Monday, June 30, 2008

SOTM 6: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Righteousness

6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
-Mt. 5:6

I want to be happy. Ultimately, that might be all I really care about. You might be the same. It's written in our official documents-- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If there were a drug that would forever make me happy I might try it. Many of us do. There are all kinds of drugs: sex, stuff, power, religion, and of course drugs. Marx says that religion is the opium of the masses. I think he might be right. Some of us hunger after worship "experiences" in ways not dissimilar to how some hunger to get high. But increasingly in our Post-Christian world I don't think that religion is still the drug of choice for most of us. Sex, stuff, and power seem to be quite enough. Oh yeah, and drugs.

But none of it is working.

It isn't working because Marx is right. It's just a drug. And sometimes drugs are good for alleviating the pain but they don't do anything to fix the problem. If my leg has been cut off, it doesn't matter how much Tylenol I take. When I've finished the bottle I'll still have to hop to the store to get more.

Let's explain the analogy. Drugs are circumstances. The pursuit of power, sex, stuff, and religion is all the pursuit to arrange circumstances in such a way as to make us happy. But what Jesus is showing us is that the problem isn't with our circumstances, the problem is with us. This basic insight concerning the fundamental human predicament is something which Jesus brought afresh to our world. It is why Augustine's "Confessions" is recognized by many as the first true autobiography. No one before had seen the necessity of looking so deep within. (As the "Confessions" teaches, the path to God is to look inward and this will direct us upward. The unfortunate turn of Western Civilization has been that we've only followed Augustine up the first step--and not even that with both feet. We've turned our attention entirely on ourselves but have not discovered our problem and certainly haven't found our way to God. Rather we've just poured more fuel on the fire of narcissism.) But when we discover that the problem isn't with circumstances but with ourselves we are in a position to find happiness after all.

So Jesus says "blessed" or "happy" are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Happy are those who know the problem is with themselves and seek to correct it. For those of us familiar with Christian lingo, the righteousness in question involves both justification and sanctification as well. Happy are those who first of all know that God loves them--that he has done what is necessary to secure our relationship with Him--and secondly desire to be like Him. Do you want to be like God? Do you want to be a good person? Because becoming one is also how one becomes happy. (We all know this. Mean and nasty people are usually not very happy.) Jesus is inviting us to follow him and shows us how. It's time to change the books to life, liberty, and the pursuit of righteousness.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

SOMT 5: The Gospel of Criticism

5Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
-Mt. 5:5

When was the last time you used the word "meek" in a sentence? Other versions translate it differently--humble, gentle, etc. There is a difficulty in ascertaining how Jesus wishes us to take this word and the difficulty stems from the same basic problem we encounter when trying to understand the beatitudes as a whole. Is Jesus saying, "this is what you must be like if you are to be blessed" or is he simply saying "these are the kinds of people who will be blessed"? If it is the latter then the emphasis in each verse may not so much be that the so described is a characteristic for which we are to strive. Some translate "meek" as "humble" and this helps to highlight the problem.

For much of the Greek and Roman worlds there were two great classes the "honestiores" and the "humiliores." The former were the well off and the latter were the poor, the marginalized, the afflicted. This is the origin of the word "humble" which we now more frequently take as an essential part of Christian character for which we should strive rather than a description of the marginalized. The reason for this confusion, I believe, highlights the essential conflict between the principles of this world and the principles of the Kingdom of God. The cold, hard fact is that being humble is not the way to succeed in this world. Being humble is precisely the way to find yourself being marginalized. Just one glance at how presidential candidates run their campaigns makes this clear. Humility requires admitting fault-- something no candidate can risk doing. Americans don't want a president they've had to forgive. But in the Kingdom of God the greatest are those who have been forgiven of much. So I think Jesus is both describing those who will be blessed and calling us to the character of the blessed.

But humility is more than admitting fault. Within Christian circles admitting fault is a way to appear humble. But the true test of humility is how we respond when someone else criticizes our character. I don't have much of a problem walking around church telling people I'm selfish--it makes me look like a nice humble pastor. But it's a totally different story if someone else tells me this. We respond in one of two ways, we either get proud and defensive, or we put on a "woe is me, I'm horrible, I'm not good enough, nobody loves me" attitude. And as Bill McKinney pointed out the other day, the latter response is just as much a response of pride as is the former. When we say to ourselves "I'm so bad, I can't do anything right, woe is me" what we are really saying is "I think I'm BETTER than that and can't believe I did that (or can't believe others think I did)." But true Christian humility stems from the understanding that no, you're not better than that, and don't fool yourself into thinking you are or should be. Christian humility neither pridefully defends nor pridefully self-pities but asks God for the grace to forgive and change.

