Friday, September 13, 2019

Love Even Your Enemies

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
   Matthew 5:43-44 (GNT)  
 There's a saying going around says, "Break the rules, love everyone."

 When Jesus gave this part of the sermon on the Mount, he broke all the rules. He contradicted the law of Moses, and he contradicted the traditional interpretation of the law of Moses in radical ways.

This is just one place where he did it, so you can tell why it made a lot of the people around him mad whenever he talked, whenever he told people his vision for humanity. When he told people what he thought God meant by whatever God said, and what God wanted for us. This was radical because he contradicted Moses in the Bible. What it said right there in the Bible in plain (not English), Hebrew.

[Listen to the transcript of the audio for this sermon]
preached extemporaneously 
at Briensburg UMC on September 1, 2019.

Jesus contradicted what most of the theological thinking of his day was. He told people, don't do it that way, do it this way. Love even your neighbor, which takes love to a whole new level doesn't normally think about it. Everybody knows it is easy to love the people who love you, who can bolster your career, or throw a party and invite you to it, or do all kind of things like that. But it's a little harder when people, if they don't like you. To still love them.

That takes a little more work, that takes a little more practice, that takes a little more thinking and studying on how best to do that. But that's what He calls us to. I put a picture for this.  I'm doing landmark passages that are landmarks to my own spiritual growth along the way. So today's landmark is about loving even our enemies. I've put a picture there to go with the Bible, and the Book of Discipline because that's kind of what Jesus contradicted, the similar materials from His age in giving these and other things that He said.

The Bible for Jesus was really what we think of as the Catholic Bible today. The Old Testament, including the parts that were removed a few hundred years ago by some of the reformers. It was hundreds of years later before the New Testament was added to our Bible. So He was looking at the law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets and the Psalms that they sang and everything like that, that was the scripture that He quoted from.

It's also in this passage, the scripture He'd known and quoted from, but that He contradicted directly, intentionally. We have the Book of Discipline. Of course, it wasn't around. It's just a couple of hundred years old. It's our Book of Discipline for our church. But they had the Talmud, and they had other materials like that. Theologian's papers. People would write, you know,  things that people would say, and they would get together kind of like our representatives do in general conference. They voted on whatever they thought that the Bible meant, and sometimes one side would win, sometimes the other. It would go back and forth like it does now.

Jesus directly confronted those votes. He confronted those decisions on how the scriptures were being interpreted and applied. Probably the most radical place that he did that was not even here. It was when he said, when he was asked, what are the most important commandments in the whole scripture, in the whole Bible? He said, "Love God, and love one another." Then he added this too now, "On these two commandments, hang all the law and the prophets also." Those two commandments are what pull together and interpret everything that we read in the Bible. Whether it's the law, or whether it's people preaching on the law.

By extension, everything else we talk about, everything else we do as the people of God is to be interpreted by love. That made a lot of people mad. But not everybody, because some people believed in Him, and they followed Him, and His law, and His vision. But it still made some people mad.

It addresses really the way we do things today with the, what we do with the Bible. What we do with not only the Bible as it came about in its original forms, but also the various translations and interpretations and the way we apply the scriptures to our lives. When we do that in love and in genuine curiosity to know what God is trying to communicate to us, the God who loves us, the God who identifies as love. Or some other basis and standard of what we want to say, and what we want it to mean, and what we want to do with it.

People have always, and still do, come up with all kinds of ways to justify some of the most atrocious applications of the scripture that they can imagine. We stand against that. We stand for love. We stand for loving each other the way that Christ has loved us. Fully, completely, unconditionally. Absolutely. Universally.
The Bible that Jesus quoted from Exodus 21, he said, "The punishment shall be life for life. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." There's some other ones in there if you read before and after that.

Except that right after this, there's another one that he said, that addressed the issue of slavery. He said, "If anybody harms their slave, and harms their eye or their tooth, then the payment that they need to make to that slave is to set that slave free." Freedom will be the price that they pay. Well, I think we're pretty clear on that, but that didn't really happen among our slave holding ancestors.

They came out with a slave Bible, where they just took out the whole book of Exodus. So that the Bible wouldn't say that anymore. They prevented people from being able to read, and were not learning how to read, so that if they did get a hold of a copy of the Bible with the book of Exodus in it, they wouldn't be able to read it! Some people will go to almost any length to suppress the word of God, the true word of God, in order to oppress others.

