Sunday, September 11, 2016

Phil Kniss: Two sides of one coin

Questions Jesus asked...
Matthew 5:46-47, 7:3-5

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So today, and next weekend at retreat, and the next Sunday,
    we are pondering the questions Jesus asked.

I think chances are good (at least if we’re paying attention)
    that we will react to these questions
        in much the same way
            that Jesus’ disciples and adversaries
            reacted to the questions when he first asked them.

Jesus was a master at asking questions.
    Most of the time,
        his questions were not meant to gather information.
        They were meant to provoke,
            in the good sense of the word.
        Yes, sometimes they got people mad,
            but provoking people to anger wasn’t the point.
        Jesus meant to provoke in the real sense of the word,
            he meant to “call forth,” to “elicit” something.

    Most of the people Jesus lived around and interacted with,
        were living a life based on mistaken assumptions.
    They were mistaken about who they were,
        who their allies and adversaries were,
        who God was.
        And most importantly,
            they were mistaken about Jesus,
            and the nature of his kingdom.

    So Jesus asked questions that got them to thinking.
    He didn’t often come right out and point fingers at their error.
        He asked them questions
            that helped them identify the error themselves.
        It didn’t always work,
            that is, they didn’t always immediately see their error.
        Sometimes, they dug in deeper.
            And they took offense.
            And in the end, Jesus paid for it with his life.

So we can’t go into this topic thinking we’re going to get off easy.
    That’s just not the nature of the questions Jesus asked.
    Yes, his questions were aimed at a particular audience
        in first-century Palestine.
    But I think we’ll discover they do just as good
        at confronting our reality today.

This morning we look at two clusters of questions
    in the Sermon on the Mount.
    One set of questions occurs in chapter 5 of Matthew,
        the other in chapter 7.
    They are different questions,
        but as I see it, they are speaking to the same dynamic.
    These questions reside on two different sides of the same coin.
    They confront our preferred way of relating to others.

Here are the questions on Side 1—
    Matthew 5:46-47.
        “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?
            Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
            And if you greet only your own people,
                what are you doing more than others?
                Do not even pagans do that?”

In four back-to-back questions,
    Jesus confronts one of our virtues head-on.
        The virtue of reciprocal affection.
    Maybe we don’t name it a virtue, exactly,
        but we live by this rule, and we call it a good way to live.
        We build relationships with those who are like us.
        We show love to those most capable of returning our love,
            and making it reciprocal.

    So Jesus asks his disciples to explain to him,
        how it is virtuous to love those most likely to love you back.
        He’s asking them to take one of their assumptions,
            and rethink it.

    He only asked the questions.
    He doesn’t even need to say out loud
        what he’s implying by the very questions.
    With his disciples at his feet, gathered on the mountain,
        Jesus gives them this message, without having to say the words,
        “You think you are doing a virtuous thing,
            showing kindness to your next-door neighbor—
                you know, the one who shares your culture,
                    your social status,
                    your religious doctrine,
                    even some of your bloodline.
            Well, if that’s virtue,
                then go congratulate every tax collector and pagan!
                Turns out they are just as virtuous as you are.”

    The answers to Jesus’ questions are obvious.
        Showing love to those who are sure to return it,
            is only default human nature.
            It’s not wrong!
            But neither is it virtuous.
            It’s what human beings naturally do.

These questions of Jesus reinforced some of the stories he told.
    Once Jesus was in conversation with an expert in religious law.
    Jesus said, “You’re exactly right when you said the heart of the law
        is to love God, and love your neighbor.
        So you want to know who your neighbor is?
            Let me tell you a story.”
    And he proceeded to tell about a despised Samaritan,
        who helped a man beat up by the side of a road,
        while respectable people passed him by.

    At the end of the short story, he asked a question.
        Not a single accusatory word.
        No confrontational tone.
        No statement or declaration.
        A question.
            Jesus let the leader come to his own conclusion.
        Jesus asked, “So who was the neighbor here?
            Who did you say you are supposed to love?”
        The leader could not bring himself to say “the Samaritan.”
        All he could say was, “the one who showed mercy.”
            That’s all he had to say.
            And it’s all Jesus had to say, except, “Go and live like that.”

There is in all of us a strong, natural, human desire
    to strengthen our identity and build our self-esteem,
    by forming around us all kinds of reciprocal relationships.
    Befriending those who will befriend us.
    Sharing things on social media that are mostly likely to be liked.
    Finding our neighborhood,
        selecting our friendship circle,
        and choosing our church,
            based on similarity, compatibility.
        That’s not wrong, per se.
        But neither is it virtuous.
        It is simply the normal way humans behave.
            We feel better about ourselves
                when we’re with people who affirm us.

    Jesus suggests we have a higher calling.
        Love those who won’t love you back.
        Give without recognition.
        Show compassion to those who don’t deserve it,
            and might even bite back.

    Not just because it’s a noble and counter-cultural and even exotic
        thing to do.
    And not because you will earn some righteousness points
        by being self-sacrificing and loving the hard-to-love.
    And certainly not on the off-chance
        that you’ll be made a saint someday
        if you take care of the poor and lepers in the slums of Calcutta.

    No, you love the practically unlovable,
        because God is probably wanting to get to you through them.
    You show mercy to the undeserving,
        because it’s what you do if you’re trying to find God.
        It may be the way God is trying to reach you.

    That’s the rationale behind the teaching we heard in James.
    James 2 tells us not to be partial in our public worship space.
        Not to give the well-dressed people more attention,
            and ignore the poor and smelly ones hoping they disappear.
            And the reason for this is not because we get points
                for being humble and self-sacrificing
                    and kind to the unfortunate.