This allows us to see criticism in a whole new light. Every criticism against your character is really a presentation of the gospel. Every time someone calls you out on something, what they are really saying is “you need Jesus.” So thank your worst critic for being such a wonderful evangelist.

Friday, June 27, 2008

SOTM 4: The Path to Joy

4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Mt. 5:4

"Eat drink and be merry" is our world's motto (and part of the chorus of a sweet Dave Matthews Song!!!). It is a flippant attitude toward life. An attitude in which the best way to deal with tragedy and pain is to move past it, forget about it as quickly as possible. Don't worry, be happy. Christians often make the mistake of thinking that we must outdo everyone else with our happiness. If Jesus doesn't make us look happier, why would anyone want Jesus? But people can see that this happy-smiley-always-positive-Christian-radio approach is just as inauthentic as the "Eat drink and be merry" one they are already living. Much of eastern religion also teaches us to move past pain and sorrow through "detachment." But Jesus says we can have our cake and eat it too. Jesus tells us that to find happiness we don't need to ignore pain and sorrow--but that in fact dealing with our stuff head-on is the way to get there. Jesus wants us to know that a good God is in control. And therefore there is no need to ignore our pain but we can meet it head-on with hope. A hope that is grounded in the belief that God will one day make all things right-- he will bring about peace: the way things are supposed to be.

But Jesus also and primarily has a specific kind of mourning in mind. Certainly we can mourn with hope over, for example, the death of our loved ones. But for Jesus, the main thing he's getting at is different. Jesus was a "man of sorrows." He was a mourner in the good old-fashioned OT prophet kind of way. He mourned over the sins of his people. He wept over Jerusalem and he got ticked off in the temple courts. And Jesus wants us to know that the path to the good life comes through a mourning over our sins. Blessed are those who day after day weep over their sin. Blessed are those who day after day weep over the sins of the world. The follower of Jesus looks at the injustices of the world, the rancid violations of human rights, and weeps. The follower of Jesus looks inside his own heart, and seeing that what he finds is what is at the heart of the world's injustices, he weeps. But his sorrow quickly becomes joy when he looks to the cross and daily discovers forgiveness. His compassions are "new every morning" declares the author of Lamentations amidst great sorrow and mourning. Mourning is not to be replaced by joy in the present Christian life, but rather is the pathway to it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

SOTM 3: Fat and Unhappy

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven."
-Mt. 5:3

Jesus is the champion of the have-nots. In Luke Jesus emphasizes the physically poor, in Matthew the spiritually poor. Though recent economic woes might cause us to identify with Luke's, most of us Americans are the fat and unhappy ones that Matthew's gospel seems to address. How can going through a life that is so easy feel so hard? Jesus has good news for us. What we are really looking for has come. It's just that we don't really have any idea what it is.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sermon On The Mount 2: Wrong Direction

3"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

-Matthew 5:3-11

It's always frustrating having to ask for directions. You're already late. You probably spilled your coffee trying to read a road sign. If they tell you that you're close by--it's just around the corner or just over the hill--it can bring a sigh of relief. But nothing is more disheartening than when that worried look comes across their face and they tell you that you've been heading in completely the wrong direction. It is always accompanied by mass confusion because the surroundings don't look anything like you'd expected. Like Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber who questions John Denver's description of the mountains in "Rocky Mountain High." After driving 400 miles in the wrong direction Colorado looked awfully flat. We find ourselves with a similar confusion when reading the Beatitudes. Like Lloyd we have been traveling, unwittingly, unknowingly, in the wrong direction. But because we've been doing it for 400 miles we have become used to it. It has become all we know. Jesus is about to tell us the right direction and it's going to seem as confusing, backward, and unexpected as Lloyd's suspicion that the mountains looked an awful lot like the Nebraska cornfields. Jesus is telling us that those who will experience the fullness of life, as heaven and earth become united through his redemptive work, look the complete opposite of what we would expect. It is not the wealthy, the successful, or the victorious, but the poor, the meek, the mourners. As such the beatitudes may be less a description of what we must do to find God (though they will point us there) but more simply a description of those who will. Sometimes the wealthy, the successful, and the victorious have the unfortunate happenstance of never needing Him.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sermon On The Mount 1: A Mariner

"1Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2and he began to teach them saying:"
-Matthew 5:1-2

