"Shifting proverbs to live by"

Message preached October 14, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Proverbs 24:28-29; Luke 6:27-38; John 13:34-35, 15:12-13

Order of Worship

        These are tough words. Then, again, these are tough times. We donít speak these words lightly. Nor do we approach them naively, believing that if we act upon them everything will turn out honkey-dorey. For those who follow Jesus, things do turn out well in the end. But make no mistake about it, Jesus continues to shift the ground upon which we stand, calling us toward Godís Kingdom. "Blessed are the pure in heart," he said, "for they shall see" it. That is, those who walk in the light of Godís Word realize their own limitations. They understand what heartbreak is all about, for theyíve been there. However, they also know that out of a broken heart God can grow something holy and awesome. Along the way of allowing God to refine and restore them, such persons catch a glimpse of the kingdom.

        No, Jesusí words are never easy. And we should not speak them without realizing how they shift the ground upon which we stand. These are tough words to hear after September 11th. Itís funny, isnít it, how a date has become a metaphor that everyone can touch in some way in our society. I wonder how long weíll be able to say "September 11th," and everyone who hears will know what weíre referring to. "On September 11," William Sloan Coffin wrote in the New York Times, "we lost and lost forever, our sense of invulnerability and invincibility. Hard as that may be, let us not grieve their passing: they were illusions." (1)

        Hearts were broken, as well as lives. That breaking continues. Out of it, we pray that God might grow something holy and awesome. But we donít say that with any degree of smugness. Just as we donít naively utter Jesusí words about blessing those who curse us, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, doing good toward those who hate us. These are tough proverbs. They shift the ground beneath us when things are going fine and dandy. When a senseless and (dare I say?) diabolical tragedy itself quakes the ground, these words are almost too much to bear.

[Listen to an NPR "Front Porch" interview with friend and former
Long Green Valley-er, Russ Keat, who spent 3 days at ground zero.]

        In the ruins of our broken heart, weíd much rather hear the counsel of Deuteronomy - "Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" (19:21, see also Exodus 21:23-24 & Leviticus 24:19-20). We donít want to hear how Jesus shifted this commandment -

        "You have heard that it was said, ĎAn eye for an eye and a tooth for a toothBut 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. You have heard that it was said, ĎYou shall love your neighbor and hate your enemyBut 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." (Matthew 5:38-45)

        Now, I donít pretend to know how that gets worked out on a large scale, in how a nation responds to the horror of September 11. I am not a knee-jerk liberal (or conservative, for that matter). I just know that I have to take what Jesus said seriously. And I pray that our bombing runs over Afghanistan are not now galvanizing an Islamic fundamentalist movement into a new apocalypse, a holy war that makes all previous wars look like a picnic...

        Brothers and sisters, my original intention with these scriptures was not to apply them to whatís happening in response to September 11, though if they donít speak to that, then we dare not speak them at all. We might as well stuff them in our back pockets and not deal with them, as some preachers of the Gospel have apparently done recently, calling Godís people to holy war. No, I had intended to apply these words much closer to home.

        Even here - on this "turf," however, these words shift the ground upon which we stand. Sometimes those closest to us are the hardest people to love, whether they be members of the family into which we were born, or members of the family of our re-birth - the church. Turning the other cheek, as simple as that sounds, can be extremely difficult to deal with when hearts get broken and a friend or a family member becomes like an enemy to us. Out of that brokenness we pray that God will grow something holy and awesome; that in everything - even the bad stuff that happens - God will work for the good of those who hear God calling (even when they are deaf to what he says), those whom God knows their past, present, and future.

        What Jesus said shifts the ground upon which we stand. Thank God! Sometimes we get so locked into a course of action that we need a little shaking up to knock us out of patterns that are no good to anyone, perhaps most of all to ourselves. Godís Word does that to us, you know. Jesus didnít just invent this shaking phenomenon. His words didnít contradict everything that came before, though sometimes we mistakenly think so. For instance, when he spoke of doing "to others as you would have them do unto you" (Matthew 7:12, Luke 6:31), behind those words stood the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible (Proverbs 24:28-29). That proverb from the Old Testament itself shifted the ground of those who want to pay back evil for evil. Godís Word shakes us up. Jesus, we say, is Godís Word made flesh.

