God’s Plan

“God has a plan for your life.”  Well, what does that mean?

A “plan” can a blueprint, worked out  down to the number of nails needed. Or “plan” can be more general. “I plan to go to the beach vacation this summer.” “I want my child to go to college.”  In what sense does God have a plan for our lives? How flexible is it? Does he micromanage or does God guide things toward his purpose responding to our choices?

I590_GPS_Screen_driving_on_road punch  my selected destination into my GPS device. It finds a preferred route. If I miss  suggested turn, it ‘”recalculates.” It seems to me that  omniscience implies, not that God knows every detail of what is going to happen, but God knows every possible combination of misturns we could make and can still get us  to the destination. We may not get there in as good a time. We may end up taking rough roads. Our choices do have consequences .  But God can make a way to  the abundant life God wants for us, and for which deep inside us we yearn .  Even if  to get there we sometimes may just have to turn around.

In C. S. Lewis’ Narnian Chronicles more than once a character asks Aslan what would have happened if they had followed his advise. Aslan always replies that it is not for us to know or waste life speculating what might have been, but to deal with the way things are. It does no good wondering what the trip would have been if you had not made the wrong turn.

God’s promise in Jeremiah 29, “I know my plans for you” is not the declaration of a blueprint or   finished script for our lives, but the promise of a broad intention to bless. A promise roomy enough for several versions to be possible. A promise that leaves room for our freedom, our collaboration.

We may go through valleys of shadow to get there, but the shepherd goes with us and can always lead us home to the bright table spread with overflowing cups. “And I will  dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

The Code of the Psalms

A Message in the Organization of the Oldest Hymnal  

Someone has said that the average churchgoer carries more theology around from the hymns they have sung than from all the sermons they have ever heard. I would not be surprised. Not only do the echoes of hymn melodies reinforce religious feelings, familiar phrases repeatedly sung slip into the vocabulary of faith. The hymnal is a faith resource.

If we study a hymnal we will find not only the content of individual hymns but their organization says something about our faith. No hymnal that I know of organizes its hymns alphabetically or chronologically. There is some theological motive at work.

hymnal-paperSome denominational hymnals begin with Advent hymns and proceed with others according to the church year. Others seem shaped by an order of doctrinal topics: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, church, etc. And so the1940 Broadman Hymnal began with Christ: (“All Hail the Power of Jesus Name”), while the Baptist hymnals ever since have started with the Trinity (“Holy, Holy, Holy”). You know you are looking at a Methodist hymnal if the first hymn is Wesley’s “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” One interdenominational hymnal begins with creation, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” while another emphasizes joy, “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” The Moravians’ decided to explain first why we are at church at all, “To Thy Temple I Repair.” What hymn would you use to introduce the others in your collection?

Chagall, " David"

Chagall, ” David”

Whatever other hymnal we use, Psalms is one hymnal we hold in common.  For centuries monastic communities have sung the hours with them in every service from waking up to late evening. A few Protestants will sing nothing else.  Isaac Watts broke new ground by versifying psalms, giving psalms “a beat.”  In recent decades many congregations have gone back to chanting the psalms, breathing them together, which is one way to slow the reading down and allow time to think about the words.  Previous generations committed them to memory and were able to call them up in their private prayers.  My grandparents were able at table or on a mountain walk, or in nighttime devotion, to quote from the psalms. Whatever other hymnal we use, the psalms deserve a special place.

So is there a theology in the organization of the Psalter as there is in our hymnals? I think it can be discerned in the choice of which psalm it put first and which last. And the results are worth mulling.

While our hymnals commonly begin with praise of God, the Psalter begins, interestingly, with its eyes on earth. It begins with the basic human question: “How can a person be happy? How can I have a life so good I could wish it would last forever?” “Blessed is the human who…” The topic is anthropocentric, not theocentric. You will not find happiness, the psalmist begins, with sinners. Refuse to be part of their action. Refuse to hang out with them. Refuse to join them in mocking folks who take God seriously. Instead, the psalmist continues, happiness starts with an individual’s often lonely decision to take God’s word seriously, allowing it to sink in slowly and deeply.roots-with-verse-psalm-1-3

Meditating on that word we become like a tree planted by a stream. We stay green regardless of the changing weather. Sinners have cut themselves off from this deep resource. They wither and are blown away when the winds are parching. They are forgotten. But God remembers the righteous.

