Avoid Missing the Point

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5:5 – Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

As soon as I read the text you know what the trouble is –don’t you?

It is the word meek.

What do a lot of people think of when they hear the word meek?

They hear the word weak – and when they do – they totally miss the point. They think, gentle Jesus – weak, meek, and mild; it seems to suggest that a Christian is to be a passive, weak, doormat to the world- one who stands is a pushover.

But that can’t be right – can it?  Well no actually – and when we think that – we’ve missed the point of what Jesus is saying entirely.

Remember, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ training guide to his disciples. If you flip back to Matthew 5:1&2 – you’ll note that He’s gathered his disciples on a mountainside; they are away from the crowds and he’s teaching them how to be a follower of Christ. And he starts with the beatitudes – the essential qualities, characteristics of being Christian. And Jesus uses the word “blessed,” which we know means more than happy. Blessed – here – means approved – approved by God.

So in Matthew 5:1-12 Jesus is telling his disciples the attributes – the essential qualities of a Christian – and after having already been told that an attribute of a Christian is that they are poor in spirit – meaning that we affirm our spiritual bankruptcy – and that we are people who mourn – meaning we grieve over sin and the sin of the world – Jesus says, “approved by God or blessed are the meek.”

It is also important to remember that the beatitudes are not singular qualities. They build on one another. In other words, we don’t get to simply select which ones we like and cast the others aside. All of them are essential qualities of a Christian. Since that’s the case – we may want to find out what it means to be meek – right?

Unfortunately, Matthew 5 offers little in the way of understanding what Jesus means. He simply says, “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” We don’t have a lot to go on from that text – so – in order to understand it we need to do a bit of Bible study work. One way to explore the meaning of a text is to look for other texts in the Bible that speak to the same thing. That’s where a cross reference comes in real handy.

In fact, if you open a Bible to Matthew 5 – and if that Bible that you open has cross-IMG_0575references in the margin or at the bottom of the page – and if you locate Matthew 5:5 in that cross-reference – you will find Psalm 37:11. The reason for that is – it seems pretty clear – at least to a lot of folks – that Jesus is referring to Psalm 37 when he tells His disciples that a Christian is meek.

So – Psalm 37 – according to John Piper and others – is a key to understanding what Jesus means about being meek.

Psalm 37 is a Psalm of David. We don’t know the context of Psalm 37 – but we do know the message. David – like us – lived in a world that was prone to violence. There were ambitious people – warring factions – there were wicked and evil folks who tried to deceive in order to get ahead. They took advantage of the weak and powerless – the poor. David’s world – like ours – was turbulent, anxiety-causing.

But David had also seen God’s hand at work in his life – so much so that he reminds us to “[1] Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! [2] For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. [3] Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. [4] Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. [5] Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. [6] He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. [7] Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! [8] Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. [9] For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. [10] In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. [11] But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. (ESV)

Doesn’t that last bit sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound like, “blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth?” Earth and land – by the way – are more or less interchangeable here.

Jesus’ world – the world of the disciples – our world – is no less volatile than David’s world. In fact, Jesus told his disciples that in this world you will have trouble. Some of that trouble is going to be caused by evil – by wicked people and some of that trouble is going to come from the dark places of our hearts. How is a person of faith going to live? Well – they are going to be meek and the qualities of meekness are right here in Psalm 37.

If you look over Psalm 37, you’ll notice that it applies to the way a person looks out at the world and all that’s happening in the world. But it can also apply as a warning about our hearts as well.

From what this text brings out – the meek are people who don’t “fret over evildoers – or envy those who do wrong – or prosper from doing evil. Instead, the meek are those who trust the Lord – and they do good. They delight themselves in the Lord and in the ways of the Lord. The meek commit their way to the Lord and trust him. They are still before the Lord. They wait patiently for the Lord to act on their behalf. They don’t fret. They refrain from anger and forsake wrath – because they know that “evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.” They know that one day soon and for all eternity, “the wicked will be no more.” But the meek people – well “the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.”
From Psalm 37 – we know that meekness has to do with trusting that God will take care of His people – so it begins with trust. John Piper notes, “Meekness begins when we put our trust in God. Then, because we trust him, we commit our way to him. We roll onto him our anxieties, our frustrations, our plans, our relationships, our jobs, our health. And then we wait patiently for the Lord. We trust his timing and his power and his grace to work things out in the best way for his glory and for our good.”

Far from weak, meek starts with trusting in God in the face of evil. Meekness requires an inner resolve that no matter what evil or wicked thing comes my way, I will trust in God.

Meekness – then – isn’t focused on what others think of us at all. Our meekness is God-focused, which, frankly, is humbling. To think that God – the creator of the ends of the universe – is watching out for me – is humbling. The wicked – the evildoer – can do all they want to do – but eventually – they will cease to exist – they will be wiped up – and all their efforts to dominate and take over the earth – will be for nothing – they will be gone.

But the meek will inherit the earth because their trust is not in themselves but in God.

You see when we think of meekness as weakness, we miss the point. The point of meekness isn’t about our strength it is about God’s strength. That’s what David is pointing out. The meek person is the person who doesn’t rely on their strength to make it through but on God’s strength.

Meekness means to walk humbly with God – trusting in His strength – we have nothing to fear – we do not need to fear the evil or the wicked things in the world because our trust is in God.

So – Blessed or approved by God are the meek – or basically, those who put their trust in God…and this essential quality goes hand in hand with the first two beatitudes – right? Remember, these things build on one another.

Jesus said, Blessed are the poor in spirit – which means that we recognize that we are spiritually bankrupt – by nature, we are sinners – prone to be a bit wicked ourselves. We have no merit on our own.

Jesus said, blessed are those who mourn – which means we are people who mourn/grieve – who are brokenhearted over our sin and sin in the world. We are brokenhearted how our lack of conformity to God’s plans and purposes have caused havoc in our lives and in the lives of others.

Then Jesus said, blessed are the meek – which means blessed are the people who humbly put their trust in God – because he overcomes and vanquishes evil in the world and in us.

Sometimes the darkness of our hearts can be discouraging – especially when we really want to have a better walk with Jesus – when we want to be better people for the cause of Christ. But meekness reminds us to put our trust in God’s ability to vanquish evil and darkness – even in our hearts. Meekness isn’t about looking at others; it is about focusing our attention on God and His strength to overcome wicked in the world – and the darkness of our own hearts.

Yes – Christians are to be meek which means we humbly put our trust in God. Jesus is inviting his followers to trust in God to overcome the mess of the world and the mess of their own lives. Far from being weak – the meek are revolved to trust in God no matter what is going on around them.

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The Heart of the Problem

Years ago, I was at a church function – a picnic of sorts. I, along with another pastor, stood with an elder in our church – just chatting as we tossed a football with some church members who were twenty or more yards away. Out of nowhere, the elder made an inappropriate comment to my pastoral colleague and me about one of the young women who stood among the group at the opposite end of the field. My colleague and I were both taken aback by what the elder said and we quickly responded with “Dude, that’s inappropriate.” We expected him to immediately own his verbal fumble, but he just walked away – quickly.

My pastoral colleague and I are no strangers to verbal fumbles but we also both knew this elder and knew this wasn’t the first time he’d said something a bit over the line. In fact, he had been called on the carpet more than a few times professionally. Knowing that we talked about what we should do, and, since he – as an elder – had taken similar vows to our pastoral vows – we decided to meet with him and talk about it. A few days later, over coffee, we shared our concerns with him, hoping that there would be a good end to things. There wasn’t.

Granted, my pastoral colleague and I didn’t handle the whole thing as well as we could have but at one point the elder said, that he held all women in high regard and that we needed to know that he loved Jesus and we should simply know and trust his heart in order to understand what he meant. The thing is, I did understand his heart because I have one just like it – and so does everyone else, and therein lies the heart of the problem.

I think the elder had forgotten what the Bible has to say about the human heart. Concept of possessiveJeremiah 17:9 puts things rather bluntly. “The heart,” Jeremiah says, “is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (wicked); who can understand it?” What’s more, Jesus said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45 ESV).

In other words, often, what a person says or does (or leaves unsaid or undone) reveals what’s in their heart; actions and words tell everyone what they really think and believe. Sometimes that is a good thing – like when we tell people just how much we love them and why we love them. But sometimes the words we say or the things we do reveal the dark parks in our hearts. Truth be told, that’s probably more of a good thing because it can actually lead us to the throne of grace – if we handle it correctly – if we own it and deal with it. Or – if we don’t own it – it can condemn us and keep us from really coming to Jesus.

