Tuesday, January 29, 2013
The Wisdom of Jesus
Sermon for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
January 26, 2013
Sunday, I got a text from a man half my age asking if he could go running with me. The mutual friend who put us together said something about my not being too hard on him. I should have suspected a set up, but I naively agreed for him to run with me.
I took him to my favorite route near our house. It's a little mountain called Mt. Peak. A bit over a thousand feet of elevation gain and close to a mile and a half from the trail head to the top. The trail is pretty much unrelenting up, a rather steep grade.
I hadn't run since last fall. But oh well.
Fifty yards up the trail, I'm apologizing, saying, “I can't keep this pace.” I slow to a jog that is just barely more than a walk. Another fifty yards, I'm walking, reasonably fast, but still, I'm walking. Bill makes excuses for me. “Staying in shape is part of my job.” But he refuses to join me in walking. He stays about six inches ahead doing a dancing jog on his toes beckoning me up the mountain.
Even at a walk, I'm pushing hard enough that I'm gasping for breath. I can barely participate in the conversation he is trying to have. We work our way up the mountain. When the slope eases I jog, when it resumes its climb I go back to pushing the fastest walk I can. In the last quarter mile, my heart is screaming. My lungs are burning. I'm feeling a bit sick to my stomach. Bill is still dancing lightly on his toes, just inches ahead, but always inches ahead. I half expect him to turn and dance uphill backwards as he watches me struggle. He doesn't, but neither does he ever ease into a walk.
I remembered my haughty words in a sermon a few weeks ago when I was joking about young adults who couldn't keep up on a climb in the Rockies. This is fitting pay back.
We get to the top and I collapse on a bench for sixty seconds then it's back down. That feels good. We run easily the mile to the bottom, then we're headed back up. I don't even pretend. I cannot run up this hill, I'm walking. Bill is dancing. Just ahead. Close enough to tease me, far enough ahead to never give me a second of rest.
As we ran, I learned more about him.
Bill is a commander in the Army special forces. Staying in shape is an essential part of his job. When he's running down some jungle track in Asia with the eleven men in his unit, walking is not an option. When they had to cover twenty miles on a night mission in Iraq, getting tired could mean getting killed. Running was part of his job. So of course, I had no hope of matching him.
Still, he came and ran with me. Six inches ahead. Beckoning. Enticing me into a level of effort I exerted in years. Back at the house he asked if I'd like to do it again. There was no scorn, no condemnation, just an invitation to exceed my natural pace by running with him.
I don't get paid to run. I am not really embarrassed that I can't keep up with a thirty-one year old special forces commander. BUT running with him has given me a whole new inspiration to get out there and move. Thursday I was back on the mountain, pushing myself up the trail. Next time I run with Bill, I hope to be able to maintain at least a slow jog all the way up the hill. I'll never match him, but I can do better than I did on Monday.
Another story: A man a bit older than I am stopped by the church to visit. We sat in my office and Jack immediately launched into a description of the latest iteration of his thinking on the pathology of Adventist culture. He condescendingly detailed inelegant aspects of Adventist pop theology. He was an expert, offering sage commentary on the church system. He had ideas about what kinds of changes would improve the denomination. Jack's articles in Spectrum or Adventist Today would neatly arrange the life and thinking of the church in bullet points and sociological categories and provide a a interesting springboard for "conversation."
The title of my sermon today is the wisdom of Jesus. Frequently Adventists imagine wisdom as learned discussion. Wise people sit around and discuss the failings and bumblings of simple people and true believers. We imagine that wisdom consists of ideas—the more nuanced and polished and ambivalent the wiser. Wisdom is analysis. For those of us whose engagement with life is strongly cognitive, this is lots of fun.
And it has very little to do with the wisdom of Jesus.
The wisdom of Jesus is more Bill's run up the mountain, six inches ahead of me, beckoning me, spurring me to greater effort, a higher level of performance.
Sometimes in church circles, when we think of wisdom we think of doctrines and theories about God and notions about the end of the world. One topic in particular that has roiled the Christian church for at least the last five hundred years is the nature of religious authority. Who has the right to define religious orthodoxy? What do we mean when we say the Bible is inspired? Where does the highest authority reside where there is religious controversy?
We find Jesus involved in a discussion like this in our scripture reading.
When Jesus returned to the Temple and began teaching, the leading priests and elders came up to him. They demanded, "By what authority are you doing all these things? Who gave you the right?" "I'll tell you by what authority I do these things if you answer one question," Jesus replied "Did John's authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?" They talked it over among themselves. "If we say it was from heaven, he will ask us why we didn't believe John. But if we say it was merely human, we'll be mobbed because the people believe John was a prophet." So they finally replied, "We don't know." And Jesus responded, "Then I won't tell you by what authority I do these things. Matthew 21:23-27
Jesus dismisses the whole issue of “authority” as a mere theoretical concern. The relevant question is what are you doing with the insights that God offers through whatever source? What was it that John the Baptist preached that these religious leaders found so difficult?
Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don't just say to each other, 'We're safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.' That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God's judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire."
The crowds asked, "What should we do?" John replied, "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry."
Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, "Teacher, what should we do?" He replied, "Collect no more taxes than the government requires."
Soldiers asked, “What should we do?" John replied, "Don't extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay." Luke 3:8-14.
John challenged the people to apply moral principles in their immediate situation. If you have extra, share. If you are a tax collector, be scrupulously honest. If you have the power a soldier had in that setting to pad your pay check with bribes—resist the temptation. Be content with your pay.
The radical message of John the Baptist was: do what you know. Apply in your own life the high moral principles which the Jewish people had developed as the highest, best meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures.