    James asks the reader, in verse 5,
    “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters:
        Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world
            to be rich in faith and
            to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”
    We pay attention to the poor because we stand to benefit
        by staying close to those God is close to.
    Some of their rich faith,
        which God gives to the poor and lowly,
        might, if we’re lucky, rub off on us,
            if we spend more time with them.

    There’s a novel thought.
        It’s not do-gooders who inherit the kingdom.
        It’s we who genuinely love the poor,
            because we see how worthy they are of being loved.
            we see how much sense it makes to love them,
                if our motivation is to meet God.

    When we open our lives more fully, in love, to the other,
        we also open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, our gracious guest.

Let’s sing together, HWB #542


Then we flip over the coin to Side 2,
    and listen to the next set of questions Jesus asks.

From later in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:3-5
    “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye,
        but do not notice the log in your own eye?
        Or how can you say to your neighbor,
            ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’
                while the log is in your own eye?
        You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye,
            and then you will see clearly
            to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

This is the flip-side of trying to feel better about ourselves
    by building up our in-group identity,
    and surrounding ourselves with people like us.
The other side of the coin
    is that we also strengthen our identity
        by turning up the volume on judging others.
        by amplifying our condemnation—
            even toward neighbors and members of our faith family.

In our effort to justify ourselves,
    to help us feel good about our group identity,
        we draw those in who are like us,
        and we create distance from those who are not.
    We also do that in individual relationships.
        We move toward those who reinforce our own thinking,
            and we find fault with those who challenge us.
        The more we create distinctions between us, and them,
            and amplify those distinctions,
            the more likely we are to feel settled in our own thinking,
                and feel good about ourselves.

    Again, this is normal human nature.
    But it is not virtuous.

    Now, let’s be clear.
        Jesus does not suggest that we not be discerning.
        Jesus is not advocating lazy thinking,
            just saying everyone is equally right.
    In the very same sermon on the mount, Jesus calls for discernment.
        “Beware of false prophets,” Jesus says.
            “You will know them by their fruits.
                Grapes don’t grow on thorn bushes.
                And figs don’t grow on thistles.”
        “Beware of those who claim one thing,
            but produce a different kind of fruit.”

    But it’s one thing to perceive a difference,
        to take note of it,
        and to exercise reasonable caution in how we live
            in relation to that which seems false,
            and leave the consequences in God’s hands.

    It’s quite another thing to take God’s job,
        to be judge and jury and pronounce condemnation.
        Jesus does not ask us to cut ourselves off
            from those who offend us.
        Jesus does not ask us to make the decision,
            pronounce the sentence,
            and carry out the punishment.
        No, we are encouraged to be wise, and discerning.

    And in Jesus’ world, in the kingdom of God,
        discernment begins with what is stuck in my own eyes.
            I must first discern the logs in my own eyes
                before I get worked up
                about specks I see in the eyes of others.
            If we are going to be credible in our discernment of others,
                we must start with self-discernment.

So we will not turn away from our responsibility to discern, to inquire.
    But we will also persist in moving toward those who challenge us,
        we will refuse to engage in cut-off and condemnation.
    And we always start the discernment with ourselves.

We need this posture more than ever,
    as the presidential election draws closer
    and as pressures mount throughout the world,
    and throughout the church.

My prediction
    (which was a very easy prediction,
        I used up very few brain cells coming up with it)—
    my prediction is that things will not get more kind and civil,
        as Election Day draws closer.
    They will get worse.
    The battle lines will get sharper,
        people will go to even greater lengths
            to condemn their neighbor,
            and even in the church, to condemn their brother or sister.

That is why, and you’ll hear more about it,
    we are making plans to host an Election Day Communion service,
    just as we did four years ago at the last presidential election.
It will be even more important this year, I think,
    for us followers of Jesus to spend part of our Election Day—
        regardless of whether or not you voted, or who you voted for,
        to spend one portion of that day,
            gathered together as the body of Christ,
            celebrating what makes us one—
                the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

And when it comes to things that have amplified our divisions,
    and further separated us one from the other,
    we need look no further than the event of 15 years ago,
        that we are remembering today, the 9-11 attacks.
    And not just those attacks,
        but the ways we chose to respond to the attacks,
        that have made this world more polarized,
            more hate-filled and violent,
            and more dangerous to live in.

It seems to me,
    that all these points of separation and polarization
        and violence that we do to each other—
            from global terrorism,
            to political dogfights,
            to church wars,
            to interpersonal attacks—
        they all have different issues at stake,
            different motivations, different impacts, of course.
    But they are all tied together as well.
        Anxiety and fear spreads, from one arena to another.
        If we feel insecure in the world,
            we feel more unsafe at home.
        If we are angered by partisan politics,
            we are less likely to see the good in each other
            within our own Christian family of faith.
        We are the ones who need to hear, again,
            the words of James in chapter 4:
            “ Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another.”

I suspect that the first place to start,
    in resisting these multi-layered divisions,
    is to start in the arena closest to us.

This is one of the reasons I think it’s so important
    that at least once a year,
    the church family at Park View goes on retreat, together.

It’s an opportunity to practice the discipline of listening,
    of slowing down long enough to see and appreciate
        the humanity in each other,
    so we are not debating issues,
        we are struggling to know and love each other.

Our church retreat this coming weekend is a perfect opportunity,
    and I hope many of us use it,
    to engage in the practice of listening well,
        especially to those who we know only in part,
            or perhaps misunderstand.
    There is ample difference among us as a church family—
        enough to give us all a chance to exercise the muscles
            needed to resist human nature,
            and reach toward the other.

Those are the same muscles we’ll need
    to live civilly with our neighbor who supports the other candidate
    and to live as a peace-loving child of God
        in a world full of violence and hatred.

May God give us the courage to start the process,
    to start by loving, really loving, those closest to us.

—Phil Kniss, September 11, 2016

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