Archive for July, 2017

Matthew 6:25-34

July 31, 2017

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.  Matthew 6:25-34

Someone once told me the difference between worry and anxiety, or mild stress and high stress, is the difference between approaching a hiking trail and seeing a sign that reads “Beware of Bears on Trail” or approaching the same trail as a hiker comes running down screaming that they just saw a bear on the trail. That is a clear difference. What is clear about the worries that grip us today?

Today I start heading back to Houston after taking a few days off to visit my hometown. When I got to town I drove through the city park, a place full of childhood memories. I drove by the swimming pool – much nicer than the one we filled up in the summer. The parking lot was full of cars with very few bikes in view. In my day there were hardly any cars at the pool with several bike racks chock full of bicycles. My sense is that children in town aren’t as free to roam as they  used to be. We seem to worry more about them today.

Jesus invites us not to worry so much. He uses the natural world to explain why we ought not worry as much as we do. But even the natural world feels far less safe today that it did back then. Jesus had no comment on climate change or the potential threats of fracking on ground water. Taking Jesus’ words to heart seems as difficult as expecting my daughter to let my grandson ride his bike around the neighborhood as freely as we did back in the ’60’s. Easy to say but it isn’t going to happen.

Chaos in politics, saber rattling in North Korea, diplomatic moves in Russia, ongoing strife with immigration, who will play quarterback for the Texans – the air is snowing worry.

But none of that can overwhelm the simple power of taking one thing at a time. Of doing what we can, where we can, when we can, and letting the rest go. Of striving first for the kingdom of God, trusting that God will take care of what we need as we need it.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, there is always so much more going on in the world than we can affect or change. And there is so much we can do each day to live our lives to the fullest. Teach us balance. Teach us discernment. Take our worries and free us to trust. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Matthew 6:21-24

July 28, 2017

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Matthew 6:21-24

Jesus tells us that “the eye is the lamp of the body” here in the context of challenging us for our fascination with, and over-investment in, worldly wealth. It is a powerful metaphor.

Our eyes are windows into our consciousness. Thus, it isn’t only about WHAT we see but also about HOW we see what we see. Our eyes can take us to healthy or unhealthy places. They can bring light – knowledge, insight, awareness – or they can take us into darkness – ignorance, gullibility, deception. The stakes here are very high and the consequences real.

As a culture, we are currently experiencing the very high and very real consequences of an inability to clearly see reality. Consider “reality TV.” There is nothing real about reality TV. The subjects are chosen to capture our attention. Voyeurism and car wrecks are like brain crack. We can’t turn away. The drama is staged. The events choreographed. Why do we fall for it?

Because it is expensive to produce television shows, someone had a great idea, “Let’s make a fake show where we don’t have to pay the actors a lot of money unless it becomes a hit. And let’s make sure that we focus on money, wealth, sex, and violence because people eat that stuff up!” The next thing you know, Paris Hilton and the Kardashian family are household names and Donald Trump is elected President.

These cultural spin doctors understand that “perception is reality” so they spin our perceptions. Soon we are battling with each other about the new concept of “fake news.” The veil is lifted and we are confronted with a new reality – everything really is about market share and advertising dollars and name recognition and “all press is good press.”

The darkness descends.

When Jesus tells us to pay attention to WHAT we see and HOW we see it he is inviting us into a deeper level of reflection than our knee jerk reactivity or surrender to our long unexamined assumptions.

He is inviting us to be more thoughtful about the real consequences of our idolatry, of our chasing the gods who are not God. For he knows, and somewhere deep inside, we do too. To just close our eyes is to live in darkness. To open our eyes holds the possibility of finding a ray of light to guide us.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, open our eyes, that we might more clearly see. That we might see the splinters which blind us. That we might seek first to understand. That we might come to a place where we discern the difference between perception and reality. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 6:19-21

July 27, 2017

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21

Since I’ve lost some weight this year I have had to buy new jeans. I cringe when I pay $55 for a pair of Cinch jeans (my favorite brand) but they fit better now than the Wranglers ($24.99) I used to order from Amazon. But I guess I could have bought this pair – vintage Levi’s (38 waist) from the 1960’s for a mere $3,000. Yes, that’s right. Click on the link and see for yourself.

Someone will buy those jeans. Or maybe they will wait until they go on sale for $2,499. But someone will buy them and, when they do, they will have their reasons.

