Prayer for Truth that Set Us Free

O Gracious God, you have taught us that if we know the truth it will set us free. But sometimes we can’t handle the truth. We don’t like what we see in the mirror sometimes if we’re really honest with ourselves and with you. Our history as a nation and as individuals is not perfect by any measure. We have not always loved you with all our hearts. We have not always acted in loving ways toward our neighbors. We don’t even love ourselves some times.

Like St. Paul the very things we know we ought to do are not the things we do, and so we need to humbly throw ourselves on your mercy and beg forgiveness.

It’s not easy to know what the truth is, Lord. It can be so subjective and so bent out of shape by personal biases—and we all have them. And that makes it hard to trust and communicate. It makes productive dialogue difficult when we argue to win or to defend ourselves instead of seeking truth together.

Even the Good News of Christ gets distorted when we are afraid there isn’t enough for everyone – when we try to keep your grace only for ourselves and those we think are worthy. Truth is we fear judgment from you and others; so we try to make ourselves look better than we are. We think we have to earn your Grace, Lord; and that pseudo-good news won’t set anyone free.

Help us never to forget, O God of all creation, that the Good News of Christ is meant to set us all free—no matter who we are or what we’ve done. You sent Christ to show us that you are a God who says that if we dare to confess our sins you are “faithful and just and will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” You teach us that even if our “sins are like scarlet they will be as white as snow.”

Help us now O God to accept the truth of salvation through repentance so we are set free from sin and guilt – set free to share the good news of your eternal love with the world. May it be so.

[Scripture references: John 8:32,I John 1:9, Isaiah 1:18]

Intimacy and the Meaningful Life, Genesis 3:1-8

One childhood game that seems to have survived from one generation to the next, even in this age of multiple electronic devices, is hide and seek. All of my grandchildren have enjoyed that game at some point in their childhood, including one who cracked me up by hiding her little brother in the clothes hamper and then proudly announcing to us that she put Ryan in the hamster! The game is fun – but only up to a point. The late great preacher Fred Craddock told a story about a great hiding place he found at his grandparents’ farm. He hid under the front porch of the old farm house and proudly told himself “They’ll never find me here.” Minutes went by, which began to seem like hours. The seeker ran by the front porch several times without ever looking under it, and Craddock says he suddenly found himself saying, “They’ll never find me here!!!”

The solution to that problem is figured out even by young children who start making subtle or not so subtle noises to reveal their presence. As adults however it is often much harder to be “found” when we are hiding from each other and even from ourselves. Why do we do that? To be able to live out the other qualities of a meaningful life we need the confidence that comes from being fully known and affirmed by one or more other people and ultimately by God. That’s intimacy.

Intimacy is a tricky word in our culture. It is laden with overtones of sexuality. We talk about undergarments as “intimate apparel.” Being intimate with another person is often code for having sex. For that reason I struggled with whether should use the Genesis 3 account of the fall for this sermon. We know the story: Adam and Eve disobey God and eat of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And suddenly they realize they are naked and make loin cloths for themselves. Next they hear God walking in the garden and they try to hide themselves.

This story is a way to explain why human life is full of sin and difficulties, but the reference to nakedness has confused people for centuries about “original sin. I want to suggest this story is really about a loss of intimacy. In order to understand that I invite you to make a mental leap to a deeper understanding of nakedness beyond the literal meaning. On an emotional and spiritual level nakedness is about being vulnerable and defenseless. It’s about being uncovered and unhidden in the eyes of God. Adam and Eve were playing hide and seek with God and of course they were quickly found. When it comes to God that old adage is especially true – “you can run, but you can’t hide.”

Adam and Eve are afraid and try to hide from God, but not because they have no clothes. We know that because they have already made their figgy loin cloths before this encounter with God. Their nakedness is of a much more serious variety. They are ashamed and afraid because they are naked and defenseless before God in their disobedience to a direct order. They now know the prime evil, which is not about sex, but is alienation from their creator. They are afraid and ashamed. And so they try to hide from God, which of course is foolish. We live in a cyber society where our location is tracked 24/7 by GPS and countless apps in our phones that are smarter than we are. We leave a trail of where we’ve been and what we value every time we use a credit card. But from day one there has been an even more powerful force in our lives that knows where we are and what we do all the time. It’s not GPS but G-O-D. We cannot hide our mistakes from God. Just ask Ryan Lochte how well trying to cover up a stupid mistake with a lie can turn into an international incident! We all make mistakes because we are all fallible. And yet how much time and valuable energy do we spend trying to hide who we are from God, others and even from ourselves?

My friend Mebane McMahon recommended an excellent book on intimacy to me and I highly pass that recommendation on to you. The book is “The 7 levels of Intimacy” by Matthew Kelly. Relax, I am not going to try to cover all 7 levels of intimacy today and can only begin to scratch the surface. But the fact that Kelly identifies 7 levels and has written a whole book on the topic is an indication of what a complex subject intimacy is.

We like to simplify complex topics, which is one of the reasons that it is tempting to just equate intimacy with sexuality. But being in a relationship, even a sexual one, does not guarantee the safety and security we feel in a truly intimate relationship where we feel loved and affirmed unconditionally. We can all be lonely in a huge crowd or sitting in a church service if we are hiding from God and others.

