On Not Being Nice (Sunday 10/31/10)

On Not Being Nice

Luke 6: 20-31

Jesus does not comply with our need for “nice.”  One of my favorite stories is Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man (Luke 18: 18-25).  Remember him?  He has all the money he needs and has studied the scriptures and been observant of the commandments.  Still, he comes to Jesus asking “What else?”  What else does he need to do to inherit eternal life?

Do you remember what Jesus does?  Jesus tells him he needs to get rid of all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then to come and follow Jesus.  And the man turns around and goes the other way, saddened.  That’s the last we hear of him so we don’t know if he had a change of heart later or became even richer or what.

What we do know is that Jesus was willing to let him walk away.  He has a willing seeker right in front of him and Jesus doesn’t tone it down or water it down.  He gives it to the rich man straight – and then lets him walk away from life.

Is this “nice”?  I suggest that many church folks would have been much happier with this encounter if Jesus had run after the man and given him another chance to choose the right path.  If we could only tame Jesus a little bit so he’d fit better with that soft-focus, flowing haired version we have framed up in so many Sunday school classrooms.

But Jesus does not comply with our need for “nice.”  Jesus offers the kingdom of God and eternal life, neither of which is “nice” in the ways we tend to think of that term.  Jesus does not make it easy for us, doesn’t sugar-coat it so it will taste better going down, doesn’t try to give us what we need on our own terms.  No.  Jesus is offering what we need – and may not even know we need – to live.

He offers it to those gathered on the plain to hear his sermon, and to us, listening today.  But we also sometimes hear “Beatitudes” and think “nice.”  We hear what we want to hear, what makes sense of the worlds we are constructing, rather than what makes sense in the kingdom Jesus ushers in.  We can be a bit like the person in the back of the crowd in Monty Python’s Life of Brian who can’t quite hear what Jesus is saying and guesses, “I think it was, ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’.”  His friend retorts, “Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?” And he replies, “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

We obstinately (and humorously) hear what we want to hear, but the Beatitudes aren’t nice or safe.  They can be a little easier to swallow in Matthew’s version, which has no “woe” statements and which tends to spiritualize the stark and simple statements in Luke’s account.  So that Luke’s “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6: 20) becomes Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt. 5:3).  But, we got Luke today.  In Luke’s account, Jesus is direct.  This is about people who are so poor that they are hungry and crying.

When I worked for the home repair ministry, Appalachia Service Project, in one of the poorest counties in Virginia, I often heard from volunteers that the people whose homes we worked on “were poor but really thankful for what they did have.”  And that was true.  The families were grateful for our assistance, proud of their meager possessions, and most definitely poor.  But there was something that bothered me in the way volunteers would make these generalized statements.  Even as some of the volunteers were encountering real, live poor people up close for the first time, the statements seemed to distance the volunteers from those same people, to give them permission to briefly notice the poor and then go on with the rest of their lives.

I’m not being entirely fair.  Many volunteers had life-changing experiences and genuine insights and “God moments” while at ASP.  But working with the poor families and the volunteers, while confronting my own assumptions about poverty and wealth, gave me repeated opportunities to grapple with what God seemed to be doing with all of our lives.   I saw that the volunteers and I often seemed more like the rich man in the Lazarus story we read several weeks ago, or like the rich young man I began by talking about today:  too encumbered by wealth and its trappings to engage God and the world in the ways we are called to do.  With the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16: 19-31), it’s not two separate stories, one that happens when they are alive on earth and another one that happens later after they are dead.  It’s all one story, the same story.  On earth the rich man desires fine clothes and sumptuous meals.  He keeps himself secluded and safe from the riffraff in his fine house behind locked gates.  Either he passed by Lazarus every day without stopping or considering him or he was somehow so self-involved that he didn’t even see him, but either way he crafted a life without worry for anything other than satisfying his most ephemeral hungers.

These are not the hungers Jesus means when we blesses the hungry.