So the Psalter begins and the psalms that follow cover everything that can be part of faithful living: pain, anger, historical memory, private grief, complaint, thanksgiving, individual confession and corporate confession, coronation songs, and dirges from exile. There is a psalm for every occasion that may befall the one who has decided to follow God. But see where the hymnal suggests that spiritual path ends.

Jan van Eyck, detail, angels singing

Jan van Eyck, detail, angels singing

The book that began with the individual ends with congregation. It begins with righteousness and ends in wonder. It moves from the profound silence of meditation to a loud, wild chorus of pipes, cymbals, and trumpets. From stillness to dance. What began with sober words ends is shouts. “Let everything that hath breath praise the LORD!”

I do not know which hymn you sing first. Take your pick. But the Psalter is right. A proper theology ends up with Hallelujahs. This is the deepest meaning of all hymns and the reason they are set to music. God is more than good and true. Religion is more than walking the straight and narrow and having correct ideas about God. It is about more than blameless deeds and right speech, because God is not only good and true. God is beautiful.

And the beauty of God calls forth something in addition to our mind and will. It demands the fullness of our humanity. Let the body join the will and mind using art and senses, using “everything that hath breath” for a might self-forgetful dance of ecstasy in God. If we are not captured by the beauty we have not seen the goodness or the truth.

Whatever word is first about faith, “Hallelujah” is the proper last word.

“Let everything that hath breath praise the LORD! Hallelujah!”


Job, Leviathan, and Hope


by Leon Bonnat

The bulk of the poem of Job is Job’s complaint to God for his unexplained suffering. Repeatedly Job badgers God to answer all his questions, to come out and face him “like a man.” He knows himself to be a just man, as does God. How can God justify such suffering?

deep space.muse.

Deep Space photographed by MUSE

God breaks the Divine  silence in Job 38-41 . But instead of submitting answers dictated by the terms of Job’s questions, God asks another set of questions.  God asks if  Job makes sense of  the fluctuations in weather  or of the majestic order glimpsed in the  the night sky.  Storms and stars are indications of a vast complexity that exceeds human comprehension or control.

God next turns Job’s attention  to a selection of wild creatures, article-1325518-0BDC3364000005DC-357_468x286none of which seem to serve any practical purpose. You get the impression that God does not feel that the universe has to rationalize its  existence to humans. God delights in the exotic,  in the absurd freedom and  beautiful independence of these wild creatures. Job is being gently nudged to the realization that he is not the center of the universe, that “it really is not all about you.”


“Behemoth and Leviathan” by William Blake

Then it’s “shark week.” God introduces Behemoth and Leviathan.  These monsters  cross over from natural creatures  under human management to mythological threats obviously beyond human dominion.  And perhaps “the Satan” of chapters 1-2 falls in this same sort of category.  Another “free range” threat, who nonchalantly shows up in heaven , ‘from going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it’ (1:7).  In the prologue  the prickly fault-finder assumes the most materialistic,  reductionistic explanations for virtue. “It is because being good is paying him proud dividends.  Let things go bad and he  will get out of religious stock quick as a Wall Street flash trader” God puts up with this speculative accusations, much as God gives range to Behemoth or Leviathan’s disdain of mortals.

But despite Satan’s insinuations, God trusts Job’s integrity is not commercially based; that his piety is not calculated out of pure selfish interest; that his virtue and faith are wild, independent,  beautiful expressions of the person Job wants to be.  And God allows the empty space, a wild deserted place absent of accustomed blessings, where Job can show to God –and himself–  his goodness is still his free choice in a world that has become tragic .

Freedom  is a key to Job.  Job’s freedom within a wild and free universe which is allowed to follow its own paths. However, Job reminds us  the Creator remains free too,  free to  ordained limits  for chaos.

job.pantodreator‘8 Or who shut in the sea with doors
    when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
    and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it,
    and set bars and doors,
11 and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?’

God limits the damage Satan can do to Job. First Satan is given the range of affecting all Job has, but not his person: 112 The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!’ When that doesn’t break him, God permits Satan to tamper with his health.  2.The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.’

Leviathan is often used in scripture as a metaphor for all that is threatening in the world that God made.  A world where accidents happen, diseases take people down, things fall apart,  injustice is allowed too much scope for too long, threats exist to life and limb, bravery faces real risks, weather catastrophes occur, and grief comes to all souls that ever deeply loved.  This world has ragged edges.

