A Change In The Lesson Plan

February 21, 2010

I remember saying the words and not really understanding them. I said them because all the other kids in the neighborhood used them often. I said them because I wanted so desperately to be like them, to impress them and to fit in. I swear to God… There, I said them. You don’t believe me? I swear to God…
Now, whether or not you’ve uttered words like these to fit in or to guarantee the truth of whatever else you’re saying, swearing to God has become a commonplace catch-phrase. Frank Valli once recorded a song that repeated the phrase, “I’m swearing to God… I want to dedicate my life to loving you
(Don’t tell the angels) Well, I’m swearin’ to god (swearin’ to god) I cross my heart and hope to die, Oh, I do…” Today, nearly every elected official of the United States Senate and House of Representatives must, by law, swear to uphold the Constitution, “so help me God.” On the Internet, if you happen to peruse a site called weirdasianews.com, there’s a story of a man from China who owed his neighbor the equivalent of $70. The neighbor apparently barged into the man’s house with a wooden club, which only escalated the matter. In response, the debtor grabbed a metal pole and the two pushed one another out the door and into an open field. The man said to his neighbor, “I swear to God that I do not owe you any money.” At that moment, lightning struck the pole and the person holding it. There is no word from Fujian Province whether the dispute has been resolved.

You see, swearing to God is supposed to settle the issue. Whenever men, women and children have problems with communication, we’ve been conditioned to take an oath. Swearing an oath is like a social reflex action. If there’s even the slightest question as to the truth of what has happened or what will happen, every nerve-ending pushes us to appeal to the highest authority imaginable. Put your hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Moreover, it is precisely because of the fact that we do not trust ordinary language with the truth that we solemnize or sanctify certain kinds of speech.
In effect, we endorse two categories of promise. One category of promise says that I may or not do what I’ve said I’m going to do. The second category says that I better do what I’ve said, or else. For example, as Jesus is well aware, Leviticus 19:12 declares the following:
“And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.”

I read that rule, as I’m sure Jesus had read it many times, and to me, it makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense for us to live our lives, trying to avoid the ire and the anger of the Living God, the One who calls himself I Am. That makes sense because as Jim Croce once sang,
You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind /
You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger
And you don’t mess around with…

With Yahweh. Yahweh, the God of Israel, will make us pay for profaning his name. So don’t do it. And likewise, if Yahweh steps into the ever-brewing Ancient Near East conflict, if Yahweh tries to temper some of that wild, vigilante vengeance, who are we to argue? “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounds like an offer that’s too good to refuse. Every once in a while, Philip and I will exchange a series of abusive remarks, witticisms or annoying adolescent jabs. It’s all innocent fun. But it ceases to be fun if either one of us goes to the extreme. If I hide his bowl of ice cream, for example, it’s inappropriate for him to pour ice water over my head in the shower. If he calls me fat, it’s unfair for me to sit on his head for more than five minutes. And all this is to point out the obvious: Exodus 21:23—24 and Leviticus 24:19—20 reinforce what only makes perfect sense. Similarly, if we are going to love God , it seems only logical for us to hate those who could care less about God. The enemies of God are recounted in the Psalms on numerous occasions. And in Psalm 139:19—22, the worship leader will guide us through this prayer:
“O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—those who speak maliciously and life themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”
You see, prayers like that have helped God’s people to survive for centuries. Moreover, the triple formula of no false swearing, measured retribution and divinely inspired hatred—all of it—has a familiar resonance today. And if it were not for Jesus, class would be dismissed. If it were not for Jesus, there would in fact be no question. This is the way we are supposed to live and if need be, die. And yet, according to Matthew 5, Jesus intends to change the lesson plan. Moreover, in this respect we might he resembles the teacher in the film, Dead Poet’s Society.

On the first day of school in Dead Poet’s Society, a new teacher has come to the Welton Academy. John Keating is a graduate of the preparatory school for boys, which means that he’s familiar with “the four pillars.” The four pillars, which have been drilled into the kids’ brains, are tradition, honor, discipline and excellence. Publicly these truths, these principles, have been recited without question since the inception of the institution. But privately, in their dorm rooms, the boys have come up with their own list. “Gentlemen, what are the four pillars?” “Travesty… Horror… Decadence… Excrement…” And so, into that kind of splintered and cynical atmosphere, Mr. Keating arrives and invites the pupils in his English class to turn to their textbook’s opening essay, called Understanding Poetry, by J. Evans Prichard. In the front row seat, Neil Perry dutifully volunteers and reads aloud. And when he’s finished, Mr. Keating says this: “And now, I want you to rip out that page…” The students, of course, are beside themselves. They’ve been taught to respect the teacher, but they’ve also been taught to respect their textbooks. Mr. Keating continues, “In fact, gentlemen, rip out the entire introduction. I want it gone. Be gone, Mr. J. Evans Prichard, PHD.”