I’m not much into fancy clothes but I am seriously into really nice motorcycles. I like to say I own them but the truth is that they own me. They make big claims on my time, my income, and my mental real estate. Maybe too much. And sure, I can offer all sorts of justification for why I need the motorcycles I have, just as we all justify whatever we do, or buy, or give, or save, or hoard. Yet no amount of our justification tells the whole truth.

The whole truth is that we have far more of ourselves – our identity, our sense of self, our sense of success or failure, our concern for what others think of us – wrapped up in our earthly treasures than we realize. We have all swallowed a pretty good dose of selfishness and self-centeredness. We are most blind to this the more we pride ourselves on being “self-made” people.

No one is self-made. Any object observer following the course of our lives would see the chance encounters, the economic class of family connections, the social class of our skin color, the glass ceiling hovering, depending on our gender, above or below us. The mentors who took time for us. The social forces that shifted markets at just the right time to our benefit. The list goes on and on. Humility finally lands as close as possible to “I have been blessed.”

What Jesus knows is that the measure of our blessedness is not measured by square footage, account balances, the contents of closets or garages or beach houses, or zip codes. We are blessed because God is love, because God created us, and because God will never let us go. Even when we reach that inevitable personal conclusion that our time on earth is done – a conclusion over which we have no control unless we take tragic measures into our own hands.

Jesus gives us one life and he doesn’t want to see us wasting it chasing idols that can’t deliver what they promise and serve only to deprive others along the way. The only lasting treasure is the love of God and we already have that in Jesus.

Years ago we used checkbook registers and the cliche for every stewardship sermon was to invite people to look at the past month, to look and see where they put their treasure. Because that is probably also where they put their heart. At least that is how Jesus says it works – where our treasure is, our heart will follow – not the other way around. It is EASY for us to say that we really put our hearts into something. Who can question that? But it is HARD to lead with our treasure…unless we’re spending it on something that our heart desires. If we lead with our hearts then we will never have enough treasure. The world doesn’t have enough treasure. We always want more. Our hearts are greedy, aren’t they?

So we are to lead with our treasure, trusting that our hearts will follow. Which then brings us back to the beginning. What do we treasure? Where are our hearts?

Let us pray: Lord, we sometimes feel possessed by our possessions. There is never enough of anything, especially time and money. But that isn’t true. We do have enough. More than enough. Plenty to share. Help us keep straight the order of treasure and heart in our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 6:16-18

July 26, 2017

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18

Somewhere along the line most of us were taught that the original use of the word we know as “hypocrite” referred to Greek theater where the actors performed more than one role. Using hand held masks, they jumped between the various roles. “Two-faced” shares the same roots. Jesus has no use for hypocrisy. Why? Because it is death to honest relationships.

Watching actors play multiple roles is fascinating. Delightful even. But when we put one face forward only to get what we want all we are doing is manipulating people. We are creating a lie and forcing others to enter into it with us…to our benefit alone.

Does this happen often? Of course it does. We are socialized into this kind of behavior. We are rewarded by “being a good kid” so we put that face forward whenever possible even though we might be sneaking all sorts of stuff behind the scenes. A whole generation of people knows what it means to be an Eddie Haskell.

Part of this could be considered social decorum. Parents shield their kids along the way, keeping some things to themselves. There are certain settings that require a set of manners that other settings don’t. This has to do with emotional intelligence.

What Jesus pinpoints here is how we might use our “religiosity” to acquire public favor and goodwill as opposed to practicing a deeper, more authentic, spirituality that seeks a greater sense of connectedness and communion with God. This too happens a lot. It can be profoundly persuasive in certain circles which makes it all the more dangerous to human community and to Christian community.

We would do well, in taking these words of Jesus to heart, to do two things.

First, we need to be aware of the connections between our motivations and our behaviors. We need to resist the temptation toward any practice of the faith that is motivated by looking good to others or pretending to be someone we aren’t. God doesn’t love us because of who we ought to be or who we might someday be or who others think we are – God loves us because God is love. We don’t need to pretend or to make pretenses to curry God’s favor. Or anyone else’s for that matter.

And second, we need to pay close attention to our inner B.S. detector. We do well to pay close attention to those who put on religiosity only for their own selfish purposes. Nobody gets a free pass because they go to church on Sunday – or say they do when they really don’t. This isn’t about judging others, it is about refusing to fall for the hype.

