Next week, we start summer at Reservoir. Soccer Nights starts a week from tomorrow, and it’s not too late to sign up to volunteer. Next week, we’ll also shift to our single 10:30 AM service, and rather than a series, our pastoral staff will preach however we’re led from the passages in our Read the Bible Together program, drawn from a Bible reading program used in all kinds of churches.
Today, though, on this final Sunday of spring, I’m wrapping up our five-week series The Jesus Model for Everyday Interactions. We’ve been inspired by a book by our friend Carl Medearis that looks at the kindness and presence and bravery Jesus had in his short interactions with friends, enemies, and strangers, and asks: what if we were to try to see and interact with people that same way?
So our past three weeks have invited us to Be Kind, to Be Present, and to Be Brave. And I drew the book’s final topic to speak on today, which is to Be Jesus. And my first thought was: this is ridiculous.
One, it’s repetitive. We’ve already been talking about Jesus being with people as a model for our own relationships with friends and strangers, so what more is there to say?
Two, it’s presumptive. Like if you ask someone their name, and they tell you, I’m Jesus Christ, what do you think of that? Or if you ask someone about their life goals and they tell you to be Jesus Christ for their whole world – well – we call that delusional, or a Messiah complex. It’s not a good thing.
But still, I couldn’t shake this topic, because I wonder, what if for many of us – each in our own way – being Jesus isn’t our life’s deepest aspiration, the path to our own greatest fulfillment and freedom, and the very thing our crazy, violent world needs?
I was sitting on my porch last week, reading news on my phone and I came across an editorial in The New York Times. It was called “I Want to Hate,” and it calls to mind the time that our president took out a full-page ad in New York papers after a rape in Central Park in 1989.
Now, to be clear, all crimes of sexual violence, rape included, are horrible, shattering events. We partnered earlier this year with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center to hold a Speak Out Sunday, where we spoke about how sexual violence has no place in our future. We’re committed to be a truth-telling and a healing church around sexual violence.
But the circumstances of this crime and the punishments meted out for it were particular. Five boys – 14 to 16 years old – were arrested for this crime. They were deprived of food and sleep and drink for 24-hour hours before they gave confessions. They were then tried and found guilty, only to be exonerated 12 years later. Their confessions were false, given under enormous stress, and there was DNA and other evidence of another man’s guilt by that point.
Here, though, is what our president paid money to say to his city after their initial false arrest. He wrote:
“Our mayor has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer, and when they kill, they should be executed…. Yes, I want to hate these murderers and I always will.”
What do you think about this repeated phrase, “I want to hate.” As I read it, I thought, there it is – the politics of fear and resentment and division and yes, hatred, that fuels our current presidency. And maybe broader, the spirit of fear and resentment and division and yes, hatred, that fuels much of our public life and discourse, from many directions.
I’m probably naïve, but when I was a teenager, back when these words I read were first printed, I think if I had gone around my community and asked people: who do you hate? Most people I think would have been surprised by the question more than anything else, and I like to think many wouldn’t have answered. But if you go around the communities we live and work in today, heck, if you go around the world and ask people at random: who do you hate?
I think most people will have a ready answer to the question. Do you?
But while I was sitting on the porch, I saw something else someone had brought to my attention as well. I saw this video of the pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber talking about forgiveness, about the antidote to hate, about separating ourselves from a cycle of evil and violence, being unchained to resentment.
It’s just two minutes long. This is the bit that I warned you would have some saucy language in it. I think it’s worth it, though, but fair warning.
So I found myself, there on my porch, thinking, which do we want?
Do we want to go, unthinkingly, wherever our hates or resentments take us? Do we want a narrower, more punitive, more violent way of life? Or do we want profound freedom, radical love, impossibly bold forgiveness?
All this good is at the heart of the Jesus movement we’re looking for.
The first book of the New Testament, the good news of Matthew, frames the life of Jesus as a new Moses, come to liberate God’s children. Jesus, like Moses, is rescued from possible death after his birth and comes out of Egypt into Israel. And then, like Moses, Matthew has Jesus head up a mountaintop and tell us all how to live.