There isn’t a person alive who at one time or another hasn’t said or done something in the heat of the moment or without properly thinking it through. I’ve said and done things that the moment it was done, I regretted it. Do you know what that shows? It shows that a person is human, and it shows that there are places in that person’s heart that need to be dealt with. It shows exactly what Jeremiah and Jesus are trying to communicate. We’ve got heart issues – all of us – and that becomes evident in those moments when we say or do something that isn’t in accordance with God’s plans and purposes. But those are the moments that remind us how much we need the grace of God. And – if in those moments, we own what we’ve said or done, acknowledge it for what it is, we are on the right track to living as a follower of Jesus.

If, however, in those moments we try to deny or defend what we’ve said or done, or if we try to put the blame on someone else, or if we try to suggest we are simply misunderstood, we are far off the mark of what it means to be Christian. The first step in walking with Jesus is being able to own the fact that we have a heart problem and we are prone to blow it and we need the grace of God every moment of every day.

If that elder had simply said, man, I blew it. I shouldn’t have said that about her. It was wrong. How can I make it right? He would have been on the right track. Truth be told, both my pastoral colleague and I are human and we’ve said and done things that we shouldn’t have said or done. We know we have a heart problem. In fact, each week in our worship service we have a time of confession. And, in our daily prayers, there is a time of confession – because we know the heart is wicked and it reminds us of all that Jesus has done to set us free.

But some folks, like that elder, haven’t learned to own what’s really in their hearts and thus they are missing out on what it really means to walk with Jesus and enjoy the grace of God. That really doesn’t make a lot of sense in the end because, while a person may be able to pull the wool over everyone else’s eyes – it is God who searches the heart. There isn’t anything we can hide from him. He’s well aware of how wicked or sick the heart of humanity is. In fact, Jeremiah reminds the reader that, the heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick…the LORD search(es) the heart and test(s) the mind, to give every person according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:10). That text is both an encouragement and a warning.

The simple fact is, God knows we are a mess and somehow He loves us anyway. But we can’t really experience the love of God until we are willing to admit that we have a heart problem. It is those moments when we say something or do something that isn’t right, that if we own it – we are on the right track to experiencing the grace of God through Jesus. But we’ve to own our heart problem. Trying to hide that from him and from others is simply foolish. When a person who professes to have faith in Jesus says or does something that they get called on – or they simply know in their heart that it isn’t right – they know to own it, confess it, repent of it, accept the consequences, accept what it is telling them about their hearts, and seek the grace of God through Jesus. To deny it, is to deny the need for God’s grace and what a horrible thing that would be.

A Dose Of Godly Grief

I was sitting with a friend one day and he said something that has stayed with me. My friend isn’t a Christian – although he is a deeply spiritual person. He appreciates my faith – respects it – and is curious about what we believe – to the point that he has spent time reading the Bible – a lot of time, actually.

My friend told me he really appreciates the narratives of the Old Testament. He loves the story of David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah. He also appreciates the beauty and the rawness of the Psalms. And he loved reading the Gospels. Jesus fascinates him and he admires Jesus and understands why people are drawn to him.

But, my friend also told me that there are some things that Jesus said that confused him and a few things he found strange. At first, he thought I was offended but I quickly put him at ease when I said – even people in Jesus’ day found some of the things he said confusing and strange. It is little wonder that would carry over to today. I really enjoyed talking with my friend about my faith and I appreciated the fact that he was interested.

I hadn’t thought about that conversation until this week as I re-read Matthew 5:4. Matthew 5:4 says, [4] “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

I don’t usually think that there is anything blessed about mourning, do you? The notion of being comforted – well now that’s good but – blessed? I immediately thought of my friend – pondering over that text and I wondered if Jesus’ disciples thought that was strange.

You see, in those days, the first century, they had a high infant mortality rate. Chances are good that every one of Jesus’ disciples – like so many of us – had buried someone they loved even someone under the age of 5. They probably weren’t strangers to mourning or grief – any more than you or I.

No one has to define mourning to us. Many of us know the feeling all too well. But I dare say, I’ve ever associated blessing with mourning.

So, I can see why my friend would think that text sounds a bit strange – or confusing. What does Jesus mean when he says that folks who mourn are blessed for they will be comforted?

Well – you know Matthew 5:4 is part of Jesus’ most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount. It was called that because – well – Matthew 5:1-2 tells us that “Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. [2] And Jesus opened his mouth and taught them…”

So the first thing to make note of is that Jesus is teaching his disciples; he’s training them. That’s the target audience of his sermon. While there may have been a crowd of others listening in – Jesus’ sermon was focused on his disciples. He wanted them to hear, understand, and embody what he was telling them.

Matthew tells us – in Matthew 4 – that Jesus began his ministry by calling his disciples and healing people mentally, physically, and spiritually. As you can imagine, that drew a large crowd. And when Jesus saw the crowd – he walked away from them – went up on a mountainside and began to teach his disciples.

Why would he do that? Why would Jesus pull away from the crowd? And what was he teaching them?

Well as one theologian put it, “Jesus wants to incorporate his followers into his healing ministry and ethic. Jesus apparently believes that when disciples believe, obey, and teach his sermon, they become a sick world’s major antibodies and antidotes” (Bruner 153).

In other words, Jesus pulls away from the crowds – he pulls away from doing the ministry of bringing healing to the world – in order to teach his disciples how to do the same sorts of things that He is doing. He’s training them to be Christians – how to go about being a Christian and doing the sort of things that Christians are supposed to do. And he starts by talking about the essential qualities of a Christian – and he gives them 8 of them – what we call beatitudes.

That word beatitude is where we get the word blessing – and when we think of blessing – we think happy. That’s why in some Bibles the beatitudes start with Happy are those – rather than blessed are those. But the word blessed – at least here – has more to do with approval than happiness. In this context, it means to be approved by God – which should make us happy; it is a blessing to be approved by God.

Which brings us back to Matthew 5:4. The second quality of a Christian that Jesus mentions is they are “that those who mourn.” Again, in some Bibles, that verse is translated as “happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We could even say, approved of God are those who mourn.

But isn’t that confusing? Isn’t that strange? It sounds awfully strange to me. Happy/blessed/approved are those who mourn?

As I said earlier, we don’t need a definition of mourning. Many of us still feel the pangs over having lost people we love. We normally associate the word mourn with grieving the loss of someone we love. There are tears and sorrow. We feel it deep within our heart of hearts – and we will always carry a bit of that sorrow with us. We learn to live with it over time – but there is always a part of us that will mourn that loss. A bit of our heart will always be broken. We understand mourning but we may not fully appreciate how Jesus uses it here.

For just a second I’d like to ask you to draw on your experience with mourning. As much as you are able – just hold it in your imagination. As you do consider this. Jesus isn’t talking so much about mourning over the loss of a loved one but he is talking about being brokenhearted – or mourning – over sin – our sin and the sin of the world and the way that sin has wreaked havoc in our lives and in the lives of others. In fact, this sort of mourning that Jesus is referring to is something that the Apostle Paul calls Godly grief.

If you’ve ever had the chance to read any of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth you’ll know what a mess they were. I’m not going to go into details – but – sin ran amok among them. Paul wrote them a number of letters and addressed head-on some of the things that were going on. He spoke directly to the issues. Which brings me to 2 Corinthians 7:9–13 Paul wrote, “[9] As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. [10] For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. [11] For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter. [12] So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God. [13] Therefore we are comforted” (ESV).

When Jesus tells his disciples that an essential quality of being a Christian is to mourn, it is akin to Paul’s urging the church of Corinth into Godly grief over their sin and the way sin impacted those around them.

Let me take a quick rabbit trail – because I’ve used the S word. We don’t like the S word too much in our society. We don’t like to talk about sin or sinners – but – if we want to be faithful to the Bible – if we want to understand what Jesus is talking in Matthew 5:4 – we need to bring that word up and talk about sin.

I love the way that the Westminster Confession of Faith’s Shorter Catechism defines sin. According to the confession, sin is “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” That’s a fancy way of saying, sin is anything in our lives that doesn’t perfectly conform to God’s plans and purposes.

We could just take the 10 Commandments and see the ways we don’t conform perfectly to God’s plans and purposes – right? Especially if you take into account the things that Jesus had to say about the 10 Commandments. Even if we have broken those things in our hearts – then we are out of conformity with God’s plans and purposes. I’m confident that God’s plans and purposes don’t include lying, or murder, or cheating, or gossip…and the list goes on.

Jesus says that part of what it means to be a Christian – and to bring healing to the world is to be brokenhearted by our inability to live in perfect conformity to God’s plans and purposes. And – it doesn’t hurt to be brokenhearted about the way sin wrecks havoc on all aspects of our world.

That’s the thing – isn’t it? We know that one person’s greed, or dishonesty, or temper, or addiction, or urges, or appetites can impact a lot of people. I hate to say it but my sin – your sin – sin in the world impacts everything. And, according to Jesus, we’ve got to own it. We need to mourn – to grieve – to be brokenhearted over sin. We need a good dose of Godly grief – because that leads to repentance – and in that, we will find the comfort that comes through the person, word, and work of Jesus.

