Organized Compassion

Jean-François_Millet_-_Gleaners_-_Google_Art_Project_2As I mentioned in last week’s post, this year I’m trying to live an extroverted Lent. I”m an introvert, so each year I tend to adopt ‘private’ Lent disciplines: fasting, meditation, prayer, reading, diet discipline etc. etc. But I’m not only called to love God with all my heart; I’m called to love my neighbour as myself as well. And somehow, my Lent disciplines in this area never really amount to very much. So this year I’m trying to journal every day (I know, it’s an introverted thing!) about how I’m connecting with people and living out compassion in a practical way. So far the results are mixed at best, but I’m going to keep at it. Truth be told, my most persistent sins are selfishness and laziness, so I can’t afford to give up!

In that respect, a passage from this morning’s One Year Bible readings brought a smile to my face. It’s found in Leviticus 23, a chapter which is all about the various religious festivals Israel was supposed to observe—sabbaths, Passover, Trumpets, Yom Kippur, Weeks  etc. When the passage gets to the Feast of Weeks (a harvest festival), it describes the various offerings the priest is supposed to present to the Lord, but then comes this lovely little note:

“When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. Leave it for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23.33 NLT)

This is the only non-liturgical and non-ceremonial note in the chapter, so it stands out. The authors of Leviticus are generally assumed by modern scholars to be the priests of Israel, people who spent their whole lives in liturgy and sacrifice. But here they acknowledge that part of the worship we offer to God is to care for those among us who are in trouble.

Nowadays some people would see this as a bad idea: “We’re just encouraging those folks to be parasites!” Others, who advocate efficiency and belt-tightening, wouldn’t be able to see any further than the impact on their bottom line: “This is going to cut into our profits for the year!”

I like the fact that in this scripture passage, the poor and the foreigners don’t have to pass any kind of test. The authors may be aware that clever people can manipulate the system, but they don’t mention it. It’s not my business to judge people. It’s my business to love them.

I’m reminded of a story about C.S. Lewis. One day he gave some money to a poor beggar, and one of his friends scolded him for it. “He’ll just spend it on drink!” “Yes,” Lewis replied, “but if I’d kept it, I would have spent it on drink!”

I’m not a farmer, so I can’t leave the edges of my field for the gleaners. What’s the equivalent for me? Is it to make sure I always have spare cash in my pocket to give to those who ask? The bottom line is that my generosity needs to cut into my profits. In another passage in one of his books, Lewis says that the only safe rule about giving to the poor is that it needs to impact my lifestyle. There should be things I’d like to do, that I can’t do because of my giving. Until I reach that point, I’m not really being generous.

At this point I’m going to stop writing. Others who I love and admire are a lot further along this path than I am. I’m going to end with what to me have always been the most challenging words Jesus ever spoke, and this morning I’m speaking them to myself: “Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (John 13.17 NLT).

‘To Know Christ’ (a sermon for Ash Wednesday on Philippians 3.10-11)

Many years ago when I was the minister in charge at All Saints’ Anglican Church in Aklavik, NWT, I got a phone call from an older lady in our church whose first name was Winnie. She had a quick question for me: she wanted to know if Lent had started yet. I said, “No, it doesn’t start ‘til next week.” She replied, “Good, because my kids have really been giving me a rough time, and I want to give them s____!”

Well, I have to admit that abstaining from giving your kids s_____ for Lent is probably more beneficial than giving up sugar in your coffee! But if it’s a bad thing to give your kids a rough time during Lent, why isn’t it a bad thing at other times of the year? And if it’s actually not a bad thing, why would you give it up for Lent in the first place? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard enough time learning to do the things God has told me to do, without adding a few optional extras for good measure!

Of all the seasons of the Christian year, Lent is probably one of the ones with the most traditions attached to it. Even people who don’t go to church sometimes give things up for Lent—chocolate, alcohol, sugar in your coffee—and some people even use it as an excuse for kick-starting their weight loss program! Years ago we used to have Lenten self-denial folders, or Lent boxes; the custom was to donate a quarter a day for every day of Lent, and at the end, you’d give it to the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund. Nowadays, of course, a quarter buys a lot less than it did in 1975; if we’re thinking of denying ourselves, we might want to ramp it up a bit!

But where does it all come from? Why observe Lent in the first place?

In the early centuries of our faith the season of Lent actually began as part of the baptism of new Christians. In those days most Christians were converts who were baptized as adults. In the Bible, that happened very quickly, but as time went by the process stretched out, and by about the third century it could take as long as three years to become a Christian. You’d first need to be accepted as a learner—a catechumen, they were called—and then would come a long process of learning the Christian way of life according to the teachings of Jesus. Later on you’d be taught the doctrines of Christianity, and then, at last, you’d be baptized by total immersion, usually at the Easter vigil, which in those days actually lasted all night long.

Of course, as the new Christians got closer to the night of their baptism, their excitement would be growing. This was the moment when they would die with Christ and be raised with him to a whole new life with God! This was the night when their whole lives would change forever! They wanted to be as well-prepared for it as they could possibly be. And so gradually, in the church, the custom grew of observing the last few weeks of their catechumenate as especially strict times of prayer and fasting. At first it was just the baptismal candidates who observed it, but later, all the members of the church began to join in too. They thought of Jesus and his forty days of fasting in the desert before his ministry began, and they tried to imitate him so they could get closer to God and listen to God’s voice.

But notice this: Lent wasn’t a thing in itself. Lent was related to Jesus. In their baptism, the new Christians would be dying with Christ and rising with him to a whole new way of life. Lent was a way of getting ready for that. Those who were already Christians were wanting to follow Jesus more closely in his time in the desert, being tested by the devil. Like him, they were trying to remove distractions so they could listen more closely for God’s word. Fasting wasn’t a thing in itself; it was a way of removing one of the distractions so they could focus on listening to God.

So we need to be careful about this. If our way of observing Lent isn’t connected to Jesus, and following Jesus, then we’re in serious danger of making Lent itself a distraction from discipleship. And that would be a tragedy.

If we go back to the New Testament and think of the life of St. Paul, we know that he was always a very religious person. He tells us he was raised as a Pharisee, and so he paid careful attention to every little detail of the Law of God. This wasn’t just moral laws; it involved all the Sabbath regulations, and all the laws about what foods you could and couldn’t eat, and how you prepared them. It included proper observance of all the Temple rituals – offering the right sacrifices, with the right ceremonies, at the right time.