        We need to be honest about a few things, folks. For starters, our faith as Christians is part of a much bigger picture. Three major religions in this world are tied to a common root. It may be easier to see that connection to Judaism, but we worship the same God as those of the Muslim faith. Theirs is the God of Abraham. "Allah" is just their name for this God. "Allah Akbar," they proclaim, "God is great." Indeed, Godís name is "holy and awesome" (Psalm 111:9).

        We need to admit something else. Jesus was a jew, a rabbi - and he is recognized as such by our Jewish friends, though they find our claim that he is the promised Messiah, or the Son of God too hard to believe. Much of what he said would be an echo of the scriptures for them. The Lordís prayer, for instance, is a very Jewish prayer. Even his tough words about loving an enemy connect with what teachers and prophets have said down through the years.

        Furthermore, Jesus is claimed as a prophet of God by those who follow the prophet Mohammed. They may not see Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, as we do, but he is recognized, and his words are not out of place within the Muslim faith. It has been said a great deal lately that Islam is a religion of peace and not holy war, contrary to those who have hijacked the Koran and placed the tough words against violence in it into their back pockets. That holy book is filled also with proverbs that shift the ground beneath the feet.

        Again, however, Iím wandering into distant territory, and I want to bring things back closer to home. You see, sometime in the past several months I read an article, and for the life of me I canít remember where I read it. The author of this piece was trying to come to grips - not with some war on distant soil - but with conflict much closer. He was thinking about how some of the changes that are taking place within the church itself today are feeling like a battle between generations. Speaking out of the category of "old fogey" himself, this author was calling his older generation to shift proverbs.

        The golden rule, you see, is a marvelous bit of wisdom to live by. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." What grace there is in those words. Unfortunately, all too easily we can forget the ground shifting wisdom behind those words of Jesus. Instead of a Word of God that shakes us up, this saying can become a platitude, a nifty bumper sticker quote that allows us to do things the way weíve always done them, because if they were good enough for us, theyíre good enough for everybody else.

        After all, it says "as you would have them do unto you." Letís see, when it comes to worship, what I would like to have done to me is to keep things the way they were when I first came on the scene. Now, donít hear me wrong. Tradition is important. The older I get, the more I find great wisdom in previous generations. I donít wish to throw out tradition, but neither do I wish to worship it. Did you notice what was wrong with how I applied the golden rule just now? I placed that unholy trinity "me, myself, and I" into the center of it. Originally, those words shifted the ground such that this unholy trinity was shaken from the middle of it all. If we are truly to hear the golden rule, we need to listen to an earthquake that disturbs us enough to reposition our lives.

        As we have the whole of scripture, and not just bits and pieces, we can balance this golden rule with other ground shifting words from our Lord. As the author of that article suggested, we need to hear the other, perhaps tougher, words of Jesus. "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12, 13:34). We canít hide behind those words. Itís not just a matter of treating others in the way which feels most comfortable to us. Itís a matter of doing to others as Jesus has done and continues to do to us. This was implied in the golden rule, mind you. But here we cannot miss the implication.

        I find this saying very disturbing. It shakes me up. "Love as I have loved you." And how did Jesus love? His love carried him to a cross. Ow! That hurts. I donít like it. Letís be honest, folks. "Love as I have loved you," Jesus said. And in the next breath, out came, "no one has greater love than this, to lay down oneís life for oneís friends" (John 15:13). And, in case we forget, Jesus shook the ground when it came to such love. "Love your enemies," he said, "do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28). If the ground doesnít shake beneath our feet at those words, then we havenít really heard them.

        If we love as Jesus has loved us, then certainly in the church we operate NOT by a "well, if it was good enough for me, then itís good enough for them." Instead, we listen to hear how Jesus is loving this other person(s), and seek to get in step with him. Thatís true, also, when it comes to family and friends in our everyday walk. Sometimes, we are the ones needing to be shook up in order to see what God is doing in other peopleís lives. Even the lives of those we consider our enemies (realizing that sometimes our enemies are members of our own family).

        God shakes us up, shifts us around, that we might live, really live - real life, abundant life, eternal life, kingdom-oriented life. Thatís the promise out of all this shaking. "Give, and it will be given to you," Jesus said. "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" (Luke 6:38). "Yes!" I say as the ground shifts beneath my feet. "Amen!"


1. As quoted in the Christian Century, 10/10/01, vol. 118, #27, p.17.


©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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