Jesus promises here – those who mourn – those who are broken-hearted over their sin – will be comforted – comforted by what?

John Stott wrote, “Such mourners, who bewail their own sinfulness, will be comforted by the only comfort which can relieve their distress, namely the free forgiveness of God” (Stott 42).

That is good news – that Jesus says that those who mourn will be comforted. That is news worth sharing – especially at a time when our communities and our world are in such a mess. Jesus came into the world to save sinners – He came to save those who can’t perfectly conform to God’s plans and purposes – which is everyone.

A chief quality of a Christian – is that they mourn the fact that they can’t
perfectly conform to God’s plans and purposes and they are brokenhearted over the way that sin, in general, and specifically, has impacted our families, our friends, our communities.

We need a healthy dose of Godly grief. The world needs the church – God’s people – to have a healthy dose of Godly grief. It is an essential quality of a Christian. And – that’s where healing begins. We can’t even begin to be comforted by all that Jesus has done for us until we’ve truly mourned our sinfulness – our inability to perfectly live in conformity to God’s plans and purposes. And like all other mourning – it doesn’t really end. We are comforted – yes – but we still carry a bit of it with us all the time.

Yes, as strange as it may sound, as confusing as it may be – folks who truly mourn over their sin are blessed and they will be comforted because of Jesus they are approved of God – grief and all.

 

At A Loss For Words: A Poet To The Rescue

Of late, I’ve been trying to make sense of the world – my world – our world – but putting things into words. I am struggling to do so and as a logophile – someone who loves words – I find that troubling. It isn’t the first time I’ve been at a loss for words but it is the most recent – and – with all that’s happening in my world and our world – well – it couldn’t come at a worse time. What is there to do at a time like this?

Over the years I’ve learned when I don’t have the words it is best to go and find the words that someone else has found – to find inspiration – so to speak. Most of the time, I find that poets have more to say and are better at saying it (whatever it is) than I am. So – I find some trusty poets – like Wendell Berry or the Psalmists – and just ponder over their words – their reflections on the world.

But of late, I’ve been lost to find the right words amid all the discussions about race, prejudice, and politics. So, I returned to poetry – and to one poet in particular: Natasha Trethewey. natasha-tretheway_custom-0eac917f8d50d735639138400cf23d9f360d1bde-s800-c85

You may not have heard of Trethewey – which is unfortunate – really. She is a former US poet laureate and, among her list of accolades, she was awarded a Pulitzer and a Guggenheim fellowship. She’s served as a visiting professor at Duke, UNC, Yale, Harvard, and now at Northwestern. So far, she has five collections of poetry – one of which Native Guard, native guardcaptivated me because Trethewey has an uncanny way of tying together the politics of race in the US (and the south) with her own experience of being the daughter of a mixed-race marriage.

Take for example her poem “South” (You can find the entire poem here). The poem is written as if the poet is traveling down a road in the south – looking out of a window – observing. Like any traveler, the poet first encounters the natural beauty of the south. She sees stands of pines, magnolias in blossom, mangroves, and palmettos. Then she sees the open fields of cotton. If you’ve never witnessed cotton in bloom – you are missing an incredible sight. There is something beautiful in it – but also something haunting.

The field of blooming cotton for the poet holds a memory of her own lineage because generations of men and women and children – some of which she was no doubt related to – slaved away their lives there. And, no matter what side of history a person wants to take, there were those who fought and died to preserve a particular way of life that would have kept – and in many ways did keep – people chained to a lesser life.

Trethewey’s poem reminds the reader that even beyond the Civil War and far beyond reconstruction “roads, buildings, and monuments / are named to honor the Confederacy, where that old flag still hangs.”And – worse – the politics of race and prejudice extended into law – so much so that the poet is able to write herself into the poem and the landscape. As her trip into the south continues she arrives in “Mississippi, state that made a crime / of me—mulatto, half-breed—native / in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.”  It is difficult for me to imagine – but there was a time when it was against the law for people of different races to marry – and that law was often extended to the point that even the accusation of looking or speaking to a white woman could get a black man killed – just look at Emmet Till. So Trethewey was in her own being – simply by being born of mixed race – an outlaw.

At this point, you may be wondering what I’m going on about – and why I am bringing this up. I suppose it is a fair question. But like I said, I’ve been at a loss of words lately – largely because I only have my own perspective about race and prejudice. But I’ve noticed that a lot of people who pretty much have the same, singular perspective that I have are weighing in – going – to my way of thinking – where angels fear to tread without considering things from a broader perspective.

Everywhere I’ve ever lived – indeed everywhere I’ve ever been (and everywhere you’ve ever been or lived dear reader) – prejudice and racism have existed – and continue to exist. But I, like most folks who share my pigmentation, have never experienced it and so there really isn’t any way at all that I can weigh in on what it must be like to experience being treated poorly because of my race.

The closest I’ve ever come is the experience of someone I love deeply and dearly. It isn’t my story to tell in its entirety because I was on the outside of their experience; I was in the aftermath, holding them as they tearfully questioned why a total stranger hated them. The worst part is that I know the man who stupidly hurled the word bombs and I’ve wondered how the same man who stands to sing the doxology can also stoop to speak words of hatred to a child he doesn’t even know. I wondered if it has ever occurred to him that there are no white people in the Bible. Actually, (and I’ll confess this later) I’m quite sure that he’s never considered very much at all – nor is he aware of how singularly narrow or un-Christian his worldview is.

To be the sort of person that I want to be – indeed to be the sort of person that I think Jesus needs me to be as a Christian and as a pastor – it is important that my view of the world is broader than simply my own experience – especially before I weigh in on a topic or try to speak into it. Except for a short exile in St. Louis, I’ve lived most of my life in the south but I only know it from one side. I will never experience the sort of racial prejudice that so many others have and so, I can’t fully appreciate how horrible it is. I need the words, the perspectives of those who have lived it to help me understand our world a bit more fully. Even though she isn’t writing from a Christian perspective (not that it matters one way or another), Trethewey’s poem(s) have given me the words and perspectives that I need in order to have a framework beyond my singular experience. Poets are helpful like that.

 

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The World Needs Bankrupt Healers

These last few months have been strange – haven’t they? Even as churches, shops, sports, and restaurants reopen, we have to admit things have changed.

We’d like for things to resume where we left off a few months ago; we know we can’t do that; we know we can’t just pick up and start where we stopped. Maybe one day – we tell ourselves hopefully – but – we must admit – too much has happened for us to just pick up where we left off. We have entered a new age – like it or not. Things have happened over the last few weeks that have shown the weak-spots of our community – our country.

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Many in our community, our country, our world are literally ill. As much as we are opening and as much as we want to open, the virus is still making its presence known. More and more people are venturing out – to restaurants and shops – to church and vacations. And yet – even as we go – we are aware that there is a risk of a virus, tensions over wearing masks, and anxiety over the economic impact.

Our country and our community are clearly ill in other ways as well. George Floyd’s death struck an already exposed and reverberating nerve. His violent and tragic death, coupled with weeks of isolation, confusion, and anxieties over the virus simply pushed things over the edge. Presumably, the events of the last few weeks will make it impossible to ignore what’s been running under the surface of our country for a long, long time.

Don’t worry. This isn’t about politics and I’m not here to get political. I’m here to get spiritual.

Like a lot of folks – I’ve been paying attention to all that’s happening in our community and in our country – and I’ve been wondering what’s the Christian response? It probably should be more than simply returning to our buildings.

In fact, if we have learned anything about ourselves as the church, we’ve learned that we do just fine even when we can’t meet in our buildings. While we love getting to be with one another – face-to-face – we’ve learned that the church really doesn’t need a building in order to gather for worship. We did pretty well over the last few weeks meeting via Zoom. And – we also know the purpose of the church extends beyond gathering for worship.

Because of the state of things – I don’t think we can simply go back to the way things were because, as I said, the last few weeks have shown just how ill our society is and we can’t simply ignore it or pretend that it doesn’t impact us. I believe that the church – that God’s people – have an important role to play and we shouldn’t side-step it.

Our community and our country need God’s people – the church – to function the way we were intended to function; we have been put here by the Lord for such a time as this – to bring healing. But – to be blunt – we aren’t always good at stepping into the mix of things. We may need a refresher in order to understand what to do – I know I do.

Which brings me to the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount begins in Matthew 5 and goes through 7. Some have said that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is to the New Testament what the Ten Commandments are to the Old Testament. As one theologian put it, “To read the Sermon on the Mount is to discover what it means to be Jesus’ disciples; to read it with faith is to receive power to be Jesus’ disciples” (Bruner 151).

