Monday, March 12, 2018

Giving Up the Idea the World is a Safe Place

”Giving Up the Idea the World Is A Safe Place”
Matthew 10:16-23

In Boston, last Saturday, a 22-year-old woman was studying and doing work at a table in the Winchester Public Library’s reading room.  Then, apparently for no reason, 23-year-old Jeffrey Yao attacked her with a 10-inch knife. The woman suffered numerous slash and stab wounds to her head and upper torso, and later died of her wounds.  Several people tried to help her, including a 77-year-old man who was stabbed in the arm.  He was treated and released.

Stories like this get lost in the horrific news of mass shootings like the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada, leaving 58 people dead and 851 injured; or, in Orlando, Florida where a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 58 others in a nightclub; and, the latest where 17 were killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Not to mention the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where the gunman killed 26 and injured 20 others.

It seems like every week we are cast into the middle of the most recent mass shooting in large cities and small towns alike.

And then there are natural disasters such as hurricanes, and earthquakes, and the possibility that Yellowstone National Park will erupt into a super volcano; not to mention tornados like the one that nearly destroyed Greensburg, 30 miles down the road.

And then there are world leaders, including our own, who are posturing and bragging about how big their nuclear buttons are, and how close they are to pushing them.

Here in our town, we recently had a handful of bike riding thieves terrorizing people, and doors were being double-locked and surveillance systems were being bought and installed.

Do you feel safe?  Just because we live in a small, south central Kansas town, does that make us immune to the tragedies that happen in the world every day?   It doesn’t matter where or who you are.  It certainly is enough to make you look over your shoulder while you’re checking out books at the library, in case some whack job walks in with a hunting knife and starts stabbing people.

It is a crazy world.

One of the things I remember from my studies in Sociology is what’s called “the law of mutual predictability.”  What the law of mutual predictability is, is that when we are dealing with others in social situations, or just every day situations, we can mutually predict how the other is going to behave.  It’s based on how we have all agreed to abide by certain mutually predictable behaviors, so we don’t have to be guessing all the time about how others are going to behave.

An example might be, when you’re walking down the sidewalk, and someone is walking toward you from the opposite direction, you can mutually predict you will pass each other without altercation.  You can predict that that other person isn’t going to suddenly stick their foot out and trip you onto our face on the sidewalk for no reason.  That’s just not the unspoken social agreement we have with others who share the sidewalk.

But it’s these very random acts of misbehavior, that break that law of mutual predictability, that make our world so bizarre and dangerous.  Because they aren’t just some socially mischievous person trying to trip you on the sidewalk.  It’s someone cutting a hole in their upper floor motel window so they can slide a high power rifle through that hole and try to shoot you.  That’s just not supposed to happen.

I should be able to expect that I can go to the public library and read a book in solitude and quiet without someone trying to stab me to death.  I should be able to go to school and see my friends, and have a crush on some girl who doesn’t know I exist, and get homework assignments I can groan about; not, hide under my desk and have someone randomly walk up to me and shoot me.

None of those people in the events I listed at the outset of this message, got up that morning and said to themselves as they looked in the mirror, “I predict I’m going to get shot today; or stabbed; or tripped on the sidewalk by some idiot and break my nose.”  No.  They looked in the mirror and said, “This is going to be such a great day!  I’m going to a concert tonight;” or, “I’m finally going to ask that girl out,”; or, “I’m looking forward to going to the library and get some research done.”

You just never know, anymore.  And that’s why our world is such a messed up place.  There is no, total, mutual predictability anymore.

Now here’s the hardest thing about all that.  Right here in the Bible, right here in the verses Deb read, it tells us that’s the very world Jesus sends us out into.  And Jesus has to tell us, as we are being sent out into that world, to, “stay alert,” or as the NIrV has it, “Watch out!”

Yeah, I guess so, since Jesus describes the world out there as a wolf pack:  I’m sending you out as sheep among wolves.”  Thanks a lot.  To the Wolfpack world, we look like lamb chops on four legs.  Great.

But it’s not just the way of the world that gets me in this statement of Jesus.  It isn’t just about the hazards of the world.  The “wolf pack” is an aptly descriptive term for the hazards and dangers of the world as it is.