So that's what Jesus was standing up against, when he said this about... They took this, and they went around talking about all the time the way that we still hear it being talked about. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. The Bible says that, right there. It does. Says about so in the book of Leviticus, that everybody likes to quote. 

Whether they take the ones that they have applied to someone else, and they say, "Oh, those are still valid for today." But the ones that apply to themselves, they say, "Oh, that's in another category, the category of the ones that don't apply today."

That's pretty much the whole basis for deciding which apply and which don't. The ones they want to apply to somebody else, they still apply. I saw on a meme on the internet recently, and somebody had a tattoo of a verse in Leviticus that they wanted to say what God was against, you know? There's only a few verses later that it says don't put tattoos. So that's not the way to decide.

So Jesus was really coming against people, and saying, decide it on this other basis. Decide it on the basis of love, not on the basis of whatever your personal whims are, or what you even, even on the basis of what our delegates vote on. Those are all guidance. In fact, the whole Bible, and all of the body of theology is guidance of people pointing to Jesus, and saying, there's Jesus, find Him, and get into a relationship with Him, and let Him love you. You love Him, learn all about love. Love each other. Love the world around you. Be the people of God loving each other and the world around us, no matter what. Even if they're our enemies.

Segue back to the passage. I think I was still on the passage, but that's where Jesus was doing. He was confronting those notions. Another thing was that in the book of Leviticus, that verse that Jesus lifted out as a basis of interpretation, said thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Well, when Jesus said this about that. You've heard it said, love your friends, and hate your enemies. This was not in the Bible that it said love your friends and hate your enemies. It was the votes of the delegates, you might say. It was the votes of the people who were trying to interpret this. It was the kind of orthodox thinking of the day.

That since the Bible said, (this is the reasoning), since the Bible said love your friends, it must mean also that you're supposed to hate your, everybody else. If they weren't your friends, if they weren't your neighbor, if they weren't your family, if you didn't love them, then hate them. That's the way they applied it. That's the way a lot of people look at it today. Love your friends, and hate your enemies.

But I say to you, love everybody. Even your worst enemies. Especially your enemies. If you do, then you will be able to be called children of your father in heaven. Doesn't that remind you of what he said in the Beatitudes, because really that's his summary as He began, His introduction to Sermon on the Mount, and one of the things He said, "Blessed are the peace makers. They shall be called the children of God."

So He confirms it in His teachings, not only some of the things that were already written in the Bible, which I'm sure He knew because my understanding in Hebrews, call Him the author and finisher of our faith. He knows all about our faith. If anybody, and in fact, the Bible even says, in John, about how that Jesus is the word made flesh, living among us. Living out this whole expression of God, self-expression of God among us. He's demonstrating how we can do that.

What better demonstration of loving our enemy, than when Jesus was hanging on the cross, and forgave the people that were hanging him on the cross? Even when they were torturing him. Sometimes we might think, well, maybe later, after he got over it, he forgave him. No, he forgave them while they were doing it. Oh, later, maybe after they begged him to forgive him. No. He forgave them even while they were in the middle of doing it. He loved them.

That's pretty profound; that's more than what I can really wrap my mind around, actually. But that's the demonstration that he gave of what he meant. That's what the Bible means to Jesus. That's what He invites it to mean to us. It may take us an eternity to work into that and live into it, but that's what we're trying to do here.

In the last verse that Peg read a while ago, said, "you must be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect," in this translation. I think in the translation that she read, "complete as your father in heaven is complete." In the Message version, it says, "live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you." Jesus pointed out that God makes it to rain on the just and the unjust. He shares His blessings with everybody. Good, bad, everything in between.

God loves everybody. God loves the whole world, to send Christ to be our savior. Teach us how to love one another. Teach us how have that joy. "Lift us to the joy divine," as the song says. So live that way toward one another as best we can. The more we do it, the better we'll get at it. Practice love. Practice up on love. Put it to work in our lives. It seems almost obvious that if we can love, the more we can love our enemies, the even better and easier it will be to love our friends, automatically.

The more lovable we become as people of love. So that's what Christ invites us to. So that's why it's a landmark to me, is because it's just one of those things in spiritual realm that really guides us, and shows us the way to being complete and full and fulfilled and happy. In this life, and in the life of the world to come. 