Now listen to what’s happening here. Isn’t what’s happening in that Prep School similar to what’s happening on the mountain in the solid teaching of Jesus? No, I’m not saying that Jesus instructs us to rip out the Law of Moses.
But once again, he’s blurring the easy categories. Once again he’s letting the disciples know that he knows how the game is played. Jesus knows, for example, the old boy’s network, where swearing an oath can get you in. Jesus knows the loopholes and holy handshakes. Jesus knows how sly the Jewish leaders feel about their connection with Rome. Jesus knows how they cooperate publicly, but privately they hate the Romans with “a perfect hatred.” And so, now it’s time, time for a change in the lesson plan.

That change, of course, involves the following: First, according to Matthew 5:33—37, we should purge our language of any extraneous religiosity. Anything that alludes to God as a fanciful adjective should be ripped out of your conversation.
“Let your word be ‘Yes, yes,’ or ‘No, no,’ anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Second, according to Matthew 5:38—42, we should lose track of vengeance. Getting even with someone who has hurt you must be erased from your life’s agenda. Instead, Jesus proposes that you turn other cheek, give the cloak as well as the coat and go the extra mile for anyone who might try to commandeer your life. Third, according to Matthew 5:43—48, “so that you may be children of Your Father in heaven,” the followers of Jesus should practice some kind of holy indifference. Regardless of whether a person is a Christian or a non-Christian, that person is the object of God’s love. Treat him the way that the sun once shined on Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa. Treat her the way that the rain falls on Tiger Woods while he cheated on his wife and after he apologized for cheating on his wife.

According to Kevin Ford, this kind of change is never easy. But the life of the church is like a laboratory for trying the kind of transformation that Jesus teaches in our thinking, feeling and behaving toward ourselves and others.

“A group of laboratory scientists,” he claims,
put four monkeys together in a lab. After bringing in a tall pole with bananas on the top, they retreated to observe through a one-way mirror. Things went predictably at first. The monkeys competed against one another to reach the top of the pole and eat the bananas. The smartest and strongest retrieved the bananas, while the others had to wait for the right moment… Then the scientists changed the environment by putting a pail of water at the top of the pole. Every time a monkey climbed the pole to reach the bananas, he got doused with water. After several repeated episodes, the monkeys learned to stop going after the bananas. The environment had forced the monkeys to change their behavior… Eventually the scientists took the water away. There was no reason for the monkeys not to climb the pole, but the monkeys had already been conditioned. Even with the threat removed, they didn’t attempt to climb the pole. The bananas were left untouched. The monkeys just started longingly at them… The third round of the experiment involved replacing one of the original monkeys. Not surprisingly, the new monkey scurried into the room, saw the bananas, and immediately started to climb the pole. What happened next shocked the scientists: the three original monkeys grabbed the newcomer by the tail, yanked at his feet, and pulled him down. They were trying to protect him from being doused by water, which wasn’t even there!

You see, here at Latah Valley, I’m convinced that we will occasionally feel like someone has grabbed us by the tail. We will feel someone yanking at our feet. Never mind. Climb into the changed lesson plan of Jesus. Climb. Don’t stop. What awaits us may not be the punishment we expect, but the maturity in Christ for which we yearn.

Amen.

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, in a world without cell-phones or texting, a seventh grade girl sits in the back row of her classroom. During fifth period the teacher for Advanced Math can be seen reviewing a homework assignment at the blackboard. The student consequently feels safe, safe enough to scribble a love note on a piece of graph paper. So, taking her time, the young woman glances at the object of her affection: a seventh grade boy, who occupies a desk two rows over. As the teacher labors away at some algebraic expression, she observes her potential boyfriend scratching his head and messing with his wavy, dark hair. She sees him chewing on the eraser of his pencil and shuffling his feet. And that, of course, gives her the inspiration. Rather than drawing a big red heart with an arrow through it, rather carving his initials next to the standard amorous cliché, the girl in the back row will chose a more artful way to express her feelings. She writes, “Is this class boring or what? Check yes or no.” Then, as she’s preparing to pass her secret message, the girl imagines her next step. Perhaps they’ll tease one another at his locker. Maybe over recess they’ll share a Twinkie. But, you see, it isn’t meant to be. As she day-dreams, the chalky hand of the teacher snatches up the note. “Please don’t read it,” she says…