But chaos is not trumps.  Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”  In fact, even as perhaps Job suggests, God can use chaos to a higher purposes. The world can become tragic. We do not doubt it. But the gospel is “trans-tragic.”

job.When the Morning Stars Sang Together.Butts

“When the Morning Stars Sang Together.” by William Blake

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?…when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?’  

The final word, the bottom line about creation, was seen from the very beginning,  is  this shout of joy. When it is finished God can say, “It is good.”

In the terms of the limited philosophical and theological horizon possible for the poet of Job, this bottom line of joy is confined within the limits of a long and peaceful earthly life. “The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning .” (Job 42.12). His earthly  life went on, things were good again, despite his earlier troubles. There is life after death in this sense.

Some object to this “happy ending.” Even if new prosperity can make up for commercial losses, new children cannot take away the grief over his  dead children. How can this be “good”? And those objections are right, within that scale. But what if there is more? Jacob trembling to see Joseph again, whom he had long grieved as gone forever. The father running to embrace again his prodigal son,  “who was dead but is alive.” And maybe it is premature to say what reunions are impossible, when the cosmos is ripped open like a curtain to reveal the larger scale of the new heaven and new earth beyond.

Job hit upon a truth when he tells God, “God, you are  going to miss me when I am dead.”  “For now I shall lie in the earth;    you will seek me, but I shall not be.” Job 7.21

 Is Job picturing God coming into  the garden in the close of day  calling, “Adam, where art thou?”

Job comes back to this.             O that you would hide me in Sheol,
    that you would conceal me until your wrath is past,
    that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
14 If mortals die, will they live again?
    All the days of my service I would wait
    until my release should come.
15 You would call, and I would answer you;
    you would long for the work of your hand.” (Job 14:13-15)

This fresh green bud of a hope will blossom into full flower  in Christ’s resurrection “for us.” The amazing revelation that God would indeed miss us, “the work of his hand,” that he has spent so much time over. That God would come looking for us.


“Job Praying” by Marc Chagall

Job reminds God: Your hands fashioned and made me;
    and now you turn and destroy me.
Remember that you fashioned me like clay;
    and will you turn me to dust again? 

Job asks, “God, are you going to let all that work go to waste?” Not finally, the gospel assures us.  God who formed us indeed chooses  to have us forever. Beyond the  tragedy and  all the catastrophes of this world, God calls us to the Divine Eternal Love,  “Oh Love that will not let me go.”

Paul says, “I am sure that neither…

(here Paul lists  all the likely candidates to do us in, all the Leviathan-like threats, then calmly crosses them  off one by one. ‘Not death, not life, not…’)

.. that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:38.) Indeed “in the Christ Jesus,” who plumbed the depths and was raised again.

In Easter the door is opened that Job tiptoed around, but scarcely dared to enter — that the dead will live again, and the lost be found, the broken healed, and “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”


The Wise

A lovely poem by the wonderful scholar Richard Bauckham:

The Magi return to their own country by another way

They at least – the austere ones, the gurus with the abstracted eyes, on the one unrepeatable journey –

They at least – the heaven staring – the intent traversers of night,
on the journey into particularity –

They at least – the wonderers,
the significant faces
prone and denoted on the stable floor –

They at least for all their ancient wisdom did not betray him.


REMBRANDT Harmenszoon van Rijn-348335

Adoration of the Magi, Hendrick Jansz ter Brugghent,1619

Blessed to Bless

Sermon, Epiphany 5A February 6, 2011

Matthew 5:13-20

Okay, here is the pop quiz. Put your bibles under the pew and take out a pencil and any old side of the bulletin and write down as many of the eight beatitudes as you can. “Blessed are the ______, for _____.”  —Just a word for who is blessed and one for what the blessing is.

How many did you get? We’ll check them out in a minute. Today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount is about salt and light. Familiar stuff. But it is really connected to the beatitudes. You see, Jesus has all these recruits who are ready to enlist, and Jesus is giving basic training, orientation. Since I was sick and didn’t get to preach on them last week, let me at least get a running start into today’s text by reminding of a few things those beatitudes are about.

Jesus begins by saying “Congratulations! You are blessed today! You are already a winner.” How so? You are a blessed people.

What is a blessing?