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Communion of All Who Remember

The sacrament of holy communion is one of the landmarks of spirituality in my personal life. Many of the religious experiences I've had have taken place around the table of the Lord. That's where I was saved. That's where I was called to preach That's where I was filled with the Holy Spirit. And many other things that have happened.

Sense of communion and oneness and closeness with my family and friends who have gone on before, others that are scattered around the world. And we emphasize all these things in a ritual of the church. The ongoing love and fellowship that we have regardless of whether we're in the same building or in the same country, or even in this world or the next.

Transcript of the [audio for this sermon] preached extemporaneously
at Briensburg UMC on September 1, 2019.

And the closeness of Jesus himself, the presence of Christ in the sacrament. We have a hymn in the hymnal that isn't a very catchy tune, so it doesn't get sung much, but it's an old Wesley hymn that says that we don't really know how this happens, that somehow this bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. And we don't get into the arguments that people have traditionally got into and did get into at the time that hymn was written about all of that. We just say that Christ is present here.

In my ministerial training at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, when I went there for the course of study back in the '80s, I was really blessed to have a person who taught about the sacraments, who said that for us as Methodists, it's not so much about what happens on the table as what's happening around the table. What's important for us is what's happening in our hearts and minds and relationships, in our congregation and in the world around us when we share the supper of the Lord and extend that to others.

It's the Lord's table and it's an inclusive table. It has been, that's been a manner of controversy since the earliest days of Methodism. John Wesley broke with the training that he had and the upbringing that he had in this aspect, that it used to be for him very rigid. And there's some funny stories, sort of funny anyway. Funny, but you know, of him being very restrictive of who would be allowed to receive the sacrament from his hand.

But as he continued to minister, then he changed his view. And this new view that the table would be open to everyone became the prevailing view among the Methodists and it continues to this day because John Wesley reasoned that what better place to meet Jesus than at his table. If we're going to believe that Christ is present in the sacrament, then why would we turn anybody away from Christ?

One thing that really stands out to me is that as we highlight this, as the Methodists always have, as a means of grace, one of the great means of receiving the grace of God, why would we ever want to prevent somebody at the times of their greatest need? When people are suffering, when they're struggling, when they're questioning, when they're wondering, when they're trying to work things out, and all this, that's when they need to be here. When they're going through difficulties in their relationships and difficulties in their life and everything that they're doing, that's when they need this sacrament the most. That's when they need the grace, all the grace that we can help them find.

And so, the table is open. We extend that same invitation that whosoever will may come. And the way that I learned it normally in my ... let me word it here in a few minutes. Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him and wish to live in peace with one another. And I always add this, usually add this I should say, regardless of your age or your religious affiliation, or any other circumstances, because for some people it's not very clear if that even means them. Yes, it does. This means you under what circumstances.

When I was a child, before my dad became a preacher, sometimes when my parents would not be going to church that Sunday, I would get dressed, I put on my tie because I was nerdy when being a nerd wasn't cool. And I'd, as a child, go across the road to the church across the way. And one Sunday I went there and they were having communion. And at that church, they passed the elements down the rows. And so they passed the bread down and when it got to the person beside me, they held it up in the air and passed it to the person next to me on the other side, make sure I couldn't reach it. And they did the same with the wine.

Of course, I didn't understand then but I did feel the exclusion. And I feel it right now as I talk about, just as real as it happened last Sunday, as it would have happened last Sunday. And it's been almost 60 years ago.

Two main reasons, I later found out, were because my age, I was a child, and because of my religious affiliation, I wasn't a member of that church. You know, I'd have to say, there's other reasons that people get excluded, a lot of other reasons. And none of them are any good. And so, I lump the rest and say, or for any other circumstance.

It's the Lord's table and Christ is the one extending the invitation. What we're doing is just what the disciples did when Jesus said, and he took the loaves and the fish from the boy and fed the 5,000, he just gave it to them and said, "You feed them." That's what we're doing when we participate. That's our role, to facilitate everybody gathering around the table and having their lives transformed by Jesus into whatever Jesus wants you to be.

Well, there's one sermon. "This my blood which seals God's covenant, my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Remember it's in the biblical sense. It's more than just recollection. And remember it's in the biblical sense, it's more than memorializing an event or a person. Remember it's in the biblical sense, it's another word for empathy. It is where we live into an experience. Something that might have happened to us, but more often than not, something that happened to someone else, and now I've become a part of our live and we're a part of that moment.