How does Paul describe himself at that time? Listen to these words from his letter to the Philippians:

‘Indeed, if others have reasons for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more! I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without a fault’ (Philippians 3.4b-6 NLT).

Paul sounds like quite an impressive person! In his day he would have been seen as an admirable Pharisee, very religious, very devout. But years later, when he looked back on those days, he had a completely different point of view.

‘I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ (vv.7-8a NLT).

And he goes on to say,

‘I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection of the dead.’ (vv.10-11 NLT)

‘I want to know Christ’. Surely this ought to be right at the heart of what Lent is all about for us. Giving things up isn’t a thing in itself. Becoming a better person isn’t even a thing in itself. Everything we do needs to be related to this central goal: ‘I want to know Christ.’ Notice that Paul isn’t talking about information; he’s talking about relationship. He doesn’t say, “I want to know about Christ,” but “I want to know Christ.”

Let’s think for a minute about this whole business of ‘knowing Christ’. A moment’s thought will make it clear to us that knowing Christ is very different from any other human relationship. We can’t see Christ. We can’t hear him with our ears. The contact we have with him is mystical and spiritual; when we say that we sensed his presence, it’s hard to define exactly what we mean by that. In one of our songs we sing ‘Hold me close; put your arms around me’, but very few honest Christians will claim to have actually felt the arms of Christ around them. What we’re talking about it something more elusive than that.

So how do we grow in it? How can we know Christ better, when it’s so hard to define exactly what we mean by knowing Christ?

Let me give you an illustration. In the days when Jesus walked the earth, imagine someone coming to one of his disciples, and saying “I want to get to know your Master Jesus. How can I do that?” And the disciple might reply, “Good, great! Tomorrow he’s going to be preaching at the synagogue in Cana, and then for the rest of the day he’ll be teaching and healing the sick at Jonas the carpenter’s house by the water front. Later on in the evening when things quieten down, he’ll have time for a quiet cup of wine with one or two people who want to ask him questions. For the rest of the week he’ll be doing much the same kind of thing in the Cana area. I’ll be glad to introduce you to him if you like.”

“Oh no”, our friend replies, “I can’t go to where he is and join in his activities. I’m a busy person; I’ve got goals I’m trying to meet in my life. I was hoping he’d be able to come over to my office tomorrow and talk to me. I’m free between the sixth and seventh hours.”

What do you think are that man’s chances of actually getting to know Jesus better? In fact, how badly do you think he really wants to get to know Jesus? If he could honestly say, with Paul, “I want to know Christ,” then surely he ought to be willing to go wherever he needs to go, at whatever time he needs to go there, so he can meet Jesus and get the ball rolling?

“Well,” you’re thinking, “How does this apply to me today? Jesus doesn’t exactly have a street address, does he?” No, he doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t follow him. For us 21stcentury Christians, following Jesus doesn’t mean walking behind him on the road as he travels around Galilee. It means following the path of life he’s given us—following his example and putting his teaching into practice—so that we become more Christlike.

So this is really what Lent is all about. This is why we pray and fast, and deny ourselves, and try to be more generous. These things aren’t good things in themselves; they’re good because they’re things Jesus taught us to do, and as we practice them in faith, we’re getting closer to Jesus. That’s our focus.

So as we begin Lent, let me suggest that we use it this year as a time to intentionally focus on Jesus. On Sunday we thought about the Transfiguration story and the words of God the Father to the disciples: “This is my Son, the Beloved…listen to him.” I suggested that one good way to listen to Jesus would be to pick one of the Gospels and read through it, slowly and prayerfully, through the season of Lent. What is Jesus saying to us in this passage? And how would we receive his words as God’s message to us? How specifically would we put them into practice?

“I want to know Christ.” “This is my Son…Listen to him.” So as we go through Lent, let’s make it our goal to listen to him and to come to know him better.

This won’t always be easy for us. Sometimes when we read the gospels and listen to the words of Jesus, we find them so challenging that we’re tempted to give up. “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you.” “Forgive seventy times seven.” “Don’t store up for yourself treasures on earth.” His teaching is so different from the way of life we’ve become accustomed to in Canada in 2020! We might be tempted to say, “Lord, can’t I just give up sugar in my tea?”

But no, we can’t. Jesus is leading us in a process of inner transformation more demanding than anything we’ve ever tried to do before. But the result will be amazing. The result will be a person who loves God with their whole heart, and loves their neighbour as they love themselves, not because it’s a law, but because they want to—because they love doing God’s will and can’t imagine doing anything different. That’s what knowing Christ and becoming Christlike are all about. And that’s how the world will be changed.

So let me close by reminding you again of Paul’s words to the Philippians:

‘I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection of the dead.’ (Philippians 3.10-11 NLT)

May it be so for us, through Lent and beyond. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘Listen to Him’ (a sermon on Matthew 17.5)

I think we all know instinctively that there’s a big difference between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’.

I’m sitting on my couch at home with my laptop open. I’m checking emails, surfing some blog sites, reading some Facebook posts—the usual computer stuff. Marci comes in and starts talking to me. I can hear what she’s saying, but she doesn’t really have my attention. I’m hearing her, but I’m not listening to her. I know the difference—and so does she!

Or think of a parent complaining about their child’s behaviour. “She never listens to me!” she says. She’s not describing a hearing problem; this is about action, or the lack of it. The child isn’t doing what she’s told; that’s what it means to say ‘she’s not listening to me’. ‘Listening’ in this sense includes not just attention, but also obedience.

Our Gospel reading for today includes a command about listening: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17.5). This command is given on top of the mountain of the Transfiguration, where Jesus has gone with Peter, James, and John. If you’ve read the book of Acts, you’ll know that in the early chapters these three are going to be the leaders of the Jerusalem church. They’re the ones who will set the tone of its life as a community of faith. And surely the defining characteristic of its life is that this will be a community that listens to Jesus, in the fullest sense of that word ‘listen’! So let’s think about this for a few minutes.

First, why should the disciples ‘listen to him’? And what difference would it make for them to do so?

To answer that question let’s read today’s story in context. When Matthew wrote his gospel he didn’t divide it into chapters; those divisions were added later. And it’s clear that chapter 16.13 to 17.13 were originally written as a connected whole. There are three distinct units, but they lead logically from one to the other.

First, in 16.13-20, the subject is Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (16.13). The disciples reply, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” But then Jesus presses the issue. “What about you?” he asks; “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16.16). Jesus affirms this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (16.17).