When I was much younger and even more naïve than I am now I had no idea of the difference between sex and real intimacy. I still believed the fairy tale notion of finding one true love that would meet the need I couldn’t even yet identify as intimacy. When I fell in love in college with the woman who became my first wife there was a popular song, “The Theme from a Summer Place,” that seemed to capture what we were expecting and hoping to find in our relationship. The song lyrics say this about that summer place:

“There are no gloomy skies
When seen through the eyes
Of those who are blessed with love
And the sweet secret of
A summer place

Is that it’s anywhere
When two people share
All their hopes
All their dreams
All their love.”

Isn’t that what we all hope from in our most significant relationships – whether they are sexual or not? Someone with whom we can share ALL of our hopes and dreams and love. And yet how often are we disappointed because most relationships don’t live up to that ideal? Ironically, when I recently googled the movie for which that song was written, I discovered that it is all about broken relationships and extramarital affairs, things that happen when we start looking for love in all the wrong places.

Intimacy, like all the marks of a meaningful life, requires work and a lot of it. That’s because love is not a feeling, it’s a choice. We can learn to control how we deal with feelings and impulses, but we can’t determine when they appear, often in unexpected and uncomfortable situations. Intimacy with others and with God requires conscious choices and actions. Like Michael Phelps or Simone Biles have to work hard and dedicate themselves for years to their goals for Olympic gold, intimacy is a quality of life that requires discipline and determination. Too many relationships fall short of gold medal status because we lack the discipline to work on the relationship when it gets difficult and uncomfortable.

The same is true of having an intimate relationship with God. Jesus’ followers are called disciples and that word comes from the same root as the word discipline. All disciples of Christ in 30 A.D. or 2016 must make a choice to follow Jesus each and every day. It’s not a one and done deal. The forces of worldly temptations for material rewards or cheap pleasures all pull us every day toward the wide and easy road that leads to destruction.
I decided to use the Genesis 3 story to talk about intimacy primarily because Kelly points out in “The 7 Levels of Intimacy” that shame is one of the greatest enemies of intimacy that must be overcome. Chapter 3 of Genesis, commonly called “The Fall,” describes what happens when Adam and Eve disobey God and get caught. Unlike a game of hide and seek, the stakes here are existentially higher. Eve and Adam make the classic mistake we often resort to when we screw up; they play the blame game. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Instead of simply confessing their transgressions and asking for forgiveness, they continue to try and hide, and the consequences are severe. Because of their disobedience they are evicted from paradise – where everything they needed was provided in abundance. Instead they are forced to grow their own food and survive by the sweat of their brow. The pain of childbirth is greatly increased for womankind forever and she is made subservient to the rule of her husband. And finally they are made aware of their own mortality. Ouch!

Pretty gruesome stuff if the story ended there, right? Unfortunately many of us get stuck in our spiritual development with that image of a judgmental God, and when we do we cannot ever achieve true intimacy with God because we are afraid of the consequences if we have to come before God naked and defenseless. Worse yet, the shame and guilt we all carry in some degree also gets in the way big time when it comes to human relationships. If we are using up a lot of psychic and emotional energy playing hide and seek from God, we simply to do not have enough gas left in our tanks to create and maintain an intimate relationship with other people, no matter how much we love them or they love us.

But here’s the Good News – the Judeo-Christian salvation story doesn’t end with Genesis 3. The rest of our Scriptures tell a glorious story of redemption. Like a parent ticked off with disobedient children, God puts Adam and Eve in time-out. He stations Cherubim to guard the gates of paradise so the naughty children can’t sneak back in. But like disappointed parents or partners or true friends, God can’t and doesn’t give up on the wayward ones. Genesis doesn’t say this, but I’ll bet this is the first time it was ever said, “This hurts me more than it does you.” And so the other 1986 chapters of the Bible tell the story of God’s persistent, faithful efforts to redeem and restore an intimate relationship with humankind. Why1986 chapters? Because we are slow learners. We keep trying to play hide and seek to cover our nakedness while God bails us out of one mess after another.

Intimacy is the key that unlocks the gate to paradise and salvation. Intimacy with God is the truth that sets us free to be open and vulnerable and honest with ourselves, with others and with God. This truth is described repeatedly in different ways in the Bible, but it boils down to the same basic ingredients – trust, honesty, confession, and forgiveness and grace.

Ephesians 4 puts it this way: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Intimate relationships are those where we trust each other enough to speak the truth in love. That’s different than brutal honesty that flows when we allow our emotions to rule our tongues. It’s different than “telling it like it is,” without regard for the other person’s feelings or perspective. Balancing honesty with the sensitivity and compassion of love is sorely lacking in many social media postings and much of our political discourse, but it is absolutely necessary for the most important relationships we have with loved ones and with God.

That kind of openness and honesty is not a New Testament creation – even in the Hebrew Scriptures where God is often portrayed as a judge to be feared there are glimpses of grace. The prophet Isaiah in the very first chapter has God speaking to his rebellious children and says, “Come now, let us argue it out, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” In other words, don’t play hide and seek – come to me, no matter what your sins and they can be forgiven. My favorite New Testament verse about the power of confession is in I John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” No sin is bigger or wider than God’s mercy; so what are we hiding from?