So when Jesus says, "Do this in remembrance of me," he's inviting us to the cross with him. He's inviting us to the moments of ministry with him. And those moments become our moments. Those healings become our healings. The prayers, the meals, the fellowship, the songs, the scriptures, it all becomes a part of who we are.

The night that Jesus instituted the sacrament was a night of Passover for the Jews. And that's just exactly how it's described, when the law was given. When Moses said, "From this day on, you will remember this. You will remember this Passover." And the procedures were given to help them and to facilitate them in reliving this experience, which only one generation lived through. The next generation entered into the Promised Land, and all the rest of the generations following from then until now relived this experience and remember that experience of the Exodus, not because they were there, but because they've been brought into the experience and it has become a part of who they are by empathy, by the sacramental acts that they shared among each other and passed down from generation to generation as we do.

And so, when Jesus extended this one more way, that's what he was extending. And adding to that, "This is my body, this is my blood. It's here for you. Remember me." And so, that's what we do when we remember Christ, remember all of our own personal experiences. But that's just a drop of water in the bucket of all the ... in the ocean, you might even say. Of all the experiences of humanity that we're a part of when we remember in the biblical sense of remembering.

We're one body. When we break the bread, we emphasize this loaf, even though it's just one loaf, when we break this, it's like us being one body. Many as we are, and many as we are, it's not just as many as we are in that room, and it's not just this one loaf. This loaf becomes a part of all the other loaves that are being broken around the world in remembrance of Christ. This becomes the chalice from which all the other chalices are also filled, and we all share together as one body in Christ. The love and the sacrifice that Jesus made, and the invitation that Jesus gives to everybody, "Come unto me all ye that labor and heavy laden and I will give you rest." Bringing us into one body, even if we don't recognize it. Even if others don't recognize it. We're one body in Christ. One faith, one hope, one baptism, one calling, one God and Father of us all. And we share together the blessings of Christ.
We're being transformed and that's far from perfect in the way we live it out and express it. Amen? But that's what Christ is doing in us, is continually working to transform our lives into the likeness of him.

We're participants of the one body. In fact, one of our rituals says that and quotes the Bible where the Bible says that he is made us to participate in the body of Christ. To participate with him, who on the night he gave himself up for us took the bread and wine. We all have many different gifts, but it's one Spirit that gives them and sends us to minister those gifts to each other in a world around us. Like a royal priesthood of believers.

Then Jesus said this, he said, "Do this," and the first thing that comes to our minds, of course, is do this, take some bread, take some wine. But I think he means do this in a whole broader sense. That's the sacramental part, that's the part where we ... that has its own effectiveness of bringing us to the touch-point between the physical and the spiritual. Where "they sing the lamb in hymns above, and we in hymns below."

But as we kind of let our spirit go into that moment, it brings together all the past and all the present and all the future, and invites us to do all of what Christ was doing. Invites us to the fullness. "Do this," and not just some of you, not just one of you, not just a few, but all of us, do all of this that Christ has been doing in our lives and all along.

Think about all the things he did in his ministry. Didn't he send people to do the same things? Not just to have the communion, not just to have a worship service, but to heal the sick. To help the poor. To take care of the people who are suffering around us. To bring good news to people that were not getting any good news like this. To bring the Gospel, bettering the lives of people around us. All of this that Jesus did. Everything you see Jesus doing in the Bible, that's what he's inviting us to do as well. And he's inviting us all to do that.

So as we share the sacrament this morning, I hope that everybody has a religious experience. It's a wonderful time to think about the presence of Christ. And the presence of heaven around us. Wherever God is, heaven is there. Amen? And you know that I can affirm that, wherever God is, that's what the Psalmist said, go up to the highest mountain, down to the lowest, wherever, God is here with us. Christ is present with us as we worship and as we participate in this sacrament.

And so is everybody that's in heaven with him. Our families and friends and loved ones that have gone on before us. Those that used to come here to church but now they've gone on to be with the Lord. And that's a wonderful feeling. To be in communion with each other, with Christ. And to have a permanent relationship that the world didn't give us and the world can't take away.

In the name of Jesus, Amen.