Fasting is a good practice. To intentionally deprive ourselves of something for a period draws us into a place where we better recognize the many blessings of our lives. This is good for us. It isn’t fasting or prayer that Jesus criticizes – it is abusing these good gifts of God for selfish and self-centered reasons that Jesus names. And denounces.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we all recognize the temptation to do whatever it takes to look good in the eyes of our neighbors. We understand the allure of manipulating and conning others to get our way. And we also know the damage this causes. In our relationship with you, and in our relationships with others. Let truth and courage be our guide, that we might learn to accept ourselves as you accept us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 6:7-15

July 25, 2017

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:7-15

Prayer is what we do when we are consciously aware of God’s presence. Prayer is to our relationship with God what communication is to our relationships with our loved ones. The more frequent, the more honest, the more vulnerable, and the more courageous our communications, the deeper our relationships move. That is simply how God has designed us. And what works with our loved ones also works with God.

Which, to me, is quite a challenge.

I got sideways with my Dad one summer and I gave him the silent treatment for the better part of two months. I’m not proud of it. I wasn’t proud of it then. I felt angry, hurt, and not a little belligerent and rebellious. Eventually I got over it and apologized but then it happened again many years later. That silent treatment lasted for a few years. I knew I was being resentful and childish…but there was a part of me that must have thought it was OK to be childish given that I was, in fact, his child.

Maybe we don’t give God the silent treatment on purpose. Or maybe we do. Or maybe we just get distracted. Or maybe we have developed a rich and natural pattern of communicating with God that comforts, challenges, and works for us. Wherever we are in that, intentionality and willingness go hand in hand to produce disciplines that look like discipleship.

We don’t even have to worry about the words to use. Jesus gives us a whole prayer that covers everything we need – praise, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It’s all in there. Whether raised to pray “sin”, “debt”, or “trespasses”, whether we include the ending doxology or not, those particulars are not nearly as important as using this model prayer as Jesus intended – to stay connected, to stay in touch, to remember Whose we are, and to remember that God cares enough about all aspects of our lives to include them in this prayer.

I pray the Lord’s Prayer several times a day and I’m not even pious! Every time I pray it I am mindful of the millions of other Christians who have gone before me, those who are still walking by faith, and even those who claim “Other” or “None” when filling out forms that ask for their religious affiliations.

Sometimes I pray in silence. Sometimes I pray in sighs. Sometimes I pray in the company of others. And sometimes I feel like my “prayer mechanism” is broken. But I can always pray the Lord’s Prayer. And that is enough. And it is always better than filling the air with a prayerful word salad trying to impress others.

Let us pray: Thank you, Lord, for making it so easy for us to stay in touch with you. You are Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. You are the best kind of friend, the one who says to us what we don’t want to hear but trust that you know us better than we know ourselves and therefore we are able to hear it. Keep us mindful of your presence and steadfast in our prayers. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 6:5-6

July 21, 2017

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:5-6

Jesus uses the word “reward” several times in the Sermon on the Mount. This morning he attaches the word to our prayers, both public and private. How are we to hear this word and what are we to do with it?

The text isn’t complicated. Jesus discourages public displays of piety where the goal is to look good in the eyes of those who see us. Lutherans seem to have gotten that advice down stone cold. There aren’t too many street preachers in North Dakota and few Lutheran choirs dance as they sing. “Demonstrative” is hardly an apt description of Lutheran piety.

So too with privacy and prayers. We are about as apt to talk about our prayer lives as we are our sex lives. We think it too personal, too private. Or maybe we are afraid to admit the realities of how such things really work behind our closed doors.

So is this a part of Jesus’ teaching that we simply check off, “Done,” and move on? Or is there something else we would do well to consider?

Back now to “reward.” Have you ever noticed the close relationship between the words “award” and “reward”? A dictionary might say that an award is something we receive as an honor after some sort of contest or competition. A reward is something we receive as an incentive to do something or as compensation for something we have already done. Either way, the focus is on receiving something that we don’t yet have based on what we did to achieve or earn it.

If we hear Jesus’ words from this point of view we are left with the image of a God sitting at a huge control panel with an array of buttons in front of him. He sees and hears everything, even our prayers offered in private. And when we do the right thing God hits a button and a reward comes floating down from heaven into our lives. Or a variation on that idea, it gets deposited into our account and we don’t discover the final tally until we get to heaven.

The fundamentalist church we dipped our toes in when I was a kid taught us that doing the right thing would help us “earn a jewel in our crown.” Whatever that meant. But it sounded good.