I wonder how different Adam and Eve’s story would have turned out if they had known that simple truth about intimacy. We’ll never know – but what we do know is the sacred truth that sets us free to live meaningful lives. That doesn’t’ mean it is simple or easy to live it. The world still is playing one giant game of hide and seek based on deceit, manipulation and false pride. But God will provide us with the faith and courage and discipline to play a different game–to stop hiding and trust God enough to confess each time we fall short of the gold medal. God will pick us up and dust us off to try again, but we have to be brave and honest enough to ask for help.

So my friends, church is not a place to play hide and seek. It’s safe to be real here without fear of judgment. So blow your friends minds – tell them next Sunday you’re going to church to be intimate with a few hundred of your friends!

Freeway Theology

IMG_0048 (2) I saw this graffiti spray-painted on a freeway overpass several years ago, and my immediate thought was “I guess forever was longer than John expected!” After wondering how and why people hang over the side of an overpass and paint upside down, my next thought was “that’ll preach.” I’ve used it often in preaching class as an example of the kinds of ordinary observations in daily life that can have theological significance.

Jesus did that, of course, using mustard seeds, lost sheep and coins, yeast, candles, a valuable pearl, and even a hated Samaritan to weave parables that reveal truth about the nature of God that declarative sentences can’t illuminate in the same holistic way. Stories and images reach beyond the intellect and move us at a deeper emotional level.

John obviously fell out of love with whoever’s name was beneath that paint. It happens all the time in human relationships, but we cannot convert that unfortunate reality that sometimes leaves deep scars on the human psyche into what God’s relationship to us looks like. How unfortunate if we let false teachings about a wrathful, judgmental God scare us away from the only source of truly unconditional love there is.

We often hear Paul’s marvelous words about love read at weddings: 4 “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.” (I Corinthians 13). I try to warn starry-eyed couples that those words do not describe human love, no matter how strong that love is. Paul is writing about God’s love revealed to us in Christ, and it is the backup we can always turn to when we want to remove the tattoo of our beloved from our arm or spray paint over his or her name on the overpass.

God’s love is forever. It’s not a 5 year or 50000 or mile guarantee. It’s not even “till death do us part,” as great as that deep love is. There is no fine print in God’s covenant with us. We can break the contract or think we have by our own sinfulness or stupidity, but God won’t ever stop loving us, period. Like the prodigal son’s father, God waits patiently for us to come home, no matter how badly we’ve messed up our lives or how long we’ve been gone.

That message is repeated in a multitude of ways in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Two of my favorites are: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18). And “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:8-9)

That’s pretty straight forward and clear. Don’t let disappointments with human love confuse you about God’s love. With God, forever really means forever.

What Are We Full Of?, Jonah 3:1-5, 10

This sermon was written for a Sunday emphasis on what it means to live a missional lifestyle, and our case study from Scripture is one of those negative examples of how not to do that. I asked my son once how it was that he is a better golfer, skier and basketball player than I am when I introduced him to all those sports. He smiled and replied, “Oh, I just watched you, Dad, and saw how not to do it.” I think he learned a lot of life lessons that way from me. And we can all benefit in the same way from the story of Jonah.

Before we get to Jonah, I want to tell you about a pastor who decided one day it would be good for his parishioners and his son to take the 5 year-old with him to visit a local retirement community. The little fellow was fascinated by all the new things he saw – walkers and canes and especially the power wheel chair when one of the residents took him for a ride down the hall. But he was most interested when he went into one room with his dad. Pointing in amazement at a set of dentures in a glass on the bedside table he said, “Dad, the tooth fairy is never gonna believe that!” Some things are hard to believe – and the story of Jonah is one such tale.

Ask most people what they know about Jonah, and you will get “Jonah and the whale” as their response. It’s a familiar story kids learn about in Sunday school, but it is much more than a big fish story (which is what the Hebrew says, not a “whale” per se) if we ask some basic questions, like what was Jonah doing in the water and why was he swallowed by the big fish? And please don’t get hung up on the feasibility of a grown man being swallowed by a fish. This is about theology, not biology.

Jonah is a very short story, only 3 pages, and it makes more sense if read in its entirety. So here’s the abridged version of the whole story to put it in context:
1. God calls Jonah and tells him to go on a mission to Nineveh.
2. Jonah doesn’t want to go and jumps on a ship headed for Tarshish (in the exact opposite direction) instead.
3. God is not pleased and causes a storm at sea, and when the sailors learn that Jonah is the reason for God’s displeasure, they throw Jonah overboard to save themselves.
4. God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Not to punish him, by the way, but to save him and give him time to reconsider God’s offer.)
5. After 3 days God has the fish spit Jonah out; and Jonah decides this time he’d better listen to God, heads for Nineveh and delivers God’s message that they should repent or else bad things are going to happen.
6. The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning, repent of their sins, are forgiven and saved from God’s judgment on them. You’d think any preacher would be thrilled if thousands of people changed their lives based on one short sermon, right? Not Jonah.
7. Jonah pouts because he really wanted God to destroy the Ninevites, not save them.

