders that come with such beauty. We also see God calling out to us to answer the call to help the sick, the needy and the oppressed. We know that Jesus came as His Son and as our Savior.

Jesus came to towns and villages through Galilee without announcement. Yet there were huge crowds waiting because they had heard what He could do. And they came knowing of the promise of hope that Jesus offered.

The same is true today. If the Crucifixion were false, then all that we believe is false and two thousand years of history is false. Our hope is also false. But the crucifixion was not false and our hope is not false. What we must do is make sure that people see, by our actions, by our words, by our thoughts, and by our deeds that no only is the Crucifixion not false but that Christ is still alive.

Those who proclaim a false gospel may have large crowds but when the truth of their message becomes clear, they will be the ones quickly left behind. Those who claim that there is no God will be lacking when their false system of belief cannot offer them hope and strength in time of need.

But for the false message to fail, the true message must be shown. How do you show your faith and belief? How do you show that Christ is alive in you? Do you live your life in accordance with the Gospel so that others may see the living Christ?

This is a discourse that may be brief but never ends. Each day is another day to show by thought, word, and deed that Christ is alive.
(1) John 19: 34
(2) 1 Corinthians 15: 12 – 20
(3) Jeremiah 17: 5 – 10
(4) Luke 6: 17 – 26