But what does it mean for Jesus to be the Messiah? The common idea was that the Messiah would be a king like David, setting Israel free from foreign invaders by military force, and then establishing a just and holy government. In other words, he would lead a sort of ‘Make Israel Great Again’ movement! This Messianic hope was dear to many people in Israel; it was something they were really longing for.

But Jesus refuses to go along with this. In the second unit, we read that he ‘began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (16.21). Peter can’t accept this and he rebukes Jesus: “Never, Lord! This will never happen to you!” But Jesus turns and rebukes Peter; he accuses him of listening to human ideas, not the thoughts of God. Jesus is walking a different path altogether, the path of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. People will reject him and nail him to a cross, but he will embody the love of the God who loves his enemies and prays for their forgiveness. In other words, Jesus’ version of the Messianic hope is to change the world, not through force, but through indestructible love. And he calls his followers to do the same: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (16.24).

Now we come to the third unit, today’s passage. ‘Six days later’, Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a high mountain, where he is transfigured before them: his face and clothing begin to shine with a brilliant light. Two dead guys appear with him, Moses and Elijah. These are very significant people! Moses was the first great leader of Israel, the one who led them out of Egypt and gave them the Law of God that has guided their lives ever since. Elijah was the first of the great prophets, messengers sent by God to call the people to turn back from idolatry to the true and living God, and to lives of justice and goodness.

If the words ‘Listen to him!’ could ever be applied to anyone in Israel’s history, it would be to these two! “Listen to Moses! Listen to Elijah!” It’s unlikely that Peter, James and John could imagine anyone being greater than them. Peter no doubt thought he was being generous to Jesus when he put the three of them on the same level: “Lord, it is good for us to be here! If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” (17.4). Few people could imagine Jesus being on the same level as those two! And they were also a sort of living embodiment of the Old Testament scriptures. In the time of Jesus, when people were talking about what we now call ‘the Old Testament’, they often called it ‘The Law and the Prophets’. Well, the Law came through Moses, and Elijah represented the prophets! So these are the heroes of Israel’s faith, and they represent the books that shaped Israel’s life.

But how does God respond to Peter’s suggestion that he put Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah? Verse 5 says, ‘While Peter was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”’ Moses and Elijah were both excellent servants from ancient times, but Jesus is on a whole different level: he’s God’s beloved Son.

I read a story a while back by a preacher who had attended the funeral of the great English runner Roger Bannister. Many tributes were given by friends and colleagues who had known Roger over the years, but the last to speak was his son. The preacher’s comment was, “There are some things about a father that only a son or daughter can know.” And it’s the same with Jesus and his heavenly Father. In the Gospels, Jesus is always listening to the Father and doing his will, and he passes on to his disciples the things he sees and hears from God.

Nowadays when we think of a father-son relationship, we think of love and support and encouragement. But in the ancient world most sons followed their fathers into the family business, and they would work together. The father might have other employees, but none of them could speak on his behalf with the same authority as his son; the son was the uniquely authorized representative of the father. Jesus is the Son of God; there is no one who can speak on God’s behalf with the same authority as him. What is the Church? The community that does its best to ‘listen to Jesus’. What is a disciple? Someone who ‘listens to him.’

So what does it mean for us today to ‘listen to Jesus’?

First, it means that we’re part of the community that listens to him. Nowadays we tend to see a church as a loose collection of individuals who listen. Since printing was invented, Bibles have been available for private reading, and prayer has become mainly something we do alone. Coming to church? Well, we do that when our busy schedules permit it, but we don’t see it as really vital for us. But in the gospels, listening to Jesus was something done in community, gathered around him. Later on as the Christian faith spread, the listening happened in small house churches. Printed books weren’t available, but people might have some hand-written copies of Old Testament stories, letters of the apostles, stories of Jesus. These were read out loud, and then questions could be asked and discussion take place.

This listening community is the church we’re baptized into. This is what baptism means. Listen to Jesus again, speaking to his disciples after the Resurrection:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.18-20).

“Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” For Matthew, this is the heart of Christian faith. Discipleship means watching Jesus, listening to him, doing what he says and imitating what he does, so that we become ‘Christlike’. That’s why we’re baptizing Myles today: we’re bringing him into this community of disciples. His mom and dad Erica and Ty, his godparents Katrina and Dusan, his wider family, and the whole Christian community—we’re all called to gather round him, show him what following Jesus looks like, and teach him how to work it out in his own life.

In a few minutes I’m going to ask you this question: “Will you do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” and you will reply, “We will, with God’s help”. There’s a twofold responsibility here. There’s a responsibility on Ty and Erica’s part, to keep bringing Myles to join us for worship and take part in the life of our faith community. But there’s also a responsibility on the part of all of us, to keep praying for him, loving him, witnessing to him about the love of Christ, and helping him to grow as a Christian. Are you up for that?

But then, of course, we as individuals are also called to ‘Listen to Jesus’. How do we do this?

The central way, of course, is in our day by day opening of the Bible, especially the gospels, reading the stories of Jesus and the things he said, thinking them through, working out what they mean, and praying about them. “Lord, how do I live this out in my life today? What difference would it make if I put this into practice? What would it look like? What specifically would I need to change?”

What kind of listening are we talking about? Well, we need to listen carefully—not assuming we already know what Jesus is going to say before he says it, and not assuming that we’re understanding it correctly. Often, we’re not! The Bible is a collection of ancient books; words, ideas, and customs were very different when they were written. One thing I try to do for you folks in sermons is to bring some knowledge of the background of each passage, and maybe help us all to a deeper understanding of what it might have meant in its original setting. But I’m still discovering new things! Over and over again, when I hear a passage read out loud, I’ll notice a little detail and think, “How come I didn’t pick up on that before?”

So we listen carefully, and we also listen prayerfully. The old monks had a way of doing this; they called it in Latin ‘lectio divina’, which means ‘holy reading’. It had four steps: reading, thinking, praying, and being quiet. In ‘reading’ they’d look for a word or phrase in the passage that really spoke to them, and they’d repeat it over and over again in their minds, holding it there, really trying to enter into it. In ‘thinking’, they’d meditate on it and what it was saying to them, trying to hear it as a word from God, thinking about how to apply it to their lives. In ‘praying’ they’d actually pray about the passage, asking God about it, asking God’s help for any situations the passage brought to mind. And in ‘being quiet’ they’d end by simply sitting in the presence of God, enjoying the silence, as sometimes happens when two old friends get together—they might have a long conversation, but they know each other so well that they’re not afraid of being silent together too.