In other words, the Sermon on the Mount helps us get a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and who we are supposed to be and what we are supposed to do.

How so?

Well – the text begins with a notice – “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. [2] And he opened his mouth and taught them…”

Now, I’d like for us to stop right there for a second and recognize what went on prior to Matthew 5:1&2. If you flip back through Matthew 4 – you’ll discover that Jesus had just begun his ministry and he does two major things. He essentially healed a lot of people and ministered to crowds of people – and he called his disciples.

Jesus was having what we might call success. People were flocking to him. In our day – when someone is able to gather large groups of folks – they usually end up with book deals, marketing plans, and become a sort of Christian celebrity.

But not Jesus.

There are crowds of people flocking to Jesus. He has a successful healing ministry going on – and then Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowd – he went up on a mountain – with his disciples to teach them. He walked away from a crowd of folks – walked away from this successful healing ministry to sit down on a mountain and talk with his disciples.

That is significant.

Why would Jesus do that? Why would Jesus walk away from this successful – crowd gathering – ministry in order to go and teach his disciples – and what does it have to do with us?

I believe Jesus stepped away from what he had been doing because he wanted to bring his disciples into what He was doing in the world. Jesus wanted to teach his disciples to do the sort of things he was doing because that was to be the function of His disciples forever. One theologian said, “Jesus wants to incorporate his followers into his healing ministry and ethic. Jesus apparently believes that when disciples believe, obey, and teach his sermon, they become a sick world’s major antibodies and antidotes” (Bruner 153).

Have you ever thought of yourself in that way?
Have you ever thought of yourself as a healer in a sick world?

Well – it seems like Jesus sees His people in that way and it is rooted in our understanding of who He is and who we are.

Perhaps that is the first lesson from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus pulled away from the crowd from everything else in order to pour into his disciples. I think our first lesson is – we need to pull away from everything else to spend time with Jesus in order to know Him and from that we will get a deeper understanding of who He is and who we are and what we are supposed to do.

But there is a second thing lesson – and let me pass it on to you quickly.

If you look at Matthew 5:3-12 you’ll see that Jesus begins His sermon with a list of “blessings” that really have a profound depth to them – and they are not singular blessings – they belong to one another. In them, Jesus tells his disciples specific things about who they are – who they should be – attitudes and characteristics. So, connected to his efforts to give them an understanding of who He is and invite them into his work of healing the world – Jesus tells them who they are and he ties it together with a list of blessings.

Jesus said, [3] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus starts with a bunch of “blessed are…” Of course, we know these as the beatitudes. They are called that because of the word blessing or blessed – which comes from the Latin word beatitudo. Often – when we think of blessed – we think of happiness – but there is a deeper meaning behind that word – especially when it is used here. The reason I am happy when I am blessed is that blessed here means “to be approved, to find approval” and in this context, it means to be approved or to find approval from God (Carson 16).

One theologian pointed out, “Since this is God’s universe there can be no higher ‘blessing’ than to be approved by God. We must ask ourselves whose blessing we diligently seek. If God’s blessing means more to us than the approval of loved ones…or of colleagues…then the beatitudes will speak to us very personally and deeply” (Carson 17).

So right out of the gate – Jesus is telling his disciples that they are blessed or approved by God. So our text could read – “Blessed / approved by God are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Allow me to ask you – do you ever feel the least bit inadequate? Ever feel like you just don’t measure up when it comes to getting things right with God? Have you ever felt overwhelmed – that you just aren’t good enough – that you just can’t get things right enough when it comes to God? Have you ever taken a good hard look at your own actions or attitudes or thoughts and said – good grief – I’m a mess?

Good because that is exactly how we ought to feel because that’s where things must start in terms of our relationship with God, which is why – I believe – that Jesus starts his sermon with poor in spirit.

In the OT the poor initially were those who were in “literal, material need;” the poor were those who were unable to help themselves – they could not save themselves – they had to look to God for salvation (Stott 38). Eventually, however, the word “poor” began to take on a larger meaning – as it pointed to people who are, as DA Carson says, “spiritually bankrupt.” They have nothing to offer God on their own. John Stott wrote, “Indeed, the very first beatitude proclaims salvation by grace not works, for it pledges the kingdom of God to the ‘poor in spirit,’ that is, to people who are so spiritually poverty-stricken that they have nothing in the way of merit to offer” (Stott 36).

Jesus starts this Sermon off by telling us that the first characteristic of a Christian is that we readily admit that we are spiritually bankrupt and dependent upon the grace of God. We are the first to admit that we are spiritually bankrupt – that we don’t have it all together. It is humbling indeed to admit that we can’t fix ourselves that we a savior – we need God to help us – to save us – because we have nothing on our own to offer the Lord.

That is where spiritual healing begins. It begins by admitting that we are bankrupt – and – frankly – our community, our country, our world needs bankrupt healers.

You see, Jesus pulls away from the crowds in order to give his disciples a deeper understanding of who He is but also teaches them what it is they are supposed to do in order to participate in God’s work in the world. Jesus starts that conversation by telling them that on their own they can’t fix a thing. They must first come to terms with the fact that they are approved by God – blessed by God – because they are poor in spirit – not because they’ve got it all figured out or because they have anything to offer God on their own. No. Bankrupt healers are those who know their own faults and issues and go to God for help. One theologian said, “Simply put, the Gospel poor in spirit are ‘people who recognize that they are helpless without God’s help” (Bruner 161).

This is where we must start. As God’s people, we must take a deep look within our hearts and honestly recognize that we can’t help ourselves. Only then can we begin to offer any sort of healing to the world. Even if we have been a Christian for decades – this is where we must begin. You see, there is never a time in a Christian’s life when he/she doesn’t need Jesus. We will never outgrow our need for the Lord Jesus. In fact, it is the opposite. The longer we walk with Jesus the more aware we become of our own depravity – where it hides and lurks in our own hearts – and that leads us into a deeper appreciation and a deeper dependence on Jesus.

So we begin with our acknowledgment that we are poor in spirit – but we take heart – because we are approved by God – we are blessed – and the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to us. Not because of anything we’ve done – but because of the grace of God through the person of Jesus.

That’s where the healing begins in us – and that is where the healing begins for our community and our country. We must start by acknowledging that not one of us is without sin. No one is righteous before God on their own merit.

Friends, we are on the cusp of a new age – an age that we are still trying to figure out what is the new normal – an age that is angry, confused, and longing for healing even as it looks for someone to blame for its pain. It is into that God’s people are called to go and bring healing. But it begins with us first – getting a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and looking into our own hearts and acknowledging our own spiritual bankruptcy. It is out of our own understanding of our spiritual bankruptcy that we can bring healing to others.

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Confidence In Chaos

Last Saturday, Sherry and I drove downtown to grab carryout for dinner. We noticed – right away – that there were more people milling around than in previous weeks. But then we notice something else – something unusual: a mass of law enforcement.

There were officers from the local police as well as agents from a variety of state and federal agencies. The officers – usually in pairs – either stood on street corners, walked the sidewalks, or rode in patrol cars. It was impossible not to notice – given the number. We didn’t have to wonder why they were there.

A person would have to be a hermit – cut off from society – to be unaware of all that’s been happening. To the weirdness of a pandemic – to the mishmash of information – we’ve added protests and riots surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd. We’ve added boarded-up store windows and strong law enforcement presence to communities already stressed about economic downturns and virus spread.

To borrow from John Lennon, these are strange days indeed and not in far off places but right here in our own community. And that’s the thing – isn’t it? It is one thing to watch the world news and see the rest of the world being impacted by something. It is entirely another thing to see how those things in the wider world hit home.

All of us have been impacted by the pandemic and all of us have been impacted by the protests and riots. The reason the police were out in such force here was because of unfounded rumor associated with a threat on social media from Antifa. There was nothing to those rumors but – wisely – events were postponed and law enforcement made their presence known. No – world events aren’t simply out in the world any longer – they are right here in our neighborhood. We are experiencing what so many others are experiencing – even if it is on a smaller scale.

Our world and our community are going through upheaval – a change. One theme that has consistently emerged from this time is a loss of confidence – a loss of trust – in the systems, institutions, and leaders. Losing confidence is disconcerting. For some who have put so much trust in systems, institutions, and people – this loss of confidence can be devastating and lead to all sorts of problems. But you know it isn’t the first time that people have experienced this sort of loss of confidence.

In Psalm 3 – David’s world was in chaos and the people had lost confidence and trust in him. It had to be devastating because David had been such a successful leader. But in the words of Psalm 3, we find the right place to put all of the confidence. It is not in confidence in ourselves – not in our government – not in systems or institutions. Psalm 3 teaches us to see the Lord as our confidence – especially during a time of uncertainty and a time of chaos.

