Sunday, February 24, 2019

Rising Above Your Lizard Brain: Luke 6:27-38 - Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

[Jesus said:] 27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38
give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (NRSV)
Photo by author.

Meet Angel.

He’s our strawberry crested gecko, the fourth member of our family. He’s eight inches long, and he weighs about 1½ ounces. And he loves people. In fact, he’s even more charming than the Geico Gecko.

But he’s terrified of sharp sounds and sudden movements. When he gets scared, he bolts.

He’s using his lizard brain—his fight or flight instincts. And since he’s tiny and doesn’t have any teeth, he chooses flight every time.

You also have a lizard brain—even though you’re not a lizard. When presented with a threat, you don’t think. You react. Fight, flight, or freeze… Your lizard brain functions even when you’re not threatened. Every decision gets governed by the question, “what’s in it for me?” You choose the path of least resistance. You choose instant gratification.

Ideally, when you’re threatened, you fight back. You get the last word. Just consider our heroes on TV and film: they don’t just conquer their foes; they destroy them. If, however, you lack such power, strength, and general disregard for human life, you can still hate and curse your enemies.

Yet our lizard loves people. You could say he’s risen above his lizard brain. And that’s what Jesus wants to work in you, too.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”

Thinking, then, of the people you loathe and despise; who seem to take joy in agitating you: are you able to do what Jesus says?  Why, on earth, would you want to?

I once heard it said that the bible is nothing but “a bunch of well-meaning ideas that don’t work out in real life.” Today’s Gospel is the perfect case-in-point. You’re voluntarily putting yourself in a place of weakness. It’s like Jesus wants you to be everyone’s doormat; that you’re supposed to let people walk all over you, and like it. You could call it voluntary martyrdom: you’re the victim, all the time, every time.

But that’s not what Jesus is talking about.

One of the most fundamental promises of Scripture is God’s deliverance from enemies: human enemies, demonic enemies, and your own mortality. Remember that Jesus handed himself over to be crucified in weakness and humiliation. People spat on him and ridiculed him because he wasn’t saving himself. Yet Jesus did the most powerful thing he could’ve done in that situation: it wasn’t coming off of the cross, but rather crying out, “Father, forgive them.” What human flesh saw as the crushing defeat of Jesus was, in reality, Jesus’ crushing defeat of sin, death, and hell. His victory was won not through raw power and violence but mercy, self-sacrifice, and forgiveness. Death and evil were conquered by life and love.

Understand that you are more than just mortal human flesh. The flesh is temporary; the spirit is eternal. Your body is the temple of your spirit. Your flesh will ultimately return to dust; but your spirit lives forever because of Christ.

Jesus’ teachings nurture the well-being of your spirit—and not merely the flesh and will eventually turn to dust. Life in the spirit is governed by a whole different set of rules and values. So when Jesus talks of loving your enemies and giving without the expectation of getting in return, you are embracing God’s promises and God’s power to shape eternal outcomes in temporary situations.

Sometimes, that expression of God’s power will change the situation for the better—perhaps even influencing the person doing wrong to turn from their evil ways. Much of the time, though, you won’t see the slightest difference. And that’s okay. You stand on the promise that God will have the last word.

One of the most powerful examples of this comes from the early Church. Many Christians were led into the gladiator arenas to be brutally slain for the public’s entertainment. Most condemned persons would call out curses. But the Christians held each other’s hands and called out for God’s forgiveness of their murderers. They died peacefully. People noticed this—and the church grew as a result. This was an expression not of their strength—but of God’s. In death, they bore witness to God’s all-conquering love

As we near ever closer to Lent, you are invited to turn your focus towards nurturing your life in the Spirit—rather than merely nurturing your life in the flesh. You’re not a lizard—so why live like one? We do so much to satisfy the appetites of our flesh—through the accumulation of possessions and accomplishments; showing yourself to the world as someone who’s smarter, stronger, and more successful than everyone else; getting your way and always having the last word. At minimum, our gratification of the flesh wrecks our relationships and burdens the flesh with anxiety and exhaustion. At worst, our gratification of the flesh breeds poverty and violence. Life in the Spirit is nurtured with prayer and patience. It flourishes not in competition but in community; where forgiveness and forbearance, kindness and compassion, healing and hope move us forward into tomorrow.