This is not how I understand God’s presence and the idea of “reward” today. Today is see what Jesus describes as a “reward” as a built in feature of God’s creation. The reward we get for eating healthy food in healthy proportions is a body allowed to return to a healthy weight. The reward we get for investing time in our relationship with God in prayer is a deeper sense of connectedness to God. The reward is built in to the behavior. It isn’t about earning a reward, it is about experiencing the goodness of life as God intends it.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, often we care far more about what our neighbors think of us than what you think of it. We invest our time chasing rewards that don’t matter. Encourage us to slow down, to take time, to sit in and with you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 6:1-4

July 20, 2017

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.“ Matthew 6:1-4

Giving “alms” refers to whatever we give to alleviate the suffering of the poor. We give expecting nothing in return. From Deuteronomy 15:11, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” From Proverbs 14:31, “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.”

If you live in a city like Houston, there isn’t a day that passes by that you don’t pass by a beggar on the side of the street. Whenever it happens, you feel that twinge in your stomach. Maybe it is a moment of pity that wants to become compassion. Maybe it is a little shot of self-righteous indignation, “Why doesn’t he just get a job?” Maybe you hand a dollar or a few dollars through your car window, wondering what they will really do with the money.

No matter how you respond, seeing the poor from a distance always reminds you of what you have and what others don’t. Or maybe you take the risk of getting a little closer – learning names of the regulars you see, inviting someone to join you for a meal, listening to their story – and then you realize that their situation is far more complicated, and much more deeply rooted in their history, their genes, their illnesses, than you might have thought.

And you realize that Jesus was right, “You will always have the poor with you.”

Almsgiving was always a core practice in Judaism. Desert hospitality mixed with the inevitable results of deep and abiding poverty to become the only safety net there was for people who had nowhere else to turn. Yet humans naturally asked the self-serving question, “So what do I get out of this?” The response became two sided – God will show me mercy because I showed mercy to the poor, and people will recognize that I’m a good person because of the good that I do to others. (And, of course, the dark side – all of this will cover up my shady business practices or whatever else that I feel guilty about.)

Notice that Jesus isn’t opposed to giving to help the poor. He encourages it. He once told a rich young man to sell everything he owned, give the money to the poor, and then to come and follow him. What Jesus does do is stick a knife in the self-serving aspects of our gifts to the poor.

No, such giving does not earn us merit badges with God. No, we don’t need to trumpet our generosity to purchase public good will. And no, our gifts to the poor do not cancel out the bad stuff we have done along the way to get what we have. Our gifts simply alleviate hunger for a moment, or put shoes on feet, or clothes on bodies, or provide for basic needs. In the moment, that is enough. In the long run, we do what we can to provide opportunities for people to fish on their own.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, whether showy pride or sneaky false pride, there is something in us that wants to receive credit for whatever good we do. You know that about us, Lord, you see it in us. Far too often, we are blind to ourselves. We don’t even realize what we’re doing. We pray today for people living on the edge, people suffering from hunger, homelessness, mental illness, addictions, or unforeseen tragedy and loss. Inspire those who have to share with those who don’t. And guide those who are in positions of power to place the highest priority toward those with the least in life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 5:43-48

July 19, 2017

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48

Destruction is much easier than construction. I’m not a carpenter but give me a sledge hammer and a pry bar and I can destroy a room in a few hours. In seconds, carefully placed explosives can implode a skyscraper that took years to build. A road crew can make a segment of highway disappear overnight.

What happens in the physical world can also happen in the world of relationships. A first step is noticing and amplifying slights. Then comes demonizing, name calling, and dehumanizing. Respectful names are replaced with derogatory names. Character is replaced by caricature. Suddenly, voila, a new enemy has been minted!

Just as it is so much easier to destroy than it is to build, it is so much easier to hate our enemies (largely constructed out of our own imaginations for our own self-serving purposes) than it is to love our neighbor (although being able to pick and choose who we count as ‘neighbor’ does make it a bit easier.)

Jesus knows all of this about us. It is one of the many less savory aspects of the broken human condition of sin. It isn’t new. It isn’t going away quickly. And it falls far short of the life that God intends for us.

Jesus too reaches into the natural world to make his point. The rain falls and the sun shines on everyone. We all get 24 hours a day. We all need to eat. Beyond all the differences of race, class, geography, and genes, there is the underlying connection of our humanity. And then there is the challenge of figuring out how to live in that.

In his treatment of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther does a masterful job of keeping all of this in mind. To the petition, “Thy will be done”, Luther writes: “In fact, God’s good and gracious will comes about without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in and among us.” Therein lies the difference. What marks the followers of Jesus is their awareness of the deeper realities of our lives and the fingerprints of God on all creation. Because we see things differently, we act and respond differently.

The world around us then sees how we act, how we respond. At our best, loving our enemies points beyond ourselves to God. At our worst, we add salt to the wounds of life.