Psalm 3 is one of only a handful of psalms that have a clear historical context. What I mean is that we can place it with a specific event and with a specific author. Right at the very beginning of Psalm 3, it states that it is a Psalm of David When He Fled From Absalom His Son.

Psalm 3
A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.

[1] O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
[2] many are saying of my soul,
“There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah
[3] But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
[4] I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
[5] I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
[6] I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.
[7] Arise, O LORD!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
[8] Salvation belongs to the LORD;
your blessing be on your people! Selah (ESV)

Did you get that?

Talk about chaos. This psalm is from a time when David had to flee from Jerusalem – from his own city and his own son.

Imagine the fear that swept through that community when its king left Jerusalem – the City of David!

It is important to bear in mind just who David was. He was the sort of leader that people could get behind – and did. He trusted in God – so much so that when David was a young man, he went to battle with a giant named Goliath with only a slingshot, 5 smooth stones, and, with God’s help, won.

When David became king, he did something that no one -not even Saul – had been able to do. It was under his leadership that all twelve tribes of Israel were united.

David was not just a great leader and warrior, he was also a deeply spiritual man – who authored most of the psalms. It is clear from the Psalms that David loved God. His songs and prayers are some of the most beautiful texts in the Bible. He was a man said to be after God’s own heart. He was a man who knew how to pray, how to worship, and how to lead others to do the same.

Imagine that sort of leader. Imagine a leader who was not only able to lead people into battle successfully, a man who was able to lead you in worship, and a man who was also able to get 12 contentious factions to come together as one.

Now imagine losing confidence in that leader.

In Psalm 3, David clearly felt the panic of his community – felt the tremors that came from troubles – troubles that – well – he had a hand in making for himself and for the people.

Look, as great a leader and king as David was – he was no saint. He was just like us. He got some things right – clearly – look at the Psalms. But – David was also a man whose heart – and eyes – were prone to wander – as the hymn writer put it.

You see – that little bit before the Psalm starts – that little explanation behind the Psalm – “A Psalm of David, When He Fled from Absalom his son” tells a much larger tale.

Beneath the surface of Psalm 3 there is an awful thing. In 2 Samuel 11 – 19 we get the story of what happened. I’ve got to tell you it isn’t pretty. But the Bible does not try to cover up the reality that the world and the people in it are a mess.

In 2 Samuel 9 – 19 we read of a chain of events in the life of David which impacted the nation of Israel – things that would keep the tabloids in our own time hopping.

David, who has received a great promise from God that his throne will be established forever (2 Sam. 7), has decided to stay home rather than go to war with the army. That wasn’t a normal sort of thing for a king to do. We do not know what led David to that decision, but we do know what David did with his time: he caught sight of Bathsheba and they spent some time together – which they shouldn’t have done – and she became pregnant – and then David schemed to get Uriah (her husband) home so he might spend time with his wife – and then think the baby is his – and it didn’t work – and then David had Uriah killed in battle to cover it up. And then David married Bathsheba.

Okay – all of that is terrible – but it got worse. Nathan, God’s prophet, confronts David about what he did. To his credit, David confesses his sin – see what I mean about David getting things wrong and getting some things right – sounds like a human being to me. David confessed and God forgave him.

However, and here is what most folks forget – forgiveness doesn’t mean that the consequences are cleared. Confession doesn’t reverse the course of things we’ve set in motion – like a stone thrown into the water – the ripples will roll out.

While God loves David – just as He does all of us – there remain consequences to David’s act – and it all spills over into his family life. While David may have been a great leader and writer – etc. – he wasn’t so great at the family thing.

Bathsheba wasn’t David’s first or only wife. He had kids by those wives and they didn’t always do right by one another. In fact, Amnon attacks his half-sister – Tamar. Absalom – who is Tamar’s older brother – hears of it and is enraged. He swears revenge. David tries to intervene but two years later, Absalom murders his half-brother Amnon for assaulting his sister – Tamar.

Absalom flees from David. He hides out in a sanctuary city for a while – but David is finally about to bring him home. But as soon as he does, Absalom puts his plan into motion to overthrow his father so that he can become king. And that’s where Psalm 3 begins.

I bring this up because the people of that time experienced chaos outside of their own making. They didn’t do what David did – but they felt the consequences of his actions. And – it wasn’t just David that had to flee. Lots of people did.

And there were lots of people who stayed back in Jerusalem as Absalom made his way into the city.

Which means that business was stopped. Restaurants and markets closed. Some people had to leave everything behind and make a run for it. Others swept into the city streets. People’s lives changed – quickly – and they lost confidence in the systems and institutions and leaders they once trusted.

Sound familiar?

Well – now we come to the text of Psalm 3 – we’ve got the story behind the text. Now we know why David is anxious – because – it is clear that he knows that people have lost confidence in him – and – maybe he’s lost confidence in himself – but there is something powerful in this text because it places confidence where it should have been all along.

This Psalm teaches us that we can have confidence in God in an upside-down world – even if its upside down because of us or because of things beyond our control.

Psalm 3 opens like a curtain on a great play with David, in the wilderness, praying. He is no longer in the palace – in the City of David. He’s on the run. Surrounded by enemies – some of which are his own children.

Amid all that – David cries out to God – with his fears and anxieties and concerns – because he knows that God will hear his cries: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; 2 many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God.”

Again – why wouldn’t they be saying that – they are on the run or their city is in turmoil because of David. But – David knows differently than that. Though the entire world falls into a pit – David knows that his only salvation is in God. David didn’t hide his sin from the Lord. He confessed it.

Just like you and me – remember the words of Jesus – I will never leave you nor forsake you – you will have troubles – Jesus said – but our confidence is in him because he overcame the world. Jesus didn’t say, I’ll only be with you if you get yourself cleaned up and right – then and only then will I be with you. Jesus promised to be with us – even though he knows that sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong.

David got it right sometimes. David got it wrong – very wrong – sometimes. But here – we see – that he knew that God wouldn’t desert him. Even if everyone else did, he knew that God wouldn’t.

Now look at David’s prayer here – there were thousands who were out beyond the horizon of his camp wanting his blood. David’s world is in chaos. Amid that chaos – David begins to pray with honesty, confidence, and hope.

And so he prays – as we should – and this is our confidence. David prays:

1) For You – God are a shield about me

A shield was a military tool – it was a light shield, easily held up to deflect arrows and other things used. David is saying God is his protector from both the literal and figurative arrows being sent his way.

2) You are my glory

This is a king speaking. But all the trappings of being a king are gone. His palace is in enemy hands. He doesn’t have servants running at his beck and call. He is in the wilderness. Running. But his glory – his significance is from God.

3) You are the lifter of my head

This is a figure of speech that has to do with setting one into the place of honor and dignity. David is saying that it is God who does this – not anyone else. God will do this.

David is down and out. But he says that God himself will lift his head. God will lift him up. He doesn’t hope in anything else. The things he’s done or left undone will not hold him down – God will be the lifter of his head.

4) You heard me when I cried out loud -You answered me from Your holy hill –

How does David know this – because he has seen God do it.
Here is where our faith kicks in – but it isn’t faith-based on nothing. It is faith-based on experience. God has answered David before. And his answering wasn’t dependent upon David. We can trust that God will hear us when we cry out to him because that is God’s character.

5) You sustained me when I went to sleep – You protected me through the night when my enemy was all around – thousands have set themselves against me.

We know that when this whole mess began when Absalom began his move – David began to pray. We have a record of short prayers in 2 Samuel where David asked God to muddle the advice of Absalom’s counselors. It isn’t too much of a stretch for us to think of David praying at night – for God to give him rest – for God to protect him and his household from the enemy that was just over the horizon – thousands who had gathered all around.

And he went to sleep and rested and the Lord gave him a new day. He did not need to fear. His confidence was in the Lord. He didn’t need to be afraid of thousands. He had confidence in the Lord.

This week has been crazy. People were concerned that Antifa was going to come to town and wreak havoc during the night – but we need not fear– our confidence is in the Lord.

We have nothing to fear from the world around us. We have nothing to fear of the enemy of our souls. There is nothing, as Paul tells us in Romans, that can separate us from the love of God.

Romans 8:38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is the sort of confidence that David had, but we have even greater confidence – because we have been given access to the very throne of grace through the person – word and work of Jesus.

We can pray with confidence and with hope – in an upside-down world – just as David did – because our confidence is not in ourselves but in Christ – who took on evil and won.

We can pray – as David did – “7 Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked. 8 Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people!”

This sort of language often strikes us as difficult. As Christians, we have a hard time, occasionally, with the language of the Psalms. But David and the other writers understand what we need to understand. It is something that Walter Brueggemann points out.

“Nothing is out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus, these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.”

What is it that David is asking of God?