So there’s a lot more going on here than Jonah and the fish. It’s a story about a refusal to say yes when God’s mission is very clear. The message from God to Jonah couldn’t be more straightforward and direct: The 2nd verse of chapter 1 says, “Go at once to Nineveh,” and those orders are repeated verbatim in our lesson for today. There is no failure to communicate here – just reluctance to obey. Frederick Buechner says, “Lying to God is like sawing the branch you’re sitting on. The better you do it, the harder you fall.” Saying “no” to God is pretty much the same thing; so why would Jonah even try? And why do we?

We all have different reasons and excuses for failing to live missional lives. To consider Jonah’s rationale for disobeying God requires a little history lesson. Nineveh was the capital of Babylon, a hated enemy of the Hebrew people that had overthrown Israel years before and carried many of their people off to Exile. So what Jonah was being asked to do was take a warning to the people of Nineveh so they could be forgiven and spared from God’s wrath. It may help us to identify with Jonah to know that Nineveh sat about where the modern city of Baghdad is today.

Put yourself in Jonah’s place. Fill in your own favorite enemies: Democrats, Tea Partiers, Islamic extremists, the religious right or left, your bitter athletic rivals, unethical business competitors, lawyers, former spouses – whoever it is that you would like to be the very last people God would forgive. That’s exactly who Jonah is being asked to save and why he dares to defy a direct order from God.

I have been blessed by hearing good preaching this month. Pastor Tom Slack started the New Year off right for me with a sermon on the prologue to John’s Gospel. What struck me that day was the verse that says “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” And just 2 verses later, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” I’ve been journaling and praying ever since about what it looks like for us, for me, to be full of grace and truth. Our other fine preacher, Mebane McMahon, added to the dialogue with her sermon the next week on the baptism of Christ and how we are all beloved children of God. She added another piece to the puzzle the next week’s sermon on the story of Eli and Samuel and how being beloved children means listening when God speaks.

In Jonah we have someone who doesn’t just fail to listen to God, he rebels and does the exact opposite of what God tells him to do. Why do we do that? It never turns out well. Reflecting on those January sermons my take on why Jonah and I and many of you fail to live a missional lifestyle is because of what we’re full of – or NOT full of. The Scriptures don’t tell us for sure why Jonah ran away. Chapter 1 says he tried to flee from the presence of the Lord. He needed to read Psalm 139 which asks the very question, “Where can I flee from God’s presence?” The answer is nowhere, because there is nowhere in all creation that God isn’t.

We aren’t told but we can imagine why Jonah does what he does. Maybe fear – he was being asked to go into enemy territory. Are there places or people God is asking us to be in mission that we are uncomfortable with or afraid to go? Maybe Anger – Jonah admits in the end of the story that he’s mad at God for forgiving his enemies. He says, “I knew you were a God of mercy who would repent and forgive these slime balls. They don’t deserve it.” (That’s a loose translation, by the way.) Are there people we don’t think deserve God’s grace and mercy? Do we hoard the good news of the Gospel – thinking if we share it there might not be enough for us?

It seems pretty clear to me that Jonah is full of anger or fear or vengeance or judgment, or some combination of those poisons. And that’s why he can’t obey God’s call. When we are full or even partially full of guilt, jealousy, doubt, insecurity, bitterness, pain, there’s no room for us to be full of grace and truth. Those negative feelings are like an anchor that keeps us stuck where we are and unable to go where God wants to send us.

It’s like this story about a blacksmith with a seemingly insurmountable problem. He just didn’t fit the macho stereotype of a blacksmith. He was strong and very good at his craft, but he was very, very short of stature. As a result, he was very unsuccessful in the dating game and was quite lonely. Until one day a beautiful young woman appeared in his blacksmith shop with a horse who had thrown a shoe. It was love at first sight for the smithy, and he could tell the feelings were mutual. So he took all the time he could and did the finest job he had ever done on shoeing a horse. As it was drawing time for his new love to leave, he desperately wanted to kiss her and could tell she would welcome that. But there was a big problem. She was a full head taller than he.

Just as he was about to give up yet again on romance, the blacksmith had a brilliant idea. He led the young woman by the hand to the corner of his shop and jumped up on the anvil where he had just hammered her horse’s shoe into perfect shape. Standing on the anvil, he was able to look into her beautiful brown eyes and kiss her.

The two of them fell madly in love and were inseparable for weeks and then months. Everyone in the village assumed they would soon announce their engagement to be married, and the young woman was waiting expectantly for her little beau to pop the big question. Instead, without warning, he announced to her one fine spring afternoon that he was going to have to end their courtship. She was devastated and confused. She asked him why? Didn’t he love her? Was it something she had done or said, or not done or not said? To each question he just shook his head until she was begging him to explain his sudden change of heart. Finally he said, “My dear, I do love you very much, but you see, dragging that darn anvil around everywhere we go is killing me!”

