Sermon on the Mount: When You Pray

We are in the second week of a mini-series within our series–the three “When you…” statements Jesus made in the sermon he taught on the mount. Luanne introduced us to all three last week before she expanded on giving, the first topic Jesus addressed. Here is a snippet of what she wrote to refresh our memories:

“Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need… (Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting. So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him.”

Pastor John spent a few minutes on Sunday articulating that while Jesus spoke first about giving, then praying, then fasting, the order doesn’t indicate priority. All three pillars are important. If we leave one out, we cannot fully understand the other two. I think in pictures a lot, so as he spoke to us, I pictured a triangular platform balanced on three pillars. If one pillar is removed, the whole structure tumbles. That’s a pretty obvious conclusion to draw. But what if one is beefed up, reinforced, well taken care of, while one (or both) of the others is neglected? The corner supported by the maintained pillar may be strong and for a while the whole structure may appear to be in good shape. But, eventually, the weaker supports will begin to sag and give way, collapsing the whole thing–including the part that felt strong. An equal emphasis is necessary in our application of these three principles if we want to live a healthy, fruitful, kingdom-driven life. In order to apply them effectively, we have to first understand them.

Luanne explained beautifully Jesus’ instructions about giving last week. That post is linked in the first paragraph above if you missed it. This week, our focus is prayer. Our passage is Matthew 6:5-8:

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need.” (The Message)

Pastor John shared with us about the prominence of prayer in ancient Judaism. There are prayers that were (and still are, for some devout Jews) prayed at specific times throughout the day, and many shorter prayers that were integrated into their daily lives. History tells us that, in ancient Judaism, followers were committed to prayer. When we think about religions that emphasize prayer today, we might think of Islam and the way that many Muslims integrate times of prayer into their daily lives.

But what will history say about prayer as it relates to Christianity? John asked us.

Hmm. Good question, right? Jesus modeled prayer many times during his earthly ministry. And as Luanne’s words from last week reminded us, the early church was committed to prayer. But what about now? What about us, today? What does our prayer life look like–individually as well as in our homes, our churches, our communities?

Pastor John identified that many of us pray three times each day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If we’re not too uncomfortable to do so… If we’re honest, how many of us can say that we have a prayer life that goes deeper than that?

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may recall that my history with the Church and with God is a bit complicated. My home life was also challenging in many ways. However, my Mom’s unwavering faith set an example for me that still impacts my walk with Jesus today. Her example, especially in the area of prayer, is a gift that I am deeply grateful for.

I was not always a fan of her prayer life, though. I found it a bit embarrassing and idealistic, even a little silly at times. She prayed about everything. Literally. Everything. A break in traffic to make a left turn… A parking spot at the mall on a rainy day… A good clearance find at the store when money was tight… A short line when the schedule was tight… She would pray short, conversational prayers–out loud, of course–about all of these things. And I would roll my eyes and hide a little–especially if my friends were with us. She simply talked to God. All throughout her day. It was as natural as breathing to her. I may have been annoyed in my adolescence… but I heard her. I heard other prayers, too, spoken in the same conversational way, every day that I spent with her. Prayers like:

I need a miracle to pay this bill this month, when she was working three jobs and raising my brother and I alone.

Please let me live long enough to see my kids graduate, when she was wrestling with the terminal illness she’d been diagnosed with.

Give me your grace to forgive…again, as she grieved the betrayal and rejection of her husband.

Will you give me the gift of a friend? And a husband who will love me? I’m so lonely…, as she dealt with feeling isolated and alone.

Draw my kids’ hearts to you, heal their hurts, be their Father, she prayed for us repeatedly, especially as we grew into adulthood.

I want to live for Your Glory, whether here or in heaven, as she wrestled with her failing health.

In addition to prayers like these, she prayed for other people constantly. Her name was Constance–everyone called her Connie–and she lived out the meaning of her name. She was constant, consistent, committed. I was recently reminiscing about her with Luanne, and remarking about how great she was at connecting with others, how she was the best at being a good friend. If she said she would pray for someone, she meant it. She’d usually do it right there, wherever “there” happened to be, and however uncomfortable it made my brother and I in our younger years. She would also write their names in her prayer journal. I don’t think she missed one day of prayers over those names until her last couple of days on this earth with us. On her most pain-filled days, when breath was most elusive, I’d often catch her praying more, spending hours with her journal, loving so many people through her conversations with her God.