By asking God to arise – he is asking God to “demonstrate his power and his glory in answering the prayer.” David is asking God to restore him. He is placing all his confidence in God to do this. Then he is asking
• For God to strike a blow to his enemies using David and those with him to do so. We know from 2 Samuel that David was going about actively working to set his organize the few troops that remained with him. So he is asking God to work through them.
• David ends this pray with praise – short as it is. It is as if his heart is now moved from lament – which is how it opened – to praise. His confidence is in God’s deliverance. He knows where his confidence lays – it lays in God himself.

Let me draw things up here –

One of the most significant things about the psalms is that they teach us how to pray. Sometimes a psalm will teach us how to lament, or praise, or ask God for something. But Psalm 3 teaches us how to remain confident in God – even as the world around us falls apart. That’s important for us to hold onto now when there is so much going on in our community and in our world. Lots and lots of people are losing confidence in the systems, institutions, and leaders. But God’s people have always been about placing their confidence in God – above everything and everyone else.

This psalm also teaches us that we can have confidence in God – even when the chaos is something we’ve contributed to. David blew it – big time. But he confessed that and turned to God with confidence. Yes, the consequences were in motion – but God hadn’t tossed him to the curb. No, God was with him. The rest of the story with Absalom is tragic. There was a chance that it would end well – but – Absalom had to deal with the consequences of his own action. But God delivered David.

These days are confusing and chaotic and folks are losing confidence. But God’s people can continue to be confident in God during the chaos of a crisis – even if it is something of our own making. We can have confidence that God will act because He promised he would. We know that is the case – when we look to Jesus we can see that God really does act in a chaotic world. Look to Psalm 3  – and be confident that God will be with us and keep us and sustain us – even in the midst of chaos.

The Way Things Are

Since the death of George Floyd, people in our communities and our country – and even other parts of the world – have protested, rioted, and posted. University presidents and coaches, pastors and priests, politicians and pundits, teachers and homemakers and stay-at-home dads and all sorts of other folks have sent out statements – trying to urge those given to violence to refrain from it and at the same time acknowledging the tragic and horrid nature surrounding Mr. Floyd’s death. Adding to their collective feelings of the tragic, however, is the absence of surprise.

Perhaps it is out there, but I have yet to hear anyone express any degree of surprise by the way Mr. Floyd’s life was taken, nor have I heard anyone express shock that there have been riots that have ravaged communities across the US. It is unfortunate that people generally aren’t surprised but it is just the way things are and they have been this way for a while. We have a complex problem in this country, and it is taking a toll on us.

Complex problems take time, thought, persistence, and patience to solve. They also require courage and a willingness to act – especially if the solution is challenging and requires something of us. It also requires a willingness to toss out overly simplistic, reductionist solutions. However, humanity, broadly speaking, isn’t all that good at any of those things, which helps to explain – at least partly – why we are where we are.

As a pastor, I am tempted to say, Jesus is the answer. Honestly, I want it to be that simple and I do believe that my faith and that of those who share my faith in Jesus have a role to play – but just saying Jesus is the solution – just tossing that into the mix of things – comes across as one of those simplistic, reductionistic solutions that need tossing out. That may sound counterintuitive, but, sometimes people add their baggage to Jesus or they don’t fully appreciate what it means to look to Christ to bring hope and healing to a complex problem – like what we are experiencing in the US right now. And yet I believe that being a Christian means stepping into the mix of things and there are those who not only understand the complex problem of race and violence and murder – they also know how Jesus speaks into those things and what is needed from His people. One of those people is John Perkins.

I first met John Perkins in Charlottesville, VA – through a book that he wrote jointly with Charles Marsh. It is called Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community (I’ve mentioned it before). Perkins and his wife Vera have worked to teach welcoming justiceand promote the principles of Christian Community development and racial reconciliation for over 56 years. And while Perkins is no stranger to the pulpit or to the demands of ministry, he is also no stranger to the violence of racism, nor to the brutality of some within law enforcement.

In 1947, Perkins’ older brother Clyde, a man who had fought in World War II and earned a Purple Heart, was shot and killed by a police officer in New Hebron, MS after Clyde responded to a derogatory command from the officer. Perkins – at the urging of his family that feared for his life – fled to California and vowed never to return to Mississippi. However, in 1960 – after coming to faith in Christ and being discipled for three years – Perkins, his wife Vera, and their family returned to Mendenhall, MS where they started a church, a day-center, youth programs,
a cooperative farm, thrift store, housing repair ministry, a health center, and an adult education program.

At the same time, Perkins provided leadership and support for civil rights, and voter registration, which lead to harassment, an arrest, and a subsequent brutal beating by law enforcement. The beating was so bad that Perkins nearly died and spent significant time john perkins 2in the hospital recovering. As he lay recovering, Perkins realized that he had a choice. He could either hate or he could live out of the Gospel.

Frankly, I would find it difficult not to hate the men – the people – who did the things to me that they did to Perkins. I think, if we are being honest, most of us would. In fact, someone I love deeply experienced prejudice and racism and I know hurt that caused him. Even as I write this I am having a tough time because I know the folks and I see them from time to time. And so, I can’t imagine how Perkins must have felt or how his family felt at the loss of his brother and after he was beaten and left to die.

And so, I pay close attention to a man who – after experiencing all of that – recognized that racism and bigotry of any sort cut across the intent of the Gospel. In fact, it was out of that understanding that Perkins began to promote the notion that racial reconciliation, as well as the development and re-development of poor communities, is a necessary part of the church’s mission and of discipleship.

Perkins wrote, “But in these latter days of my ministry, God is calling me to help churches see and incorporate reconciliation as an essential part of discipleship. The captivity of the church to our culture has left us so divided. And we think division is natural. We think the traditions we’ve inherited from our forebears are the way things have to be. But Jesus came to drive a wedge in the status quo and create space where new life can happen. ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,’ Jesus said; ‘anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:37-38). The call to reconciliation is a call to commitment—to take up the cross and give ourselves to this community in this place. The world needs a church that does something to interrupt business as usual where we are.”

These are the words of a man who experienced the murder of his brother from law enforcement. These are the words of a man who experienced the blows and beat down on his own body from law enforcement. And this man’s words to the church is that Jesus’ people are the solution to a complex problem. But the solution will require something of us all in order to overcome the way things are.

At A Time Like This We Need Salt

Have you ever said that someone is a salt of the earth sort of person?

It really isn’t a phrase we hear that often anymore – but it has always been a top-tier compliment. For ages, it was used to describe someone as a real-stand up sort of person. The sort of person that could be counted on to do the right thing in a difficult situation;  they didn’t quit or whine; they were reliable, moral, and of strong character. They were people who did what needed to be done and their word was their bond. Salt of the earth sort of folks were solid, stand-up, dependable.

When it was a bit more common in our vernacular, people used salt of the earth to 0_OZpJNGmNWhr2uR1Gdescribe people from all walks of life and all sorts of religious and non-religious backgrounds – but – interestingly enough – salt of the earth was a phrase Jesus used it to describe His people. In Matthew 5:13, Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

I’ve always wondered just how many Christian folks have ever thought of themselves as the salt of the earth. Not many, I imagine – and that’s unfortuante because – given the state of things right now – salt of the earth sort of folks is exactly what is needed.

Think about salt for a moment. Today it is everywhere and so we may not fully appreciate what it meant for Jesus to call his people salt of the earth in the first century. In antiquity, salt was highly valued because of its multiple uses. It was an incredibly important commodity – and it often meant life or death.

First of all, salt was a food preservative. Think about how much we rely on refrigeration. Think about how much we rely on being able to put food in sealed containers. When the whole pandemic started, lots of us rushed to the store – and bought food that we could store so that – just in case – we’d have enough to eat.

We depend on refrigeration and being able to seal our food off from rot and decay. In antiquity, salt was needed to help preserve food from rot and decay. Without salt, people would have had a difficult time preserving food. But salt – in those days – was literally a life saver.

You are the salt of the earth – Jesus said.

Given that we know Jesus is using a metaphor – given that he’s not talking about literal salt – given that part of salt’s function was to protect against rot and decay – what do you think Jesus meant when he said you (as his people) are salt of the earth?

In antiquity, like today, salt was used as an antiseptic as well as a preservative. Even then, people knew that salt has healing qualities and the body needs a certain degree of salt in the right balance. Today hospitals use saline to reduce some types of bacteria, to clean wounds, and to clean out IV catheters. In antiquity, salt was used to treat wounds, stomach issues, skin issues, and a variety of other ills. In fact, in 2 Kings 2:20, Elisha takes some salt and throws it into a polluted spring, and “heals” it – purifies it. We use salt in a similar way with water purification.

In antiquity – in the first century – folks knew that salt was a life saving preservative that fought off rot and decay and they knew that salt had healing qualities.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

In antiquity, salt was highly valuable. In some cultures, it could be used as a form of currency – to some extent. People were sometimes paid in salt. In those days – soldiers and workers were given a salt allowance – which is where some believe we got the saying “that person is worth their salt.”