One of the ways Christians have tried to cope with the wolf pack world is to live outside of it, in closed communities, cloistered away, cut off from the world.  Or, like the Christian monks who became hermits—the so-called desert fathers and mothers—who tried to escape from the world by isolating themselves, trying to be faithful in that way.

But that’s not the way Jesus wanted his believers and followers to respond to the dangerous world.  In fact, Jesus’ way is the direct opposite:  “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves...”. Jesus is not telling his followers to avoid the wolf pack world, but to throw themselves into the middle of it.

I have spent a certain amount of time in Benedictine monasteries during study leave.  It’s nice, even safe, to be in those places for a week or two at a time.  Everything is quiet.  Everyone smiles.  Conversation is easy.  Books are plentiful.  The law of mutual predictability is as thick as maple syrup.  As nice as that is, it’s not what Jesus told us to do.

By contrast, there are a group of Jesuits in a monastery in Hollywood, who do things a bit differently.  Even though they all live in the monastery, they all have secular jobs out in the real world of Hollywood and other parts of greater LA.  They are out there, trying to make their Christian lives work in the unsafe, secular, wolf-eat-wolf world.  I find that very intriguing.  That’s, at least, closer to what Jesus is asking us to do in these verses.

So certainly we might be asking ourselves, Why would Jesus do that?  Why would Jesus nearly demand that we put ourselves as believers in harms way?

Yet, God did that with Jesus—His own Son—by plunking him down in the world.  Being a Christian doesn’t automatically or magically keep you safe.  Because we aren’t asked to live in a safe place.  Being a Christian doesn’t give you a pass card from the horrors of the world.  Instead, apparently, being a Christian puts us in the middle of a horrifying wolf pack.

Thus, learning and growing into being a Christian is not learning how to avoid the wolf pack world.  Instead it is learning how to live in the midst of that wolf pack world and surviving.

How does Jesus describe this wolf pack world?  What can we expect will be some of the various behaviors that will be unleashed upon us in this unsafe world?

First, Jesus said, “Some people will impugn your motives...”. In other words, people are going to attack your faith and try to get you to doubt why you believe the way you do, and why you act the way you do as followers of Jesus.  They will try to get you to second guess this whole Jesus thing, and why you would ever want to be Jesus’ disciple.

So, in order to protect yourself from such wolffish attacks, you have to know what your motives are in the first place for wanting to be a disciple.  You have to know why you believe what you do, and why you act the way you do.  If you don’t, when the wolves attack, you won’t be able to defend yourselves.  Because you won’t know yourselves.

Secondly, Jesus said the wolves will try to smear your reputation.  Everyone has a reputation.  It’s just a matter if it’s a good one or bad one.  I guess a person can rest easy if they have a bad reputation—there’s nothing to smear that isn’t all dirty anyway.

But if you have a good reputation, that will be one of the first places the wolves will attack.  Because if they can get you to trip up, and besmirch your reputation, then they’ve got you.  The assumption here, in Jesus’ statement, is that you have a reputation to smear.  So the best way to protect yourself is to build a great personal reputation, and work hard to keep it sparkling.

Thirdly, Jesus said the wolves will haul you before the authorities.  This is doubly scary, because it says, first that the wolves have the power to do so.  And secondly, and probably more scary, it says the authorities are as corrupt as the wolves.  The wolves wouldn’t want to haul you before authorities who are just and fair and righteous.  The wolves want to get you in front of authorities who are corrupt, who have sacrificed their sparkling reputations already, and don’t care at all for those of us who are followers of Jesus.

And fourthly, and most sad of all, the wolves may be members of our own families.  There may be family members who don’t get Jesus, let alone being one of his followers.  And they will do everything they can to sabotage your relationship with Jesus, and the reasons you are following Him.

Family members may feel judged by being around you, even though that’s not your intention.  They want the family to be like it was before you became all religious.  So they may play the part of the wolves, trying to get you to compromise your faith, so you can again become like them—for the sake of the family.  Like I said, it’s hard to fathom how even our families can become a part of the unsafe, and wolffish world.

