From this week...
2011-02-14 by David Howell

Pastoral Implications of Matthew 5:38-48

Revenge is as natural as any human impulse. When we are hurt, we tend to want to hurt back. When we have been insulted or criticized, we tend to want to insult or criticize back. When attacked, we attack back. The problem with revenge is that it creates more hurt and more revenge. The world is filled with cycles of revenge in all of the major war torn lands.

We should not think that we modern westernized nations are any more immune from the cycle of revenge. Yes, perhaps we are not as lawless or violent, but watch any court of law, watch any divorce proceeding, watch any dysfunctional couple argue, watch children on a playground after school, watch the evening news that describes gang warfare, or watch how professional athletes respond to a humiliating loss. The instinct for revenge runs deep in the human psyche. It takes a variety of forms and expressions besides the more obvious forms of violence that fill the news.

These verses embody Jesus’ approach to the problem of revenge and his nonviolent ethic. Jesus’ solution is to turn the other cheek. He tells us to be like a sponge, to absorb hurt and evil. Do not return evil for evil, hurt for hurt, insult for insult, blow for blow, even an eye for an eye. Rather, respond with mercy, not justice. Respond with forgiveness, not revenge. This is a tall order! This is a great ideal, but difficult to put into practice in real life situations filled with hurt, anger, and even evil. It is hard work.

Generally, there are four categories of response to violence or human generated evil.

1. There is overkill. This is unregulated revenge. This is the ethic of gangs and terrorists. You insult me and I kill you…all of you.

2. There is a measured in-kind response, captured in the Law’s "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Upon this principle most of the modern justice system is built.

3. There is passive resistance or nonviolent response, captured in the verse, "do not return evil for evil." Protect yourself, but do not take aggressive action toward the offender.

4. There is a proactive loving response captured in Jesus’ commandment to "love your enemies." Overcome evil with good. Actively seek out and understand the other, eventually securing reconciliation.

Our ability to respond to evil in these increasingly more difficult steps depends on our personal resources and on the intensityof the situation we are encountering. There are some people who seem to respond only with overkill, and it is all we can do as a civilized people to control such persons with laws and prisons. There are some people who are naturally easy going, forgiving, and accommodating. For still others, there are situations where the hurt is so deep that to "return evil for evil" is the automatic response. Hopefully, Christ does not demand perfection from us every time, but does expect us to push "our response level" up one step on the ethical ladder.

As we try to be helpful to our congregants may I suggest a few more guidelines? First, try to see the humanity of the offender. Try to see their anger and offensive behavior as a sign of their weakness, their immaturity, and their desperation. Secondly, try to gather information and understand what causes the offender to do evil. What drives or drove him or her to it? Thirdly, try to avoid taking the evil personally. Most of the time, we are not unique as victims. Similar unjust and hurtful events have happened to a wide variety of people, not just to us. Finally, make a distinction in your mind between the primary emotional reaction we have and our secondary emotional reactions. For example, the primary or first emotional reaction is usually hurt or fear, but it is quickly followed by a secondary emotion, anger and a desire to take revenge. When evil strikes, encourage your parishioners to pause, count to ten, try to get in touch with and stay in touch with their primary feelings whatever they are. Sharing one’s tears is often better at breaking the cycle of revenge than expressing anger.

Resisting our initial instinct to take revenge or even showing love toward our enemies is hard work! It is not easy. It is not natural. You and I and our parishioners cannot fulfill these commandments alone. We need a community of faith. We Christians literally cannot be "like Christ" without the support and encouragement of one another. Our congregations must be places where peace and forgiveness are fostered, practiced, and encouraged.

Further, we must stay connected with the one who is also "slow to anger." By staying connected to Christ, and through Christ to God, we will be transformed. Then and only then can we become transforming. In the end if we truly come to love our enemies it will not be due to our own efforts, but God’s grace acting through us.

R. Scott Sullender

Matthew 5; the Second Use of the Law
2011-02-12 by David von Schlichten

My sermon at the cafe is on Matthew 5 in general and how demanding it is. I consider that some of the teachings are not to be taken literally while others are but are not to be adhered to rigidly. I suggest that love is to be the key guiding principle when one tries to interpret Matthew 5.

I conclude with what we Lutherans call the second use of the Law, which is to remind us humans of the need for the cross of Christ. We look at the Law, say, "Wow, I can't do all this," and God replies, "That's right. That's why you needed me to die for you."

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

2011-02-10 by David Howell

Preaching Deuteronomy 30:15-20

With Valentine’s Day at hand, preachers may be tempted by the text’s use of the word "heart". "If your heart turns away…I declare to you today that you shall perish," (vv. 17-18). With a little homiletical extrapolation an "As the Heart Turns" kind of sermon could be built around the notion that the disposition of the heart undergirds our life-and-death choices. The fickleness of God’s people could be decried, rivalry between God and other gods underlined. However a hearts-and-flowers approach to today’s text represents a risk, possibly a hermeneutical travesty. The word "heart" occurs only once in these six verses. Its Ancient Near Eastern definition is several worlds away from Hallmark’s. Most importantly, this text’s legitimate themes have a magnitude about them that is hard to overstate. Substantial and sober, they paint the passage in heavy strokes. Pink, lacy sermons are the last kind of treatment Deuteronomy 30 deserves.

A stronger word-study approach might focus on the word "life". It is the Gospel word in the text, the word that most-captures the Good News. It refers, of course, to more than the spirit of animation or a person’s "length of days" (v.20). A quick reading of the passage shows this understanding of "life" is something associated with loving, obeying, and a white-knuckled hold on God (vv.16, 20). Though the writer’s division of "life’s" characteristics into three categories has no doubt given rise to any number of tidy tripartite sermons, there are many layers to the term.