It’s a good method, isn’t it? Reading, thinking, praying, and being quiet. Are you up for it?

So we listen carefully, we listen prayerfully, and we also listen obediently. We understand that in the words of Jesus God is speaking to us, and we need to take what he says seriously.

Sometimes we think we need to be sure we really understand a saying of Jesus before we put it into practice. I get that, but there’s another way of looking at it too. You learn how to be married by being married. No amount of studying ahead of time can really do that for you! And it’s also true that often we learn to understand the teaching of Jesus by obeying it.

Rebecca Manley Pippert suggests a way of doing this in her book ‘Out of the Saltshaker’. She suggests we start reading one of the Gospels in the careful, prayerful way I’ve been talking about. As we do so, sooner or later a command of Jesus is going to really hit home for us. We’re going to feel it as a word from God to us, and we won’t have any difficulty guessing how we would go about obeying it. Well, she says, at that point we need to put the book down, pray for God’s help, and then actually go out and try to do what we’ve been told. Practical Bible study means putting the Bible into practice. It’s not just about brains, but hands and feet as well.

So we listen carefully, we listen prayerfully, we listen obediently. Are you up for it?

This week we start the season of Lent. What a great time to practice listening to Jesus! Can I make a suggestion of something you might like to do?

Why not pick one of the Gospels and read it through in Lent. It doesn’t matter if you finish it early or late; reading and listening is the thing. Mark is the shortest gospel, but Matthew has lots of practical teaching about discipleship, and Luke pays lots of attention to how Jesus reaches out to outsiders. John is more theological and mystical, and some people really respond to that.

So pick a gospel, pick a time each day, and start to read. Don’t be in a hurry. Read slowly, going over a passage two or three times. Don’t be afraid to use a pencil to mark your Bible if there’s a word of phrase that stands out for you. Think about that word or phrase; what is it saying to you? What difference could it make to your life?

You might find it helpful to keep a little notebook with you. Each day, maybe jot down one or two things—not just things you’ve learned, but practical things you want to do as a result of what you’ve read. You might even jot down questions: “I don’t understand this, so I need to ask someone about it!” And then turn your reading into prayer. Ask God some questions. Ask for his help and guidance as you think about putting what you’ve read into practice. Ask the Holy Spirit to fill you and strengthen you to do God’s will.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” May God bless our listening and following as we go into this Lenten season.

The Other Side of Lent

As I write this post, Ash Wednesday is five days away, and the discussion on social media is starting to heat up. What are you going to do for Lent? What are you going to give up? Should we give up social media? Read a Lent book? Give extra money to the poor?

Maggi Dawn pointed out years ago that this is actually a very modern discussion. For the vast majority of Christian history, the Church told you what to give up for Lent (mainly meat and dairy, in case you’re interested), and since everyone in the community was giving it up with you, there was lots of support! Nowadays we’re much more individualistic, and as a result we’re so spoiled for choice that often just making a decision can be very difficult.

One thing that’s occurred to me this year is that I tend to gravitate toward Lent disciplines that are attractive to my personality type. I’m an introvert, so my Lent disciplines tend to be private disciplines: prayer, fasting, reading, and so on. I tend to focus on my personal relationship with God (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength”), but I don’t often take on Lent disciplines that focus on my relationship with others (“Love your neighbour as yourself”).

So here’s a thought: if Lent involves embracing a bit of discomfort for the sake of our own growth, then maybe we should consider Lent disciplines that aren’t easy for someone of our personality type. Maybe this year I shouldn’t focus on personal stuff at all. Maybe I should think of some creative ways to love and serve my neighbour (whether that’s a family member, a church member, someone in my neighbourhood, my music community, someone in the developing world etc.).

For me, I know this means spending time with people. In the end, this is the most valuable gift we can give to one another. There’s a reason we call it ‘spending time’; once it’s spent, it’s spent! You’re never going to get that hour of your life back. So it’s a real act of love to spend that time with someone else, rather than on yourself and your own amusements.

So maybe this Lent, introverts like me should be looking for Lent disciplines that push us out of ourselves a little more. And maybe extroverts should be looking to embrace solitude and silence and longer times of personal prayer.

A few weeks ago I read Brené Brown’s excellent book The Gifts of Imperfection. One of the themes that runs though the book is her triad of the three components of Wholeheartedness: ‘Courage, Compassion, and Connection’. Courage, to her, often means the courage to speak what’s really on your heart, honestly, without giving in to fear. Compassion is not so much about feeling compassion as it is acting in compassionate ways (and it also includes paying proper attention to boundaries, so that we can be more effective in that). And we grow in our sense of connection by actually going out and connecting with people.

I like that. Looks like a good plan for Lent for me. Now to firm it up with some concrete ways of putting it into practice.

Telling the Truth (a sermon on Matthew 5.33-37)

This morning I want to concentrate on one paragraph of our gospel reading: the paragraph where Jesus talks about oaths and truth-telling. Apparently Jesus thinks that lying, or breaking your word, is a big deal! But before I dive into that, let me just let you in on the process by which I decided to focus on this section.

Our gospel today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, and it contains four distinct units of teaching from Jesus: one about anger and reconciliation, one about adultery of the heart, one about divorce, and one about oaths. These four units follow on from last week’s passage where Jesus talked about us having a greater righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees. To him, their righteousness was just skin deep; it was outward conformity to the Law of Moses, but nothing was changed on the inside. Jesus wants us to experience inner change as well. So, for example, it’s not enough not to murder; we have to turn away from anger and work for reconciliation.

How does a preacher decide what to focus on in a passage like this?

One thing you could do—and it’s what I did last time I preached on this passage—is to do an overview of the whole thing. You don’t go into a lot of detail on each unit, but you paint the big picture of what Jesus is trying to say. And that can be helpful.

Another thing you can do is to pick the unit that people will find most painful or challenging or controversial, and help them deal with it. If I was to follow that method I’d probably pick the paragraph on divorce, since it affects many of us here today.

But today I’m not following either of those methods. Sometimes you have to turn away from the urgent in order to focus on the really important, and I’d argue that in our society today, one of the most important issues is the breakdown of trust. How do you know you can believe what people say? Politicians, we’re told, will say anything to get elected. Robots on Facebook perpetrate total lies to influence elections and get you interested in ads, and people repost social media memes without even the slightest effort to check their accuracy. And I’d argue that one of the major contributors to marriage and family breakdown is the erosion of trust. Can we trust that our spouse is telling us the truth? Or our kids? Or our parents?

