Sunday, June 1, 2008

Third Sunday after Pentecost
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

Oh love Jehovah, all ye his saints: Jehovah preserveth the faithful, and plentifully rewardeth him that dealeth proudly.

Matthew is the only Gospel writer to use the phrase “kingdom of heaven” and he uses it far more times than he uses the preferred choice of Mark and Luke of “kingdom of God.” This phrase does not specifically refer to a place, but is a way of describing God’s rule or reign over those who believe. The kingdom of heaven is not some far off expectation, but it is a way of living in Christ’s grace in the here and now.

It amazes me to see how much paintings cost when I go into a gallery, but I understand the need for such incredible fees. I have never earned a profit from my hobbies; although there are times I wish I could make it my living. An artist might sell just one painting out of a dozen, so they have to demand enough to cover their costs and living expenses. That is why many artists were supported by patrons. A patron is a person of some means who sees value in the work of an artist. It is like investing in a person, giving them the means to live until they can support themselves. The patron then has some say about the life, and perhaps even the work, of the person whom they are supporting.

The word “Lord” here in our gospel lesson is like the word patron. The Lord is one who supports and values the work of those who believe. He is our Patron. As those who benefit from His grace, there are expectations: to live as wise men living according to the words we have heard from Jesus. Those who do so are like someone who builds a life on solid ground. While it is possible to know when a man has built his home on sand, it is not so easy for us to see the life that is not built firmly on God’s word. We can’t read a person’s heart.

Several months ago I stopped by a favorite store while I was on a trip out of state. There are no stores local for me, so I was excited to get a chance to shop. I joked with the cashiers that they should inform the corporate office of our desperate need for a new store in our area. Another customer overheard the conversation and said, “You should just move here!” I thanked her for the suggestion, but explained that all was well in Texas and that my husband had a good job, so it wasn’t worth moving just to go shopping at that store.

She answered, “A job is good.” We spoke for awhile and during our conversation I learned that she was out of work due to health problems. Her troubles did not end there, however. She also had a family that did not give her any of the love and support she needed to get through her illness. As a matter of fact, they blamed her for the disease. “If you had more faith,” they said. She was rightfully hurt by that comment. Their opinion of her difficulties was not a judgment about things she might have done differently; it was a condemnation of her life. According to them, she deserved her disease. They judged her heart and found her lacking.

People like her relatives do not understand how God works through our suffering, and thus they assume that anyone suffering must not have faith. The psalms are often difficult for us to read because they are filled with a dichotomy of both suffering and hope. How can there be hope in suffering? Or how can there be suffering in hope? Yet, with God we are able to live in the midst of our difficulties while still trusting in the promises of God because God can overcome all our frailty and failings. We can’t live a life good enough to deserve to be saved from the consequences of our sin, yet God has done the impossible and improbable—saved us from ourselves and our enemies. He is our refuge, our strong tower, our help in difficult times. He hears our cries and is faithful to His promises.

Many people have an image of what they believe we should look like as we live a life of faith. That image is based on their experience. For some it means a specific type of clothing. Others consider the works that are done. Yet others expect particular knowledge. The lack of these visible manifestations of faith or signs of curse is proof that there is no faith. Yet, can our faith really be defined by something so mundane as the clothes we wear or the social work we do? Can we doubt the faith of someone because they happen to be sick or in some other pain?

It is easy to make judgments about people, especially if they are different than us. It is so easy to insist that someone ‘on the other side’ is wrong or that they are failing to be right. When we are wrong, we are incorrect. It is possible that our misdirection or inaccuracy is based on misinformation. This can be overcome with the right information. Failure to be right is a much deeper and more personal judgment. We fail not just because we have been given false information, but because we refuse to accept or believe the right information. Failure to be right means that we have rejected what is true. There is a fine line between these two and that fine line is crossed when we make judgments against others.