There’s a lot of howling going on out there in the world.  Just having to hear that can make us timid and afraid and want to hide out somewhere.  But Jesus isn’t giving us that option.  Instead, Jesus is asking us to be courageous enough in our faith in him to walk out into that wolffish world, where all the howling is going on, and be his faithful sheep.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Giving Up Enemies

”Giving Up Enemies”
Matthew 5:43-48

A reporter was interviewing a man on his 100th birthday. "What are you most proud of?" the reporter asked.
"Well, " said the man, "I don't have an enemy in the world."
"What a beautiful thought! How inspirational!" said the reporter.
"Yep," added the 100 year old, "outlived every last one of them."

Not many of us are going to live to be 100 years old.  Which means not many of us are going to be able to outlive our enemies.  So we’re going to have to come up with a Plan B for how we’re going to deal with our enemies.

Of course you know which Plan B I’m going to choose:  Jesus’.  As difficult as Jesus’ statements are about how we are supposed to relate to our enemies, I think what Jesus teaches is the best plan, short of living 100 years.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons the Lord doesn’t allow many of us to live to be 100–to force us to find holier ways to deal with enemies than hoping to outlive them all.

So let’s look at Jesus’ statements about enemies and see where we are led.

First, who is an enemy?  The word Jesus used for enemy literally means someone who is hated or is hateful.  The word, odious, came up which describes someone who evokes hatred out of others; someone who is highly offensive.  But mostly, an enemy is someone who is oppositional and hostile.

So, something that makes an enemy is not only what they do.  It’s also our reactive attitude towards that person and what they do.  If another person evokes hatred, makes us take offense, or opposes us, we have to ask at least two questions:

First, why do they act like that?  What is it about their lives that makes them so cantankerous?  What is it about their background that may have created the “odious” person?  Why are they an enemy?  In order to understand that, it will take some time and patience from us—and especially risk—to get to know that person and their story.  Maybe, once we get to know their story, we will understand them a bit better and our reactions to them may change.

And that’s the second question:  Why do I react like I do towards this person?  Is it really something about them or about me?  What is it about us that creates reactive feelings of hatred, and take offense so quickly and easily?  Do we need to examine some of that within ourselves so that we can come at our enemy differently?

Verse 44 says, “Let them (meaning our enemies) bring out the best in you, not the worst.”  We are the ones who are in charge of our reactions to our enemies.  We are the ones who decide what we allow to be evoked from us and what is not.  Thus the question we need to ask is, “Am I reacting appropriately to this person whom I have decided is my enemy?”  I’ll say more about the answers to this question in just a moment.

Jesus further described an enemy as someone who “persecutes” you.  What is interesting about this word that Jesus used is that persecute, here, means, “to make you run away; to drive you away; to put you off.”  Normally we think of persecutors as those who are intentionally harassing you and being oppressive.  That intentional harassment is demonstrated by the enemy’s pursuit of you to continue that harassment.

But what Jesus is describing is someone who is making your life difficult in order to keep you at arms length, or push you away.  That is a lot different than someone being outwardly belligerent and downright hurtful all the time towards you for apparently no reason.  What Jesus is describing as enemy activity is an intentional action on their part to keep you in particular away from them.  The obvious question, then, is “Why?”

Maybe, as you now think about your own personal enemies, and asking that “why” question, you may already know the answer.  I would guess that we all have an inkling about why certain people are trying to keep us at arms length.  Why they are trying to stay away from us.

So, let’s get back to the question of our own reactions to our enemies, rather than focus on those enemy’s behavior.

Jesus said that in dealing with an enemy, our responsibility is to, “ out of your true selves, your God created selves” (vs. 45).  The emphasis of Jesus in this whole paragraph is on our reaction, not the enemy’s demeanor or behavior.  The person Jesus is asking us to change is not the enemy, but ourselves and our response to the enemy.

Jesus forces us to look at our own identity first, and by so doing, remember who we are:
—God-created selves
—kingdom subjects
—God-created identity

In forcing us to look at who we really are as believers, as we have to deal with the reality of enemies, Jesus is making us ask another question:  Who is setting the agenda of how the relationship with the enemy is going to unfold?  The answer is simple:  Don’t let the enemy set the agenda for your reactivity to their hateful, push away behavior.  That is up to you.  Because of who you are:  God-created with a God-created identity, not a self-created identity (which ties in with last weeks sermon about giving up your self).

