June 2, 2002
Second Sunday after Pentecost

LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28
Psalm 31:1-5, 19-24
Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28, (29-31)
Matthew 7:21-29


"Committing to Christ and Walking our Talk"
Matthew 7: 21-29

David (not his real name) came to my office asking if I would intervene in his family difficulties. This was his second time within the span of nine or ten months he came with this request. Once again his wife had taken their two children and moved in with her parents home for the fourth time in their six year marriage.

"I know I've said this before and I know I promised you the last time pastor, but if you would speak to Cheryl just once more, I give you my word I will stop drinking."

I could not in good conscience respond to David's request in the way he wanted. I did speak to Cheryl, but it was to caution her against listening to David's empty promises - again. I was not the first person David had asked to intervene for him after promises were made and broken. It was time for David to put some walk with his talk. For the first time in his life David needed to learn that words alone do not make for authentic living. His words and his actions had been out of sync for so long, he honestly did not understand why people did not believe him when he expressed sorrow for his actions.

He really was heartbroken when he saw what his drinking did to his children, his marriage and his job. Didn't he say that?  A hundred times? And now there were just not many people who believed him anymore.

The fact is, our words need to be a reflection of what is actually taking place in our inner lives and unless the words are translated into concrete actions, they are meaningless.

***

In our scripture today, Jesus says that it takes more than just words to enter the kingdom of heaven. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven." His words come near the end of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus has launched a frontal assault on phony religious behavior and religious teaching that is not backed up by deeds of love and mercy.

It must have caught Jesus' followers off guard when he said they had to be more righteous than the Pharisees and religious leaders of the day. Who could pull that off? The Pharisees were the personification of righteousness. In fact it was their mission to be righteous and to observe the religious rules and regulation of the day with unmatched dedication.

Yet Jesus says, "...unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."  [Matt. 5:20]  How tough is that? It's as though you are driving by a Trappist Monastery and your pastor says to you, "Unless you are more religious than these people, there is no way you can go to heaven!" This would mean there is no way you are going to heaven wouldn't it?  How in the world could anyone be more religious than a Trappist monk?

As though this were not enough, Jesus also points out that there are people who claim to be his followers who have done all kinds of good things who still aren't going to get into the kingdom of heaven. Listen again: many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.' "  "Wow!"  you might be thinking, "Someone does all kinds of wonderful things in the name of Jesus and still doesn't make it into the kingdom?"

So, let me get this straight. I could be as religious as a Trappist monk, or as devoted to good works as Mother Theresa -- and there would still be no guarantee of gaining entrance to the kingdom of heaven?

It all sounds pretty tough. Maybe even unreasonable?

There is an incident recorded in Mark and Luke as well as in Matthew where Jesus' closest followers - the twelve disciples, were stunned at Jesus' demands. You may remember the incident as the story of the rich young ruler. This young man who was a leader in the community and in his synagogue was a pillar of the community. He came to Jesus wanting to know how he could inherit eternal life - that is - how he could enter the kingdom of heaven we've been talking about here. He points out to Jesus that he has been a committed keeper of the commandments all of his life. 

"What more can I do?" the young man asks.

"Well," Jesus answered, "You can give all of your considerable wealth to the poor and then you will have treasure in heaven and you can come and follow me!"

Do you remember what the young man did? Matthew writes, "When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth." [Matt. 19:22]  If the young man was saddened, the disciples were one hundred percent nonplussed when Jesus told them it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again, Matthew comments, "When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ' Who then can be saved? ' "[19:25]

Indeed!  If we were to ask for a show of hands of all those who thought they could enter the kingdom of heaven based on what we've heard so far today - I wonder what the response would be? 

***

On the surface, I think I would be with most of you in thinking that I would have to join the young man who went away sad -- not because I have great wealth -- but because the commitment Jesus seems to ask of his followers is beyond what I feel I am capable of. And in this feeling, I am in good company. The disciples of Jesus experienced a similar reaction. "Who in the world can enter the kingdom of heaven with these requirements?"

There is one approach to this question some people take that is a kind of "dumbing down" of the call to commitment Jesus issued to those who truly wanted to follow him. This approach tries to find a kind of "middle ground" between the demands of discipleship and the desire for creature comforts. "Isn't there some way to reconcile the self-sacrificing call to commitment of Christ with the self-centered living of the western world?