Jesus presents the issue in terms of a formal oath, which in the ancient world was usually worded as a request for a god to punish the swearer if they don’t fulfil their promise. What does Jesus think of this practice? Look again at Matthew 5.33-37:

‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’

In Christian history there have been different opinions about how we should follow this passage. Some people, particularly in the Anabaptist/Mennonite and Quaker traditions, have interpreted this as a blanket condemnation of oath-taking, and so when they go to courts, consistent Mennonites will refuse to swear an oath. Other Christians have said no, it’s the inner spirit of what Jesus is saying here that matters; it’s about telling the truth at all times.

Let’s remember what Jesus is trying to teach us in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. He’s not happy with the Pharisees who think that just obeying the ‘thou shalt nots’ in the Law of Moses is enough. But what sort of person are you on the inside? Are you just obeying God reluctantly, because the Law tells you to do it, or are you being changed into the kind of person who delights in God’s will and walks in God’s ways because they love it? The kind of person who instinctively tells the truth at all times, because that’s the best way to live?

Jesus is going to the heart of the issue. Why do we have to make promises at all? Why do we have to use oaths or sign contracts? Surely, it’s because people can’t trust our word! What are we actually saying if we feel we have to swear an oath? Are we saying, “Well, normally, you can’t trust what I say, but in this instance I’ve made an oath calling on God to punish me if I’m not telling the truth, and I do fear God, so now you can finally trust me”?

Jesus is encouraging us to imagine a different level of honesty. Try to imagine a situation where I’ve been called on to be a witness in a court of law. So I take the stand, and the clerk approaches me with the Bible so I can swear to tell ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God’. But suddenly the judge stops the proceedings. “Wait a minute,” he says, “that’s Tim Chesterton up there. The whole world knows he’s a man of absolute integrity and honesty. There’s never been a known occasion when he’s told a lie, or when he’s said he’s going to do something and failed to do it. It would be an absolute insult for me to ask him to take an oath and swear to tell the truth, because that’s what he always does.

Is that me? No, I’m afraid it’s not—but I have to say, I would love to be that person. And Jesus is telling us that this is God’s dream for us: a life of absolute honesty and integrity. So aim for this. Don’t settle for a life of controlled dishonesty; aim to be known as a person who lives truthfully and speaks truthfully.

This leads to a couple of questions, at least in my mind. First, what are the common situations in which I will tell a lie, or exaggerate or promise more than I can deliver, or fail to keep my word?

Let me try to be honest about this, because after all, this sermon’s about honesty! So, sometimes I lie or exaggerate because I want to impress people. I’ll tell a story and exaggerate certain aspects of it, because it makes it a better story and I get more of a response from the hearers. Or I’ll commit myself to doing something I know I don’t have time for, because I want people to think I’m a good guy.

Sometimes I do it because I’m afraid. I’ve done something I shouldn’t have done, and I’m afraid I’m on the verge of being found out. So I’ll lie about it, or find some fictional reason why ‘it’s not really my fault.’

Sometimes I do it because I’m lazy. I say I’m going to do something, but it’s not something I particularly want to do; it’s too much like hard work, or I’m not really interested in it. So as the deadline gets closer, I’ll put it off and put it off, and eventually the deadline passes and the job just doesn’t get done, and I’ve just provided the world with one more reason not to trust my word.

Now: what do these three situations have in common? I think it’s that they’re all about self-absorption, rather than loving others and caring for their needs. want to impress people with my dramatic story. I want people to think I’m a good guy, so I try to pull the wool over their eyes about my misdeeds. I want to have an easy time and not exert myself doing things I don’t want to do, so I don’t follow through with my commitments.

But sometimes that self-absorption is about our deep inner fears and insecurities. We’re afraid that if other people really knew the truth about us, they wouldn’t love us any more. So we create a false persona, someone much more impressive than the real me. Problem is, it takes a huge amount of effort to keep that persona in place. That persona is built out of all the lies and misleading statements we’ve made about ourselves and others over the years. Just keeping track of them all is a full time job!

It’s time to lay that burden down. And we get the confidence to lay it down when we remember that the one person who knows the complete truth about us is God, and God has promised never to leave us or forsake us. We don’t have to pretend to be better than we are. Grace means there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing will ever change that. He’s promised it, and he keeps his promises.

So as we get to know God better, and learn to rely on his love, maybe we can take the risk of letting the mask down and being real with God, and with other people too. None of us here has everything together in our lives. We’ve all messed up, and we all have secrets we don’t want anyone else to know about. There’s no need to be afraid of shocking the people around us by telling them who we really are; what’s actually happening is that they’re whispering to themselves, “Jeez, I thought I was the only one!”

The second question this reading brings to my mind is, how could the Christian world become more truthful? Because a truthful church would be a big encouragement for truthful Christians, wouldn’t it?

One thing we could do would be to stop exaggerating. Many of you have heard me talk about the song I learned when I was a young Christian:

At the cross! At the cross
where I first saw the light
and the burden of my heart rolled away;
It was there by faith I received my sight,
and now I am happy all the day.

‘Now I am happy all the day’? What sort of a lie is that? At no point in my life has that ever been true for me. Every day, at some point, I have found something to be sad about. So when I used to sing this song I would find myself thinking, “Is there something wrong with me? Have I not really given my life to Jesus properly? Have I not really been filled with the Holy Spirit?” And so I’d try to do it all over again: confess every possible sin I could think of again, give my life to Jesus again, pray that the Holy Spirit would fill me again. It never worked. I was happy some of the time (usually when I wasn’t thinking about trying to be happy), but I was never ‘happy all the day.’

Songs like this give impressionable Christians a false idea of what the Christian life is really like. When they can’t pretend any more, they do one of two things: they give up on Christianity because it’s obviously not true, or they give up on themselves, because they’re obviously a hopeless case. And all because of a song that makes untruthful statements about what it feels like to be a Christian.

We need to be really careful about this. We need to make sure we aren’t making unrealistic promises to people about what Christianity is like. And we also need to be willing to tell the truth about our own sins and failures. Not to everyone, of course, but we do need safe places where we can learn to be more honest about ourselves. I don’t need to tell you that in many places, this isn’t encouraged! Think about something I said earlier in this sermon. I can imagine what some of you were thinking.  “He tells lies? What sort of priest is he?” Well, yes, I’m not proud of the fact, but I have to admit that sometimes I do tell lies. I’m trying to do it less often, but I’m not all the way there yet.