Like that anvil worry, fear, guilt, anger – whatever you are full of is an unnecessary burden that no longer needs to drag you down. And we don’t have to break up with God. Just get rid of the burden. We can give those things to God. That’s the truth that sets us free to say yes to God’s mission and purpose for our lives! No matter what our excuses have been none of us are beyond God’s redeeming love. If God can forgive the enemies of his chosen people who destroyed Jerusalem and carried God’s people off into Exile, then God can certainly forgive our reluctance to share our faith with the least and lost. And your Nineveh may not be as far away as you think. The person sitting next to you may need your support. Your mission may to someone in your own family or neighborhood or it may be somewhere further away.

Be open to surprises about where God leads you to discover your mission. In 1997 Bill Gates thought he was on a mission to bring computers to people in developing countries until he visited Africa and saw firsthand the abject poverty and the ravages of malaria and tuberculosis. He realized there were far more critical needs there than internet connectivity. He found a new mission and he and his wife Melinda started their foundation which has for 17 years donated millions of dollars to build hospitals and schools for impoverished people all over the world.

When wrestling with a call to a new mission, remember that it’s natural to feel nervous and fearful whenever we try something new and different. They call it moving out of your comfort zone – because it is! Susan Jeffers has written a very helpful book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. That’s easier said than done, but very good advice. I saw some good advice on Facebook recently about working out early in the morning before your brain realizes what you’re doing. In a similar vein, I’ve also found that it helps me when tackling a new challenge to do it quickly before I have time to realize I’m afraid.

So what does Jonah do after his mission in Nineveh is over? We don’t know. At the end of the story he’s pouting, caring more about a dead gourd plant that had been shading him from the sun than 120,000 people in Nineveh. Like many Biblical stories, the ending of the story is left up to us. That’s because more important than an old fish story from long ago is your story and mine, and the next chapter of those stories is waiting to be written.

My wife and I were participants in a very intense personal growth seminar a few years ago, and something there stirred up some anger in me which I directed at one of the workshop leaders. She listened to me rant awhile, and then she said very quietly to me, “You know, Steve, you don’t have to be angry. It’s a choice.” It was one of the best Aha moments of my life – to realize for that I don’t have to be controlled by my emotions. I can choose to respond differently. Is that easy? Of course not. My wife can tell you I still have a long way to go in changing that 60 year-old habit. But old dogs can learn new tricks; it just takes us awhile. We can change and allow ourselves to be filled with grace and truth that empowers us to live the mission God has for us – whatever that is.

Let me share something that has worked for me lately. When facing a challenging situation I try to remember to pause and ask, “How would I respond to this situation if I were filled with grace and truth?” It’s a form of “faking it till you make it,” a small way of practicing a missional lifestyle; and if I keep trying, with God’s help, to live AS IF I am full of grace and truth, that lifestyle will eventually become a new habit.

What are you full of? If you don’t like the answer to that question, the good news is you don’t have to spend time in a fish’s belly to turn your life around. All you have to do is say yes every day to the one who is Grace and Truth.

[Originally preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, January 25, 2015]

COMMIT TO COMMIT, Exodus 20: 14, Matthew 5: 27-30

Note: The sermon that follows was part of a series on the 10 Commandments, “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World.”

“You Shall Not Commit Adultery.” Some of you are thinking, “Finally, we’ve gotten to a commandment I haven’t broken.” And some of you carry a heavy burden of guilt or anger at yourself or someone else who has failed to live up to commandment number 7. I have good news and bad news for us all because this commandment is about much more for all of us than sexual fidelity.

I got an email two months ago asking me if I was available to preach one part of a series called “Stone Tablets in a Wireless World.” I love to preach and my calendar was open; so I said sure. Lesson learned – before making a commitment be sure you fully understand what you are committing to do.

I didn’t bother to ask which commandment since it was several weeks away. Fast forward to mid-June when the series began. I got out my calendar and started counting the Sundays until August 3 and arrived at the conclusion that I would be preaching on number 7,”You Shall Not Steal.” When I emailed our pastor to confirm that conclusion, her reply was a classic. She said, “No, we will be skipping one Sunday in July to do a mission report. I have you scheduled for adultery on August 3.” I assured my wife she had nothing to fear – I might be scheduled for adultery on August 3 but after preaching three times in one morning, the only attraction a bed would have for me is a nap.

Everyone chuckles when I tell them I’m preaching on Adultery, but this is serious business. As with the sixth commandment, this one is short and very unambiguous. “You shall not commit adultery.” And, as with “You shall not murder,” Jesus ups the ante in the Sermon on the Mount with one of those things we just wish he hadn’t said when he gets to adultery.

Matthew 5:27: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
And then it gets worse —

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” Wow! If we enforced that one literally we’d have a world full of blind folks with no hands!

A young boy in Sunday school was asked to recite the 10 commandments. When he got to number 7, he said, “Thou shall not commit adulthood.” Part of the problem with obedience or lack thereof when it comes to the commandments is a refusal to commit adulthood. We are all a bit like Peter Pan, the boy who refuses to grow up.

St. Paul’s beautiful words about love in I Corinthians 13 are by far the most quoted scripture at weddings, and that chapter includes the line, “When I became an adult I put away childish things.” Faithful maturity means committing adulthood, but that commitment has to be renewed on a daily or sometimes hourly basis, as Paul himself points out in Romans 7: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Anybody relate to that if you’ve ever resolved to go on a diet or start an exercise program?

