Monthly Archives: February 2011

Up on the Mountain: Seeing Ourselves Anew

a sermon on Matthew 7:1-12, the sixth in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on February 27, 2011

Preacher’s note: A significant portion of this sermon is highly dependent on two items of copyrighted material. Nonetheless, I will share the framework for the sermon and point you to the resources used. Thanks for your understanding as I seek to respect the hard and creative work of others and yet still want to share!

We’ve been up on the mountain for the last several weeks – with a little break for my vacation last week! – hearing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount anew, and by and large he’s offered us a new view of the world even from this early place in his ministry. Up on the mountain, Jesus insists that blessing is not a gift to be counted but rather a call to embody a new way of life. Jesus suggests that we need to be both seen and unseen in our work to show and be a part of what God is doing in our world. Jesus makes it clear here that relationship and reconciliation count for far more than exacting adherence to legal codes. In this sermon, Jesus demands that our actions match up with our words – and that everything we do deepen our life of faith on the inside at least as much as it invites others to join us in that way on the outside. And Jesus maintains up on the mountain that God’s economy calls us to live in a different way that counts not the cost but the potential for something new.

So much of the Sermon on the Mount is about how to live in a way that embodies the kingdom of God for others, but in our reading from this famous sermon today, Jesus turns a little more inward. He isn’t addressing the church, per se – such an institution did not exist in his time – but in this section of his sermon he nonetheless seems to be talking a little more about how to live with each other on the mountain as we must do in the church rather than just looking out to the world beyond this place.

First we hear a very familiar verse: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” It’s an incredible verse – an important reminder of our limitations as human beings and our inability to understand and see things as God sees, for judgment is, in the end, reserved for God. But that simple view doesn’t capture everything he wants to say. While Jesus certainly wants us to refrain from harsh or inappropriate judgment, I doubt that he would say that we should not serve on a jury or that someone should escape punishment for wrongdoing because no one is willing or able to bring down judgment. For Jesus, judgment is not so much prohibited as it is reframed – each of us must submit ourselves to the same sort of judgment we ourselves would offer. And so judgment is more about how we see things – not just seeing what others have done but also seeing one another in new ways, seeing our own actions through others’ eyes, and seeing the new thing that God is doing in our midst.

So that we can see things in this way and be honest about how we see  others and ourselves as we begin living out this command, I invite you now to join me in a brief meditation on this text, originally used in the Iona Community in Scotland.

In summary, this meditation invites a blinded listener to hear others speaking the truth about their lives, concluding with an invitation to remove the log that the listener does not even realize is in her eye. This portion of the sermon concludes with a symbolic action as worshipers are invited to come forward, remove a piece of wood from atop a mirror to discover that they can see a little more of themselves as the logs are removed. The meditation and action are adapted from “The log in your eye” in Present on Earth, The Iona Community/Wild Goose Worship Group/GIA Publications, p. 219-221.)

Following the symbolic action, the sermon continues with the following prayer:

Let us pray. God of judgment and grace, we have ignored Jesus’ command: “Do not judge.” We have pointed out the splinters in others’ eyes without recognizing the planks of our own. Remove these specks from our sight, and help us to see with new light. Open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to ourselves and those around us, that we might be aware of our own shortcomings and know the fullness of your grace even as we offer it to others as Christ has offered it to us. Amen.

Now Jesus doesn’t leave things there, though – there is a little more to today’s vision from up on the mountain. From this place, he insists that his listeners will receive all that they ask for, find all that they search for, and have all doors on which they knock opened, even as he demands that they offer others the same respect, love, and grace that they seek for themselves. This is not an open promise to receive all things without question – rather, it suggests that God offers us all that we truly need in graciousness and love even as we too are called and expected to show that same sort of grace and love in our asking of God and our living with and for others.

Living like this is not easy. Jesus’ vision from up on the mountain is rarely in line with our self-interest. We don’t like being honest with ourselves about the planks in our eyes or the ways we constantly fall short, and we demand everything that God can offer us without being willing to make that same offer to others. But this is the vision set before us, a vision we will surely question and maybe even mock or criticize, yet it is nonetheless God’s vision for our world to be made new.