It’s the first big segment of the life of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, these teachings gathered into the collection in Chapters 5-7 that we call the Sermon on the Mount.
In the late 90s, I read a provocative book by a philosophy professor named Dallas Willard who asked what if we could all become students of the way of Jesus? And what if Jesus taught us much of what we need to get started on moving forward with the Spirit of God into a new and beautiful life with God and others in this world.
This seems to be Jesus’ own intention, as he closes this teaching with the words:
Matthew 7:24-25 (NRSV)
24“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.
A good life on a solid foundation, ordinary people apprenticed to the way of Jesus.
What does that look like?
Well, that’s in a way what we talk about every Sunday at Reservoir – how to flourish by following Jesus. But for the sake of wrapping up this series on the Jesus way of everyday interactions, let me highlight three major themes of the Sermon on the Mount that show up in our everyday interactions.
The first is profound freedom.
I was out on a bike ride with my boys the other day and as we were crossing a street, a noticed this scene playing out just ahead of us. A kid, pre-teen, maybe 10 or 11 or 12 years old, was tearing down the sidewalk on his own bike, I mean really cruising. And too late to stop, he saw a pedestrian, a middle aged man in front of him, and he jammed on his brakes, but as I said, it was too late, so he slowed down but still hit the gentleman.
Thankfully, the guy seemed OK. He was a full-grown man, and the kid wasn’t that big and had managed to slow down before hitting him, but what the man did was start tearing into the kid. He was using foul, aggressive, violent language – full of curses. And I was shocked, so I went over, got of my bike and stood near him while the kid biked away in shock, and my own kids biked on. And then the man turned to me and starting to lay into me, wondering why I was looking at him. To be honest, I was too startled by the whole scene to be as helpful as I wanted to be. I think I said something like, I’m just making sure everyone gets away OK. And after he cursed and threatened me one more time, he walked away himself.
But I thought afterwards, Dang, to be so imprisoned by your own rage, that you can’t help express it. That’s sad.
The late priest Henri Nouwen suggests that we all tend to be imprisoned, though, in our own ways. He writes:
“… we all have our obsessions. An idea, a plan, a hobby can obsess us to such a degree that we become its slave. These addictions, compulsions, and obsessions reveal our entrapments. They show our sinfulness because they take away our freedom as children of God and thus enslave us in a cramped, shrunken world. Sin makes us want to create our own lives according to our desires and wishes, ignoring the cup that is given to us.”
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, suggests three things that commonly keep us from freedom – hostile anger and resentment, lust for people and bodies that aren’t ours to desire, and a mix of love of money and anxiety over not having enough. Does anger, lust, or anxiety reduce your freedom?
I’ve had plenty of bouts with all of these.
To all of us, Jesus says things like this
Matthew 6:22 (NRSV)
22“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light;
Matthew 6:33-34 (NRSV)
33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Cultivate health and righteousness – right ways of relating to everything and everyone – from the heart. Focus on and turn your longings toward the good that is available to you. Make peace with the people around you. Accept the terms of your life today, and don’t be troubled about what you don’t have now or what you might have to do tomorrow.
Jesus is inviting us into a profound freedom. Freedom that God and what God gives us is enough in this world. Freedom from compulsive, greedy, clutching ways of living, wanting what we don’t have. And freedom to contentment and joy in our lives.
It’s an expansive freedom to, with implications for our relational and public world of systems and structures.
I’ve been reading Professor Frederick Ware’s really excellent introduction to African-American Theology this month. And in it, Ware argues that freedom as a central category of African-American experience, and freedom as an important concept in all of American culture, is at the center of the contributions of African-American thought and talk about God. He defines freedom broadly, as “the ability and condition necessary for human fulfillment and flourishing in the cosmos.”
Jesus wants to lead all people into freedom.
Freedom not just from personal moral failure or compulsion, but freedom from “systemic evils rooted in social structures” too – freedom to full human flourishing.