Most pastors have had people sit in their offices at some point, telling sad stories about the messes they’ve gotten themselves in, and then saying, “I wish I had my life together like the other people in this church!” And we pastors smile to ourselves, because we know that if we stay long enough in our congregation, we’ll hear that same line from dozensof people, including highly respected members of the congregation. Highly respected members, that is, who haven’t been honest about themselves and their own struggles.

Back in the 1950s a Bible scholar named William Barclay told a story about the origin of the English word ‘sincere’. Apparently it comes from a Latin phrase that means ‘without wax’. It comes from the world of sculpture. Sometimes in years gone by, a sculptor would make an error and gouge out a hole in a statue that wasn’t meant to be there. A dishonest sculptor would fill in the hole with wax, and then paint it so it looked just like the stonework. A statue that had no such coverup jobs was ‘sin cere’ – ‘without wax’.

Sisters and brothers, Jesus is calling us to be people of integrity—sincere people, people who are honest, open and unpretentious. People who don’t exaggerate to make a good impression or promise more than they can deliver. People who don’t need to take an oath to guarantee their honesty, because they’re known to all the world as people who always tell the truth and keep their word.

How do we get there? As I’ve suggested in this sermon, one way of getting there is to acknowledge that our dishonesty is often about fear: fear of what other people will think if they find out the truth about us. We can address that fear as we learn to trust the God who knows everything about us, but still loves us anyway. And as a church, we can help each other address that fear by gradually letting down our picture-perfect masks with each other, so that everyone knows we’re all in this together. You probably won’t shock the person sitting beside you by letting them know you’re not quite as perfect as they thought! Guess what—neither are they!

Let’s close in prayer.

God of truth, you know how we love to spin illusions with each other, and you know why we do it. Help us learn to really believe, deep down in our hearts, that your love for us is absolute and complete, even though you know the whole truth about us. And help us take the risk of honesty with one another, so that we can rebuild trust and maybe, just maybe, help build a world where illusions are recognized for what they are, and the truth is honoured and loved. We ask these things through the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Some things I’ve learned about marriage

For Valentine’s Day, here’s a slightly edited repost of something I wrote a few years ago.

I’ve made lots of mistakes over the years when it comes to marriage and love, but hopefully I’ve learned a few lessons on the way that might be helpful to a few other people. For the record, this past October Marci and I celebrated our 40th anniversary. She is a very patient woman.

So, in no particular order, here we go:

  • You will have to choose between (a) making enough money to have the same lifestyle as your neighbours, or (b) having enough time to love your spouse and children. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll have time to do both.
  • Be skeptical about 75% of what the media tells you about love and marriage. Most of the people who write those movies and songs haven’t been able to hold down a relationship for more than four or five years.
  • Similarly, be skeptical about how ‘normal sex’ is described in popular novels, movies etc. If you take that as the norm you’ll be setting yourselves up for dissatisfaction and failure. Technique is fine, but love is far, far more important.
  • Remember – love is a choice, not a feeling. If feelings lasted forever we wouldn’t need marriage vows. When the feelings start to wane in intensity, don’t be scared: this is normal. Do what you promised to do anyway, no matter what you feel, and eventually something deeper and stronger will start to grow. This is the most important secret of a lasting marriage.
  • Go out for coffee together regularly, and turn your cell phones off when you do. The object is to get away from distractions and focus on talking.
  • Conventional wisdom tells us ‘lovers look at each other, friends look together at something else’. This may be true, but it hides a deeper truth: your love is more likely to last if it also includes friendship – if, in fact, your spouse is your best friend. And friends aren’t absorbed in each other, they’re absorbed together in something else. So find something you can both get absorbed in, and do it together. This leads to the next point…
  • A marriage needs a mission. Marriages in which the couple are totally focussed on each other, rather than on some form of service to others, are narcissistic marriages. For many couples, the major mission is raising their children to become happy and healthy adults. Don’t see the attention you give to this as competition for your marriage; it’s part of making your marriage less selfish and more loving.
  • Remember that when you learn to love God more than you love your spouse, you will then find that you are loving your spouse far, far more than you did before. It’s a paradox, but it’s true all the same.
  • Put the teaching of Jesus and the apostles into practice in your marriage. Make reconciliation with each other a priority, and if you have a problem with your spouse, speak to them about it first. You’re not perfect, so don’t expect your spouse to be perfect either; be quick to apologise and quick to forgive. Don’t let resentments fester; talk them through as soon as possible. Choose to stay together and work on your problems rather than getting a divorce. Don’t commit adultery with your eyes and your heart, and you probably won’t commit it with your body either. Tell the truth to each other. Live a simple life focussed on God and your neighbour, not on storing up earthly treasure. In other words, being a better follower of Jesus will make you a better marriage partner.
  • Don’t be passive about your marriage; don’t, for instance, take the attitude, “I hope it works out”. Instead, the two of you together take responsibility for making it work out. Expect this to be difficult, and don’t be intimidated by the difficulty.
  • Finally, a word for the guys from the character played by Dennis Quaid in the movie In Good Company. When asked by a younger man what his secret of a lasting marriage is, Quaid’s character replies, ‘You find the right person to get into the foxhole with, and when you’re out of the foxhole, you keep your dick in your pants’. Every time I’ve shared that story in mixed company, the women have shaken their heads about how offensive it is, and the men have nodded their heads, knowing that ‘lowest common denominator’ wisdom is often a good place to start…!!!
(Credits: The first idea, about not having time for both getting rich and loving your family, is adapted from a statement by Mary Pipher in her fine book The Shelter of Each Other. And the idea about loving your spouse more if you love God first is something I first ran across in one of C.S. Lewis’ letters.)

Making a Difference (a sermon on Matthew 5.13-20)

There’s a very important difference between a thermometer and a thermostat. A thermometer tells you what the temperature is inside your house, but it doesn’t actually change anything. A thermostat, on the other hand, is connected to the furnace; it changes things! When the temperature dips below a certain level, the thermostat sends a signal to your furnace, and the burners fire up, and a few minutes later things are toasty warm again. Thermometers give you information about the world. Thermostats change the world. We Christians are called to be thermostats.

Last week at St. Margaret’s we celebrated the Feast of Candlemas, and Susan led us in our reflections on Jesus as the light of the world. So it’s a nice piece of serendipity that Matthew 5.13-20 follows on as our gospel reading for this week. In John, Jesus tells us that he is the light of the world, and all who follow hm will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. But in today’s gospel he turns it around, as he looks straight at us and says, “Youare the light of the world.” In today’s Gospel we think about how we’re called to shine the light of Jesus in the world around us. Like a thermostat in a cold room, a candle in a dark room makes a difference; it changes the world. We’re called to be that change.