The story of the man who bought a new Alfa Romeo, the luxury Italian sports car, and he wanted to do something to celebrate his purchase.So he went to the Catholic priest, and said, “Father, will you bless my Alfa Romeo?”
The priest said, “Yes, but what’s an Alfa Romeo?”
The young man said, “Never mind, you wouldn’t appreciate the significance of this purchase in my life.”
So he went to a Methodist minister, and said, “Reverend, I’ve just bought an Alfa Romeo. Will you bless it for me?”
He said, “Yes, but what’s an Alfa Romeo?”
He went to a Baptist preacher, and said, “I’ve just bought an Alfa Romeo. Will you bless it?”
The minister said, “Wow! An Alfa Romeo! What a great car. I’ve always wanted to ride in one. Will you give me a ride? And by the way…what’s a blessing?”

Well, what is a blessing? Blessed are you now…. Divine happiness is yours. you are where divine joy can smile on you and make your life full to the brim with heavenly completeness. Saying a blessing is bestowing God’s smile on someone.

The Aaronic blessing is parallel poetry.

The Lord bless you and keep you (safe).
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you (look at you) and give you peace
The Lord make his face to shine upon you (smile) and be gracious unto you.

That is what a blessing is: May the Lord look at you and smile and be generous toward you.

Who are the blessed? (And now you can check your bulletins or Bibles.)
The poor in spirit. Luke just says “poor” but both had this in mind. When you don’t have what you need spiritually or physically, you know you are going to be dependent on someone else. The poor man in the parable is named “Lazarus” short for “God is my help.” There is only one who I can look to to help me—-the Lord.

Matthew elsewhere remembers Jesus saying how hard it is for rich people to get to heaven. I think this is the reason. They have a harder time believing they need help. And a much harder time letting themselves get into situations where they have to depend on God or anyone else.

But blessed are the people who know they can’t make it without help. They are the candidates for membership in the Realm of God. The realm God controls.

Blessed are those who mourn. Those who are upset and heart torn about the way things are. So many things packed in here. Upset about their lives and the mess they have made of them. Grief stricken because things are going to hell in a hand basket. Torn up with all the people who are hurting or hungry. Or just miserable about being miserable.

..They shall be comforted. Let’s take that literally com-with, fort-strength. They will receive strength. Strength I suppose of 2 kinds. Strength to get through to endure. And strength to do something to fix the world or ourselves. The power to do something. That’s two.

Three. The meek are not the weak. Meek means humbly obedient. Power tamed to the Master’s voice. Those who are following the Lord’s command will inherit the earth. In Deuteronomy, Moses says, keep these commands that your years may be long in the land I am giving you.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be filled. The people who are itching to see justice done, people treated right, the earth cared for– inspite of the tension this passion creates– why it is a blessed discontent and God is going to fill their desire for righteousness to the brim.

Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy. To get mercy you must be prepared to live mercifully. I John 3.17: and whoever may have the goods of the world, and may view his brother having need, and may shut up his bowels from him — how doth the love of God remain in him? Can you really expect the love you receive from God to continue to abide in you if you shut it up in your heart and refuse to give to others?

Blessed are the peacemakers– children of God. Peacemakers are the opposite of troublemakers. They are finding ways to bring people together, to reconcile those that are estranged. Whether human to human or human to God. In Mark Jesus says have salt in you and be a peace with one another.

Blessed are you when you get into trouble for doing what is right, you are in a long line of God’s people. Same if we are abused, misunderstood and made to suffer for being a Christian.

Jesus was describing the community that comes into being when people sign on the follow his way and share his life. Salvation means I am going to try to follow Jesus. That’s it. I am not going to come after Jesus because I hear he is giving “Get out of Hell Free” passes. I am not going to follow Jesus because it is a shortcut to prosperity or popularity. I am going to follow Jesus because he is the way, the truth, the life.

As the old hymn says, “Give me Jesus, you can have all the rest. Give me Jesus.” I remember a chorus I used to sing as a teenager. “Jesus Christ is made to me all I need all I need. He alone is all my plea. He is all I need. Wisdom, righteousness, and power, holiness for ever more, my redemption full and sure. he is all I need.”

But to live with Jesus in this Kingdom is already to have the taste of heaven’s blessedness. All the way to heaven is heaven. heaven now already, when I am walking in the way.

But if these beatitudes penetrate our souls they will not only give us joy, they will make a blessing to others. We are blessed and because we share it we are conduits of the Lord’s blessings to the world.

You who are blessed, Jesus says, are salt and light.

These are things we have thought about before. Let’s just remind ourselves of some of what they suggest.

saltFirst, they are necessary. No life without salt. Life on this planet evolved in oceans and we carry the salty sea still in the blood coursing through our veins. Without light our kind of life would soon be extinct.