It is not our place to judge the hearts of others. We all fail to live up to God’s standard daily. We sin against God and one another in so many ways. It is not good for us to cast doubt on another’s faith, but it is well and good for us to question ourselves that we might grow in the faith which God has given, to prove daily that God was right to have the confidence to be our Patron. So we learn and grow and do everything that God has said in and through the life of Christ and the scriptures.

To the Christian Jews, the Gentile Christians were not just wrong; they were failing to be right. More specifically, they were failing to be righteous. They refused to become Jewish so that they could be in a right relationship with God. The Gentiles refused to follow the Jewish laws because they were meaningless. They seemed to have nothing to do with their faith in Christ. Even though Jesus was a Jew, the stories they heard showed that He, at times, did not live up the expectations that were being placed on the Gentile Christians. The Romans saw Christ through a much different lens and they did not understand why they were being forced into a life that was not of their heritage.

We can not see the other point of view for one reason or another. That other point of view does not make sense to us, so we see the opposition as wrong, or failing to be right. They see us the same way. This judgment leads us to the assumption that we are right and that we are, somehow, in a better relationship with one another and the world, because of it. After all, righteousness means being in a right relationship with God and when we are in a right relationship with God, He helps us to be in right relationships with others and the whole of creation. Unfortunately, this often leads to the judgment that the people of opposing viewpoints are unfaithful and perhaps even evil.

Phylacteries were boxes that were literally strapped to the hand and the head. For the Jews, the boxes were a sign of faithfulness. Scriptures about God’s goodness were written on scrolls and carefully placed in these leather boxes. The adherent followed a lengthy and specific ritual as the boxes were strapped first to the arm and then to the head. Many Jews still do this when they pray. We don’t need these objects to think about God or to know about the spiritual life. However, objects give us a visible reminder of that which is not seen. They help us keep focused; our minds tend to wander and we are easily distracted from our task at hand. I may not regularly remove the prayer from the prayer box around my neck, but its presence near my heart often brings remembrance of my God to my mind.

As I read about the rituals of the phylacteries, I was amazed at how much they are required to do—specific prayers are said and scripture is recited as the straps are wrapped. It seems always ridiculous how much is required just to pray, and yet there is a very real purpose to the ritual. It helps the adherent focus on God. The words that are written on the heart are spoken out loud. The scriptures that are part of a deeply held faith are visible and tangible.

In the passage from Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people that they shall lay up God’s word in their hearts and in their souls. Then he goes on to tell them to write them on their arms and their heads, on their doorposts and gates. While we can memorize and know God’s word in our heart, our minds and our hearts are easily distracted by the cares of our world. We may not strap phylacteries to our arms or our heads, but we can use similar reminders to keep God in the forefront of our life. Have you ever written bible verses on post-it notes and placed them around your house? Do you keep your bible handy so that you might read it when you have a moment? Do you have a cross around your neck to keep God’s grace constantly in remembrance as you go through your day? These tools can help us to live out our faith in a world full of temptation and distraction. They might even help us to see the world through another person’s eyes.

The Jewish Christians thought they were righteous because they followed the Law, but Paul said that none are righteous. All are sinners in need of a Savior. It is interesting that he approaches this idea from three points of view, much more noticeable in the Greek than in our English translations. He talks about salvation, which is a political term. He talks about redemption, which is an economic term. And he talks about atonement, which is a religious term. And so, we are faced with the reality that our right relationship with God, and one another, is not dependent on our opinions about politics, economics and religion, but on God’s saving, redeeming and atoning grace.

This does not mean that we should not try to become better, to think more clearly and to have a right understanding of politics, economics and religion. It means that we live by the faith given to us by God, not by our knowledge and opinions of this world. That’s the sort of faithfulness God expects from us. If we judge others, rather than ourselves, we’ll be ‘rewarded’ for our haughtiness. Living in Christ, knowing our failure, receiving God’s forgiveness and trusting in God’s grace is the refuge in which we live.

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