Our responsibility, in reaction to our enemy, is to do what we can do.  But most important is be who we are going to be.  Let our own God-created identity be what we are most concerned about.

Jesus then describes what that God-created identity looks like, if we aren’t sure.  Jesus says, “Do what God does:  Give your best; make no distinction about who you share your best self with; God gives the sun to warm and the rain to nourish to everyone, regardless.  That’s a great description of our God-created identity.

I’m afraid, in dealing with our enemies, we act more out of our self-created identity.  What that looks like is we are results oriented.  Jesus is saying, be like God:  just be who you are, and don’t worry about results.  Results is kind of a western culture thing—the pay off, the bottom line, success.

That’s not our concern in dealing with enemies.  We aren’t to ask questions like,
—Did we succeed in changing their miserable lives?
—Did we win?
—Were we able to manipulate them to be better people, like us?
—Did we bring them up to our level, since they were the ones down so low?

Instead, we ask,
—Was I true to my God-given identity?
—Was I giving my Godly best, with no ulterior motives?
—Did I behave out of my God-created self?
—Was I warming like the sun?  Was I nourishing like the rain?
—And was I giving that warmth and that nourishment, no matter what?

Our enemies may change if we act out of the second set of questions, rather than the first.  They may change, and not try so hard to stiff arm us away.  And that may happen because of who we are, not what we are trying to do.

But, then again, they may not.  Our only concern is to be our God-created self, not our self-created self.

And lastly, Jesus said, in dealing with our enemies, “...respond with the energies of prayer...”.  In prayer, who are we communicating with?  That’s right, God.  In prayer, we’re not communicating with our enemies.  We’re communicating with God.

Why is that important?   If we are responding only with the energies of our own thinking and feelings, we aren’t getting any other input into what is going on.  It isn’t in our nature to challenge ourselves, to challenge who we are as we relate to other people.  It is more our human nature to blame, deflect and deny.  So, acting out of our own thinking and feelings puts us back into that closed feedback loop where nothing new is allowed in, and nothing about our flawed way of thinking and feeling is allowed to exit.

In prayer, we put ourselves in the presence of God, we immerse ourselves in God, and thereby get in touch with our God-created self.  Once that has happened, then we get those great, “Ah-ha” insights that lead us on the right path in our relationships—even if that relationship is with a so-called enemy.  All of a sudden, in the energy of prayer, we see clearly, not about the other person, but about ourselves.

But we need to pay attention to that still, small voice that is God’s, and we can only do that when we are in prayer.

My daughter Kristin wrote in her blog this week about three of the best articles she’s read this past month.  One was titled, “7 Brutal Lessons Everyone Has To Learn Multiple Times.”  One of those 7 lessons was, the “tiny voice” in you always knows which way to go.”  In that section of the article, the author wrote about that tiny voice:
We know what it sounds like.
We can recognize when it raises its hand to speak. And yet, so often we struggle to actually follow through and heed its direction.
Because there is a much louder voice that bombards us with big promises and shiny objects and glorified achievements. We let our ego get in the way, when deep down we know what it is we truly want.
The reason why this is such a challenge for people to learn and accept — and why it often times takes a lifetime — is because the ego always promises safety. The ego promises avoidance of hurt, it promises instant gratification, and it promises acceptance.

That’s why dealing with enemies has to be influenced by prayer—being in God’s presence.  Even though the author of the article isn’t saying it, that tiny voice has to be God’s Voice.  The closed feedback loop of only listening to our self, our ego, doesn’t give us the outside direction we need.  We need wisdom and guidance in dealing with people who are trying to be our enemies.  We need to hear another’s Voice, because, listening only to our self will validate our enemy making.

So, what’s important here, is that you aren’t giving up having enemies.  You aren’t giving up enemies.  You are giving up the self you have always used—normally used—in dealing with your enemies.  You are changing and adjusting your self, so that you will behave toward EVERYONE ELSE out of your God-created self.  You don’t have any enemies, no matter how others act toward you, because that just isn’t you—anymore.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Giving Up Ego

”Giving Up Ego”
Matthew 16:24-26

The Miami Dolphins won the Super Bowl in 1973 and 1974.  After the second title, coach Don Shula was exhausted.  He and his wife took a vacation, but he said he wanted to go somewhere nobody would recognize him.  So they took a vacation in a small seaside town in Maine.

