React to the Rules

beatitudesTo read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.

Sermon based on Matthew 5:1-12

A good friend of mine who lives in Greensboro shared with me that his son has recently completed his requirements to become an Eagle Scout. I reminded of him of a story that I used several years ago in a sermon at New Philadelphia about one of his first experiences in scouting with his son on a Sunday we were recognizing the Scouting Program there.  He and his son were working on his first pinewood derby car. My friend unfortunately had an accident with a coping saw and cut his hand severely enough to acquire a few stiches. He took pride in telling other fathers that literally he put “blood, sweat and tears” into this project of building this pinewood derby car! I never got too involved in Scouting. I was in Cub Scouts for a brief time but had many friends growing up who went on to Boy Scouts and became Eagle Scouts. I believe this is an organization that provides our young men an excellent set of rules to live by as shared in the Boy Scout Oath or Promise that says the following:

On my honor I will do my best

To do my duty to God and my country

and to obey the Scout Law;

To help other people at all times;

To keep myself physically strong,

mentally awake, and morally straight.

 As we speak of rules, our gospel reading this morning from Matthew is the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In this Sermon, the rules for living that Jesus gives us are radical. The beginning of this passage from Matthew provides us words that most of us are all familiar with:

Blessed are you poor,

Blessed are you that hunger now,

Blessed are you that weep now,

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and cast out your name.

While these are familiar, few of us wish to follow them literally. I can’t think of anyone who wants to be poor, hungry, grieving or persecuted among us. Billy Graham has called the beatitudes the “beautiful attitudes” and they reflect values and rules of living we should all strive to follow. However this is easier said than done.

J.B. Phillips rendered this version of the Beatitudes as they apply in the kingdom of this world listen carefully.

 Blessed are the pushers, for they get on in   the world.

 Blessed are the hard-boiled: for they never let life hurt them.

Blessed are they who complain: for they get their own way in the end.

 Blessed are the blasé, for they never worry over their sins.

Blessed are the slave drivers for they get results.

 Blessed are the knowledgeable people of the world for they know their way around.

Blessed are the troublemakers for they make people take notice of them.

I believe these rules often seem to reflect the values of our culture more than those rules from Jesus. When it comes to rules, there is something fascinating about how we react to rules. There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” People tend to resist change when it’s forced on them. “Telling” is what initiates the resistance. It causes those being told to spend their energy mostly on NOT doing what you’ve told them. Yet that resistance is not so much about the change; it’s all about being changed. While we may resist and resent rules something in us demands rules. Adults pass the rules of living to those who are younger, especially our children. For example Lee and I expect our son David to resist some of our rules like turning off the television or iPad at a particular time when asked, or picking up his clothes and putting them in his hamper in his bedroom. It is likely that as he gets older there will be more resistance. Out shopping recently I heard one teenager in front of me in the checkout line say the following to the clerk, “You know, I really like this outfit, but can I exchange it if my parents like it?” Somehow when someone in authority wants to guide us in matters of dress or behavior, we’re a little rebellious and this continues even into adulthood.

Some professions seem to have more of a need for rules than others. Prior to entering ministry, most are aware that I worked in the garbage business. Growing up, I had a lot of character building occupations. I eventually was given the opportunity to drive those big garbage trucks we see out there. One of the rules of driving these trucks is that when you stop at any point and time, you must engage the air brake. During the spring semester of my sophomore year, while attending classes one morning out at UNC Charlotte some friends informed me that one of those garbage trucks had crashed into the Physical Sciences Building. I learned later that this driver had forgotten that rule of engaging the air brake and the truck crashed into building doing over $50,000 damage. Thankfully it was early in the morning before classes had begun in the building so no one was hurt. That rule was in place for safety purposes, a large truck like that whether it’s on a hill or flat surface has the potential to roll backward without an air brake engaged. However, this driver felt those rules did not apply to him. That attitude cost him his job and could have potentially cost him more.

As we examine these rules from Jesus, we may feel overwhelmed and discouraged because we know that we cannot possibly keep them. Chances are few of us were like the Pharisees and scribes we read about in Scripture. These people were pleased to hear these rules because they were certain they have kept them since childhood. The Pharisees knowledge of the rules made them aware that others were not keeping them. They established an elaborate system of rules and enjoyed singling out those who did not follow them. This form of legalism was something Jesus came to abolish with his Sermon on the Mount. Jesus refused to exclude people on the basis of whether or not they kept the rules. Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners the social and political outcasts of society. Among the biggest outcasts of society in Jesus’ day were the very twelve disciples he chose to help him in his ministry. Jesus had just selected these disciples and then he presents this message to them.

This message was as much for them as for the multitudes that came to listen to him on this day. Jesus offered this list to warn his disciples not to have dreams and visions of grandeur in being chosen to follow him for the journey would be hard and challenging. Jesus’ message to the poor that day was not just a dream about finally getting a roof over their heads or sandals upon their feet. The dream for the poor was Jesus offers nothing less than all the glory of the Kingdom of God. The hungry shouldn’t just dream about a great meal. The dream for the hungry was Jesus offered them the chance to be filled and satisfied at the Lord’s Table. The grieving shouldn’t just dream about their burdens being lifted. The dream for the grieving was Jesus offered that their lives once again will bubble over with laughter and light-heartedness and that joy would fill their lives. Enriched and empowered, satisfied and fulfilled, joyfully alive! This is what Jesus dreamed for his followers. This is the dream Jesus intends for us.

Compare Jesus’ vision with our best hopes and visions for the future. Do we catch find ourselves day dreaming more, God-dreaming less? In life we often try to satisfy ourselves with what I call the “make a difference diet.” This diet helps us to chart our dreams for the future as we strive to make a difference in the world we live in. While this diet is honorable, we must remember that we were not put on earth to just make a difference but also to make a different world. Through Jesus’ love and sacrifice for us we are offered the gift of eternal life, fulfillment, and the peace that passes all understanding. Our words of Scripture today should have a footnote. This footnote should have just a single word listed. That word is grace. Through God’s grace, God sent Jesus to redeem and re-dream the world. As Jesus’ disciples we are to join in the landscape of life not just to make a difference in life, but also to make life different. We make life different when we respect and love one another as Christ calls us to do.

Together we must invest our time and energy into God’s kingdom. For us that means participating in Habitat for Humanity, Sunnyside Ministry, Samaritan Inn, other caring ministries that include visiting those in the hospital and nursing homes, marriage enrichment seminars, youth events and other activities. Jesus made the world different and we too can make the world more loving and just. Our goal as Christians is become God’s eyes, ears and hands in the world. In short, we make the world different by making ourselves different.

Together, let us react to the rules!

The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.

January 29, 2017