I didn’t know it at the time, but her example was forming the woman I would become. Somewhere along the way, I started talking to Jesus about everything, too. Even the “silly” things that used to make me roll my eyes at my mom. We have a running conversation, he is part of my days, my hours, minutes–because I had an example to follow that was real. Not showy, not performative. Authentic, continuous, even quirky and quaint at times–but it wasn’t for anyone else. Mom’s ongoing conversation with God was both evidence of the deep relationship she had with him and the way that she remained connected to him. She was aware of her deep need for his presence in every area of her life, so she made talking with and listening to him a priority.

I didn’t know how formative her example would be. Here are some of the ways I pray throughout my days now…

Exclamations of gratitude when I’m in nature and the beauty fills me with wonder and delight.

In my car, imagining Jesus in the seat next me, conversing about whatever is going on that day.

Silent pleas for wisdom as I navigate hard conversations with my kids–or friends in crisis–and don’t know what to say.

In the middle of worship, between song lyrics, whispering prayers for the Spirit to bubble and flow all around.

Requests for patience and a facial expression that doesn’t betray my frustration when dealing with other imperfect and sometimes impossible humans like myself…

Prayers that I will have a tender, listening heart, and be present in the moments ahead while I’m on my way to meet a friend. 

Requests for wisdom around how to help in some way as I drive through town and see people in hard situations.

Do I also pray about breaks in traffic, good deals, and other “silly” things, like my mom did?

Yes. Yes I do.

Because when talking with Jesus is woven into every aspect of your life, there’s no area you don’t invite him into. It’s like finding that friend that becomes your person–the one you feel safe enough with to be silly, speak the truth, express deep emotion, share everything. My mom had that kind of friendship with God. And it was evident in her prayers.

It’s a beautiful thing to be able to talk with God in these ways. I referred to my Mom’s example as formational in my life. And it was, and is. But there is so much more to prayer than the friendly, conversational way we can engage in it. There is a depth that comes with more structured prayers, and I want to touch on that briefly before I wrap up…

I am still fairly new in my experience with using a liturgy for prayer. But, friends, it is transforming my prayer life. I virtually attended a prayer conference led by Pastor Brian Zahnd in May, and I’ve been using portions of the morning prayer liturgy he shared with us these last couple of months. It is powerful to pray some of those prayers day after day and see the ways God moves through them. The prayers prepare my heart to encounter my God in a deeper way. And I am being formed as I lean into prayers that have been around for a long, long time. There was a time I thought of these prayers as rigid, outdated, void of life. Not anymore.

Pastor Brian said, regarding this liturgical way of praying, “Liturgy is neither alive nor dead. It’s true or false. What’s alive or dead is the person praying.”

He shared with attendees that the word liturgy comes from the Greek liturgeo, which means “worship, the work of the people.” I love that. Liturgy is the work of the people, it’s worship. It was such a shift of perspective for me.

Zahnd also said, “Prayer is like a trellis for a vine to ascend–a structure so that which is alive can ascend. . . We must surrender ourselves to prayers that are wiser than we are.”

Prayer forms us. However shallow or deep our prayer life, it is forming us. What is our goal as we pray? Do we want to be seen, applauded, rewarded for our devout ways? Or are we content to be seen by God in the secret places, and to experience the reward of seeing–and being satisfied in–him? My mom’s prayer in the secret place spilled into her daily life. I was blessed that her conversations with God splashed into my consciousness. But she was never praying to be seen by me. She was unknowingly modeling a consistent relationship with God. I don’t walk around town proclaiming the liturgy I am adapting into my prayer life, but it is forming me as well, it is changing me. An honest, consistent prayer life will do that. Once again, as we’ve discussed throughout this whole series, Jesus’ focus is on what is happening within our hearts. What is happening in our hearts as we pray? What changes might we need to make in our prayer lives?

–Laura

I love Laura’s testimony of prayer–how her mother modeled a vibrant, ongoing prayer life, and how Laura (despite her adolescent embarrassment), has adopted a similar approach. I also like her move toward a more liturgical practice as part of her prayer life. I attended the same online prayer seminar, and am experiencing a deeper, richer more profound prayer experience than at any other time in my life through that practice.

We’ll revisit that in a bit, but for a moment, let’s return to this week’s scripture. Laura used The Message paraphrase above…I love it–especially this portion: Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

Peri Zahnd, during the prayer seminar, shared these words: “Our work is bringing more of ourselves, not more of our words.” Think about that. What would it look like to bring more of ourselves to our prayer time–to be in God’s presence as simply and honestly as we can be?

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus, in this portion of his sermon, was actually pushing back against what had become a fairly common practice. The NIV translation of Matthew 6:5 words it like this: And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… 

As Laura pointed out, in the Jewish faith, praying three times a day was a normal practice. Three times a day they were called to prayer. Their lives revolved around prayer. However, some of the leaders in Jesus’ day had lost the heart of the matter and were more concerned about being “seen” as devout than about actually being devout. Jesus addressed this issue more directly in Matthew 15:8 when he said to the Pharisees,You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'”

Or this parable from Luke 18:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So Jesus was pushing back against this practice of self-righteous, look at how holy I am, praying.