In Bible study last week Nina mentioned that she often sees herself as a bystander in the biblical stories, watching the action as Jesus talks to other people.  But she realized that Jesus is talking to us and that there is no “bystanding.”  She’s right, and that means that these blessings are an invitation to us, too, to live within God’s blessing.  Like the rich man who does not interact with Lazarus until it’s too late, we are called away from selfish preoccupations and empty lives into lives in the kingdom of God.  We are called to know and love the poor, and, like the rich young man, to leave behind anything that gets in the way of loving God and others – including our wealth.

In the interest of keeping us from being bystanders or from identifying ourselves incorrectly in the parable, let me just say here that most students at UVA are not poor.  Most retirees here living on fixed incomes from their retirement accounts are not poor.  Most families here on the Wesley campus – families who struggle to save and to spend wisely and to keep up the house and the cars – these families are not poor.

When did you last weep because you were so hungry and had no food?  We may not be “rich” either but we are not poor.

So where is our place?  If we aren’t the poor ones and we aren’t allowed to be eavesdropping bystanders, how do we deal with these blessings?

Jesus is talking to us, but not because we are the poor ones.  Remember, Jesus is speaking to his disciples when he unleashes the Beatitudes.  He is talking to the ones who are already following him.  He is talking to us.  He is talking to us, disciples – which, as you may know, are the raw materials out of which saints are made.

Some of you probably wriggled in your seat as you heard the term “saint” applied to you.  Nope, my discipleship materials are too raw for that. I submit that we sometimes have that “nice” problem when it comes to saints, too, and that this is one reason we are uncomfortable claiming the title for ourselves.  We get mixed up about saints.  Who they are, what they do and don’t do, how they become saints, if we could ever be called saints.  By and large we tend to think saints are dead and we definitely like them nice.

I wonder if we persist in “nice-ifying” saints in order to let ourselves off the hook.  If a saint is someone who never messes up, lives a blemish-free life, always makes other people feel good, and can safely be stuffed into the “nice” box, then we definitely don’t know any saints and don’t ever have to worry about our own sainthood.

What if, instead of thinking of them as “nice,” we thought of saints as those who bear witness to the kingdom of God? (www.gbod.org)  What does that look like?  For the rich man that might mean getting to know Lazarus, refusing to be separated by a gate, offering Lazarus food or a place to sleep.  For the rich young man that might mean relying on Jesus rather than the accumulated possessions and power he allows to define him, throwing himself in with that ragtag group of disciples.  What does it look like to bear witness to the kingdom of God?

Because the kingdom of God is already here, breaking into the business-as-usual routines of the world, offering blessings to the poor and new life to anyone brave enough to accept it.  How do we witness to that?  How do we recognize that we are the disciples?  How do we tread the path towards saintliness – following in so many hallowed footsteps – right here in our daily lives?

For us it might mean changing the ways we use money, offering more to other people and the church, making do with less for ourselves.  It might mean choosing to maintain a relationship with a PACEM guest after he’s spent his 2 weeks at Wesley.  It might mean that instead of fretting over our calendars and commitments, we reorder our lives so that we have time and space to enjoy the people God puts in our paths.

What else might it mean?

We don’t do ourselves – or anyone else – any favors by misidentifying ourselves in the biblical stories or by discounting ourselves as disciples on the way to sainthood.  But I can’t tell you exactly how recognizing where you really are in the story and claiming your sainthood will look.  One thing I do know is that Jesus does not call us to feel guilty and lousy about ourselves.  This is not the point of pointing out that most of us aren’t the poor ones in this story.  The point is right relationship:  to the biblical witness, to our neighbors here and now, and to our God.

Jesus is talking to us, slathering the poor with blessings and calling us to right relationship with them and with him.  Jesus is calling us to bear witness to God and the surprising, unfolding reign of God throughout the word.  There is really nothing nice about it:  “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Lk. 6: 21, 25).

We are within earshot.  The words are for us, too.  How will we participate in these blessings for the poor and hungry?  How do our lives bear witness?

What’s holding you back, saints?

Thanks be to God!

© 2010 Deborah E. Lewis

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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