The two scriptures we read today make it sound so simple. Just don’t do it, and Jesus says the way to not do it is to not even think about it. Would Jesus say that if he lived in our wireless world? We’ve heard a lot recently about a “sexualized culture” in the OSU marching band. Big surprise! We live in a hyper-sexualized culture that uses sex to sell everything from Pontiacs to popsicles. Early Christian monks hid in monasteries to avoid worldly and sexual temptation, but there is nowhere to hide from the realities of human sexuality in a wireless world.

And the cast of characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, where the commandments reside, don’t help much. Sister Joan Chittister in her book, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, starts her discussion of adultery this way. “The problem with this commandment is that no one in the Hebrew Scriptures seems to keep it.” Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Jacob married both Leah and her sister Rachel, David knocked off one of his generals, Uriah, to try and cover up his affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. When Abram and Sarai were too impatient to wait on God’s promised son, they took matters into their own hands and Abram took Sarai’s servant Hagar, and she became the mother of his first son.

Yes, that’s ancient history, but to understand why we must take this commandment seriously today we have to make some sense of this seemingly blatant contradiction between what the scriptures say and the behavior of our spiritual ancestors. To oversimplify, at least part of the answer is that the biblical narrative is set in a sexist, patriarchal world where women were property. Having lots of wives and children were signs of prosperity and a future for society. There were no DNA tests to determine paternity and the lineage of one’s offspring determined inheritance; so the sexual faithfulness of a woman was critical to the whole socio-economic structure of the society. This commandment for Moses and Solomon was not about adultery as we know it but about respecting the property of others.

Marriage in biblical times was not based on ‘love’ as we think of it. The great musical “Fiddler on the Roof” makes that point in a humorous but very profound way. As Tevye’s and Golde’s daughters repeatedly challenge the sexist ways of their culture, loveable old Tevye begins to evaluate those traditions as well. In one memorable scene he surprises his wife of 25 years with this question: “Golde, do you love me?” And her response is classic. She says, “Do I what?”

So how do we understand and apply this commandment against adultery in our very different wireless world? The key is that it is all about commitment. Even though marriage in Jacob and Leah and Rachel’s day was totally different than ours, the common denominator is commitment to a set of responsibilities and obligations to each other which have to be taken seriously and kept to insure family and cultural stability.

An anonymous author has defined commitment this way: “Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Commitment is especially important in our transient world that moves at warp speed. We are a people deeply in need of stability. Extended families are over-extended or non-existent. When I grew up all of my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins lived within a 20 mile radius. My mother didn’t need a cell phone to keep track of me. If I got in trouble she heard about it from her mom or one of her sisters before I got home!

Not so today when families are spread out all over the country. The village it takes to raise kids is gone. The support system for caring for the elderly at a time when the number of people in their 80’s and 90’s is growing exponentially is history, and the pressure all that puts on the nuclear family can cause a nuclear meltdown.
Those we love need the assurance that we take our commitments to them very seriously no matter what happens. Not because God says so or someone else said so. We have to be faithful to our commitments because we said so.

Marriage is a prime example of commitment because the promises we make are so huge. The words are so familiar they flow off the tongues of starry-eyed brides and grooms too easily. To love another person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness in health, till death do us part. This is not a 5 year or 50000 mile guarantee. You don’t become a free agent when the contract expires. It’s for keeps.

I saw these words spray painted on a freeway overpass a few years ago: “John loves so and so forever.” I don’t know the name of the beloved because it had been painted over. Apparently “forever” turned out to be longer than John expected. And forever has gotten longer. When the average life expectancy was 40 or 50 till death do us part was a lot shorter than it is today. Caring for someone in sickness and health requires a whole lot more commitment when a spouse suffering from dementia no longer knows your name or is dying by inches from ALS or cancer.

“Commitment is staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left.” Even on days when you don’t like each other very much. Love is not a feeling you fall into and out of. Love is a choice, a commitment. Is it humanly possible to love like that always? No. That kind of unconditional love is from God and we are merely promising to imitate it. God doesn’t say “I will love you if you do this or don’t do that. God says I love you period.” That’s commitment, and it’s what faithfulness in marriage or any relationship requires.

So what happens when we fail to live up to that high standard? When we break our promises and commitments or are even tempted to? Do we pluck out our eyes and cut off our hands? Or go on a long guilt trip to nowhere?
No, there’s another adultery story in chapter 8 of John’s gospel that shows us a better way.

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Have you ever wondered what Jesus wrote on the ground during that confrontation? No one knows of course. No one had a cell phone to take a picture of it. But from what Jesus has said to me on the numerous occasions when I’ve flunked the commitment test, I think he simply wrote one word, and that word is “Grace.” Grace for the woman. Grace for her self-righteous accusers, And Amazing Grace for you and me if we admit our sin and recommit to God’s way of faithful love.