Has anyone besides me done anything for show? True confession time: I went to a Christian college. For many students, going to church on Sunday was a given. I was still doing a fairly decent job of getting away with my double-life living, and rarely went to church on Sunday. However, I lived in the dorm and ate in the dining hall, so on Sundays I would sleep in, but would get up in time to dress in my Sunday best as though I had been to church before I heading to the dining hall. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a heathen. Good grief! That’s pretty much the definition of a hypocrite–a role player–an actor.

Back to The Message: Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage.

Such beautiful, simple, inviting instructions.

My own prayer journey has been complicated. Being the pastor’s daughter as I was growing up, meant that I was often called on to pray in Sunday School, or youth group. I hated it. When God didn’t heal my mother of cancer, I was pretty convinced prayer didn’t work, so I’d go through seasons where I didn’t pray at all until I wanted God to get me out of whatever crisis I was in–the messes I’d gotten myself into.  Or, I wanted him to change someone else.

As I got older, my prayer life still went through cycles. I wanted to be more consistent, to pray more deeply, to hear from God, but I just wasn’t getting there. I read numerous books about how to pray. I tried various formulas. But it seemed like my prayers always cycled back into being very “me” focused.

During the prayer seminar, Pastor Zahnd said that we typically pray out of our own pathology. To be pathological means (of a person) unreasonable, or unable to control part of his or her own behavior. (dictionary.cambridge.org) That has been true of my prayer life; but at the seminar we learned “The primary purpose of prayer is not to try to get God to do what we think God ought to do. The primary purpose of prayer is to be properly formed.”

When the idea of adding liturgy to my prayer time was brought up, I pushed back. It felt impersonal to me, until Zahnd pointed out that Jesus had a prayer book–the Psalms. Hmmmm. Good point. I’m sure that in addition to the Psalms, Jesus also prayed the Shema and the Eighteen Benedictions…the title given to the central prayer which is said three times a day by all observant Jews. It is also known as the Shemoneh Esreh (‘Eighteen‘), the Tephillah (‘Prayer‘), or the ‘Ami. dah (‘standing’) because one stands to say this prayer. (The Journal of Theological Studies)

Jesus prayed written prayers. Hmm. As Laura wrote above, liturgy is not dead (as I had assumed). It’s neutral. The life in the liturgy comes from the heart, mind, and soul attitude of the one praying the liturgy.

So, for the last couple of months I’ve been praying liturgically. The structure I am praying includes prayers that have been around for a long time, scripture including The Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and the Beatitudes, a short gospel passage and a Psalm.  There are moments of intercession, prayer for family, a prayer of confession, and sitting quietly with Jesus. The famous prayer of St. Francis (Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace…) is part of it. Many of the written prayers address each person of the Trinity. Most of them are communal and global in nature. In truth, it felt clunky at first, but as I returned morning after morning; as I began memorizing; I found the prayers being planted deeper and deeper within–their content becoming part of me.

I’m finding that when I wake up in the morning, I’m hungry for this time with God. I’m bringing more of myself, not more of my words, and I am coming as simply and honestly as I can. I’m no longer praying out of my own life cycles–or my own selfish desires. I can bring my requests to God, and I do…but somehow, it’s different now. It’s been a beautiful experience–one that I will continue.

It’s common in Christian circles to tell people–just pray, talk to God. However, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he gave them words to pray. We’ll study that prayer in a couple of weeks, but it’s important to note that he didn’t send them off to figure it out on their own.

If you’re curious about liturgy–there are many liturgical prayers that can be found online. The Shema and “Eighteen” can also be found online. It might feel weird at first, but dedicate a set amount of time to stick with it. We were encouraged to stick with it for 40 days. I’m glad we did. It’s changed our prayer lives, and is deepening our relationships with God.

I’ll close this post with two of my daily prayers: “Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.” 

“Save me from the slavery of my own reasonings.” 