Second, you don’t need a lot of either. U.S. Department of Agriculture issued new nutrition guidelines this past week. Says you should limit intake to about a teaspoon, a day. A little goes a long way.

Same is true of light. Jesus isn’t talking about klieg lights– just a little lamp you could put on a stand. a candle. The other night I got to coughing and thought I would slip into the bathroom and get some cough medicine. Didn’t want to wake Diane so I didn’t turn on the light. And – you guessed it– I ran smack into the wall. Loud. Woke her up. Just a little night light would have done it.

The passage from Isaiah says, 58:6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 58:7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 58:8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Our light is the goodness of our lives. Our humble obedience, peacemaking, mercy showing, courageous fidelity, etc.

In John 1 we read “In (the Word) was life and the life was the light of humanity, and the light in the darkness did shine, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Later Jesus says “As long as I am in the world I am the light of the world.” As long as Jesus walked this earth, people came in touch with his acceptance, his call to righteousness, his mercy for sinners, his hospitality to the outcast. But now he says to those who follow him and are still living in this world that we are the light of the world.

lightOne of my father’s favorite hymns was “Let the lower Lights be burning.”

I have to confess I never cared for it much as a child, because I didn’t know what lower lights were, and the church usually sang it too slow. But then I learned the story behind the hymn. (Fred Kane 2/2011)

It was written by Philip Bliss over a century ago. He was an itinerant musician, which is what you usually are if you are a musician; you spend a lot of time looking for work. He traveled around, taught music and voice. He even sang. For awhile he was living in Chicago. He went to hear the great evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. In that sermon, Moody talked about a ship that was trying to find Cleveland harbor in the midst of a storm, in the darkness of night.

The captain could see the lighthouse. He drew near, shouted to the lighthouse keeper, “Is this Cleveland?”
The lighthouse keeper shouted back, “Quite true, sir.”
The captain asked, “Where are the lower lights?”
The lighthouse keeper said, “They have gone out. Can you make the harbor?”
The captain replied, “We must, or we will perish!”

With that he sailed his ship into the harbor, passed the lighthouse, missed the channel, and was dashed against the rocks. It was a terrible tragedy. Many people were killed.
Moody brought that story home with these words. He said, “Brothers and sisters, the Master will take care of the lighthouse. Let us keep the lower lights burning.”

Until I heard that story, I didn’t know what “lower lights” were. I thought it was a strange phrase, “Let the lower lights be burning.” But the lower lights are the lights away from the lighthouse that illumine the water line. They enable the ships to come into the harbor at night, through the narrow channel of the harbor’s mouth.Impressed by that, Bliss wrote his hymn.

(Fred Kane shared this story, 2/2011) Many years ago Marvella Bayh, the wife of Senator Birch Bayh, of Indiana was fighting cancer. She had lived with it for a long time. Then it came back. She gave an interview about that experience, and said two things. She said, first she remembered the scripture, “Where can I go but to the Lord.” Then she remembered the words in the child’s song, “Jesus Loves Me”, “I am weak, but he is strong.”

Then she said, “Another thing I have learned is that each and every person out there can make an overwhelming difference in the lives of other people.”

She remembered the many persons who had been concerned about her. But one, she remembered, shined brighter than all the rest. It happened seven years before. She was going through radiation treatments at George Washington hospital, in the nation’s capitol. She said that it was not the happiest time, and she felt listless and wondered if it was worth going on.

Then she said this. “Our car is easy to identify because of the Senate license plates on it. One day I came out of the hospital, and there was a note under the windshield wipers, scribbled in pencil on spiral notebook paper. It said, `Mrs. Bayh, I see your car parked here almost every day. Hang in there. Others are thinking of you.'” She said, “I brought that note home and put it next to my bed.”

She concluded by saying, “You don’t have to be the President of the United States. You don’t have to be a Senator, to make a difference in people’s lives. You can touch the lives of people all around you every day.”
You could just be one of those new little LED lights and still make a difference. “This little light of mine.. I’m going to let it shine.”


Jesus didn’t say “try to be light.” or “try to be salt.” He said you are salt and light already. Just let the goodness God is creating in you stand out. Don’t hold it back. Let the blessings go and bless someone else.

(Martin Shaw summed it up well in choral benediction the choir will sing.)

You are blessed. You are children of God now. And you are invited to share in the life of Christ.