That final line is helpful here. There are two ways of understanding the word Jesus uses for “perfect.” One means without blemish or flaw. There is no such thing as a perfect nail. We’ll all fail on that one. The other means to be used as intended. A nail is a perfect instrument for joining two boards together. We can all work on living, and loving, as God intends us to.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, give us patience and perseverance to reach beyond whatever would divide us from others, that we might truly love others as a reflection of your love for us. Bind us together and remind us of the deep connection we share will all other people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 5:38-42

July 18, 2017

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Matthew 5:38-42

I’ll never forget the time my mother came to visit when I was in the seminary. We had some time to kill so I took her on the tour of the James J. Hill mansion in St. Paul, MN. The moment I remember is when the docent was telling us about the ornate woodwork in the staircase.

As she told us that it was handcrafted in Boston or wherever, then disassembled and shipped to the mansion for reassembly, my mom whispered to me, “Yeah, and they were probably working for 5 cents an hour.” Who thinks like that? Who would say that, at that moment? Only a person who had been poor her entire life. Perspectives matter.

Those of us who worry more about our weight than we do our ability to afford groceries this week read these verses and get uncomfortable. Oh Jesus, now you’re meddlin’!

Plenty of people believe that what Jesus advocates here is precisely what is wrong with the world today. Too many people expect something for nothing. Too many people stand with their hands out. Not to mention too many people getting away with stuff when they ought to get locked up forever. These are the folks (or the moments in our own lives) when we find this joke funny: What do you call it if you loan $20 to a friend and never see them again? A good investment.

On the other hand, I remember a time when I was in dire straits and I asked someone for a loan who turned me down. I remember not having winter gloves in the middle of a North Dakota winter and no way to get them. I remember the time my mom’s boss sent her home from work with a bag filled with a football, a baseball glove, a basketball, and some baseballs. And I read about the social devastation, especially in African American communities, of the harsh penalties meted out for relatively minor infractions in the so-called war on drugs.

Jesus was preaching good news to the poor and they were hearing him loud and clear!

So what will it be? Which way of being wins this one? A dog eat dog world where justice looks like retaliation, where you get what you deserve, and everyone is out for their own best interests? Or another way of being, where violence is rejected, justice is tempered with mercy, and generosity assures a basic level of “enoughness” for all?

We actually know where the world landed on that one. A cross. And not far from there, an empty tomb, ever reminding us that God isn’t going to give up on us nor will God disregard the poor.

Which world do we choose to live in today?

Let us pray: Thank you Lord that none of us get what we deserve. Thank you for mercy, shown to us, and shown through us. May your love so rule in our lives that we see everything from a different perspective – we see hope, we see dignity, we see a beloved community. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 5:33-37

July 17, 2017

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Matthew 5:33-37

Sometimes (often) we will come across Bible passages like this one and immediately we realize that there is information out there somewhere we need that we don’t have. In this case I have a sense that I don’t know nearly enough about the importance of “vow making” in Jesus’ culture.

Perhaps we remember the faithfulness of Hannah who pledged that, should God grant her the birth of a child, to dedicate the child to God’s service. Or the seriousness of the Nazirite vow that is mentioned in Acts 21 (shaving your head, purification rites.) Or maybe the foolishness of the vow that Jephthah makes in Judges 11 (a promise to offer as a burnt offering whatever greets him as he returns from a successful fight, which turned out to be his young daughter.) Yet aren’t these all exceptional cases? Is Jesus reaching back to stories like this?

Or is Jesus’ attention directed closer to home? To the reality that promise making and promise keeping are essential to getting along with others and that promise breaking is deadly to human community?

When we were children we learned that if we would embellish our promises with sincerity, thereby proving that we really really really meant it – “Cross my heart and hope to die, poke a needle in my eye…” or “I pinkie promise…” or the infamous “I swear on a stack of Bibles” – then we were far more likely to get what we wanted. I’m thinking this morning that this is really what Jesus is going after. Vow making as a way of manipulating God or others into doing what we what.

Jesus says we should keep things simple. Yes or no. And then follow through. Tell the truth. Keep our promises. Do what we say we are going to do. Don’t use our promises to manipulate others. Live with integrity. Integrity makes us trustworthy and trust is the glue that binds us together.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, words matter. Promises matter. Integrity matters. Guide us in our dealings with others today that we might prove to be trustworthy people. Protect us from those who would manipulate us by promising what they cannot deliver or by appealing to our basest instincts and desires. In Jesus’ name. Amen.