When they arrived, it was raining so they decided to go see a movie.  When they entered the theatre, the house lights were on and the Shula’s were surprised that the small handful of people gave them a warm round of applause as they took their seat.

Secretly pleased, Don Shula whispered to his wife, “I guess there isn’t any place I’m not known.”
“I guess not,” she replied with a touch of sarcasm.

A man came across the aisle with a friendly smile and shook hands with Shula and his wife.  “I’m surprised you know me here,” Shula said.
“Should I know you?” the man replied with a questioning look.  “We’re just glad to see you folks—the manager said he wouldn’t start the film until at least ten people came in.”

The ego is probably the trickiest part of us.  It’s a necessary part of us, because it helps us function psychologically, as well as helps us adapt to the ways the world threatens our ego.  Our ego’s are effective problem solvers, successfully coping with life’s challenges.

But problems arise when our ego defenses get overly defensive.  That’s when ego rationalization takes over and we begin to distort the facts, make excuses, and believe our own lies.  We experience threatening events and we see them not as part of life but personal attacks.  Self-protection becomes more important than the truth.  We slip into the twin modes of blaming and anger in an attempt to avoid unpleasant feelings in the self.

Fully fanned, these ego defenses become what is called “ego psychosis.”  It’s a runaway complex in which we convince ourselves that we are the perfect embodiment of something special.  That only we have been called upon to deliver our unique gift to the world that was unavailable to humanity until we arrived on the scene.

Someone caught up in ego psychosis will rant on and on, sounding like their own ad copy, studded with superlatives about being the best, the highest, the first, the last, the only, etc. etc.    It shouldn’t take you long to put a face to this description.

One of the protections against this kind of ego problem is having a sense of humor about yourself—to be able to laugh at yourself.  Like Don Shula did in telling his vacation story.  You can tell how deeply a person is into their psychosis when they take themselves so seriously they can’t laugh at themselves.  Humor is an effective form of self-criticism.  Without it, you will sink fast into psychosis.

That is just one extremely thin slice of the pie of the ego.  Ego is both resilient and treacherous at the same time.  A piece of pie, like the ego, can hold together, or it can slurp all over your plate and make a mess.  It has to be dealt with.

And Jesus does, in this statement in the verses read by Shannon.
If anyone wants to follow me, he must say no to himself...If he wants to save his life, he will lose it.  But if he loses his life for me, he will find it.

That was the New International Reader’s Version.  In other translations, the phrase, “...he must say no to himself...” is a bit different.  In the Revised English Bible, it has, “...renounce self.”  In the English Standard Version, it has “...deny himself.”  In the Good News Translation, it has, “...forget yourself.”  And in The Message, it has, “Let me lead.  You’re not in the driver’s seat.”

The word Jesus used literally means, disown, abstain, or lose sight of.  These words make sense when you are dealing with some negative behavior trait.  Disown gossip.  Or, abstain from filthy language.  Or lose sight of pornography.

But Jesus is talking about the self.  The very core of who we are.  The very things by which we define ourselves.  Disown your self.  Abstain from your self.  Lose sight of your self.  Wow!  That is major.

I did a lot of thinking about this stuff about self and ego this week.  It was kind of quiet in the office with Jennifer being gone.  Don’t get me wrong.  I missed having her there in the office to chat back and forth with, but I kind of needed a lot of quiet thinking time with this one.  So it worked out well.  Or, at least you can judge, after I try to take you through what I came up with.  So bear with me.  Maybe I thunk too much.

I first asked myself, How did we get this sense of self in the first place?  How did this relationship with ourselves come about?  What were the intentions of this relationship with our selves?

Let’s say God created our sense of self, our egos.  As believers in God, that’s a logical place to begin.  God created human beings.  Thus God created our sense of self—our relationship with our selves.  We can’t know what God intended that sense of self to look like because we have so disfigured that by sin.  By self.  We could say that the relationship with self was the very thing that messed up our relationship with the self.  We might call that sin—original sin:  Allowing the self to mess up our selves.   Because, if we are honest, we are our own worst enemy.