–Luanne

Prayer Life | Prince of Peace Church

Sermon on the Mount: When You Give

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Mt 6:1-4) 

We’ve made it to Matthew 6 in our Sermon on the Mount series. Lest we forget that this is all one sermon from the mouth of Jesus, let’s briefly recap. In Matthew 5 we learn that Jesus saw the crowds, went up on the mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He began with The Beatitudes–the foundation upon which the rest of the sermon would stand.     N. T. Wright in his book God and the Pandemic writes: “…the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’, as people often imagine…it’s about mission. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…the meek…the mourners…the peacemakers…the hungry-for-justice people’ and so on. We all too easily assume that Jesus is saying ‘try hard to be like this, and if you can manage it you’ll be the sort of people I want in my kingdom’. But that’s not the point! The point is that God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.” (Emphasis mine)

Right after the Beatitudes, Jesus says that his followers, his disciples, his students, those learning from him, and being transformed into beatitude-type people will be salt and light in the world who will point to the Father and glorify him by the way they live.

Jesus then says he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill themand moves into his You have heard it said, but I say to you…” statements, each one highlighting a traditional interpretation of the Jewish law (murder, adultery, divorve, oaths, revenge, loving neighbors), and flipping each on its head. We see in Jesus’  interpretations the love he has for, and the value that he placeson human beings and how he wants us to love, terat, and value all others as well. He obliterates all interpretations of the law that would lead to the mistreatment of people.

After setting this foundation, Jesus begins addressing the “when you…” statements.

Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need…(Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting.

So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him.

The Passion Translation of these verses in Matthew 6,  makes the heart issue very clear: Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father.

And today’s emphasis:

 So when you give to the poor, don’t announce it and make a show of it just to be seen by people, like the hypocrites in the streets and in the marketplace.  They’ve already received their reward!  But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.”

That’s super clear, right? When you give to the poor don’t toot your own horn, don’t give with duplicitous motives, give secretly and God will reward you.

Wait…what? Rewards?

This is where things can get tricky! This is where our western, capitalistic, individualistic mindset can take over and all of a sudden our heart motives get way off. As a result, depending on your faith tradition, this idea of rewards can go to one of two extremes. One extreme is to completely ignore this portion because it feels worldly to place any emphasis on rewards and we’re a little afraid of ourselves if we think about it too much. The other extreme is to make it all about rewards, usually thinking of personal rewards that oftentimes land in the individualistic material wealth realm–if I give to God he will prosper me and make me rich.

I remember an occasion during my childhood when I didn’t think my measly allowance was going to get me to my financial goals, so I put my entire allowance into the offering plate expecting to get a grand return on my investment. Guess what? It didn’t work out the way I planned–and since I’d wiped myself completely out, I did the very noble thing of stealing money out of my dad’s loose change box so I could buy items of value like candy bars. My heart motivation in giving my whole allowance was all about what I thought I’d get out of it. I could have cared less about the ministries and missions my allowance was contributing to; I just wanted more money for me.

And therein lies the problem of too much emphasis on the “me” in rewards.

Pastor John reminded us that the goal of giving, praying, and fasting was to establish and enhance community, not the individual self. When our reward mindset is focused on “what can I get out of this”, we miss the fact that God’s kingdom is all about community. The Jews of Jesus day understood that they were giving collectively in order to target the needs of the community. The early church believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Some churches are really good at giving this way; however, I’m afraid that the public reputation of the majority American church has exposed the opposite attitude–one of greed, of individualism, of a “me first”, “my rights”, “my personal prosperity” mindset, and one that looks very little like the community-focused, generous, all are welcome, all are cared for, inclusive kingdom of Jesus. 

Let’s check ourselves for a moment. How are we doing with this giving to the needy thing? How are we doing with the giving collectively thing? How are we doing with the generosity thing? How are we doing with the kingdom-based community thing? How are we doing with the heart motivation thing? (Just in case you wonder–I’m writing to myself too.)

Let’s return for a moment to the idea of God rewarding us. What do God’s rewards look like?  If we return to the beatitudes, each one contains a reward:

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

…they shall be comforted

…they shall inherit the earth

 …they shall be satisfied.

…they shall receive mercy

…they shall see God

…they shall be called children of God

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

And the persecuted? …their reward is great in heaven

Let’s do a quick heart check. Do these rewards seem sufficient? Let’s sit with that for a moment and ask God to show us our own hearts.

Before I wrap this blog post up, I want to highlight one more thing. There is what I believe to be a Holy Spirit movement stirring in the hearts of many of God’s people in this nation. As is the case with a lot of God’s movements, it seems to be stirring on the margins of society. Some segments of mainstream Christianity seem to be threatened by this stirring and are pushing back hard by dropping into a binary way of thinking and of fear-mongering. However, the movement is demonstrating a more Christ-like way, a more community-minded way, a more inclusive way, the way of shalom for the flourishing of all.

Christian author Jen Hatmaker writes: We are wired to care about what other people want and need. As socially influenced individuals, sharing the values and concerns of our neighbors creates social harmony. Embedded in our psyches is the sense that, when our neighbors are suffering, the whole community is at risk. We instinctively know what we all should be experiencing: justice, equality, safety, agency, belonging…it is why injustice cuts most of us so deeply. (Emphasis mine)

Where is the reward in caring like this?

