Integrity and Wholeness

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on February 1, 2015)

Do you ever look at a word, and stare at it, and then all of a sudden the letters just make no sense any more? It just looks weird and wrong?

Pageant. Pageant did that to me recently. Page ant. An ant that’s a page? Like a medieval knight attendant ant who gets stuff for you? Or origami, like an ant made out of a page from a book? Pay-gent. P-agent. Like an agent who gets paid? Look at it too long, and eventually all meaning just flies out the window.

Honestly, this is the perfect analogy for what seems to be happening to me at the end of the sermon on the mount. The harder I look at Jesus’ words, the weirder it gets and the more confused I am. This can cause problems, say, when you come home on a Friday night and try to talk about your day with your wife, while in the kitchen, say, and everything she might hypothetically say to try and help you out, you might hypothetically argue with Every. Single. Thing. she says.

“Pageant.” “BUT IT COULD BE PAGE-ANT!” “Pageant, a show, a gala, an extravaganza.” “IT COULD BE PAY-GENT!!!”

Hypothetically, this could be symbolic and illustrative.

Rather than give you two weeks in a row of a message that is a blow-by-blow account of my angst-filled search for meaning in the text…I’m taking Elaine’s advice.

After all the wrestling, she said, what do you think? What do you think is the best thing to point us toward from this section?

I think the best preaching…although I usually try to avoid that word…I think speaking at its best puts God’s good news out there and invites us to meet God in it. It’s not so much about giving insight as it is facilitating an encounter; less correcting wrong thinking than inspiring us to walk humbly with our God.

So…through the angst, and aiming toward the good news goal, I think I come down to this:

 All of God’s work, here on earth now and right on to eternal salvation, is a gracious gift of love. The surprise and confusion often found in Jesus’ teaching isn’t there to make us fear and doubt, but to wake us up, to remind us that God’s work IS grace. 

Nothing’s earned. Nothing’s deserved. We aren’t entitled, and presumption has no place. The center of all things is the love of our giving God. A gracious gift of love, freely given. A relationship of trust, a relationship lived in the now and the present.

That’s I’m called to share today. Turn with me to Matthew 7:21-23, and I’ll try and justify how I get there.

‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.’ (TNIV Matthew 7:21-23)

At first glance…and second, and third, and fourth maybe…there isn’t much here that is positive or feels like good news.

Jesus says some will be surprised. Some will be sure they deserve to be in heaven and will be told to go away. Miraculous activities and naming Jesus as Lord will not be the entrance keys that they think they have earned, that demonstrate they deserve heaven.

My first reaction is one of being unsettled. Wait, what I thought was secure is actually just a rug that can be pulled right out from under me? What did these surprised ones do that was so wrong? What did they miss?

The first thing I found that was close to a positive was the contrast presented in verse 21, the difference between “saying” and “doing”. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

There are things there that make sense to me, that resonate. Especially when I was younger, the challenge to walk the talk was inspiring. It still is. Whether I’m talking about following Jesus or doing my job well or being a husband or a dad, I want to be someone whose actions match my words and desires. I want to do and live and be, not just talk.

The words “integrity” and “wholeness” and “consistent” come to mind here. Jesus reminds and challenges that the life to which he is calling us is meant to take over and guide all of who we are, not be a sticker we slap on and call it good.

But I can slip to darker places here. The emphasis on doing, not just talking, can cause me to feel I haven’t done enough, that I’m never enough. I can be nudged toward checking boxes of accomplishments to give me value, or toward comparing my list of do’s to what other people have done. Sometimes that makes me feel smugly superior; other times insecurely inferior.

So I pull back a little bit to the wider context to try and find a way out of those darker places.

Last week was the “Proverbs style” wisdom, the general truth. Good trees bear good fruit; bad trees, bad fruit. People who are good, who are sinking their roots in the right places, who orient their lives around God will find good “fruit” emerging from their lives.

This week could be seen as the exception, the “Job style” wisdom. Verse 22 could be changed to show this connection: “Lord, Lord, did we not [produce really good fruit in your name]?” But then verse 23: “I will tell you plainly: even so, you weren’t a good tree. I never knew you.”

I think one thing to take from our section today is the reality that we sometimes mis-interpret or mis-label what true fruit is. Jesus is often surprising people by taking something that everyone at the time thought of as righteous, as good fruit, and saying we’ve got it wrong.

To the rich young ruler, who seemed to be blessed with wealth as a sign of his righteousness, Jesus said go sell all you have. And he went away sad. To those who had kept themselves pure by not committing adultery, Jesus said if you’ve lusted after someone in your heart you’ve committed adultery.

It seems over and over again, Jesus challenges our perceptions of what “fruit” is, of what God is trying to produce in us. “Fruit” seems to go beyond actions and get to our character, our motivations, our desire, our obedience. I think that’s why Jesus so often teaches through reversal and surprise: Jesus is calling us deeper than simple answers.