A "Mariner" is one who makes his way by use of a compass. We all have a compass. We all have something which has the final authority on which way is north in our lives. John Wesley identified what he saw to be the 4 compasses used in Western Civilization-- tradition, experience, reason, and scripture. There is an unhealthy tendency to separate them and see them as incompatible and competing compasses. I would rather look at them more like one sees multiple navigation systems within the cockpit of a plane which work together to give direction. However, this picture isn't quite right. For if my understanding of navigation systems within planes is correct (I probably have no idea what I'm talking about) the different systems all function to communicate different types of information (speed, altitude, radar, etc.). While to a certain degree this is true of the 4 components of the Wesleyan quadrilateral there are unquestionably times when one or more of them appear to be communicating conflicting information. It is at those times when the components function more like members of a committee--and every committee needs a chairman. Wesley's vote was for Scripture, and while many have concluded that the 250 years since Wesley cast his vote has proven his candidate to be ill-equipped, I would argue that recent trends have only proven Wesley correct. Tradition is vital. It connects us with the past and helps prevent us from reinventing the wheel (which, by the way, is something that we non-denominationalists find ourselves doing time and time again). But tradition often, by its very nature, lacks the flexibility necessary for changing times. Experience is also a vital instrument of direction and is one that cannot be turned off. But it has the pesky problem of being inconsistent--one day saying that north is out your front window and the next day pointing toward your backyard. Reason has been the compass of choice since the enlightenment. And for the most part it has proven to be exceptionally reliable. But in recent times it has become increasingly apparent that what we call "reason" is not the fixed point we once thought it was. Rather it, like the other members of the committee, has proven to be just another opinion, biased by its own cultural agendas. So, left to fly through life with these three instruments of direction, we find ourselves in the Bermuda triangle of the postmodern era where up is down and north is south. It is in this context that we can begin to understand the necessity of re-electing Wesley's candidate chairman. If there is a God, and if he is to guide us, what the postmodern era is teaching us is that the only way we could ever possibly know about Him is if he came down and told us. When the phones aren't working, the internet is down, and the postal service has gone on strike, you have to walk over to your neighbors house to say hello. This is of course exactly what Christianity says God has done. Scripture is our authority because it is the camera (actually multiple cameras) that recorded God's unique visit. The higher criticism of the late 19th and 20th centuries has attempted to discredit the report. But once again the postmodern era is showing us that higher criticism reveals as much, if not more, about the cultural biases and presuppositions of modern reason than about the "historical Jesus."

This may seem like a rather odd introduction to a blog about the Sermon on the Mount. But nowhere in Scripture do we find a more succinct account of what Jesus came here to tell us. So turn off your phone (the reception is bad anyway), wait for the cable company to fix the internet, let the mailman go on strike, and by faith join the disciples on a Galilean mountainside to hear what God has to say.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Distinctiveness, Service, and Vodka

When you're at a Russian dinner party you've got to learn to sip your vodka slowly and drink lots of water. A certain American general didn't understand this, and had his wife not been on the trip with him, the other officers would have had to babysit him all night to make sure we was up and ready for a 7:30 appointment the next morning. Psalm 104:15 says that God makes wine "that gladdens the heart of man." There are very few things (if any) in this world that are intrinsically bad. Evil is a distortion of good. God has given us many wonderful things, notably sex, drugs, and alcohol. In their proper context (marriage, medicine, and moderation) they serve as reminders of God's wonderful provision. Otherwise they become the objects of the unhealthy desires that war against our souls and from which 1 Peter exhorts us to abstain. But to be "in the world but not of it" is not fundamentally about finding that middle path--though when we understand what Christian distinctiveness is really about we will naturally walk it. The Christian journey is quite simply to follow Jesus. And though as his disciples found, his parables are sometimes hard to understand, he declared his central mission with absolute clarity: "the son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mt. 20:28) Jesus came to serve. He came to serve not because serving others is the way to get them to serve you but regardless of whether or not they reciprocate. Jesus calls us to be the "slave of all." Slaves expect nothing in return. Plato says "how can anyone be happy as long as he is a slave?" Jesus asks how anyone can be happy unless he is the slave of everyone else. (cf. Mt. 20:27) Nowhere does being Christian go more against the grain of our culture--nowhere does Christian teaching more fundamentally challenge the principles on which this world operates than with this radical call to service. And it is in this light that we can properly understand where our American general stumbled. After 4 quick shots of Russian vodka the general had placed himself in the position to BE SERVED. (Fortunately for the other officers his wife was there to help!) Rather than putting himself in the position TO SERVE. In Ephesians 5:18 the writer tells us "Do not get drunk on wine which leads to debauchery." Why? because as he says in the verses immediately preceding we are to "make the most of every opportunity." The general missed his opportunity to build relationships and serve his Russian counterparts because of his irresponsible behavior. Yet to refuse vodka altogether would likely have been construed as a refusal of hospitality--also not exactly making the most of the opportunity. (American officers who adhere to strict abstinence are sometimes stationed somewhere other than Russia precisely for this reason.) Christian distinctiveness is to be characterized by our radical call to service--making the most of every opportunity to serve. So when at a Russian dinner party sip your vodka slowly and drink lots of water.