The short answer to this question is, "No." The call of Christ to follow him is a clear counter cultural event. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount makes this clear. And yes -- it is possible to be an authentic follower of Christ in our world today. When the disciples were stunned by Jesus' words to the rich young ruler and asked, "Who then can be saved," Jesus responded, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." [19:26] Which is to say, the call of Christ is a call to commitment and a call away from the values of this world to the values of the kingdom of heaven - but it is not impossible. In fact, "With God..." Jesus says, "Everything is possible!"

The ability to follow Christ in a meaningful and real way is rooted in our relationship of faith and trust in God. In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus concludes the long teaching section of Matthew's gospel  with a "word to the wise."  It is the words of Christ received and acted upon that become the foundation for authentic living. "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock," Jesus said. The operative words here are, "...acts on them..."  His words become a rock solid foundation for those who act on them!  However, note that the words of Christ - even though they are heard - provide no foundation at all for the one who, "...does not act on them!"

The bottom line in authentic Christian living is our basic theme: "Committing to Christ and Walking our Talk!"

Back to the young man we called David at the beginning of this message. What David needed more than anything was not to make more promises or plead more earnestly. He needed to make a commitment to Christ and then to live out the words of Christ and then say the things he needed to say. (Which would have to be along the line of, "Please forgive me." -- Not, "Please believe me!" )  David needed a bit of "walking" history, before he could start building a "talking" history. His problem was that he had no walking history and his talking history was nothing but a trail of broken promises.

It would be great if I could report that this young man saw the light, changed his ways and won back his family and his job. But it didn't happen that way. He lost his family and his job and only then started on the road to recovery. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous, affirmed Christ as his "Higher Power," made a few stutter steps, but over months and even years found forgiveness from those he had hurt, and a new job. The last I knew, he wasn't making so many promises, but the few he did make he was apparently keeping. I had reason to hope that he was "committing to Christ and walking his talk."

In his recovery, the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount were not offensive or even difficult - they were absolutely life giving - as long as he was acting on them!

***

There is an important insight in the last two verses of our  gospel reading. Listen again: "Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes."

The amazing thing about the reaction of the crowd is not so much that Jesus had called them to a radical commitment to a new way of living. They weren't put off by that at all. What "astonished" them was the authority with which he taught. His "talk"  was authoritative because of his "walk"  -- unlike the scribes (the teaching officials of the day) who had tons of "talk" - rules, regulations, requirements and picky interpretations of the law of Moses. But the scribes who were full of "talk" had incredible ways around the laws, found loopholes for the rich and famous and were transparent in their hypocrisy.

The world has changed radically since Jesus spoke the words of today's gospel reading, but the teaching remains as powerful as it ever was.  There is still power as we give ourselves to the theme: "Committing to Christ and Walking our Talk!"


Reflections on the Texts

Matthew 7:21-29

As a part of the Sermon on the Mount, this passage is a central part of the teaching core of Matthew's gospel. The words are spoken to the disciples / followers of Jesus. Unlike the hypocritical chasm between the words and actions of the religious officials of the day - Jesus' disciples were summoned to a radical commitment to his word.

Worship of God without commitment to the word of God is hypocrisy. The words here are addressed to the followers of Jesus. It is not enough to simply be aware of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees - the follower of Christ needs to have congruence between the words of faith and the actions of faith.

Our approach with this pericope is to focus on the implications of the whole Sermon on the Mount through exposition of the fact that this is the conclusion to the sermon. The key issue in this conclusion is the reaction of the crowds to Jesus' teaching. Whether chapters 5-7 of Matthew are actually words delivered at one specific time and place or are a compilation of those things that make up the core of Jesus' teaching makes no difference in the conclusion. "Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes."  The tension between the official scribal teaching office of the day and the "school of Jesus" has implications for our own time. One can legitimately ask the questions, What would Jesus be saying to and about the world of organized, institutional Christianity today?  -and- Who would be amazed at his words today?

No matter how we approach this text - there is a clear challenge to the values of contemporary living and a call to authentic discipleship. As we offer this words with sensitivity - it is also important to proclaim it without first asking how the "crowds will react."  Would that the words of Jesus Christ "astonish" the crowds once again!