The "life" that Moses urges the Israelites to choose is more than consciousness, more than the antonym of death, and anything but tidy. In fact it is the very thing their parents tripped over. It is the life their parents were denied, the life the first generation of the Exodus passed up when nearly forty years earlier they had their turn on the banks of the Jordan. Where the first generation failed to love-obey-hold enough to get across the river and into the Promised Land, the second generation is now being given the chance to make the leap. In the strongest possible terms ("I call heaven and earth to witness…" v.19) Moses exhorts the grandchildren of the Exodus to find their spiritual nerve. Ancient Israel is on the brink of choosing what their parents never knew, the fullness of life that comes from facing the Jordan.

These are dynamics contemporary congregations understand. Whether the sermon treats the Jordan in terms of its most famous metaphor (death) or more generally as a trial of faith, contemporary listeners know this spiritual road. Long bouts of grieving, years of unrelieved unemployment and chronic pain management are part of most every faith community. Life in the Orange Alert era is characterized by all that holds us in death’s thrall: endless wrangling over sex, who is in and who is out, enmity between the right and left flanks of the church, obliviousness to all but our own personal concerns, and addiction to whatever palliative—spiritual or pharmacological—comes to hand.

We all have lie-awake nights. Figments of violent teenagers, financial ruin, and irrational bosses jump the fences of our mental motion picture screens, making us wish for a few friendly sheep. We look around for a hero who can show us the way out. What we find has clay feet and the same need for reassurance we already know so well. How can we find the help we need to get out of our confusion and into a healthier chapter, out of darkness and into light, out of the desert and into those well-watered alluvial planes?

Deuteronomy offers several answers to the question. One of the most useful to twenty-first century congregations is found in the texts’ peculiar use of "cleaving." "Holding fast" or "holding on hard" to God, the way a piggy-backer clings to the piggy-backee is one of the text’s more interesting ideas. The word used elsewhere to describe how a young groom sticks to his gorgeous bride despite his mother’s dark looks, is used here to describe a key ingredient of the fullness of life. The challenge of faith is about "loving, obeying, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days" (v.20).

This is life with a capital "L" Deuteronomy seems to say. It is the kind of life where God is not skulking off to the side of the screen or flitting in the margin of consciousness. In this kind of life God is not available only in peripheral vision, not next to or behind you on the river banks, but is standing smack in front of you in the middle of the white water, arms extended. It’s the kind of life you enter into when you decide that there is no father figure on his way to rescue you, there is no mythical hero in the wings, no experienced old head who will come and solve the problem. There is only you and God eyeball-to-eyeball. This is the kind of life you find when you find God dead center and filling the screen—not in your weakness but in your strength, not in your suffering but in your life.

Jana Childers

Isaiah 58:1-12; the Super Bowl
2011-02-04 by David von Schlichten

Thank you to Stephen Schuette for his contribution. Stephen offers useful insights about the images of salt and light in Matthew 5:13-20. Scroll down to taste and see.

In the ELCA, our first reading for this Sunday is Isaiah 58:1-12. In this passage, the Israelites are fasting, but God is not impressed because they are neglecting to help people in need.

In my sermon for this Sunday (which you can read at the cafe), I speak of first things and second things. Loving God and others is the highest of first things, while practices such as fasting are second things. The Israelites are confusing second things and first things. We often do, as well.

Sports, especially events such as the Super Bowl, are treated in America (and elsewhere) as first things. I live in Steelers country, where people revere the black and gold. There's nothing wrong with enjoying sports, as long as we remember that they are second things, not first things.

It is a great challenge to keep first things first and second things second. Thanks be to God that God always keeps us first.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

Knowing Who We Are
2011-02-03 by Stephen Schuette

Matthew 5:13-20; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16

You are salt and light!  It seems so straight-forward and direct.  And Paul’s assertion that, “We have received…the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” affirms something powerfully essential about us too.

We have, perhaps, taken to heart something that Paul has also suggested, to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought.  But these passages also seem to say that we make an equally terrible mistake by thinking of ourselves more lowly than we ought.  For can an emphasis on our sins, our flaws, our failures begin to settle into us in a way that locks us into place so that we become even more of what we believe, or at least rehearse about ourselves? ….I am a sinner…I am a sinner…I am a sinner…

In contrast think of Psalm 8.  And most 12-step programs have switched their customary introduction from "I'm John and I'm an alcoholic," to "I'm John and I'm dry 12 years."

To be sure, Dietrich Bonhoeffer heard in the Sermon on the Mount a word against cheap grace – the idea that we don’t need to do anything more than receive grace and then go about our business again.  (See The Cost of Discipleship)  But could it also be that cheap grace cheapens us, cheapens our whole value and worth, cheapens what God not only made us to be but then further redeemed and empowered us to be?

The last half of the Matthew passage, beginning in vs. 17 may seem hard.  And it smacks of a little defensive/competitive PR in relationship to the developing post-temple Judaism in the community to which Matthew is preparing this gospel, since this is unique Matthean material.  Did those continuing in strict Judaism view the followers of Jesus as sliders and slackers in their new relationship with the law?

But this passage, too, in its own way affirms the ability and potential to not only fulfill but “exceed” in righteousness.  Not, however, because of our effort, but through that spirit of grace that empowers us for this.  Ever work harder and get further behind?  A healthy drive isn’t bad.  But it matters a great deal what is doing the driving.

I hear, finally, a message of hope for who God made us to be in all these passages.

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