Emory University carried out a study in which participants were given the chance to help someone while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered portions of the brain that also turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure…helping others brings the same exact pleasure as personal gratification. Hmmm.

Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner in his article “The Compassionate Instinct” wrote, Not only do our brains reward us for compassionate behavior, the rest of our body does too. [in speaking of the autonomic nervous system fight, flight, or compassion responses he writes] When adults feel compassion for others, this emotion also creates very real physiological changes; their heart rates go down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee but to approach and soothe. Additionally, nurturing behavior floods our bodies with oxytocin, a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate, an internal prize for kindness. 

Internal pleasure and calm for generosity and compassion is the chemical and neurological response that God hard-wired into our bodies when he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. You all—that’s huge. We are created in the image of our generous, self-giving, compassionate, coming to us in our desperate need, loving God. When we allow God’s nature to flow through us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we see ourselves as part of His great compassionate community, giving of ourselves and our resources to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the world. We are not in it for ourselves. We are in it for the great mission of God–that the world (Greek= kosmos)–the earthly world and her inhabitants through Jesus, might be saved (Greek=healed, made whole) (Jn 3:17).

Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds, only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father…But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.

As we generously and collectively give of ourselves and our resources, God rewards us with more compassion, more kindness, more others focus, more internal calm and peace, and more of his nature and character. The needs of the poor are met. The world sees Jesus through our actions. God is glorified by our “salt and light”,  and it all becomes a beautiful cycle of self-giving love.

the Sermon on the Mount…it’s about mission…God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.

That, my friends, is how the world will be saved.

–Luanne

Thy Kingdom Come on Twitter: ""You can give without loving, but ...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Have Heard It Said: Hate

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:43-48)

You have heard that it was said.  Diving right in and thinking of today’s cultural climate, what things have we heard said? Are we blindly taking those things in as truth because they come from leaders or news sources or people whose thoughts align with ours? Do those things line up with what Jesus has said? Is what we have heard said leading us to be more like Jesus?

When God laid this Sermon on the Mount series on Pastor John’s heart we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. We weren’t being asked to wear masks and social distance, and it’s been years since we (as an entire culture) have been so blatantly exposed to what ongoing and systemic racism looks like. We’re learning whether or not our personal values lie more on the side of individualism and our rights, or on the common good even if I have to sacrifice a little–more on the side of “me first” or community. Pastor John was preparing for this series before all of this happened. He has remained faithful to preaching the series God laid on his heart–and wow–is it ever what we need to be wrestling with. If we will listen, if we will wrestle, if we will go deep, this could be the recalibration that the people of God so desperately need.

The words of Jesus in this week’s passage pack a punch.

You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you, love your enemies…

Just like the other “you have heard it said’ statements we’ve studied, hating your enemy is what the Jewish people had been taught.  Where did this teaching come from? How did it begin? In Leviticus 19:18 the Israelites were instructed not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. They inferred, therefore, that they were supposed to love their own people–they could hate everyone else.

Jesus corrects this teaching not only in today’s passage but also in Luke 10 when he is asked by an expert in Jewish law what is required to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer, What is written in the Law?… How do you read it? (v.26) . 

The Lawyer responds: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (27)

Jesus tells him that he’s correct and encourages him to live that way. The Lawyer then asks Jesus–Who is my neighbor?  

Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. To the Jewish people, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. However, as we know from the parable, the beaten and robbed man was passed by and ignored by a priest and a Levite, yet he was lavishly ministered to by a compassionate Samaritan man. At the end of the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? (36)

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (37)

The Good Samaritan was a radical, shocking example of who constitutes a neighbor, and Jesus was being very intentional. He speaks a similar way in this portion of his sermon to expose and lay bare the superior self-righteousness of the crowd by saying: If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Loving “your people” and hating everyone else is not the way the kingdom of heaven on earth is to function–AND it’s not the way God functions.

Jesus points this out when he says: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  In other words, God is not picking favorites. God loves the whole world. Jesus came to save the whole world. His followers are to take God’s love and kingdom life to the whole world. 

Loving “our people”, thinking more highly of “our people” might be the way of the world, but it’s not the way of God. As a matter of fact, if we look at the kingdom on earth that Jesus was establishing, and if we look at the early church ushering in the kingdom, people from all different walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, social status, and other humanly separated categories were together as part of it. The Apostle Paul makes this clear and encourages us to unify around Jesus. Jesus invites everyone from everywhere to his table. In his own ministry, we see him with Jew, Gentile, women, men, Romans, Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, rich, poor, sick, healthy–everyone was welcome. What happened?

