Thursday, August 18, 2011

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven

Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 7, Verses 15-23.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

What follows is a great sermon written by a friend of mine, Steve Johnson. I hope you enjoy it and are challenged by it.

To really understand this passage we need to know a few things. The placement of this scripture forms part of what you might like to think of as the closing statements by Jesus after a long and life-changing set of teachings. We know from Chapter 4 that Jesus was already wondering the country-side teaching, but until now we really didn’t know what Jesus was teaching about. Imagine that this is the first time you have read Matthew, you would be so eager to know what this man is actually teaching. And what are the first lines that Matthew chooses to have his listeners hear:“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven”

And imagine again, that you are a spiritually poor person, you have been beaten down by the oppressive regime of a religious system that as Jesus describes later in his life, “Burdens people, but does nothing to support them”. And so we start today’s sermon, which is concerned with Jesus’ summary teachings from the sermon on the mount, with the reminder that Jesus is addressing a crowd of people who were poor, living in an occupied state, under an oppressive religious regime. You can almost hear the applause of people as they are given hope for the first time.

So, lets keep the beginning in mind as we talk about the end.

What is one of the first things you find yourself doing after you have read this passage?
If you are anything like me, you read the part about the sheep in wolves clothing and think “tick” that’s not me… and then read on stuff about fruit.. yep I’m a good person, “tick”… reading on… many on that day will cry lord lord, and I will say depart form me… well, don’t really know what the criteria at work is here.. not sure where the measuring stick is being applied, but if I got the first two ticks, hopefully I won’t be sent away…

Basically, if you are anything like me, you immediately position yourself on ‘the good side of Jesus’… or perhaps a blunter way of putting it, is on the winning side? I find this particularly true of myself when reading about the tree that is said to be bad, and not able to bear good fruit. My immediate thought: That’s not me. Now already, I bet most of you are thinking that I am going to spend the next fifteen minutes explaining what it means to be either side, the good tress or the bad trees? NO! I’m not. And this is why.

My First reason is this. I don’t believe Jesus is teaching in this particular passage that some people are essentially bad and some are essentially good, and certainly don’t think that it is logical to suddenly conclude from this teaching that Jesus is now talking about a theology of salvation and who gets to go to Heaven or not. Jesus was on a mount in Israel, most likely there were trees he was pointing at as he said this. So what was Jesus on about? I think Jesus was teaching in a particular style that we are VERY unused to. Because in Jesus’ style of teaching we see him point out the extremes of reality, BOTH of which are true of you. YOU ARE BOTH THE GOOD AND THE BAD TREE. And when you accept the challenge of letting both be true, you can realise that there is a war inside you that produces two kinds of fruit. A fruit that bears life and a fruit that bears death.

So let me share a warning with you. If you are like me, and if we are the descendants of Adam and Eve, then our constant sin has been to believe that we can divide the world into two groups, namely; good and evil. God was so angry at this occurence that he kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden. God was angry because he knew the destruction this kind of mindset can bring. And when we read this passage, I bet you try and position yourself in the good side… yes? And you probably like to position your Church and its members on the good side… and then your family, extended family, most of your friends, and then what… your collegeaues, your political party, your country?

You see at first it seems harmless doesn’t it. You want to think well of yourself and your family and your church. And please, I don’t have a literal problem with you thinking well of yourself. But when you constantly position yourself on the good side, you inevitably position other people on the bad side. INEVITABLY.

Let me show you how this kind of thinking works on a global level. You believe in democracy. You believe that your way is not perfect, but certainly the best, and eventually that people not living your way of living, are not really living at all. Once you think like that, our governments start positioning certain countries as good, (England, America, Canada) and certain countries as bad (Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia Etc). And once you are on the good side, and they are on the bad side, then it’s not so bad when you bomb the crap out of their country, because “they weren’t treating their own people right anyway”. But the global level is hard to grasp in anyway that allows this message to be transformative. And why preach, unless you offer people the chance to transform?