And so we ask so that this way will be given to us. We search so that we might find this something new. We knock so that God will open the door of new life before us and all the world. May then this song be our prayer for this vision to be real among us.

The sermon concludes with the singing of “Lord, can this really be?” (words by William Rutherford, music by John L. Bell) as found in Church Hymnary 4 of the Church of Scotland, #205.

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Up on the Mountain: The Difficult New Way

a sermon on Matthew 6:19-34, the fifth in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on February 13, 2011

We’ve been up on the mountain with Jesus for the past four weeks listening again to the familiar Sermon on the Mount, so with three weeks left to go, it seems like a good time to stop and take a quick look back. As he offered the crowd his vision of what God is doing in bringing a new way from up on this mountain, Jesus started out with simple, seemingly harmless statements of blessing, but on closer examination they proved to be a dramatic challenge to the status quo. Then he reminded his listeners of the importance of being both salt and light in the world, the call to work in seen and unseen ways to be a part of what God is doing all around us. He then explored the importance and role of the law in God’s new way, insisting that the details of the law do not make things right but instead suggesting that the law should promote this new way of righteousness through relationship and reconciliation. And then last week, we heard Jesus talk about the practices of giving to those in need, prayer, and fasting, insisting that they be done not just to be seen but really to embody a full and new way of life. All along the way, Jesus has been offering us an alternative vision of life from up here on the mountain, suggesting that God is up to something that needs to be seen and lived, breaking into the world with a new way of life and inviting us to join in.

This alternative vision becomes even clearer in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount this morning. In this section, Jesus seems to be far more prescriptive than he has been up until this point – while he has certainly been direct in confronting problems with the system of his day and age throughout the sermon, something seems to have changed here. Jesus’ encouragement to live in this new way here seems to shift to things that hit closer to home, directly addressing our tendency to accumulate stuff, our difficulty in seeing a new way, our struggles to define where we place our emphasis, and our worry about how things will work out in the midst of uncertainty. Jesus is very straightforward here:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

“If your eye is healthy [and you can see what is going on around you], your whole body will be full of light.”

“No one can serve two masters…. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…. Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

These are the kinds of things that seem easy for us to talk about doing, but we struggle to take the real steps toward them for ourselves, mostly because we usually don’t have to. We’re fine suggesting them for someone else or resorting to these claims when we would rather not deal honestly with telling someone “no,” but we struggle how to even imagine making them real for ourselves when we have everything we need already. When we get down to the tough work of making these things real, they are much, much more difficult if not even seemingly impossible and irresponsible to live out, especially when we are the ones who “have,” yet Jesus’ original audience was probably more a group of the “have nots” than most American churches will ever see. So in all these directions here, Jesus tries to instill in his listeners in every age, of whatever economic or social standing, that we need no longer look to ourselves to meet all our needs. We instead are called to trust that God will supply all that we need as a new way of life and living comes into being in our world, sharing our abundance and living in trustworthy relationship as we seek to be a part of God’s transformed and transforming world.

The specifics of this way of life that Jesus describes are exceedingly difficult in today’s world.

  • Avoiding building up treasures on earth – these days known as savings accounts! – can bring disaster in catastrophic moments or even when there is a slightly larger bill to pay than usual.
  • Keeping our eyes open to new things is difficult when we can so easily retreat into the way of life that we know.
  • The concern of money looms so large over us that it is tough to imagine a time when we don’t have to make it our primary concern.
  • And worry is so deeply ingrained in us as we are told to avoid so many things in order to make our life longer, live more healthily, or be better stewards of the world around us – not to mention the worry and concern and fear that seem to naturally develop just from living in New York City!

So just as Jesus suggested in our reading a couple weeks ago that Jewish law needed to be reinterpreted for his own time and to take into account a primary concern of righteousness through relationship and reconciliation, so we too have to think about how we make Jesus’ marks of kingdom living work in our very different world. Even if we can’t give up all our possessions right here and right now or stop worrying once and for all about how we will meet our basic needs for ourselves and those we love, we can and indeed must sort out how to live out the radical trust in God that stands at the center of this difficult new way.