Looking at Jesus’ statement, though, maybe it is a glimpse of what our God-intended relationship with our self was supposed to look like.  Look at the different words the different translations use to get at what Jesus was saying we should do to the self:  give up, forget, deny, renounce, say no to.

All of these words or terms imply an act of will.  An act of will is not easy.  Remember last week’s sermon—we need to give up any notion of life being easy.  This dealing with the self, with the ego, is something we have to force ourselves to do.  Since Jesus is telling us this is what we have to do, then this selflessness must have been a part of the original human condition—the way we were originally made to be.

The fact we have to shape ourselves by will power means that something powerful intervened in God’s intentions and got in the way.  Now it has to be willfully fixed.
Say no to your self.
Renounce your self.
Deny your self.
Forget your self.
Give up your self.
Get your self out of the driver’s seat.

So maybe, in the purity of creation, with the first humans, there was no sense of self.  Rather than individual self, there was only wholeness with the entirety of creation.  Maybe rather than individual self, there was God.  People only were as they fit in with God.  You only mattered because of how you fit in with all else, rather than demanding your individuality above all else.

I’m only speculating here.  I’m trying to imagine what a human being would look like, would be like, who was self-less.

What does a human being look like who says no to, renounces, denies, forgets, gives up self?  Can we even imagine it?  Yet, we must, since Jesus demanded that we do it.  And if Jesus demanded this shift from self, he must be assuming it’s doable, or he would have made the demand.  “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

The words, “life” and “self” appear to be interchangeable here in Jesus’ statement.  “Whoever wants to save his self will lose it, but whoever loses his self for my sake will find it.”   If all you are worried/concerned about is your self, you will never gain your self.  People who are constantly in the self-help section of the book store, who are self-absorbed, who are trying to constantly figure themselves out—do they?  Are they ever satisfied with themselves?

If the answer to those questions is “no”, why?  Maybe Jesus is right.  The search for self is counter-intuitive.  It’s not by constantly being absorbed with self that you find self—but by totally letting go of self, that self is found.  Self is discovered when self is not looked for.  Self lives when self dies.

What if you look your whole life for your self, but you get to the end of your life and you are still looking?  You have spent your whole life—your whole self—in vain.  You end up saying to your self, “If only I could have found my self.”  But Jesus is saying, before you get to that point, say, “If only I could have let my self go.”

I know this all sounds screwy and totally mixed up.  I’m just trying to think through what Jesus said, and imagine (because I think all of what I am saying takes a huge amount of imagination) what it would be like to let my self go, and by so doing, find my self.

There is a qualifier in Jesus’ statement.  “...for my sake...”.  “But whoever loses his life (self, ego) for my sake will find it.”  For my sake.  For the cause of Jesus.  On account of Jesus.  In the interest of Jesus.  For the benefit of Jesus.

Here seems to be the difference maker.  As Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians, “For me to live is Christ and die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  Again, if the words life and self are interchangeable, then it is, “For to me, self is Christ...”. To find your self is to find Christ.

Ultimately, our life, our self, our ego, must be bound up in God.  Not self within self, but self within God.  What our selves looked like before our self took over, was a person immersed only in God.  Ego only made sense in God’s ego, as it were.  It took no will at all to be a self in God.  Now it must take all of our will to say no to your self.  To renounce your self.  To deny your self.  To forget your self.  To give up your self.  To get your self out of the driver’s seat.  And find your way back to your most true self for Christ’s sake.

Think of what the opposite is of all those:  To say yes only to your self; to announce only your self; to indulge only your self; to remember only your self; to grasp only your self; to put only your self in the driver’s seat.  Like I said, I’ve been trying to imagine, all week, what I would look like, what I would be like, if I could give up my self, my ego.  But you know what?  It doesn’t take anything at all to imagine myself the opposite.  To be full of my self and my own ego.  I can imagine that clearly.  I can see exactly what that would look like.

It would be so easy to give in to that.

But I am so intrigued by what Jesus said.  I want to find out.  I want to use my energy, imagination, and will to say no to self, to make that happen.  I hope you do to.  For His sake.  Not ours.