This takes being aware of not just the inner things but the outer things that bind our freedom and flourishing, or the outer things – the systems and structures and sins that hamper the flourishing of other people.
To paraphrase what Jesus was saying, take the log out of your own eye, to be sure, but if you see someone jamming logs into other people’s eyes, well, do something about that too.
This is one way we practice the second of the three hallmarks we’re looking at today, which is radical love.
Matthew 7:12 (NRSV)
12“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
Matthew 5:44 (NRSV)
44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
We’ve tried in this series to dial down the intensity and make this really simple and everyday. Talk to people who are strangers to you, give other people your full and undivided attention and kindness for at least 42 seconds. As often as possible.
If there’s nothing else you remember from this series, that’s good enough.
But I want to dial things back up a minute and remind us that Jesus did all this in super memorable and intriguing and high impact ways by really going for it. Letting whatever holy impulse gripped him when he was with someone else and running with it.
Someone I know that does this, that seeks this everyday life of radical love is a person whose work our church supports through our Reservoir partnerships team. Nate Bacon is a long-time friend of our founding senior pastor Dave, and has worked with his wife Jenny in organizing and leadership development among gang members in the Bay Area of California and for a decade of so they’ve been in Central America. They live in Guatemala as members of what’s called a Christian order among the poor. Basically, they’re trying to live out the way of Jesus we’re talking about today in the particular context of some of the world’s most marginalized peoples.
And Nate is someone whose presence and Jesus-like love, and his really gracious but also truthful advocacy as well, have moved me over the years.
So it my huge delight when I was thinking about this talk, and Nate emailed me out of the blue, on short notice, saying he’d be in town with us this weekend. So I’m going to take a moment and invite Nate to join me and share a story of love in the way of Jesus with us all.
Let’s give Nate a warm welcome.
[In audio: Nate shares his story, Reservoir prays for Nate and his family, Nate prays for Reservoir.]
Well, I’m going to move toward wrapping up here, but I just want to bring things full circle and mention a third and final hallmark of this way of Jesus, of becoming our fullest, freest selves as become more like Jesus as well.
And that is deep and persistent forgiveness.
We watched that video from Rev. Bolz-Weber at the top, where she talks about forgiveness as a way of combating evil, of disconnecting ourselves from evil, of refusing to be chained to the worst actions of our enemies.
At the heart of Jesus’ model prayer, he encouraged us to pray in this forgiveness and added a little coda to it, praying:
Matthew 6:12-14 (NRSV)
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
I don’t think that last bit is meant to be threatening or anything. It’s just that closed, bitter hearts bound by evil, even bound by the evil done to us, can’t receive grace and love. Jesus wants us free.
Forgiveness to someone who has done us harm is not saying that harm is OK; it is breaking its ongoing power over us by refusing to be defined by it anymore. I have repeatedly forgiven people that each week nearly kill me through their bad driving and I have repeatedly forgiven the broken and sick young man that sexually abused me when I was growing up. None of that calls those things OK, but it says I’m not going to be bound by reactions to it. And I’ve been forgiven by people I’ve casually an inadvertently done wrong to and by others who I’ve deeply wounded. And when that’s happened, I haven’t ever felt excused. But I’ve seen someone fighting for their own freedom even as they fight for mine as well. And that has profoundly changed the trajectory of my life as well.
The way of Jesus is deeper and harder and better and more impossibly beautiful than any other way I can imagine trying to live.
In seeing if we can be Jesus to our world, to embody in our own unique selves the tremendous freedom and radical love and deep forgiveness of Jesus, we’re giving ourselves and the people and systems around us a shot at beauty, a shot at laughter, a shot at flourishing.
The tips to try today are in your program – embrace profound freedom, and practice radical love. There are some more detailed suggestions on the front and back of the cards our pastor Ivy has again created for us in the dome. Please take one of those on your way out and wrestle with the invitations there. There’s a lot of power in them for us all and for our times.