Saturday, July 15, 2017

First Cup: "Fighting Words"

“Fighting Words” or “Finders Losers; Losers Keepers”
Matthew 10:24-39

Recently in conversation with my friend, Bill Dobrenen, he asked me why I’d quit blogging. Well, I said, hadn’t really quit; I just sort of stopped. But the real reason is that I am basically a dialogical person. I love being with people and I love conversation—and, nearly completely, my blogs are answered by silence. I know that people are visiting this site—and another friend complained that the blog site rules made it difficult to respond—but I don’t know if what I offer has any value beyond the value that I receive from thinking things through in this manner. But he encouraged me; even sent me a response. So, once again, into the fray, hoping that the words I write are words that help someone on life’s journey.
The following is a modified for blog “sermon” I preached recently at Fremont United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon.

If you’re like me, you prefer spending your Bible study time with the happy news passages—the reassuring ones that tell me how much I’m loved, cared for, and known. Sometimes I think Thomas Jefferson had the right idea: Let’s just cut out the hard passages and the demands; you know, like the Matthew judgment passages; let’s just keep the parts that talk about when we do the good things, it’s as if we are doing them to Jesus and ignore those parts that talk about how uncompassionate behavior is mean spirited and in some important ways directed at Jesus. Sadly, but for the better, we don’t get to do that and must pay attention to the hard texts.

They are so demanding; they are so “in your face.” They make us uncomfortable because we see ourselves in them—well, I do. They make us think about how we live our lives, individually and collectively, in the light of Jesus’ call. As he so often does, these passages remind us that it’s not all about us. At the same time that they make us squirm and hunt for rationalizations, they invite us into an ancient conversation. What we call the early church had a problem—one we share with them. They may have felt it more particularly because it was so close to them—so on top of them, but it is still one we struggle with. I call it the Now what problem.

Jesus showed up; Jesus died, Jesus rose; Jesus left, sending something called the Holy Spirit to inspire his followers to figure it out—no blue print provided; it’s something more like a one of my mother’s recipes: a pinch of that and a bit of this. In important ways, Acts and the epistles are extended conversations about the how what; I think the history of the church is the history of people trying to figure this out. Matthew 10:24-39 provides words that challenge us on so many levels, it’s hard to find a starting point, but it is essential to that quest. Since those days, the followers of Jesus, aka the church, has turned to these hard passages asking now what? How does a group of Jesus followers live in a confusing world that provides so many conflicting answers?

There is a context that must be considered before going further. The context always matters and, I think, the context that needs to be considered is the largest one. The central figure of the Bible is God; God self-defines as love; God desires to be in relationship with us. God is love and we are loved, and we are to be like God as lived by Jesus in plain view. We, too, need to be with others, which is especially true with faith because there is no private faith. It is personal, yes, but also communal. So, we are not alone; we live in a world as Jesus followers and with others—others who think as we do, live as we do, believe as we do—and who mostly don’t.

The Bible is full of the loving words we love to hear and read and talk about; the Bible is full of the hard words and challenges that we’d just as soon ignore. Matthew 10:24-39 is one of those hard texts. I’ve given this blog entry the title “Fighting Words” or “Finders Losers; Losers Keepers.” I don’t think Jesus was always fun to spend time with. He was a revolutionary. He drew lines in the sand.

Sometimes it feels as if we are standing with Colonel Travis at the Alamo: “I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line.” You are with me or not. No one lukewarm welcomed here. This good news doesn’t feel much like good news, does it? Even though Jesus could be amazingly tender—and thank God for those tender words—these difficult words fall from those same lips. It’s hard to make them palatable, isn’t it?

My growing up years were spent in a holiness congregation that defined Christian more by what we didn’t do than by what we did or who we were. There was a long list of don’ts. This made things pretty easy; to be a Christian, toe this line. The whole-hearted life commitment that Jesus calls us to is so much harder because it has more to do with who you belong to and how you live as a believer in a difficult world. It feels more like living in the gray interstices and palimpsests than in the bright glare of unequivocal day. Yet Jesus does draw a line in the sand here. Jesus does say you are with me or not. Jesus does say to pick up his cross and follow. Jesus does say, if you are my disciple you should expect what I received—and perhaps more. He even says that if you care more for family than you do for me, you are not worthy of me. Finders losers; losers keepers. Whew! This is hard stuff; hard to read; harder to practice; harder to write about.

Where is the positive in all of this? Well, I hope I can find some this is going to be one big downer of a blog. I think Jesus is simply recognizing that—no matter what—we are going to serve somebody—it’s our DNA—even Bob Dylan says we can’t escape it. We don’t get to say no; we are going to serve somebody even if it is ourselves—and we all know how well that works out, right? Where is the hope in this?

In two places; first, right in the middle of all this hard stuff Jesus says, in The Message paraphrase:

What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right?
And God cares what happens to it even more than you do.
He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail—
even numbering the hairs on your head!
So, don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk.
You’re worth more than a million canaries.

So, first, we are known and we are loved—we are counted and named and have more value than canaries. God is love and we are God’s. The hard stuff must be heard in this context—or all is lost.

Second, we are not alone because we are with others who are also trying to figure it out. That’s one of my definitions for the church: a bunch of Jesus followers, sitting at his table, trying to figure it out.

Some have correctly suggested that this passage is part of the commissioning and discipling of his disciples and that he is urging them to boldly proclaim a new way of living based on peace and love. Verses 37-39 sound challenging but are really saying “Love your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.” But this doesn’t really let us off; the Great Commandment is pretty challenging as well. Furthermore, we cannot escape into the that was then, this is now argument. The Bible is the church’s book and its authority and relevance still informs all that we are, think, and do. So, while these teachings of Jesus are addressed immediately to his disciples, we, too, are disciples of Jesus and so he says it also to us.

Shane Claiborne, in a recent tweet, said this: “This is the church: a bunch of imperfect people falling in love with a perfect God…and trying to become more like the God we love, every day.” So, where do we end up with this? We choose. Life is all about choice, isn’t it? It is what we do–we choose. We choose to follow Jesus, and we choose to embrace the consequences of that choice. In some respects, we choose every day; perhaps, every moment. We do not choose by ourselves, hiding in a closet, if we know what’s good for us. In the open light of day, we choose with others who are also choosing to live this way. And we ask, what now? So what? How, then, shall I live? Who we choose to serve and how we live out that choice, empowered and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, in the company of others who share (and some who don’t share) the same choice we make—herein is the answer. As Christians, as Jesus followers, we choose Jesus in all his revolutionary, line in the sand, stance, we watch him and listen to him and to others who also choose him; then we stand before him and invite his Spirit to open us up and travel with us on the journey of living into this choice.  

Many years ago, Helmut Thielicke, in response to a question about how Christians are to answer questions when the Bible is ambiguous. What do you do when the Bible does not give us a clear “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not”? His response never left me and has been one of the formative guides on my own journey. He said, “You stand before the question.” I take that to mean that you do not jump to conclusions; you do not immediately build a fort (or draw a line in the sand) to defend your conclusion. I take it as another way of saying what Rilke said to a young poet even longer ago: “You learn to love the questions and live into the answer.”

The older I get the more questions I have than answers; I always thought it would be the other way around. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard for a teacher who necessarily spends more time with students’ questions than most. Maybe it’s just a curse or even borne out of fear of answers and what they might mean for my life. Yet, I have found that while The Answer List has gotten shorter, it has gotten more certain and more determinative. At the heart of that certainty is this ever-deepening conviction that Jesus lives with me as I stand before the questions of my life, that I trust his presence in my life, and have faith that daily I move forward with greater hope and charity.

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