It is rare for today’s churches to look this diverse; however, I can think of one church in Queens, New York that looks this way. My husband and I attended a conference there a number of years ago. The church is in a very diverse part of Queens and had people from many different countries represented in their congregation. Pastor Pete Scazzero shared that for that type of church to work, each person has to be responsible to separate their culture (whether it be family culture or nationality) from the culture of Jesus. No one’s culture gets to trump another’s culture–they seek to unify around Jesus and the culture of his kingdom. Pastor Scazzero acknowledged that sometimes it’s messy, but isn’t the kingdom of heaven on earth worth the mess?  Isn’t learning to listen, seeking to understand, and loving one another worth some wrestling? Isn’t getting rid of labels and categories and treating all others as equals a worthy pursuit? Isn’t joining arms and working together for the flourishing of all humankind the way of being in the kingdom of God?

When Jesus says pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.he nods back to two of the beatitudes from the first part of his sermon:

  1. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
  2.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

I read the beatitudes almost every morning during my prayer time and cringe at the persecuted part every time. Sadly, sometimes being a peacemaker is what leads to persecution. Peacemakers and peace-keepers are very different. Peace-keepers maintain a false appearance of peace on the surface. Peacemakers address hard issues–peacemakers go to the core of the matter, exposing what’s in the dark and bringing it to the light so that it can be seen and resolved. Peacemakers are oftentimes persecuted–just ask Jesus. But in the end, the peacemakers and the persecuted are called children of God and they live where God reigns.

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus says love your enemies, pray for them to be blessed, but we relish in the secret scorn we have for others. Ouch!  He said: It’s not enough to do just enough. That won’t change the world. Do more! Be different. Love more. Stop retaliating. Check your secret scorn. He reminded us that our social media presence and “likes” reveal a great deal about what matters to us. And he reminded us that the current cultural and global crisis is showing us our true character. Do we like what we see?

Think about it; who would your enemy be? Who receives your secret scorn? If Jesus were telling you the story of the good Samaritan who would shock you? The good Muslim? The good Democrat? The good Republican? The good African-American? The good white person? The good gay man? The good transgender woman? The good immigrant? The good _______________?

If we love only those who are like us, that’s what the whole world does. Jesus says–do more, love others like I love you. He teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy– everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Whew! Hard stuff!! 

And then Jesus says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. What?!! How?!!

Be–not do. God is perfectly who God is. Be perfectly who God created you to be living for the things that matter to God’s heart. Be whole. Be Christlike. Be Spirit-filled. Be for the flourishing of all. Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. 

–Luanne

I will start where Luanne left off and we’ll work our way backwards a bit. She left us with the words, Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. “

Sometimes, to see a more expansive picture of the things Jesus spoke about, it is helpful to look at more than one of the gospels… In Luke 6:36, we read: 

“Be merciful (responsive, compassionate, tender) just as your [heavenly] Father is merciful.” (AMP)

Brian Zahnd expounds on this verse, in a blog post titled Oh, Mercy. He writes,

“The Gospel writers use different words.

What Jesus in Matthew calls perfection, Jesus in Luke calls mercy.

This is significant and instructive. Luke’s use of “mercy” gives us an inspired commentary on Matthew’s “perfect.”

First of all, Matthew’s “perfect” is the Greek telos; i.e. goal.

Put the two together and you will understand what God is like and what our goal is to be.

God is perfect in mercy. This is what we are called to imitate.

The goal (telos) for the disciple of Jesus is to be merciful like God is merciful.

The perfection God is looking for is not the unattainable perfection of flawlessness—But the fully attainable perfection of extending mercy to those who are flawed.”

This perspective is corroborated in the story of the Good Samaritan that Luanne wrote about above. After Jesus shared the story in response to the question Who is my neighbor?, he asked his own question to make sure the lawyer understood.

Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

To see everyone as a neighbor and no one as an enemy, to show mercy to the flawed, to love those who hate–this is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God sees none of his children as enemies. Not in the way we understand what an “enemy” is, anyway. God is Love. He loves perfectly. We were created in the image of God with the capacity to love beyond our humanity. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

So, is Jesus really teaching that we have no enemies? Yes. I believe he is teaching exactly that. He is, once again, turning their understanding upside-down and deepening their capacity to live according to the ways of his kingdom. Luanne wrote:

He [Jesus] teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy–everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

But wait… In Ephesians 6, Paul tells us plainly that we do have enemies, right? Yes. This is what he has to say on the matter:

For our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil.