Come, poor in spirit, come meek,
come hungry for justice,
come all who the world turns on,
Come the Lord feeds you now with the bread of heaven.
Come, know you are blessed that  you may depart to be blessing.  Amen

Anger, Lust, Speech

Matthew 5:21-37


We are in the Sermon on the Mount again this morning where Jesus is describing what becoming a disciple is all about. So far we’ve looked at the beatitudes. Jesus begins by pronouncing the happiness on those who are in deep need and those who are working to make the world better. The sermon begins with blessing, the word that God is turned toward you to smile upon your and give you grace.

Because of the transforming power of God’s blessings those who live into the blessing are blessings themselves. They are light and salt to the world. By the difference they bring enables others to see, and they preserve and bring out the true flavor of creation. They are not like the world and, compared to the rest of the world, they may be small, but God uses that to make a powerful difference.

Jesus then said that he did not come to cancel the law God had given through Moses, but Jesus says, “I have come to bring them to their true goal.”

Paul contrasts law and grace. He says we are not saved by keeping the law, as if we could add up enough tokens to pay our way to heaven. We are saved by God’s grace. That is we are saved because God wants to save us even before we are much worth anything.

But this distinction can be taken the wrong way, and it often is. Saved by grace doesn’t mean it matters nothing at all how I live. Our healing begins with God loving us enough to claim us, forgive and help us. It is completed when we respond by loving God enough to put aside all that is mean or low or selfish and seek to live a life pleasing to God. Really can’t separate accepting the love of God and seriously attempting to stay in the way of the Lord.

It is wrong to set up law as oppressive and repressive whereas grace is liberating and anything goes. Law and grace are like two sides of one coin.

The law is simply Gods’ way of caring enough about how our life goes that he gives us the instruction manual.

I suffer, as I know some other guys do– and yes more guys than gals suffer from this– I suffer from an instinct to see if I can put something new together without looking at the manual. I am getting better, after some time consuming mistakes. But in life a lot of folks just try to wing it and make it up as they go along. And that may work a lot of the time, but sometimes folks can get into big trouble.

Moses tells the people today I have put before you life and death. I have told you what expands life, what establishes life on surer footing, and what will undercut your future. Choose life.

That is grace.

The thing about it is sometimes we manage to misinterpret instructions. Especially if the gizmo was made in China and the person translating the instructions was not especially good at English.

Someone found this  upfront apology in such instructions : –

“Our arrangement in content to the user’s manual is overall and easily understood. We think it is reliable that it is correct that the information was offered in the manual and try hard to avoid the artificial fault, but the mistake that will unavoidably be found in printing, if causes some careless mistakes, please forgive more!”

Sometimes the instructions are right there in front of us,  but we don’t get what they are about.

Jesus in the reading today lifts the hood three on commands and explores their function. He gets to the heart of them. “Don’t kill” “Don’t commit adultery” and “Don’t bear false witness”

Each command starts with something that could be observed by folks around you. Murder, adultery, false oaths–do these things and they might be found out.

But Jesus traces each of them back to something that has gone amiss on the inside in a person’s heart. Lastly Jesus gives a strategy for transforming ourselves into people who keep the commandment from the heart.

Let’s look at them again.

  1. ANGER.

“You  have heard it said “do not murder” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

The way I understand it Jesus is saying that “ murder” comes from being put-out with someone. It is the overflow of a cycle of frustration with someone. So really keeping this command mean more than not pulling the trigger. You have to deal with anger impulses.

Getting angry is just a bodily reflex. Having that reflex is not the problem. Where you go from there is the issue. Jesus says if anyone caught up in ongoing anger (participle “angering”) is in the wrong place. Anyone who speaks with contempt to their brother or sister. Anyone who says “Racca”. If you tell someone to go shoot themself or get lost or stop breathing– that kind of verbal assault, that kind of attitude is faced toward the same thing a murder is about. That kind of speech and attitude has no place in someone who earnestly wants to do God’s will.

So Jesus takes a command and then traces the trajectory back to the kind of stuff in the heart that paves way for murder and command includes that heart stuff.

Jesus in fact gives no command not to be angry or not to call anyone a

  1. In the Greek of the New Testament, “Being Angry” in Matthew 5:22 is

not a command, but a participle, an ongoing action. It is a diagnosis of a

vicious cycle that we often get stuck in: being angry, insulting one another.

It is simply realistic: we do get angry, we do insult one another, and it does

lead to trouble. (Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 134.)

The third thing Jesus does is to offer what David Gushee calls a “transforming initiative” The disciple begins to practice a new response, a new reflex.