Today, in Matthew 5:14—32 Jesus does not mention the word, LOVE, at all. In that respect he’s like the girl in the seventh grade classroom, which is to say, he’s working up to it. In a few verses, in a few chapters, in a few different gospel accounts, Jesus will get around to expressing his love. He will mention his agape—his unconditional—love. And, in John’s gospel, he will even mention his philia—his friendship kind of love. But for now, Jesus plays the part of teacher. And in his role as teacher he is only too aware of how tedious it is for the disciples to learn about the law. The Law of Moses is the subject at hand. And yet, after the taking of the blessed attendance, it’s going to be extremely hard for even Jesus to hold anyone’s attention. Ask yourself: how does he go from “You are the light of the world,” in verse 14 (which is very affirming and even alluring) to “You shall not murder” or “You shall not commit adultery” ?
In 1936, a twelve year old girl flunked a confirmation class. The teacher had been the famous German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and although he did not consider Maria von Wedemeyer ready to profess Christ as Lord and Savior, he eventually would ask for her hand in marriage. That’s right. In 1942, eight years later, Bonhoeffer became engaged to someone who did not share his passion for the Bible or for thinking about God. In fact, based upon the letters they exchanged while Bonhoeffer had been held captive by the Nazis, it’s clear that Maria felt bored by much of what church had to offer. Once, when Dietrich boasted that he had committed to memory his first ten sermons, she left the room, assuming that he intended to prove it to her. And yet, consider the words that the preacher sent to Maria from Cell 92:
“Let me kiss you and love you and stroke the sorrow from your brow.”

The point, you see, is that love is the point. Love is always the point. Not necessarily romantic love or erotic love. But love for the whole person runs through every blessing that Jesus has to bestow and it runs through every way that he goes about interpreting the Law of Moses.
“You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder…’ ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce…’”

That, of course, is the teacher talking. But listen carefully. That’s also the lover of your soul and my soul. And in a moment he’s going to pass us a love note… In other words, Jesus will acknowledge and affirm the hard slog of what Moses had to teach. He does not want to avoid the Ten Commandments, or water them down into suggestions. And yet, here comes the note:
But I say to you… if you are angry with your brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…

But I say to you… that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…

But I say to you… that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery…”
You see, I’m no love therapist. But my hunch is that with each of these caveats Jesus sends a message to a particular group of people. For example, if you are the one person who has been driven away from a community of faith because an inappropriate expression of anger, Jesus says, I love you. Stay close. Likewise, let’s say that you’re a single or divorced adult and you’ve come to worship God and to pray for healing in your life. But every time you turn around, someone’s asking you out on a date. Well, pretty soon you stop coming to worship. You can get dates at the bar. You can get dates on the Internet. You can get dates at the Fitness Club. And yet, what you had wanted was an encounter with the ever-living God. And if that’s you, Jesus wants to pass on this note: Stay close. Don’t go too far away. I love you.

Fiddler On The Roof is probably my all-time favorite Broadway production, and one of the scenes that really touches me deeply revolves around the third daughter to be married, whose name is Chava. Chava meets and falls in love with Fydeka, who is not Jewish. And, whereas Papa may have allowed a marriage between Tzeitel and a poor tailor, whereas Papa may have acquiesced to a marriage between Hodel and the radical from Kiev, he does not see how the Law of Moses—or what he calls “tradition”—can bend enough to allow the blessed union of a Jew and a non-Jew. “If I bend that far,” he says, “I’ll break.” And then, later, as Chava runs away with Fydeka, Tevye tells his wife, “Chava is dead to us.” That, of course, is what the father of five daughters has been taught all his life, and this teaching has served him well. But in the final scene, as all the Jews living in Anatevka have been forced out, Chava and Fydeka come to say goodbye; they are not staying either. Papa, however, still will not speak to them. He remains silent and bitter, roping up the family belongings… until Tzeitel, the eldest, can stand the silence no longer. She shouts to her sister. And very quietly Tevye turns and says, “And God be with you.” Tzeitel then repeats, “And God be with you.”

Now, what’s happening here is very subtle, but extremely important to the future of Latah Valley. I am convinced that God’s love for us overrides and supercedes every right answer that has been passed down through the ages. On the other hand, probably the best way to interpret and to understand the types of tradition that we have in church is to trace it back to love. Who is God trying to love?

A love note actually identifies with those who have been hurt and alienated by the standard religious practice. A love note says that you are still loved even though you have had your own faith tradition used against you. And here at Latah Valley I want to open the doors to every person, to every boy and every girl, to every sad soul who has ever sat in the back row of the church and scribbled a note: “Do you love me? Check yes or no.”

Amen.

A father once wrote a note for his child. The child had missed a day of school, but in his haste, the father omitted a critical word:
“Please excuse Fred for being… it’s his mother’s fault and it won’t happen again.”