I’m glad we celebrated Candlemas last week, but it’s too bad that it preempted the usual gospel reading for the day, which would have been the Beatitudes, the opening passage in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I’d like to suggest to you that the Sermon on the Mount could be called ‘Lessons in the School of Jesus’. Most people who enroll in the School of Jesus do so because of a sense of need in their own lives; we’re coming to Jesus for help for ourselves. That’s fine as a place to start, but we’ll soon discover that the School of Jesus doesn’t just exist for my personal benefit; it exists to change the world. This is very clear as we read through the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts in the Beatitudes by telling us we’re welcome in the Kingdom of God whether we’re saints or sinners, beginners or long-time Christians. But he then goes on immediately to remind us that the purpose of the School of Jesus is to produce disciples—people who can make a difference in the world by being like salt and light. That’s what today’s gospel is about. 

“You are the salt of the earth”, says Jesus in verse 13. The word ‘You’ is a plural; he’s addressing his followers as a community, not just individuals. We, as a community, are to act on the world like salt acts on food.Salt was mainly used in the ancient world to prevent meat from going bad. The purpose of the salt was to influence the meat, not the other way around! So Jesus calls us, his disciples, to have a positive influence on the world around us, and we can’t do that if we’re no different from the world. If we’re going to be useful to the world, we need to be different, to live by different values, to follow a different Master.

In this passage Jesus explicitly warns us about losing our distinctive flavour. Modern table salt actually can’t lose its flavour, but in the ancient world the salt wasn’t pure. It was picked up from the shores of the Dead Sea, and many other impurities were picked up with it, impurities that looked just like salt but actually weren’t. The pure salt was water soluble, so it wouldn’t be uncommon for all the saltiness to be washed away and only the impurities be left. So Jesus warns his disciples: there will be a lot of pressure for you to ‘wash away’ your distinctiveness and blend in with the world around you. He’s warning us not to give in to that temptation, because if we do, we kiss goodbye to any opportunity to make a real difference for God in the world.

And we are to be visibly different; that’s the point of the second illustration. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (vv.14-16).

It’s interesting that in John’s gospel Jesus says, “am the light of the world”, but here in Matthew he says to us, his followers, “You are the light of the world”. Darkness in the Bible stands for evil, sin, and ignorance, and Jesus is bringing light into the world – truth, goodness, and holiness. He calls his disciples to be like him, so that they also may spread his light wherever they may go. And the question for us as a church community is surely this: does our life together as followers of Jesus remind people of our Master? Do they see his light in us?

I think we sometimes have a tendency to assume that they don’t. Many of us have a perfectionistic streak in us, and all we can see is how far we fall short, without giving ourselves room to be thankful for the good things that arehappening. I need to take some responsibility for this, too; Marci sometimes reminds me that I’m the resident Eeyore in our family! But then I remember some years ago when a member of our congregation brought me a cheque for $300. She told me a friend had given it to her to pass on to our church. Her friend wasn’t a member of St. Margaret’s, but she’d heard on the grape vine that we were a church that knew how to be a blessing to the poor and needy. Not a bad reputation to have!

But of course, there always is room for improvement, and so as a community we need to be constantly listening to the teaching of Jesus in the gospels and asking ourselves “How would that change the life of our community? If we actually did what he tells us here, how would we be different?” And then, of course, we need to actually make the necessary changes. That’s what it means to be a Christian church, a community of disciples of Jesus.

But in order for this to happen – in order for us to truly be salt and light and to have a positive influence on the world around us – there needs to be genuine transformation in our own lives, and it can’t just be superficial; it has to go deep. This is what Jesus goes on to address in verses 17-20, where he says,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.

As it stands, there’s an obvious difficulty with this teaching: it doesn’t line up with the practice of Jesus. Jesus actually sat rather lightly to some of the commandments. For instance, he allowed his disciples to harvest grain on the Sabbath. He healed the sick on the Sabbath. He said it was no longer necessary to keep kosher, because it wasn’t unclean food entering the body that made a person impure, but evil actions coming from within. He wasn’t always scrupulous in observing every little detail of the law himself. So how are we to understand this passage?

We need to remember that Jesus was raised in a tradition in which exaggeration was an accepted form of teaching. He talks about a camel going through the eye of a needle, and about not trying to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye when there’s a great plank of wood in your own, and being able to use faith to move mountains. Teachers in Jesus’ day often exaggerated in order to make a point, and we need to take this into account when we’re interpreting what Jesus had to say.

So what’s he trying to say in this passage? Surely the point is that faith in him involves obedience to God’s commandments. Jesus hung out with sinners, but that didn’t mean he was okay with sin; he wasn’t. He wanted to welcome everyone into the kingdom to begin a journey of transformation, so that together they could become people whose lives were visibly different. In this way, he said, he came to fulfil the law and the prophets; his movement would produce people who were more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees, not less.

In the rest of Matthew chapter five Jesus gives us some concrete examples of what he’s talking about, and in every case it’s clear that he’s taking the law and internalizing it. He’s not interested in righteousness that’s only skin-deep; he wants the word of God to penetrate into our hearts, so we’re transformed on the inside as well as the outside.

So it’s not enough, he says, to congratulate yourself because you haven’t murdered anyone. Murder is caused by anger and resentment, and you must root these things out of your lives as well, and do your best to be reconciled to your adversaries instead of nursing a grudge against them for decades. And it’s not enough to congratulate yourself that you’ve never committed adultery, while all the time you’re nursing secret sexual fantasies about other people. It’s not enough to congratulate yourself on the fact that in your divorce you followed the law to the letter; God didn’t establish the institution of marriage with divorce in mind, so we’re called to work for reconciliation. It’s not enough to proudly say that when you take an oath in court you never break it. Why do you need to take an oath in the first place? Are you telling people you can’t be trusted unless you take an oath? It’s not enough to follow the Old Testament law that limits vengeance to exact equivalence—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Rather, don’t take vengeance at all; turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love your enemies, just as your heavenly Father sends sunshine and rain on both good and bad alike.

You see what’s going on here? Jesus is focusing not so much on the letter of the Law, but on the positive values God is looking for – reconciliation, faithfulness, honesty and truth, forgiveness and love for all. This is what Jesus means by ‘fulfilling the Law and the Prophets’, and it helps us make sense of his saying about our righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.