 

Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-28, (29-31)

The words of the epistle reading provide an interesting juxtaposition with the gospel reading. The central theme in the epistle is that "The one who is righteous will live by faith."  This raises the old James-Paul dialectic. "Faith without works is dead," [James 2:26] as over against, "...a person is justified by faith apart from works..." [Rom.3:28] 

In fact, this section of Romans is a part of the old "Roman Road to Salvation." (All have sinned and come short of the glory of God....[3:23]   The wages of sin is death...[6:23]    The free gift of God is eternal life...  [6:23] )  A part of this trail included the fact that "good works" could not save, "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law."

One homiletical approach for this week would be to work with the apparent dissonance between Matthew and Romans.  A true understanding of both will point out that the conflict is more on the surface than it is at the core of Christian teaching.  Jesus does not ask people simply to affirm their relationship with God (the kingdom of heaven) with words - but neither does he say that the words are not important. In fact the words are foundational to Christian living. It is acting on the words of Christ that show the authenticity of the commitment. Justification, Paul says, is by faith.  Sanctification, he will go on to say in Romans 6:15-23, means transformed living  which will become the active living out of the words of Christ in Matthew 5-7.

 

Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28

The passage from Deuteronomy parallels the gospel reading in a striking way. The words "of mine" (of God given through Moses) are to become a part of the inner lives of the people of God. The words will bring about a blessing to those who live by them and a curse to those who do not.

"I am setting before you today, a blessing and a curse."  In Matthew the same result is given in the parable of the wise and foolish men.  The wise man has a foundation of rock for his life as he acts on the words of Christ. The foolish man has a foundation that will crumble in the storms as he does  not act on the words of Christ. 

Both point to the two diametrically opposed directions a life can take. One way embraces and acts on the word of God and leads to life. Another way rejects or receives but does not embrace the word of God and leads to death.

Deuteronomy could be used with the gospel reading to point out that God's agenda for redemption is absolutely consistent and has not changed since the beginning of the biblical drama. The two texts deal with one of the four or five major themes of the scriptures - namely, the way of life and death.

 


 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship 

Leader: Let us say to the Lord,
People: You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.
Leader: Let us also keep the LORD always before us,
People: Because God stands with us, we shall not be moved.
Leader: Therefore our hearts are glad,
People: In God's presence there is fullness of joy.   Amen!

 

A Prayer of Confession

O Lord of compassion and mercy, we confess that one of Your greatest gifts to us has so often been the source of our greatest trials. You have given us the gift of choice. We can choose between right and wrong, between love and hate. We can take the high road or the low road. We can reach out in your name or we can retreat in the name of selfishness. O Great God of grace, help us to choose with clarity, compassion and commitment. Cleanse us from every wrong and give us the joy of making choices that bring honor to the name of Christ. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.  The Lord is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works.  The Lord is near to all that call upon Him in truth.  He will fulfill the desire of them that fear him; He will also hear their cry, and will save them.  Amen.

 

A Pastoral Prayer

The words of scripture hit hard today Lord.   It is so very clear that we
can not possibly be the followers Jesus calls us to be without the
strength of your Holy Spirit in our lives.

Self is so strong is us.  Acting on the words of Christ in this world doesn't
work very well when it comes to being successful.   The call of Jesus to
commit to him and walk according to his words is just so out of sync
with the values and goals of this culture.

And yet, there are times when we have a sense that something is missing
in our lives and our spiritual fuel gage hovers near empty.  Our spirits hunger
for substance and we sometimes come close to recognizing our vulnerability
to cheap imitations of our faith.

O save us Lord, from all that diminishes the call of Christ or lessens the claim
of Christ in our lives.  Help us to lift our eyes from the passing glamour of this
world and gain a vision of the kingdom that will endure forever.  Give us grace
to grow up tall in Christ and courage to grow through the trials that will certainly
come our way.

Shape us and form us by the loving power of your Holy Spirit, so that one hundred
years from this day, we shall have gained the prize that lies beyond the pain...
the honor that lies beyond the humility and the crown that lies beyond the cross!

Amen.

 

A Prayer of Dedication

O God of life and hope and joy, You have blessed us in ways that go way beyond our understanding. Were we to count Your gifts to us, we could number the stars of heaven. Please accept the gifts we bring to you as tokens of our love and seeds of blessing for the those who have yet to discover your love and grace. Amen.