Jesus conquered death and the devil. If you’re going to fight for anything, fight for love. When others fight you, let your words and deeds speak Christ’s victory. Death and the devil are barreling towards their ultimate end. God’s life and love will carry you through today’s troubles and tomorrow’s trials. God’s life and love will win.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Being the Blessed: Luke 6:17-26 - Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

17[Jesus] came down with [the twelve] and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.18They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
 “Blessed are you who are poor,
  for yours is the kingdom of God.
21“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
  for you will be filled.
 “Blessed are you who weep now,
  for you will laugh.
22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
24“But woe to you who are rich,
  for you have received your consolation.
25“Woe to you who are full now,
  for you will be hungry.
 “Woe to you who are laughing now,
  for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (NRSV)
day 171 knead by tracy ducasse on flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As a child, there were a few things my parents did not allow me to say…besides curse words.

I could never say, “I’m starving”—because Mom or Dad would always answer, “No, you’re not! You’re just hungry.”

Soon, I noticed the “Save the Children” commercials on TV—and I learned what starvation really was…

Knowing that, I can’t help but be perplexed when Jesus says, “blessed are you who are poor…” “Blessed are you who are hungry.” “Blessed are you who wail.” To speak these words to someone who’s dying of starvation, standing at the graveside of their loved one, or experiencing a dark night of the soul would be the ultimate insult.

It would take an act of God for someone in such dire circumstances to be blessed.

It’s natural to associate God’s blessing with your own prosperity—which is not always wrong. Health, wealth, laughter, and a good reputation are just a few of the many ways you can experience God’s blessing. When you pray, “give us today our daily bread,” and God does, you are blessed.

Where you go wrong is in associating these with God’s favoring of you—and the lack thereof as God’s disfavoring. Don’t think for a second that God is pleased when little children die needlessly of starvation, or when you wail in agony over a loss or hardship, or when people unjustly hate and defame you. God is not pleased. God is going to act to make it right.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy riches, prosperity, and a good name; you give God no thanksgiving; you act as though God should be giving you these blessings and more; and you give no thought to your neighbors in need—God is not pleased. Be warned: your “luck” or whatever you want to call it is about to run out. Lost in the sea of your own ambitions, you will be swept away when Jesus comes to turn the tide against suffering and death.

But remember: Jesus doesn’t threaten you into discipleship. Jesus’ words are Gospel; they are good news. Jesus speaks God’s determination to bless the hungry, the poor, and the despised. And not just in the distant future, but in the here-and-now. Jesus is inviting you to enter this reality of blessing.

It never fails that when you do something to bless the poor, something in you changes. Perhaps you’ve experienced this firsthand when you’ve volunteered at the clothing closet; you’ve gone Christmas caroling at the nursing home; or you’ve gone far out of your way to help someone in need. All your normal ways of thinking and acting come to a screeching halt.

“When I see people in need, it makes me more thankful for what I have.” “I can’t turn away.” “I must do something.”

When you’re confronted with the tragedy of human suffering, the Christ who lives within you is activated. Suddenly, the poor and hungry are blessed—because you are serving them. Suddenly, the despised and rejected are blessed—because you love them. Someone can face a difficult tomorrow because you will be there waiting for them.

Best of all, when your love meets another’s need, there is rejoicing. You’re rejoicing, and so are they—and it’s not the kind of rejoicing that comes from buying expensive things or vacationing in exotic places. It’s not the kind of rejoicing that comes with personal success and achievement. It’s the rejoicing that results from God’s promises coming to fulfillment.

And today Jesus is inviting you to go deeper into that experience of blessing and the rejoicing that comes with it—which is precisely where this gets challenging.

If you enjoy an abundance of health, wealth, laughter, and a good reputation, have you ever really had to rely on God for anything—other than to keep these blessings coming? For the poor and destitute, God is their only hope. But you have stuff to cling to. You have a safety net. And it is extremely difficult to exchange worldly gratification for divine gratification. health, wealth, laughter, and a good reputation satisfy you right away. With God, you’re not in control. You must be patient. It’s easier to cling to God’s promises when God is all you have.

Amazingly, the people I’ve witnessed staking themselves on God’s promises are also the people you’d least expect. A client of our food bank gave his brand-new winter jacket to our clothing closet with the sales tags still attached—because his old coat still fit, and he wanted someone else to have the new one. A girl in grade school gave away some of her favorite toys when a house in her neighborhood burned to the ground. I’ve seen people serve this church with sickness all through their bodies—because they need to be here. This is what it means to be blessed. This is the joy of the Lord.

This is what Jesus wants to give to you. If you’re content with your discipleship “as-is,” this joy will elude you. Continue seeking health, wealth, laughter, and a good reputation—and you’re heading in the opposite direction of God’s kingdom. You’re the foolish man building his house upon the sand. God is for the poor. God is for the lost and lowly. God is for those who need forgiveness. Real blessing is found where selfless love and sacrifice raise the dying to new life. All who wait upon the Lord will be satisfied. God is making right all that has been made wrong. Then, we shall all rejoice like never before.