So, on the personal level, how does this mindset of who is in and who is out, who is the good tree and who is the bad tree affect us? Firstly, what transformation comes when you have already decided you are the good tree? You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, your journey and ascension to heaven is guaranteed, it is straight path to enlightenment? NO, you are messy, a mass of contradictions, and life is about accepting those contradictions and learning the lesson that you produce both fruits. You position your co-workers at times on the bad side, you position the neighbour that paid for the fencing on the good side, you position the sales person that ignored you on the bad side, you position your boss that ignores your opinion on the bad side. And in the end your entire life has been about you, and not about our Lord and Saviour, and brothers and sisters let me ask you, when Jesus was on the cross, with the good and the bad crimincal, where is he described as hanging? BETWEEN THEM. You see often the bible doesn’t talk like we do, but uses images to show us the truth. Jesus hangs between heaven and earth, fully human, fully divine, dying and yet bringing life, between a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ thief, dying for both of them.
People of God, we must follow our saviours example. We must position ourselves in the middle, being loyal first to Christ, and so we can say to people: you are not living a holy life, there is sin in your life, but we haven’t done that from an arrogant, a ‘better than’ approach.

So that’s part one:
In summary, Jesus is, in my humble opinion, saying to people, the Kingdom of God will draw out the two extremes in you. It will highlight the war inside you. And when you realise the extent of that war, you will have no choice but to surrender to our God who is infinitely more gracious than we deserve, and he will hold you in your weakness, and suddenly you understand that you are Spiritually poor, but you are going to inherit the Kingdom because God is a gracious God, Amen?

So, Part Two: Again, if you are like me, not happy siting with the contradiction that I am both a good and bad tree, then you have also likely, like me, thought about your life and what type of fruit you are bearing. And let me guess at some of your thoughts. You thought about a set of scales, where on the whole you behaviours add up to more ‘good’ behaviours than ‘bad’. And you thought, you know I love my family, I work hard, I don’t commit adultery or murder etc.. you know, im just doing my thing here, coming to church, prayer, devotion, sing and praise, mens breakfast this, womens group that.. you know please Steve, don’t start. And I totally get it.
But again, lets try and remember the context of the entire passage. Firstly, Jesus is not talking to you. In fact, he is not talking to any individual; He is addressing a group. And His words are not for individuals they are for countries, they are for tribes, they are for ‘the poor’ and ‘the rich’, they are for everyone. But we are so consumed with a personal saviour mentality, and personal/individual culture mentality that when we hear about fruits, we cannot think beyond our own lives.

But let me pose a different point of view. What if the fruit of the trees was about the fruit that a community produced together? What would then be the measure used to determine good and bad fruit? You know in the times Jesus was around, the phrase “to call on the name of the Lord” was already around. You see Roman occupation was everywhere. When soldiers from the huge Roman army retired, they were given land at first surrounding Rome. But of course, they soon needed to extend this to giving soldiers land in other territories, because there were too many of them. That soldier was given land, but he was to make a mini-Rome. And if confronted with trouble, he would call on the name of the Lord, and Ceaser (who has to be thought of as a God) would come down from Rome, with his army, and defend your Rome. So just keep that in mind, just hold that thought for a second.

So I am trying to say, if Jesus wasn’t addressing individuals, I believe he was addressing communities. And if we are to beware bad fruit, it is not solely in our little personal lives, but it is the fruits of our culture they we need to watch for. A culture that neglects its poor and downtrodden. A culture that is afraid of its indigenous population, scared of people with disabilities, makes silent its homosexuals and other minority groups, cares nothing for its international neighbours/refugees, is totally fine and supportive of Sorry day by Kevin Rudd, but sits and watches the bigotry we see on shows like A Current Affair and Today Tonight.

A culture that lets its poor die younger than its rich, leaves its prisons full for the ‘sake of community safety’ but doesn’t let children play in the street or get to know their neighbours.
And so, on that day, when Jesus returns, and you need to show him through your Mini Rome. You see because as we all know Jesus is the true God, and he is our true defender, and when we call he will come. But on that day when you call Lord Lord, and he walks through your mini-Rome, what you have done with your life, your mini Kingdom of God, and you can say yes look how we healed the sick, Will Jesus say to you, yes but they all earn more than 60,000 a year. And will you say look I cast out demons, and will Jesus say, yes but they all had to wear nice smelling clothes to get through the door in the first place, and those that didn’t were not seen to. And we know what Jesus will say to us in the end if that is the state of play don’t we.

Depart, for I never knew you.

Wow, and I thought getting my life in order was hard, but now as I read this, I realise my life in order means NOTHING, if I have not done all in my power to make those who are invisible seen again, to give dignity to those without it and to make right the injustices of a community willing to position itself as good, and will not accept that it is indeed both. A mass of contradictions.

Pray with me church, that we will follow the example of Jesus, and give our everything, not just to the good, and not just to the bad, but that we will give our everything to both, and like Jesus, die right between them in the hope of a glorious resurrection.