Salt was highly valued because it was highly useful. It kept away rot and decay. It brought healing. It restored people to health. It was necessary for life. It was valued like gold.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Salt was – and still is – valuable – and important because of all that it does for humanity. Its value is felt in every part of society. Life probably can’t be sustained without some measure of salt. It is important for perserving and protecting from rot and decay. It is important and valuable because it brings healing. It is valued and important because it does so much for humanity.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Again, I wonder how many Christian folks think of themselves as salt of the earth – especially in times like these – when cities are bracing and recovering from protests and riots related to the tragic death of George Floyd – when racial injustices continue to ravage the lives of people – when communities are divided by rhetoric, prejuidice, biogtry, ignorance – I wonder how many Christian folks think of themselves as salt of the earth?

But Jesus said that his people – the church – are the salt of the earth – which means that God’s people are to be about the work of preserving against rot and decay and we are people that bring healing. In fact, our value as God’s people in the world is bound up in our function as salt – at least that’s what Jesus seems to be saying when he compares his people to salt.

What use is salt if it isn’t used? Salt, like coffee, is made to be poured – to be used. It doesn’t do anyone any good to simply be stored away. It is made to function. Its value comes from its proper use. Jesus even gave a warning about salt that isn’t used is really not worth anything at all. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”

Salt is valuable because of how it is intended to be used in the world. It has a role to play – a job to do – and if it isn’t used for the job it was created for – it is obsolete, insignifanct – and people treat it with contempt or see it as utterly useless. One theologian noted, “Blessing is given to believers so that they will be blessings – to the world; salt is made salt in order to be salty in food. We are put on notice that while it is from nothing (gratis) that we have been made salt, it is not for nothing (frusta). We are to live for other people. Christians, we learn here for the first time explicitly, are in danger if they do not live as Christians. This is what is meant by the warning’s sad conclusion, ‘salt is absolutely useless except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.’ Here is deserved persecution. In the world, this ‘persecution’ often takes the form of simple contempt or of complete disinterest” (Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary).

Jesus said to his people – then and now – “You are the salt of the earth.” Jesus’ people are valuable to the world because we are to preserve the world from rot and decay and we are to bring healing to the wounded and weary. And that is exactly what our community needs now. It needs the church to be salt of the earth – to protect our communities from the rot and decay of injustice and racism and wickedness and to bring healing.

May all those who profess the name of Jesus be the Salt that the world needs.

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Keep It Simple

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Like thousands of folks, I have found myself sitting in front of my computer – my eyes bouncing between the faces on the screen and the little green camera light – for zoom-how-use-online-classesZoom meetings more times than I can count. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful. Without that technology, we wouldn’t have been able to connect as often as we have with family, friends, church, work, and whatever else. Of course, I’m ready to get back to the “new normal,” whatever that’s going to look like. In fact, the other evening I was part of a Zoom meeting where we discussed just that – the “new normal” for our in-person worship service (it’ll be June 14 by the way!).

As we talked through the important details for how our time of worship will change, my friend, Gary, reminded us of the acronym KISS. I’m sure you’ve heard of the KISS principle. It stands for Keep It Simple (some might add Stupid but Mom said no name-calling). I’ve read that the phrase was coined by someone in the US Navy responsible for designing equipment that would be operated during combat by someone with only basic training and a few tools. When all hell is breaking loose, when the bombs are falling and bullets zipping past, the last thing that person needs is for the equipment or the system to be overly complex; it could cost lives.

And so, the KISS principle was born; keep it simple – simple enough to operate during the most chaotic times. Avoid overly complicating things. Just keep it simple.

Let me get something out of the way; pastor-types (especially Presbyterian ones like me) can overly complicate things. I suppose that’s true for all sorts of folks – but – I know it is true for folks like me.

Years ago, I was asked to interview two well-known pastors. Both men served large, Presbyterian congregations but in different denominations. They are both good men and I’m not trying to disparage either one. I asked both pastors the same set of questions that had to do with helping people grow spiritually and leading their congregations through change, etc. While I expected different answers, I didn’t expect such a stark difference.

One pastor answered every question with “now Mark it comes down to these three things,” and “if a person follows these five principles, they will be successful.” I greedily wrote down what he said because it sounded good.

Like a lot of people, I like it when someone else just lays out the step-by-step action plan. You know the type of plans I mean? If you will simply do all the steps in A you will most certainly get B (with B being the result you want). In fact, that pastor seemed to be offering a blueprint – a map – for success (which as it turns out that was exactly what he thought he had – and you too can find those principles in his book). I left his office with a lot of notes, a signed copy of his book, and the notion that I had a real jump on things – that was until I met with the second pastor a few days later.

I sat down with the second pastor expecting the same sort of answers that the first pastor had given me. But right from the beginning, the second pastor made something very clear. He had one fundamental principle that stood as the foundation for everything he did as a pastor – indeed as a Christian.

He said, the whole of the Christian life comes down to staying anchored to the center and Jesus is the center. If something doesn’t lead a person (including himself) into a deeper hqdefaultunderstanding of who Jesus is and the sort of person that Jesus wants and needs them (or him) to be – then it isn’t worth doing. With that in mind, he said, the job of the pastor is always to point himself and other people to Jesus – always.

That is the KISS principle -applied to the Christian faith – if I’ve ever seen it. The whole of the Christian life should be anchored to the center and Jesus is the center. If something doesn’t lead a person into a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and the sort of person that Jesus wants and needs us to be then it isn’t worth doing. And, given the sort of chaotic days we are all living, perhaps now is a very good time to put that principle into effect. And, rather than just leave it at that, at the risk of overly complicating things, I think an idea from the 14-15th century may help us to follow the KISS principle.

In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis wrote, “Let our chief endeavor be, to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ…whosoever will fully and with relish understand the words of Christ, must endeavor to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ.” In order to stay anchored to the center – in order to have a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and what sort of person he wants us to be, we probably ought to spend a lot of time meditating on his life. By meditate, I think Kempis meant that we ought to spend a lot of time mulling it over, contemplating it, reflecting on it, talking about the life of Jesus.

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Let our chief endeavor be, to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ…whosoever will fully and with relish understand the words of Christ, must endeavor to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ.”

Of course, meditating on the life of Jesus isn’t going to give us a step-by-step action plan for everything we encounter. What it will do is anchor our lives to His life so that we don’t feel disjointed by when life gets complicated or confusing or when sorrows like sea billows roll. To meditate on the life of Christ a person has only to sit and read through the Gospels – and not all at once – just a section a day – a section that returns to the forefront of our imagination at various times throughout the day.

I’m not trying to reduce the Christian life down to the inane or trite. I do believe that we sometimes overly comlicate our faith. I think Kempis and the pastor I interviewed years ago can help us to keep it simple so that in confusing times, times of trouble, or even in the mundane, we can find ourselves gaining a deeper understanding of who Jesus is rather than flaying about looking for step-by-step instructions.

Meditating on the life of Jesus is, well, a simple act of devotion and I think it can tie a person’s heart and soul and mind to the center and thus help them to have a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and who He wants us to be. Let’s just keep it simple – meditate on the life of Jesus.

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The God Who Shakes Things Up

 For a long time, I thought of the Pharisees and scribes as the villains of the Bible. If you’ve ever spent much time reading the New Testament, you know why. They are always opposing Jesus. They conspire with other folks to have Jesus arrested – beaten – killed. But some years ago, while reading a book by Jerram Barrs (Learning Evangelism learning evangelismfrom Jesus), I was challenged to re-think them – to stop dehumanizing them – to recognize them as human beings rather than some nefarious creatures. That exercise has since changed my perspective and opened up a lot of life lessons.

For instance, in Luke 15, Jesus tells 3 parables. Those parables are told to an interesting audience made up of what seems like two or three groups of folks. They aren’t mentioned – but I’m sure that the disciples are nearby. But then there is a second group – tax collectors and sinners. They are the folks on the fringes of religious society. We might think of those folks as lost – right? I mean – that’s what religious folks usually think of when they think of folks on the fringe of their religious community. In essence, they aren’t what we might consider as church-going folk.

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But there is a third group of folks in the audience – Pharisees and scribes – and I’d like to focus on them for a while because I’ve learned a lot by seeing them as humans and not villains. They are certainly not what we might think of as lost. They are very much part of the religious society. But, as I think of them as human beings – as people who have a strong moral core – I wonder what made them respond to Jesus the way they did. While I don’t have it all worked out, I think it is safe to say that some of the folks reacted to Jesus the same way folks react to change and loss and dealing with the reality of who they are.

Let me see if I can unpack what I mean.