(Ephesians 6:12, J.B. Phillips, emphasis mine)

Evil is real. It exists all around us. The spirit of evil–the spirit that is anti-Christ, that stands against the Spirit of God–infiltrates powers and structures in our world. But people are not our enemies. People–all people--are our neighbors. Jesus wants his listeners to really understand this concept because it sets his kingdom apart from any other. In his kingdom, there are no outsiders. There is no us versus them. There are only neighbors.

Remember the crowd he was speaking to… It was incredibly diverse.  The words he spoke weren’t hypothetical, or for some future moment or encounter they might have. No. The crowds Matthew wrote about were full of people who didn’t naturally mingle.

Again, Brian Zahnd, in one of his own sermons (Pastor Brian has a lot of great things to say about the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes; it’s one of his favorite things to talk about!), said this regarding the crowd:

“…The crowds, they came from Galilee, they came from from Decapolis, they came from Jerusalem, Judea… That tells us–if we know the history and the geography–that a mixed multitude of Jews and Gentiles were gathering to Jesus. All kinds of people… The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

To this crowd, Jesus said… Love those who are not your people. All they had to do to practically apply his words was look around. They were surrounded by “others” who were likely easy for them to hate. It was a mixed crowd, full of people who didn’t look like one another, think like one another, dress like one another, believe like one another. They were likely from all different income brackets. They did not all have the same culture, music, or food in common. They probably didn’t agree about politics, as they represented many different regions. But they were all attracted to Jesus and to this kingdom he kept talking about. So they gathered together and listened to hard teachings, teachings that challenge us today in the same ways they challenged his first hearers.

I want to reiterate the last line I quoted from Pastor Brian above:

“The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

All kinds of people were attracted to Jesus and his kingdom when he walked the earth enfleshed in humanity. Friends, do you know how Jesus walks the earth today? Enfleshed in our humanity. We, the followers of Christ, are to embody his kingdom, all that he is. Are all kinds of people attracted to the Jesus they see in us? Do we live from the kingdom he brought to earth? Do we see all people as our neighbors, bearing the image of the Divine, same as us? Or do we live from a different kingdom, one that spews hate and violence, one that separates, divides, judges, and condemns? Do we understand that our only enemy is the spirit of evil, or do we make enemies of our flesh-and-blood neighbors? Is the whole spectrum of humanity attracted to the Jesus they see in us, those who call ourselves his followers? Is there a seat at the table for ALL? Or does our secret scorn lead us to arrogant exclusion that values some more highly than others?

These questions are hard. The ways of Jesus’ kingdom are demanding. Will we have the courage to let his words mess in our business and show us where we’ve made enemies of neighbors? Will we have the courage to then repent, to change our minds and then our actions, as Pastor Beau talked to us about last week? Will we let the Spirit lead us in the way of love? I pray that each of us as individuals and the Church as a whole will choose to answer “yes” to these questions. Because, here’s what’s true: The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way.

–Laura

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What Did He Say?

Right & wrong. Black & white. Open & closed. Good & bad. 

We have all been conditioned to think in such dualisms. Some of us are more prone to investigate the gray while others of us hold more tightly to these either/or narratives, but all of us are affected by this way of thinking more than we realize. It is dangerous when all of life is filtered through these dualisms because this kind of thinking inevitably leads to a superior/inferior, “us versus them” kind of mindset. Dualisms limit growth, keep us stuck, and are not compatible with kingdom living.

Pastor Beau began his sermon on Sunday by acknowledging his own tendency to see life in a black and white, dualistic way. He admitted he struggles to see all the gray, all the nuance that lives between the two fixed points, and shared with us that his journey to see beyond those dualities is a difficult one. His message was not part of Pastor John’s Sermon on the Mount series, but it was connected. He took us back to Matthew 5:17 and reminded us that Jesus said he did not come to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets. He explained more about what that meant culturally and historically–it was fascinating! I’m going to move into some of his other points, but if you want to hear more about that part, you can watch the full sermon here.

Beau shared that the “You have heard it said… but I say…” statements from Jesus that Pastor John has highlighted these past few weeks have really stuck with him. He told us that he sees these statements as an invitation to repentance. Before expanding on that, he reminded us what it actually means to repent. The three words in the Bible that are translated “repent” in English mean a strong desire to change; a change of mind, purpose, and action. He went on to emphasize the importance of changing our minds, the way we think, over defaulting to the behavior modification that our westernized understanding of repentance often implies. He told us that if we change how we think, our actions will follow–it doesn’t work the other way around.