[Originally preached August 3, 2014 at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio]

Steve Harsh, Ph.D., M.Div.
Writer, Teacher, Pastor
My Blog: http://peacefullyharsh.com

Privacy and Psalms 139

Privacy is a hot topic these days. Facebook is now doing more invasive snooping on our on-line activities so they can send me more ads for adult diapers! Wonderful! People justifiably worry about Big Brother/NSA knowing all manner of information about where we go, who we talk to and what we ate for dinner. The thought police from 1984 have arrived, just 30 years late.

But these are not new concerns. Listen to these words from 3000 years ago: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

That’s from Psalm 139:2-5, a great companion piece for the Genesis 28 text that is also in the lectionary for this July 20 where Jacob is reminded at Bethel that when it comes to God, you can run but you can’t hide. The Psalm takes that wisdom to cosmic proportions: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (vs. 8-10)

Just as our modern technology that gives us 24/7 access to information, news, weather radar, directions and contact with family and friends is both good news and bad news, we can take God’s omnipresence and omniscience (which simply means God is everywhere and knows everything) as either a threat or a promise – it all depends on how clear your conscience is and your understanding of the nature of God. The words of Ps. 139:7 look the same, “Where can I flee from your presence?” The answer is “absolutely nowhere,” but the intonation of those words sounds 180 degrees different when uttered by someone who lives in mortal fear of a God of wrath and judgment as opposed to someone who knows and trusts the unconditional love of a merciful Lord and Savior.

We sometimes draw a false dichotomy between the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Abba Father God of Jesus to explain the difference in those responses. The truth is that both reactions run throughout Judeo-Christian scriptures and theology because fallible human beings always have reason to fear God’s judgment and long for God’s mercy simultaneously. The lectionary texts for July 20 illustrate that rich diversity beautifully. The alternative Psalm for July 20 describes the “New Testament” God (“But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Ps. 86:15), while it’s the Gospel lesson for this day that sounds a loud warning against unrepentant sin ( “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Mt. 13:41-42).

No matter how much we wish it were so, life is not a simple dualism between grace and judgment. It is a delicate both/and balance between obedience and forgiveness. Grace is not cheap. It comes with a cross-shaped price tag, and even Jesus knew the awful feeling of wondering if the Psalmist got it wrong. Maybe there are places in “the dark night of the soul” (title of famous poem by St. John of the Cross) where not even the God of creation can go! Quoting another Psalm (22:1) Jesus laments through the agony of crucifixion, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34). We’ve all felt that way at some time(s) in our lives if we dare to admit it.

Many years ago I heard a conversation between my in-laws, Bill and May Newman, who at that time had been married 40-plus years. I don’t remember how the topic came up, but they were reminiscing about their dating days. This was long before bucket seats and seat belts changed the way young couples rode in cars. In those days women would scoot over next to their dates in the front seat of the car to snuggle while he drove semi-dangerously with one arm. May teasingly asked Bill, “Why don’t we sit close like that anymore?” He wryly replied, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”

When we feel discouraged and abandoned, like a motherless/fatherless child, remember God’s not the one who moved. God is still everywhere. The Psalmist says we can’t even shake God if we go to the depths of Sheol – that’s Hebrew for Hell. Of all the places one would not expect to find God, hell has to be near the top of the list. I personally don’t believe Hell is a physical place, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real or that we have not all been there. Hell is anywhere or any time that we feel cut off from the presence of God, and when that happens desperation sets in; and that is very dangerous because desperate people often do desperate things they would not normally do.

When the Hebrews felt abandoned in the wilderness because Moses was on Mt. Sinai longer than they expected, they built a golden calf and worshipped it (Exodus 32:1-4). When we are afraid and think God’s not watching, that’s a dangerous combination. Under that pressure we may mistreat other people to pursue the false security of wealth or fame. We may try to escape from our anxiety in mind-numbing use of drugs, booze, sex or some other addiction du jour.

That is why we so desperately need to hear the words of Psalm 139 not as a threat by a privacy-invading deity looking for dirt to hold against us. If we stop reading the Psalm too soon that might be the way we feel and be tempted to move away from God or even try to take over the driver’s seat. The same is true of the Jesus story. It doesn’t end on Good Friday, and it doesn’t end with “My God why have you forsaken me!” Keep reading to the end. Like a great novel, God’s salvation history must be pursued to the surprise ending. Luke tells us that Jesus’ great lament was not the final word from the cross. Luke (23:46) records these words of faithful surrender and peace, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.”

To face life and death with that kind of confidence in God’s protection means giving up our idolatrous notions of self-sufficient individualism and privacy. The lectionary lesson omits the bloodier and more self-serving attempts to justify our own worthiness in Psalm 139 (vss. 13-22); but it ends on a realistic note of humility that reminds us how easy and how hard it is to accept God’s persistent presence in our lives. The final verses say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

God has not moved. God has not abandoned us, no matter how good or bad our lives may be right now. God is ready, willing and able to guide us, but our God is not a God of coercion. The guidance is free, but it comes with one catch – in order to receive it we have to surrender our pride and privacy and be willing to humbly invite God to know us in total transparency.