To be absent, you understand, is a strange concept. We know what it means in terms of school, family reunions, wedding rehearsals and brainstorming sessions at work. During the course of everyday experience, being absent implies that we can’t be in two places at once. It means that we’re never going to make every appointment, that occasionally somebody will be disappointed or let down or stood up or left hanging. But I suppose the biggest reason for us to ponder the weirdness of being absent is the way that Jesus begins his teaching in Matthew, chapter five. Jesus starts by taking what I’m going to call The Blessed Attendance, and this is a role call that his immediate disciples must learn to take themselves. And, you see, taking the blessed attendance doesn’t have anything to do with determining who’s in and who’s out. The blessed attendance actually marks presence of God with those who polite society often regards as not here. For example, according to Jesus, God is primarily present among the poor in spirit and those who mourn and the meek. These folks are not what we’d call the movers and shakers of society. They’re not the life of the party. They’re not competing to see how many friends they can get on Facebook. And yet, according to Jesus, they are blessed. They are favored by God precisely because of their vulnerability, their humility and therefore their teachability.

In Shadowlands, the story about the relationship of CS Lewis and Joy Greshem, Lewis is fond of giving speeches about why God allows pain and suffering in the world. He says at every occasion pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Suffering is what pushes us out of the nursery and into the hallway; God doesn’t necessarily want us to be happy, but to grow up. Well, he offers this over and over again until one night, his wife dies of cancer.
During the succeeding months of winter, which Lewis refers to as the time of shadows he confides in his brother, “Experience is a brutal teacher… But by God you learn. You do learn.”

Now, if you were to ask C.S. Lewis what it was that he learned, my best guess is that he would say how blessed he is. His wife had died. He’d been given a great gift, and from his life she’d been taken. And Lewis had therefore been blessed. In other words, he’d been blessed with an absence—the absence of someone incredibly dear—who in turn reminded him of God’s active presence. God marks himself as present with those who are poor in spirit. God marks himself as present with those who mourn. God marks himself as present with the meek.

In The Go-Between God, John V. Taylor describes how the African villagers would interact with the missionaries. He would be working and a friend would come in. There would be a brief greeting of some kind. And then, the African would squat down in the room. About thirty minutes would go by without conversation. The missionary simply went on with his work while the friendly visitor just occupied space. Then he would rise and say, “I have see you,” and walk out the door. Could this be what Jesus is teaching?

I once sat quietly in the waiting room of the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Next to me, sprawled out on the vinyl seats were an elderly mother and father, a young wife, an older brother and a friend of the family. We huddled there in the glass-enclosed room, adjacent to the corridor, after we had seen somebody’s son, somebody’s wife, somebody’s brother and somebody’s friend wheeled on a gurney into surgery. There he had been, lying prone beneath the sterile sheets. He glanced at us and we glanced back, wondering if this might be the last time we would ever share that kind of interaction. Anyway, I prayed with those who remained in the waiting room and then just stayed.
I felt like I didn’t belong when the man’s parents asked me a series of polite questions. We drifted into a discussion of the news and world events. And then even the world faded and we leaned into the quiet. And all of a sudden a deacon from another local church burst through the door. She laughed and joked and asserted herself all over the place. Whenever a tear dripped on a cheek she immediately launched into a loud prayer. So, after one of those boisterous pep-rallies, I excused myself. Hours had gone by, and the presence of the deacon made me wonder about my own usefulness. Was I just a bump on some non-assertive log? Would it be better for me to go?

Well, upon my return to the waiting room, I received my answer. In the room the absence of the garrulous deacon could not have been more palpable. Sitting down next to the wife, I asked about leaving. She said, “No, please stay. That lady was so distracting I’ve lost my focus on God…”
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God…

Over and over again what Jesus makes abundantly clear is the conduit of God’s purpose and power. Those who are blessed are not necessarily the wealthy and the healthy. Those who are blessed by the God of Israel, says Jesus, will be people who have been hollowed out enough—so that we become like a channel through which God’s Spirit gushes forth blessing. We are—or we become—in the words of Genesis 12, “blessed to be a blessing.”

Kevin Ford writes about consulting with a church in California. He asked them, what specifically makes this place so appealing?
“The music rocks!” “The dramas make me laugh and cry.” “The pastor’s sermons are so relevant to my needs.” “My teenager plays the bass in the youth band.” “My children meet in rooms with jungle creatures painted on the walls.” Everything here is always high quality.”

So, what would happen, wondered Ford aloud, if the pastor left or the worship leader resigned or the children’s ministry declined in quality?
“I would leave,” came one reply.
“I saw this really cool Web site for Hope Community,” said someone else.
“I’ll take my kids wherever I can find the best program…”

You see, not one person in this outwardly affluent and very successful church, not one mentioned anything about personal transformation, about being blessed in order to be a blessing. Not one mentioned how he or she had been sent by God into their homes, into their marriages, into their workplaces and neighborhoods. And of course, that snippet from the book, Transforming Church, turns my attention back to the opportunity that we have here at Latah Valley. Here at Latah Valley we have the chance to see those whom Jesus considers Blessed and to mark God’s presence with them.

Amen.