Beau reminded us that Jesus had strong words for those who were all about behavior modification but not advocates for deep, real change. In Matthew 23:25-26, Jesus says to the teachers of the law,

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.” (NLT)

Cleaning up what people see on the outside is not enough. Jesus cares about what’s inside. And, as Pastor Beau shared, that begins by changing how we think. Are we willing to see things differently? To take a hard look at ourselves and say to God,

“…I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through;
find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking on, and lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.”

(Psalm 139:23-24, TPT)

Beau told us that he doesn’t see repentance as a one-time prerequisite to salvation. He sees it as a lifelong journey, a part of our daily walk with Jesus. I agree. Luanne and I have written many times about regularly praying the words above out of Psalm 139 and about the importance of asking Jesus to search our hearts because there are things within all of us that we can’t always see on our own.

What does repentance actually require? Beau highlighted a few things:

Honesty. 

Humility.

Critical evaluation of our beliefs and behaviors.

If we are willing to be honest with others and with ourselves about what we know and what we don’t, we will realize how much we still have to learn. Honestly admitting that we don’t know everything is the first step to changing how we think. Humility flows from this place. When we acknowledge that there is much we don’t know and that we have areas where we need to grow, it puts us into a posture to learn. It also allows us to lower our defenses as we engage in honest critiques about ourselves, which we must do with Jesus as our guide. This part is not about burning everything down. It is simply being willing to empty our knapsack, lay everything we’ve packed in there out on the table, and ask why we’re carrying those things. Why do we see things a certain way? Why do we believe what we do? Why do we engage in the behaviors we engage in, and what habits do we have that are shaping how we live and interact with God and others?

Pastor Beau identified that critically evaluating these things is different than criticism. We all tend to push back when we feel criticized. Sometimes, we are so critical of ourselves that no one else has to say anything at all–we beat ourselves down and put up our defenses all on our own. Deconstructing parts of our lives that need to be taken apart and rebuilt can feel this way. That’s why it is so important that we do so with Jesus as our filter and our companion. We ask him as we investigate what we’ve been carrying, “Does this serve you, me, the kingdom well? Does this belief line up with your ways? Do these behaviors line up with your way of love or do they further separate and divide us as brothers and sisters in the kingdom?” 

And then?

We listen.

We learn.

We remember that Jesus is our teacher and we are his disciples. Which means that we place ourselves under his authority and learn from him. Then we share with others–by how we live, not what we say--what we have learned. We disciple others by loving them the way that we experience being loved by Jesus.

What God desires most from his children is our hearts. He longs that we be his from the inside out. He couldn’t care less about “good” behavior or “right” living that isn’t rooted in  love and knowledge of him. He cares plenty about us bearing good fruit, but he sees right through the fake fruit that we try to pass off as authentic. Here’s some of what the Bible tells us he has to say about this…

“I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.
I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.”

(Hosea 6:6 NLT)

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

(Amos 5:21-24, MSG)

“Quit your worship charades.
    I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
    meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
    You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
    while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
    I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
    I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
    people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
    Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings
    so I don’t have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
    Learn to do good.
Work for justice.
    Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
    Go to bat for the defenseless.”

(Isaiah 1:13-17)

The prophets wrote down God’s words to his people in these Hebrew Scriptures. Beau emphasized that God was saying to his people, as he says to us today,

It’s not about doing all the things! Don’t simply do things! Bring me your heart, your love. Come. To. Me.

Jesus says in Matthew 12:33,

“A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad.” (NLT)

Inside-out living. It’s the way of the kingdom. It matters to Jesus, because it’s the only way to live and love like him, in a way that draws all of the world to his heart. Dualistic, us-versus-them living, maintaining and defending old ways of thinking and behaving because, “We’ve always done it this way,” refusing to listen, learn, and be willing to see things a new way–none of that looks like the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. We must be willing to hold up what we’ve heard said and pass it all through the filter of what Jesus says. We must be willing to repent, to change how we think, so that our actions can follow suit and we can actually become more like the teacher we follow. As Pastor Beau identified, this is a reorientation of our whole person. We have to get more comfortable with saying things like,

“I don’t know.”

“I’m still learning.”

“I was wrong.”

“We were wrong.”

One of the prayers I pray nearly every morning contains these words:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent... (emphasis mine)

We humbly repent. Change how we think. Daily. Moment by moment. As we listen to and learn from and become more committed disciples of Jesus, our Teacher. This is not a one-time action, or a project to perfect. It is a lifelong journey of becoming more and more like Jesus.

May we have the courage to be honest, to humbly evaluate our inmost being with the Holy Spirit as our guide, and to reorient our whole being toward our God. Jesus is calling us to radical repentance, especially in these days of deadly dualism. How, Church, will we respond?

–Laura

Richard Rohr Quote: “I think most human beings are dualistic ...