  • Perhaps Jesus’ admonition to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” is best understood in these days as an encouragement to make sure that we use all the resources we have at hand to be a part of God’s transformation in the world. As you heard earlier, we will be talking about some concrete ways to do this very thing after worship today.
  • Maybe Jesus’ call to fill our eyes with light is a reminder to open our eyes more fully and completely to see what God is doing all around us and how we can join in. Beyond the conversation that will begin today, in the upcoming season of Lent we will be looking at how congregations in New York City are responding to significant issues in our world so that we might have a better vision for our own life together.
  • In making it clear that we cannot serve both God and wealth, Jesus insists that even in our world where the “almighty dollar” may be in charge for many, we should operate in a different mindset that puts God’s intentions for wholeness and fullness of life first. It is this commitment that drives our actions as a church of paying our staff fairly and providing for their full welfare even when it brings strain on our finances.
  • And perhaps Jesus’ call not to worry about the things of life is exactly the instruction we need in a world preoccupied with possessions and things and filled with concern about what might happen tomorrow. This call forces us to move beyond just trying to make ends meet and demands that we seek to be the people God is calling us to be together in these days, not just trying to survive as a congregation in this place and holding on to everything we have now but rather sorting out how we are to truly live as God’s people in the days ahead so that we can be a bigger part of the vision that Jesus offers us from up on the mountain. As our Book of Order reminds us, the church is called to do its mission at the risk of losing its own life, for living out our mission is far more important than institutional survival.

As difficult as it may seem at times, living out this new way of life proclaimed by Jesus up on the mountain that brings forth the kingdom is our greatest call and our greatest responsibility as Christians, not so that we can gain our salvation or have extra wealth and privilege in heaven but rather so that we can join in what God is already doing to make that kingdom of heaven real, not just in the world to come but right here and right now, not just for a few who accept it but for all creation. Jesus’ own words that we just sang sum up this way better than I could ever do myself: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”

May we have vision to see and wisdom to live this difficult new way, seeking and striving for all that God is doing now and forever to make all things new even now so that all the world might share in the new life we know in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Up on the Mountain: Doing, or Just Being Seen?

a sermon on Matthew 6:1-18, the fourth in a series on the Sermon on the Mount
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on February 6, 2011

We here know what it feels like to seem to be doing things in secret. Although our doors are open every Sunday, people around Whitestone often don’t know what we are up to since we just don’t have a high profile. Hundreds of people walk past our door each and every day to get to school, go to work, eat lunch, or just enjoy a nice stroll when the weather is pretty, yet so few of those make their way in our doors! I for one often wonder if people would even notice our absence from the community if we ceased to exist, and my fear is that most folks would only notice us if our building were not here, half out of sadness for the loss of a beautiful building and half out of concern for what sort of thing might replace it. So when we talk about special events and the like, raising our visibility is a prominent theme – how can we help people know what we are doing and simply that we exist? What can we do that will help our neighbors and our neighborhood recognize that we are here and join in?

Jesus actually has a few things to say about visibility, but his words don’t seem to encourage us in our work of being seen. In the section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we heard this morning, Jesus speaks pretty directly against doing things just to be seen. As he looked down from up on the mountain, Jesus offered a vision of God doing something radically new in the world, and he used three familiar practices of faith to suggest ways to live into the kingdom of heaven – but these were things to be done, not just to be seen.

First, he speaks of the practice of giving alms. Supporting the poor with small gifts was very familiar to Jesus’ first listeners, as it was a longstanding part of Jewish tradition and broader cultural practice of the ancient world. Jesus doesn’t attack the tradition at all – in fact, he encourages it – but he demands that its purpose always be kept in mind. Supporting the needs of the less fortunate must always be about responding to those who are in need of assistance, not about making the giver feel good or be appreciated or noticed. True giving is not about being seen making an important gift – it is about doing what is best for the other, and if the temptation is too strong to get a benefit for yourself, Jesus suggests doing it in secret, not even letting your other hand know what is going on! In doing things in this way, we point toward something greater than ourselves. Jesus then suggests that there is a reward from God for doing this – but this is not about storing up rewards for ourselves in heaven. Instead, it may be, as preacher Tom Long suggests, a reminder of our constant dependence on the infinite mercy of God:

All that we have, all that we are, comes by the mercy of God. So, when we are generous toward others, we are not writing checks on a limited account. We are drawing from an inexhaustible flow of divine grace; works of mercy never deplete the supply. (Tom Long, Matthew in the Westminster Bible Companion series)

After lifting up this practice of almsgiving and showing how it reminds us of God’s mercy and grace toward us, Jesus moves on to the practice of prayer. His words on prayer start out very much like his words on almsgiving, with an affirmation of the practice but a condemnation of how it is frequently carried out. Too often, he suggests, prayer becomes a matter of showing off – praying in public settings so that everyone can hear every word, using flowery words, focusing on the prayer itself rather than on those lifted up in it and especially the one to whom it is directed. Instead of all these things, Jesus suggests a very simple prayer instead. This incredible prayer is now so well known that we probably miss its radical nature and intent, but the reality is that the Lord’s Prayer points less to the kinds of requests for healing and protection that get lifted up so frequently in our midst and more toward asking God to make the way of heaven real in the world. In these words of the Lord’s Prayer, prayer becomes less about the one praying and his or her needs and more about becoming engaged with what God is doing to renew the world, not a series of wishes to be granted by an all-powerful genie but rather a practice of faith grounded in our hope to be a part of what God is doing all around us.

The final practice is one that seems a little more foreign to us Protestants these days: fasting. I must admit that I have never found personal spiritual value in this, nor have I tried it for myself. Nonetheless, for Jesus’ listeners and for many others of other religious traditions, fasting is an important part of the spiritual life, but Jesus insists that it be kept in the right perspective. Just as almsgiving and prayer should be rooted in real practices and not just in drawing attention to the doer, so true fasting seeks to deepen the internal spiritual life far more than it is noticed by others. So Jesus goes so far as to suggest that his audience ought to disguise the fact that they are fasting if they are tempted to find righteousness in the practice rather than its fruits, if they are more concerned with being seen than actually doing something to be a part of the coming kingdom.

There is definitely a fine balance at work for us between doing what enriches our faith and being seen at work by others. On the one hand, it shouldn’t matter that we are doing good things in our world in the name of the church, but on the other, we also carry a command to make the name of God known all around us. In our world, where good works abound but understanding of the Christian life seems awfully absent, where people enjoy looking at church buildings but almost never set foot in them for worship, it would almost seem more important than ever to be recognized for why we do what we do.

However, Jesus’ admonitions still apply today. We shouldn’t care for the needs of others just so that others will pay attention to us, let alone place conditions of being seen or heard on our help. Prayer should not be a tactic used to show off, suggest the superiority of one way of life, inject religious content into a properly secular moment, or even proselytize in the public sphere, for it should always draw attention to God and the new way that God places before us. And other spiritual practices like fasting must draw as much attention to the internal life that grounds them as they draw to themselves. Jesus doesn’t mean that we should only give to the poor in secret, only pray alone, or engage other practices that deepen our spiritual lives only in ways that they cannot be seen – he simply suggests that these practices must always point to something more if they are seen.

The three practices of faith that Jesus lifts up here – almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – are only three of a multitude of things we can do to deepen our spiritual lives and point to the true grounding of our faith and action. Other practices can also enrich our walk as we seek to engage more faithfully with what God is doing in the world – things like practicing Sabbath, finding spiritual companionship for the journey, singing the ups and downs of our lives, and even finding words to describe how God has been at work in our lives and our world. Things like these can help us to engage more faithfully with all the new things that God is doing all around us. If in doing these things, we can demonstrate to the world the quality of life in the kingdom of heaven without becoming smug or haughty or focused just on being seen, then we can and should be a part of what God is doing even now to make all things new.

Our visibility in these days certainly matters – people need to see and know what we do and why we do it – but that visibility is only a fruit of the incredible things that God calls us to do as the community of faith in the church. Next Sunday after worship, we’ll be talking a bit about this calling – and some specific ways to make it real through our own commitments – so I encourage you to make plans to join us after worship next Sunday for this important conversation.

And so from up on this mountain may we have a clearer vision of the kingdom of heaven – and how we can be a part of making it real – so that we can also help others to see it and invite them to join in through our life together. Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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