Luke tells us that a crowd gathered around Jesus made up of our aforementioned groups: disciples, tax collectors, sinner, Pharisees, and scribes. The Pharisees and the scribes saw the sort of people that Jesus ate with and they grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

As I’ve said before, I love words and one of my favorite words is the root word for the word grumble. In the Bible, the word for grumble comes from the word γογγύζω (gong-good’-zo). If you say it correctly, it sounds like it means. It means to murmur – to grumble – to complain. The word conveys the low noise that a crowd of folks makes when they are unhappy. Think about a court scene in a movie when the people are displeased with something someone says. That’s the sound of the word – and that’s the noise the Pharisees and Scribes are making when Jesus meets with tax-collectors and sinners. They murmur and grumble and complain.

Now we can quickly run past this and chalk it up to Pharisees and Scribes just being villains or we can stop for a second and ask ourselves why? Why were they grumbling?

Well, part of it has to do with the fact that Pharisees and Scribes kept a safe distance from those they considered “sinners.” It wasn’t like they didn’t understand that they themselves were sinners and in need of God’s grace and mercy. They knew that and acknowledged it and did what they thought was necessary to pursue right living before God. They wanted to make sure that they were as orthodox as possible and they wanted the rest of their society to do that same. So, they got a bit sidewise with people that were on the fringe of their religious community but were still associated with them by race and nationality.

So, it makes sense on one level that they would grumble about Jesus and the folks he’s spending time with. But, I think these Pharisees and Scribes are dealing with something else as well. I think they are dealing with change and loss and coming to terms with a the reality of who Jesus was saying they were – and when people deal with loss and change and coming to terms with themselves – they often grumble (γογγύζω).

I’ve heard people say it a thousand times, “I don’t mind change.” But – as soon as change starts to happen – suddenly they mind it – and very often – they γογγύζω. Why is that? Why is it that folks really don’t like change?

Well, if a few guys out of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School for Government know anything (and I think they do) it has to do with loss. People don’t fear change per se – they fear and hate and loathe the pain from the loss that invariably comes with change.

Think about that for a moment – think about the murmurs and grumblings that have accompanied this pandemic. I’ve grumbled myself. I really wanted to see Thatcher run track this year. I really wanted to have a huge party to celebrate Sherry’s birthday this year. I didn’t want to see my family and friends lose their jobs. I’d rather worship alongside folks on Sunday morning rather than ZOOM; I don’t like this change – but it isn’t the change per se – it’s the loss.

I think that these Pharisees and Scribes didn’t like what was going on with Jesus because all of a sudden – things were changing and they – like you and me – didn’t like it because they were dealing with loss. So they murmured and complained – they grumbled because they didn’t like what was happening and it was showing them and others who they really were.

In every instance with Jesus, the Pharisees and Scribes kept losing power. They were losing position. Their way of thinking was being challenged. Their way of doing things and their way of seeing the world and the people in it were being challenged and they kept coming up short – and they knew it and so did others and they didn’t like it. So they grumbled.

And those guys were very human in how they reacted. I mean – look at who they are reacting to. Luke tells us that tax collectors and sinners were all flocking to see and hear Jesus. And what is Jesus talking about?

He’s talking about God. Jesus is telling tax collectors and sinners about God –people who are by all indicators – lost from a religious perspective. He’s even telling Pharisees and Scribes about God.

But that is what a Pharisee and a Scribe was supposed to do. They were the experts about God. They were the people that folks went to before. They were the ones that kept everyone straight about doctrine and practice and what was the right way to do this or that. But suddenly all of that is changing and they are feeling the loss that comes with change – and so they grumbled.

Their way of doing things – their way of looking at the world and the people in was being challenged – but challenged by whom?

Well – God. Actually, God in the flesh – God in the person of Jesus – the very Son of God.

That is what Christians profess, anyway. We believe that Jesus is the very Son of God – the logos who became flesh and blood and dwelt among us. And so, Jesus – the Christ – the Messiah – the Son of God – is standing in a crowd of people – and in that crowd are tax collectors and sinners and Pharisees and Scribes – and the Pharisees and Scribes are grumbling and murmuring because the tax collectors and sinners are there and Jesus – the Christ the Son of God is eating with them and treating them like people and telling them about how to know God. And in reality, he’s telling the Pharisees and Scribes, too.

In all of that, we have to know that it is God that’s shaking things up for the Pharisees and Scribes. It wasn’t some sort of conspiracy by the tax collectors and sinners. It is God that’s doing this thing and I think that these Pharisees and Scribes are grumbling because they are dealing with loss and change and they are being forced to come to terms with a new reality about themselves and the person responsible for all of that is God in the flesh.

You know what? The idea that God is sovereign and rules over all things and all that comes into our lives isn’t something that was dreamed up by the Reformers in the 16th century. The idea of God’s sovereignty over all things is right there in the Old Testament – it runs from cover to cover in the Bible. The Pharisees and Scribes would have known that – just as much as we know that God is sovereign over all things – and yet they are as human as we are and when they are faced with change and loss and this new reality about themselves – they murmur and grumble – and eventually conspire to work against God himself.

But – if they had been paying attention to the parables that Jesus tells in Luke 15 – they may have truly been able to deal with change and loss and this new reality.

But to be fair, it isn’t just Pharisees that SCribes that are being subjected to the notion of change and loss and the reality of who they are. To be quite honest, the tax collectors and sinners are going to have to deal with the same thing. You see when Jesus enters a person’s life He doesn’t leave them as they were. He changes everything about them. When the Gospel hits its target, tax collectors – like Zacchaeus – are not able to defraud anyone any longer – at least not without being sorely convicted internally. In other words, people that meet Jesus – well – they can’t simply go back to the way things once were. And that can be a real loss – worth it – but a loss nevertheless.

I came to faith in Christ when I was a student at Carson-Newman. Coming to Jesus changed everything for me. Before that, let’s just say I was a bit adventuresome (as my wife says). But after coming to faith in Jesus I no longer did those things – which means I didn’t really hang out with the same crowd any longer. It isn’t that I didn’t like them or want to stay friends – it was just better for me not to be in the environment any longer. See what I mean about change and loss and dealing with this new reality of who I am?

That’s the power of the Gospel – that’s what Jesus does – Jesus brings change and loss and a new reality about who we are as human beings. The Gospel doesn’t leave a person unchanged.

That’s what God does in the lives of His people; He changes them and we all know that change can feel like loss. It can be painful. When God enters a person’s life, He changes the way a person thinks, and lives, and treats others, and thinks of themselves. But sometimes, in order for that change to happen – God has to shake things up.

So, in Luke 15, God is shaking up the world of the Pharisee and the Scribe and they are grumbling because of it. If you’ve ever read this text, have you ever thought about the intended audience of these parables? Granted, everyone heard, but the target audience was the Pharisee and the Scribe – the grumblers – the folks who were really being challenged by God to accept change and loss and the reality of who they were.

Look the Pharisees and Scribes were content in the way they saw the world and the people in it and their place in that world. But God intervened and shook things up and made them come to terms with the fact that God is a God who searches out those who are lost – and there wasn’t a person in that crowd that wasn’t lost – not even the Pharisee and Scribe. But they had to come to terms with the fact that they were lost – because they really didn’t know it.

At the core of these parables in Luke 15, Jesus is telling them about the very character of God – God is a God who searches for the very people that the Pharisee and Scribe had written off. God searches and restores tax collectors and sinners – but he also restores and Pharisees and Scribes, too. God is a God who shakes people up as He seeks and restores that which is lost to Him.

He leaves the 99 to go get the one. He turns the house upside down, to restore the one to Himself. That’s what God does – even today – but to do so – sometimes God shakes things up so that people go through change – even loss – in order to really see themselves the way they need to in order to see God for who He really is. God is the God who seeks and restores lost people – and there isn’t a person on this planet who doesn’t need to be found by God.

God is the God who changes things up and in the process He searches and restores people to himself. He does it all the time. He’s doing that at this very moment. And sometimes – very often – God challenges our perspectives in order to change our lives; he allows us to endure the loss that comes with change so that we can deal with the reality of who we are – and we are people who need Jesus.

Oh, a person might grumble and murmur – but God pushes through that nonsense.

The bottom line is, we are living at a time of change and loss and new perspectives. We are going to experience the loss that comes with this change. We already have to some extent. We really don’t know the full extent of the loss we will experience. But we can rest assured that God is sovereign and He is about changing us through the loss and I believe with all my heart that God is going to lead us through this change; He will be with us as we deal with the loss that comes with the change, and he will restore us more and more as we deal with the new reality of who we are and what we will become.

 

Luke 15:1–10 [1] Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. [2] And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” [3] So he told them this parable: [4] “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? [5] And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. [6] And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ [7] Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. [8] “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? [9] And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ [10] Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (ESV)