The scribes and Pharisees were seen as the most religious people of their day, but the problem, according to Jesus, was that often their religion was only skin deep. They would keep the commandment about murder but continue to seethe with anger against others and see nothing wrong in that. They would keep the commandment about adultery but continue to nurse lust for others in their hearts. They would keep their oaths but not be so scrupulous about telling the truth at other times. They would congratulate themselves on having achieved an amicable divorce rather than working for reconciliation in their marriages. They conformed to God’s standards outwardly, but inwardly they were unchanged.

This may look good on the outside, but it’s not what Jesus is after. Not that he’s against outward actions. Sometimes that’s the way it works; we learn to do some outward action, and gradually it transforms us on the inside as well. We learn a new habit, which at first is only an outward thing, but gradually it starts to go deeper. Young couples who are madly in love with each other often hold hands, but it works the other way around as well; older couples who continue to hold hands often find that it enhances the love they feel for each other. The outward action is meant to lead to an inward transformation, and it’s the inner transformation that Jesus is most interested in, because that’s what makes it possible for us to make a difference to the world around us.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Everyone is welcome in the Kingdom of God, because God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are. However, he loves us too much to leave us there. He knows that living lives of disobedience and sin is ultimately bad for us, so his purpose is to lead us out of darkness into the light of a new way of life. And he’s not just doing this for our own sake; he wants the whole world to be transformed by his light. We, the disciples of Jesus, are called to be a community that learns a new way of life from our Master, and then practices living it together. We, as a community, are the salt of the earth, the city set on a hill, the light shining for all to see. The world is meant to be able to see our way of life and take note: this is what God’s Kingdom looks like.

But in order for this to happen, our obedience can’t just be skin deep. Rather, the Holy Spirit has to work below the surface to transform us into people who love to do the will of God. As we continue our studies in the Sermon on the Mount next week, we’ll look a little more closely at the examples Jesus gives of the deep work of transformation that God wants to do in us.

From the Heart

This year I’m using the New Living Translation as my daily reading Bible, and I’m reallyIMG_4692 enjoying its direct and vivid style. I follow the One-Year Bible lectionary, which takes me through the entire Old and New Testaments once and the book of Psalms twice in the course of the year. Here was my daily psalm portion for today, from Psalm 31.9-18:

Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in distress.
Tears blur my eyes.
My body and soul are withering away.
I am dying from grief;
my years are shortened by sadness.
Sin has drained my strength;
I am wasting away from within.
I am scorned by all my enemies
and despised by my neighbors—
even my friends are afraid to come near me.
When they see me on the street,
they run the other way.
I am ignored as if I were dead,
as if I were a broken pot.
I have heard the many rumors about me,
and I am surrounded by terror.
My enemies conspire against me,
plotting to take my life.

But I am trusting you, O Lord,
saying, “You are my God!”
My future is in your hands.
Rescue me from those who hunt me down relentlessly.
Let your favor shine on your servant.
In your unfailing love, rescue me.
Don’t let me be disgraced, O Lord,
for I call out to you for help.
Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—

those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.

I’m reminded as I read these verses of two wise things I was taught about the psalms. One of my college professors used to say “The rest of the Bible speaks to us, but the psalms speak for us.” Indeed. And in speaking for us, they give us permission to pray about things we would probably be shy about mentioning if left to ourselves. I don’t usually complain about my neighbours or my enemies in my prayers, but the author of Psalm 31 felt no constraint about this! If he was upset or worried or afraid about something, that made it a valid and acceptable subject for his prayers. And when it comes to the end of the psalm—

‘Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—

those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.’

—well, I can think of a good few contemporary world leaders, and politicians closer to home, who I’m tempted to pray that prayer for!

And that leads me to the second wise thing I was taught about the psalms. I believe it was Eugene Peterson who said ‘The psalms are not the prayers of nice people!’ Look back at that part I quoted one more time:

‘Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—

those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.’

‘Let them lie silent in the grave.’ Is the psalmist praying for the death of his enemies? I think he might well be. And before I get on my high horse and quote Jesus to him on loving his enemies, I might like to consider that I’ve lived a pretty peaceful life, in two countries with free and democratic systems of government. I haven’t been forced to flee my home as a refugee, I haven’t seen family members murdered or raped, I’ve never watched as my city is reduced to rubble by bombing or cannon fire. Maybe if I had, I might have nursed a secret desire for wicked and tyrannical leaders to lie silent in their graves, as quickly as possible. And if I’m feeling that way, God already knows I’m feeling it. So I might as well be honest with God about what’s actually on my heart, rather than pretending to be such a nice, mild-mannered person. I believe it was Thomas Merton who once said that two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves about prayer are (1) “Is it the real me who prays?” and (2) “Is it the real God I’m praying to?”

I come from a tradition that prays the psalms regularly, both at public worship and in private prayer. Psalm 31 is familiar to me; I’ve prayed it many times over the course of my life. How do I enter into a psalm like this, when, as I said, I’ve lived a fairly peaceful and secure life?

What I tend to do is to ask myself “Who am I praying this psalm for today?” I may not be a victim of oppression and violence, but for many people around the world, that’s their daily reality. In the psalms I don’t just pray about my own concerns; I pray for the whole world. So when I pray these words, I can think of the Uyghurs in China, or the Rohingya in Myanmar, or the many countries in the world where gay and lesbian people are in danger of their lives. I can think of the nameless and faceless ones I don’t even know about, but who just need someone to pray for them.

I love the psalms and I enjoy praying them, but there’s one more thing I need to say about them. The psalms are prayers we can use, but they’re also model prayers. They don’t just give us words to pray; they also teach us how to pray. And the lesson is: “Be honest, say what’s really on your heart.”

One of the perils of a liturgical tradition is that we don’t get a lot of practice in that. We Anglican clergy are expected to pray Morning and Evening Prayer every day – a formal liturgy including psalms, canticles, Bible readings, and written prayers. There are a lot of strengths to this tradition, but one weakness is that we can get out of the habit of framing our own prayers, in our own words, from the heart.

And that would be sad. God cares about each of us as individuals; Jesus assures us that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. (My dad used to say “Not just counted, but numbered!”) The psalms give us permission to pour out our hearts to God, honestly and openly:

‘O my people, trust in him at all times.
Pour out your heart to him,
for God is our refuge’ (Psalm 62.8 NLT)

In using the psalms in prayer, it would be tragic if we let ourselves get out of the habit of doing that.