Jesus describes it this way. If you are in worship and suddenly start thinking about someone who is upset with you, leave your offering and go see if you can settle things so that person is not upset with you. You take the initiative to go to them. Do what you can to straighten out the mess between you and that brother and sister before you continue focusing on your relation to God. It is that important.

Do you see what Jesus has done? It isn’t anymore about you being upset about your neighbor –even if he is the one upset, you go try to work it out. Even if it is an enemy, someone who is suing you– do what you can to work it out.

From focusing on restraining myself from killing another person, now Jesus has me focusing on how I can create peace with those who are angry with me.

We’ve gone from talking about murder to talking about peacemaking.

it transforms the person who is angry into

an active peacemaker; it transforms the relationship from one of anger to a

peacemaking process; and it hopes to transform the enemy into a friend.

Furthermore, it participates in the way of grace that God took in Jesus

when there was enmity between God and humans: God came in Jesus to

make peace… It invites us to deliverance from the vicious cycle of anger

and insult. (Stassen & Gushee, p. 135).


Now the second command Jesus lifts up for reconsideration is “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Just as murder comes from anger, adultery comes from lust.

Lust, like anger, is a bodily response. Just as you are going to have anger, you are going to feel desire. The question is are you going to let anger take over and control you? Then you will probably kill someone or come close. If you let desire take control you probably will end up ignoring promises which make up lasting relationships.

There is one verse here that is notorious for causing trouble. “ Whoever looks on a woman with lust has committed adultery in his heart.” The KJV comes closer than some other modern translations to the literal Greek:

whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. Whoever looks at someone with the intent of lusting after her, imagining adultery with her– he has broken the commandment in his heart.

Just as Jesus does not say it is a sin to feel anger, Jesus is not saying it is a sin to notice someone is desirable. But just as it is a sin to choose to be angry it is a sin to choose to dwell on desiring someone without any regard for lawful relationship with them.

Craddock: “The point is, a woman is not a thing, a property to be coveted so as to possess, but a person to whom one relates with care and respect” (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

Jesus says that it is better to cut off a diseased limb than die of gangrene, so it would be better to pull out our eye than to let it lead us to hell.

Give up a part of us than to lose our whole life to something we would not control.

But there is another way.

That is why Jesus goes on to talk about marriage and divorce. The transforming initiative we need to take with our desires is to take marriage seriously.

The problem Jesus has with divorce is that especially in his day it was a way to indulge desires selfishly. I like someone else; I divorce you and go after them.

In Matthew 19 we have a teaching of Jesus that goes into this a little more, but the point here is that God’s intention is that our sexual drive is given free reign only within a relation in which we have promised ourselves to each other for keeps.

Sex has the potential of creating new life. And God intends for children to have a family that is dependable.

Marriage is not about me meeting my needs and when my needs are not met I am “out of here.” The proper way to go into marriage is thinking of each other’s needs and not just my own. Lust is the opposite of marriage because it is only focused on satisfying its own urges and has no lasting stake in the well-being of the other.

3.FALSE WITNESS. The commandment under this passage is “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Don’t lie. It was common in Jesus’ day for people to indicate how seriously they wanted you to take them by the importance of what they were willing to swear by. “I swear on my dirty socks.” Not too serious.

“I swear by my grandmother’s grave.” Pretty serious.

“I swear by my sacred honor.” Staking a lot.

Jesus says don’t play poker with the truth.

Keep your cards face up. Tell it straight, don’t exaggerate or conceal or mislead. Let it be plain simple truth.

That is the initiative. Stop and think before you talk, then just tell it straight and tell it plain.

This is not a license for meanness. Tell someone something awful and then say, “but I was just telling the truth!”

A patient has a sore throat and goes to a doctor to get treatment for it.

Doctor: Your tonsils gotta come out.

Patient: I wanna second opinion.

Doctor: Okay, you’re ugly, too.

Jesus is inviting his disciples to become a community where peacemaking finds new ways to deal with anger and tension, where desire blooms within committed relationship, where the oxygen of honesty builds trust and transparency.

Here is the thing. Jesus changes the issue from how can I keep from breaking the law to a focus on right relationships with others in community. Jesus moves in each case from a focus on how individuals keep from breaking the law to how individuals can honor others and build closer community.

Transforming ourselves and our relationships we become the instruments of transforming the world. We must be the change we would see in the world.

One generation to another….