“A Borrower and a Lender Be,” A Holy Week Sermon on Matthew 21:1-13

Suppose you went out to get in your car at the mall or after church next Sunday or even in your driveway and a couple of strangers were looking it over. When you ask them what they’re doing they say, “Please give us your keys.” I’m guessing the first question you would ask is, “Why?” And when they say, “Because the Lord has need of it,” would you just hand over the keys or would you more likely call the cops?

That’s what the Gospels tell us Jesus did to “borrow” a donkey in preparation for his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. We are so familiar with the Holy Week narratives that we often fail to grasp the radical nature of what this story tells us about Jesus and what got him crucified. John Robert McFarland grabbed my attention on this matter in an article in The Christian Century way back in 1990 entitled “Go Steal Me a Donkey.”

This is not Sweet Little Jesus holding lambs and children in his arms. Healing the sick and loving people don’t get you crucified, but challenging the political and economic foundations that society is built upon will get one in a lot of hot water immediately. These verses from Matthew 21 are bookended by donkey stealing and Jesus physically turning over tables in the temple and driving the money changers out because they have claimed what belongs to God for their own purposes. This Jesus is not a wimp. He is one with the courage to challenge anyone and anything that is contrary to God’s wills and to pay the price for his convictions.

Tax day in the US fell within Holy Week this year, and that makes looking at Jesus’ theology of economics even more real. In “Go Steal Me a Donkey” McFarland points out that both socialists and capitalists claim Jesus, but he isn’t either. The former believe in collective ownership of property and the latter in individual ownership. Jesus believes everything belongs to God. In the very next chapter of Matthew (22:15-22) the Pharisees challenge Jesus on the tax issue. They try to trap him with a question about whether it is legal to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus gives a clever politically correct answer. He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That sounds like a safe answer, but Jesus’ actions tell us he knows the bottom line on his 1040 for the IRS would be a big fat zero.

Would he get audited? You bet, but he would do it anyway. Why would he do that knowing the trouble it would cause? Because he knows everything belongs to God, including donkeys and upper rooms in which to celebrate the Passover. Jesus borrows what he needs because it all belongs to God. There’s an old adage about borrowing that is so familiar we often think it should be in the Bible. But “neither a borrower nor a lender be” is not biblical. It actually comes from Polonius in “Hamlet,” not Jesus. In fact, what Jesus says about borrowing and lending is a direct contraction of Shakespeare. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (Luke 6:34).

Jesus borrows: a manger for a cradle, boats to teach in, houses to heal in, and a tomb to be buried in. He doesn’t ask for what he needs, he commands. When he borrows his disciples, he says, “Come, follow me, Now!” No time to bury the dead. Do they leave their families and their livelihood in exchange for some promise of great wealth and fame? No, he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” When he borrows Peter and Andrew from their fishing nets, when James and John leave their father Zebedee in his boat, when Levi leaves the tax office, do you think Jesus plans on returning them? When you borrow a cup of sugar to bake a cake, do take the sugar out of the cake and return it? I hope we don’t return a used Kleenex after we “borrow” it! When Jesus claims us followers and disciples, there’s no turning back. It’s for keeps, because everything, including you and me, belongs to God–always has, always will.

That’s the bad news. What we think is ours isn’t. We are just stewards and caretakers of what belongs to God, and what’s worse is that selfishly trying to cling to what is “ours” will keep us out of the Kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus says it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. It’s why Pope Francis is cracking down on Bishops who build multi-million dollar mansions for themselves while millions starve.

But here’s the good news. We can borrow freely from God whatever we need in life. God gives us Jesus as an example of what that ultimate borrowing of things that really matter in life looks like; and Holy Week is the best example ever of how that works. We see it demonstrated throughout Jesus’ ministry, but it is concentrated in those final days of his life between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. We’ve seen it when Jesus is napping in the boat during a storm. His disciples are freaking out, but Jesus is sound asleep because he has borrowed the peace of God. When those same disciples try to talk him into homesteading on the mountain of Transfiguration where it’s safe and comfortable, Jesus borrows the courage from God to set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross; and he never looks back.

When he is confronted with physical violence and arrest in Jerusalem, he borrows the peace of God again not to resist violence with more violence. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is not for his own safety and comfort, but he borrows integrity and obedience from God as he prays “Not my will but your will be done.” And then on that dark Friday afternoon, the supreme gift of grace is borrowed again when he says, “Father forgive them” to the men who have nailed him to that cruel cross. Jesus doesn’t say, “I forgive you,” and that’s significant. In mortal agony from those wounds, I believe it was humanly impossible for that amazing compassion to come from Jesus himself, just as it is often impossible for us to forgive those who hurt us badly. Jesus couldn’t forgive them, but he knew someone who could–and that he was free to borrow that strength and grace from his God.

We know that source of grace as well, and we are invited to borrow from that eternal God whenever and wherever we want with no interest and no expectation to repay the debt. The borrowing Messiah of Holy Week teaches us that when we are free of possessions that possess us, when we are free of fears and insecurities from the cares of trying to control our own lives, then we are free to live and free to die. Because we know everything belongs to God, including us, now and forever. Holy Week and Easter invite us again to borrow the gift of grace, the gift of new life.

Adapted from a sermon preached at New Life United Methodist Church, Columbus, OH, Palm Sunday 2014.