If Jesus had answered the question the religious experts asked, they would have launched in a “wise” discussion of the nature of authority. They would have skated right past the moral challenge that lay at the heart of Jesus ministry.
Jesus dismissed their question about authority. It was a dodge. It was a way to avoid the most important questions. And it nearly always is.
I grew up the South. In the world I grew up in the Christian church was obsessed with authority. Churches incessantly, stridently hammered away at their core conviction about the authority of the “Word of God.” The Bible was inerrant, infallible. Preachers blasted the corrupt liberals (Yankees) who watered down God's word.
AND the Christian church in the South that I grew up in used the full force of that divine authority to perpetuate an ugly, evil system of oppression. White people were taught IN CHURCH to accept societal norms of underpaying, over prosecuting, and subjugating in every conceivable way those who were a different color.
That was then. Now, here in Seattle, the most well-known champion of Bible authority just happens to also be a champion of male privilege. He wraps his flamboyant defenses of male prerogatives (and other traditional rankings) in the cloak of divine authority mediated through the Bible.
When Christians pound the pulpit in defense of authority, look closely: Whose privileges are they defending?
The gospels report that frequently the crowds listening to Jesus were astonished at his authority. What prompted these reactions? Especially in the light of the passage above where Jesus refused to participate in a debate over the nature of religious authority?
Jesus' authority showed up in two ways: One, he exercised astonishing power over the forces of darkness. Demons fled at his command. Two, when Jesus challenged people to do something, when he called them to action, their own consciences agreed with his words. The authority of Jesus was not in the Old Testament, it was not in Jewish tradition. Though both of these supported the high ideals Jesus articulated. The authority of Jesus lived in the minds and hearts, the souls, of those who heard him. The Spirit was actively endorsing the ideals Jesus voiced.
Jesus called to action, to moral action, to loving action, to great effort in the direction that conscience instinctively recognized as true and beautiful.
After blithely dismissing the religious scholars' attempt to engage him in a debate over the nature of his authority, Jesus offers an illustration.
"What do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, 'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.' The son answered, 'No, I won't go,' but later he changed his mind and went anyway . Then the father told the other son, 'You go,' and he said, 'Yes, sir, I will.' But he didn't go. "Which of the two obeyed his father?" They replied, "The first." Then Jesus explained his meaning: "I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn't believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins. Matthew 21: 28-32
The older son said, “No!” to his father's request. But his conscience went to work. He remembered the goodness of his Father, the hard work and integrity of his father. And his conscience bent his life in the right direction. He went and tended the vineyard.
The younger son said, “Yes!” to his father. Then having put his conscience to sleep with this expression of agreeableness, the younger son went off and played.
Sometimes the church does the same. In the South for a hundred years the Christian church shouted “Yes!” to the authority of the Bible. That loud yes anesthetized their consciences and allowed the church to be deeply complicit in a horrific system of oppression.
I wonder how it was here in the Northwest, when Japanese Americans were herded into camps. Did the Christians churches protest? Or did they bless the efforts of the authorities to secure our nation against the "yellow threat?"
In the days leading up to the Iraq war, why was it that surveys showed Christians as the population segment most in favor of bombing that nation into oblivion? Their fascination with authority blinded them to the real moral issues involved.
True religion is not a matter of getting our words right, of getting our doctrines right. True religion is a community working together to foster God's goodness in God's world. Authentic Christian religion means repenting—that's a fancy word for turning. It involves constant readjusting, pointing our lives again and again and again toward the highest ideals of love, justice, mercy, self-control, wisdom, wholeness.
In the South it was often atheists and Jews whose consciences led them to actively resist the oppression that was blessed in the churches. These people, who were damned according to Christian orthodoxy, were far closer to the kingdom of heaven than all the Christian preachers and theologians who shouted “Yes” to the sacred authority of the New Testament.
Let's make sure that in our world, it is not the non-Christians who are most responsive to the ideals Jesus articulated and lived.
Jesus is the supreme commander of the special forces of the Kingdom of Heaven. He calls us to run with him. Of course, we'll never have the stamina and speed of our leader. He can waltz up mountains that reduce us to crawling. But he doesn't run off and leave us. He dances just ahead, beckoning, enticing us to run faster, push harder, aim higher.
The distance between us and the ideals spelled out by Jesus is not a measure of our condemnation, it is a measure of his invitation. He is not frowning at our efforts. He is pleased we have agreed to run with him, no matter how slow and clumsy our efforts.
In his ministry Jesus demonstrated a radical commitment to human well-being. He eased pain and hunger. He healed and enlightened. He calls us to carry forward that work. In our world at the present time, the one factor that undergirds almost every other measure of human well-being is economics. Do you want to reduce infant mortality? Raise the income level of the parents. Do you want to increase the odds that young people who get married will stay married? Increase their income. Do you want to reduce obesity, lower the crime rate, curb the spread of HIV? Every one of these measures of quality of life is more strongly correlated with income than anything else.
I hope some of you young people will dedicate yourselves to changing the economic realities of this world.They don't teach us how to do that in seminary. You can't learn that in medical school. Some of you who are in your teens or twenties now, can acquire the knowledge and skills to help shape an economic reality that improves the quality of life for millions. You can't find the details for designing an effective tax code or labor policy or legal system in some particular chapter and verse. But your commitment to run with Jesus can give you supernatural wisdom. Running with Jesus will fire your vision. And the world will be better for your efforts.
In coming weeks we're going to explore the wisdom of Jesus as it is presented in the famous Sermon on the Mount. I hope you will hear in it an irresistible invitation to come run with Jesus, a challenge to pursue the highest imaginable ideals.