In his work on the Homeric hero, classical scholar Seth Bernadette noted heroes are tagged sometimes by their family connection, and at other times by their individual action. In the first part of the Odyssey, we learn who Odysseus is through his adventures discovering other lands and peoples.   At one point, when Cyclops asks who he is, the wily hero says “no one.”  Perhaps this is not only a ploy to deceive the giant, but in an inadvertent admission that in a deep sense his own identity is still in flux.

When Odysseus arrives at last back home to resume his civic and family responsibilities, Homer begins to identify his hero by his patrimony. The last part of the poem is his effort to get his wife Penelope to acknowledge him as her husband and in the process to take up again his proper ancestral place within the community.

The Odyssey demonstrates the dual nature of identity, both an individual achievement and an place within a social scheme, both a creation and a given, a wild adventure and a coming home.

In our own odysseys we too explore the world and create identity by our unique exploits and actions. But our story is also completed and made possible by the story of which we are only a small part. In a sense,  like the hero, whatever our new adventure, we long to arrive again at home, assuming our part in the larger scheme of our work, our home, our community, the church. We are explorers of the new, but keepers of the old. Our identity is bifurcated.

Some think that it is no accident that Homer in conscious of this double identity. They position Homer within the what Karl Jasper called the “Axial Age.” Jasper proposed that epoch, between 800-200 BC, as a time civilizations had matured sufficiently to meet survival needs and so provided the leisure for humans to ask, “What makes my life meaningful, given my short span of years?” It was a period facilitated by  “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness”. Eric Voegelin called the era a “great leap in being” when individuals emerged from their social existence.

In this period people here and there pondered with growing intensity  the meaning of their individual life in view of their mortality. Does my existence draw its meaning in relation to society? To the ongoing of history? To eternity?

For Homer’s day, being remembered for your heroism or exploits in songs and poems– in short, fame– was the means for transcending mortality. It was how my life could have a meaning that defied my coming to an earthly end.  But such glory depended on someone remembering. And that depended upon a culture, or at least a family, that would do the remembering, whether for a few years or decades after I was gone.

It depends on something human continuing.

Now being a grandfather, I am even more conscious than when I was first a father, of some urgency to educate those who will survive me. The achievements of the human race are fragile. They survive only by being successfully passed on to another generation. 

That is a task for my age in life. 

I recall how my grandmother took me on “walks in the woods,” naming plants, discussing habitats, seasons, preservation and possible destruction of this other life. Granddaddy invited me to go with him to sell cornmeal to grocery stores and afterward stop at Snyder’s Drug store for ice cream, or go with him to the jokey lot, where I watched him wheel and deal a trade for a new old bike for me or one of my siblings. I was expected to go to school when the time came, and to go to church Sunday. Whether nature, economics, grammar, or religion, my family’s love for me included equipping me to understand and to act in this world into which I had come.And feeling their love, I did not rebel against their values.

We are not tabula rasa as Locke maintained. The board on which this education is written does accept some information readily, but is as unresponsive to other writing as a greasy paper to a ball pen. There is some hard-wired capacities that lean forward to accept certain sorts of information.

But if there were no effort to pass on what has been achieved by long struggle and patient accumulation of experience, that proclivity for learning would go unfulfilled. What it is to be human could be lost. Linear A is still indecipherable. Whole languages, processes, disciplines, and discoveries could evaporate. 

This is as true of science as it is of faith, of manners as it is of civics. We are apprenticed or we are feral brutes.

Christopher Hitchens sounds hysterical in his efforts to persuade others to his atheism. God is not Good, his book title screams for attention. He demonstrates that unfaith is something that people learn to practice and espouse as a tradition, just as people of faith are just as dedicated to continuing belief. If it were a matter only of cold detached proof, why all this emotion? But it is more. There is a technique for knowing that involves apprenticeship. We cannot know without learning to know. We learn how to believe, even to love, just as we learn to swim, both by native instinct, trial and error, and  coaching and encouragement by those who already are skilled.

 Vern Bengston writes in Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations that families which successfully pass their faith on are characterized by affectively warm, grace laden parenting. Authoritarian or non-committed parenting creates rebels. And, Bengston indicates, this is true regardless of the faith tradition of the parents.  “No God” is a faith too, and  is passed down or rebelled against for parallel reasons.

Our faith in God or our choice of faith in “no God” is affected by the culture we are in and the experiences of being raised by a particular family in a particular time. And as all knowing, or human skill, the apprenticeship is fostered by love.