But there’s still that nagging thought–the thought that as Jesus is teaching here, what he’s trying to do is pull the rug out from under us.

Is that it? Is the God whom Jesus serves one who would let us think we are doing good things for God and then reject us in the end?

I fight that nagging thought with the beauty of the words we looked at two weeks ago: ask, seek, knock, and enter. Our Father in heaven gives good gifts to those who ask him! When I read that, it seems I must be wrong to see God as the one pulling the rug out from under me. So I go back, and I read the entire sermon on the mount again, asking God to help me not miss the forest for the trees.

Would you let me give my personal condensed version of the sermon on the mount?

If you like, you can turn back to chapter 5 and skim along as I speak it, testing out my words and interpretation with what you see there. You can decide if I’m getting the sense of it or not. But it was in doing this work that I was able to find the good news in our passage today near the end of the sermon on the mount.

So here we go.

Chapter 5

You poor ones, you lacking ones, you meek ones, you ones full of need and grief: you are blessed. You will be blessed! Blessing comes when you go “all in” with me, even if others attack you for it. When you go “all in” with me, you flavor the world. You light it up. A better way to say it is, you are the channel through which my flavor and my light get expressed in the world. I am the fruit that will come out of you, when you dig your roots into me.

I’m not throwing out all the rules and actions and instructions God gave earlier. In fact I’m calling you beyond the letter of the law to a higher standard of mercy and love. It’s a difficult call I am placing on you, one which will require sacrifice from you. But I’m going to offer the biggest sacrifice. I am going to out-give you, out-love you, out-grace you, out-forgive you. I’m setting the example and the standard and I’m inviting you not to just get by, not to just be better than other people, not to find a passing grade on the commandments. I’m asking you to be as giving and loving and forgiving as your heavenly Father is.

Chapter 6

But don’t do this stuff to impress others. Don’t try to impress me or God’s people with your resume of spiritual activities. Trust that God sees what you do and loves you– even if no one else notices. Talk to God. And when you do, put God in the rightful place; worship God, honor God’s name.

Ask for and learn daily dependence. Ask for and remember that God gives you what you need each day. Ask for the forgiveness God wants to give, and don’t hoard it for yourself…forgive others, too.

If you do all this stuff to get attention, or to prove yourself to me and to the world, it’s futile. All those good deeds on display will rust and get moth-eaten. But when you walk with me, set your attention on me, develop a life of dependence on me…that’s the lasting treasure.

There’s such anxiety when you pursue other things than me, other things which in reality rust and get ruined. Pursue me. Seek me. Know me. Learn from me. Receive from me all the gifts I want to give you. This is the key!

Chapter 7

If you’re trying to please other people or trying to criticize what they aren’t getting right, your judgment of others is keeping you from knowing me and receiving from me. Just come to me! Ask, seek, knock. I love to give! You don’t have to earn it. If you presume you’ve already got it…if you’re sure you’ve achieved and have done it all…well, you certainly won’t ask ME for help. I wish you would put down your credentials and just come to me, know me. Ask, seek, knock and enter.

I’m sad to say there are so many pursuits, so many doors, so many things that can keep you from knowing me and walking with me. There are even people who will try to keep you from me. Watch what comes out of them. Watch what comes out of the people who follow them, and see if it looks giving, loving, and forgiving like me. If not, don’t be fooled. It won’t last and grow.

In fact, there are people who will say all the right things and even do some amazing things, and they will be so confident and presumptuous that they deserve good treatment from God because of it. Please don’t fall into that trap! Remember how I taught you to pray: cultivate a daily dependence on our giving God. Not on your actions.

Cultivate a daily dependence on our giving God. Dependence isn’t presumptuous. It isn’t all talk and no follow through. Dependence is trust. It’s knowing and being known by God.

Does that ring true with you?

That’s how I got to today’s good news. Jesus is trying to wake us up and remind us of what he’s been saying all along.

All of God’s work, here on earth now and right on to eternal salvation, is a gracious gift of love. The surprise and confusion often found in Jesus’ teaching isn’t there to make us fear and doubt, but to wake us up, to remind us that God’s work IS grace. 

Nothing’s earned. Nothing’s deserved. We aren’t entitled, and presumption has no place. The center of all things is the love of our giving God. A gracious gift of love, freely given. A relationship of trust, a relationship lived in the now and the present.

In our time of open worship, we have the chance to examine ourselves in light of what Jesus has taught.

Does my life show integrity and consistency? Does how I’m walking match how I’m talking?

Are there ways I am presuming and assuming my obedience and my actions have qualified me for eternity? Has trust in my lifestyle replaced daily dependence on God’s giving nature?

Are there ways Jesus is calling me to know him, to walk with him, to be with him?

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