Freedom to Be Real | Bob Reid

Freedom to Be Real | Matthew 5:21-37 | Bob Reid

Last week our reading ended with these remarkable words of Jesus: unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you won’t enter the kingdom of heaven. On the face of it , this seems like NOT very good news. The scribes and the Pharisees were the experts at keeping the law. They had a place in the social, political, and religious hierarchy that gave them authority in matters related to the keeping of the law.  They were seen as moral heavyweights in the community. If what Jesus means is that I have to go the religious leadership ONE better, then don't sign me up. 

But what if exceeds their righteousness actually means a new approach, a fresh approach to understanding what God wants from people regarding righteousness? 

In the homily Bob talked about the way in which Jesus approaches the Law in a radically different way than did the Scribes and Pharisees. In Matthew 5:21 and the verses that follow, Jesus presents a picture of our relationship to the Law that is at once more radical and more life-giving than the Scribes and Pharisees. 

 

In one important sense, this portion of the Sermon on the Mount can be seen as Jesus’ taking the power away from the Scribes and Pharisees - the power to interpret what counts for righteousness before God And he does it by talking about the Law in a much more radical way than the Scribes and the Pharisees did. When Jesus says "you have heard it said but I say to you" he is saying you have heard it said that righteousness consists in checking the boxes the Scribes and Pharisees check. After they check them they sit down in satisfaction that they are righteous and then they judge those who have not conformed as they have and they call them sinners. Such an approach to keeping the Law is superficial and breeds hypocrisy. Quick aside: Jesus never confronts the Scribes and the Pharisees for doing their job per se but for hypocrisy- for being obsessed with limiting their liability; by being obsessed with outward conformity and not caring about inward realities; by taking an approach to God’s Law that would enable self-righteousness and close the heart to the messiness of loving others as God has loved us. What Jesus does here is to take the way that the Law was interpreted by the religious leaders of his day and suggest that their approach left people imagining that God wanted people to be good and religious and good at being religious. Life is messier and better than that: the Law actually exposes our hearts as roiling and divided, incapable of loving others as God has loved us. What is behind Jesus’ teaching here is the truth that the Law is meant to point beyond itself to the need for a heart that is transformed by God’s love. Jesus' focus on the radical nature of sinfulness here is not meant to make people feel bad because their hearts are crooked and their motives are impure. Rather, he is simply describing how things really are, a reality that people who are good and religious and good at being religious tend to whitewash over. You can manage a certain kind of outward conformity and pass yourself off as a good person but holiness is about being changed by God’s mercy in the depths of our hearts. A righteous relationship to the law is about dealing with things at the radix, or root - Jesus is radical like that. Jesus implies that if you want to explore what righteousness looks like,  quit playing religious games and making other people feel bad about themselves by making it seem that what God wants is for people to be religiously accomplished and outwardly good. 

When Rowan Williams talks about holiness in his excellent little book called Being Disciples he borrows a phrase from an Evelyn Waugh novel where one character says of another: “she was saintly but she wasn’t a saint”.... Williams goes on: the character in question was strict, devout and intense, but the effect that she has on those around her was to make them feel guilty, frustrated and unhappy. In contrast, holy people, those who are saints rather than saintly,  actually make you feel better than you are.  

The pursuit of goodness can be experienced as if you are taking part in a competitive examination in which some people are scoring very well, others are on the borderline, and some are sinking below the line. But the holy person somehow enlarges your world, makes you feel more yourself, opens you up, affirms you. THey are not in competition; they are not saying I have something you haven’t… When I think of the people in my own life that I call holy, who have really made an impact, it’s this that comes across most deeply in them all. These people have made me feel better rather than worse about myself Or rather, not quite that: these are never people who make me feel complacent about myself, far from it; they make me feel that there is hope for my confused and compromised humanity. God is big enough to deal with and work with actual compromised and imperfect people.” 

The supremely holy person is Jesus who makes us feel that no matter how crooked our hearts are that there is hope and there is hope because the law points beyond itself to Jesus who meets us in our mess and says to us that that is exactly where righteousness happens. Righteousness happens when we come to the end of our capacity to be good and give up trying. Then we get about the business of being made new. 

Prayers of the People

We pray for our consistory, pastors and staff of Grace Chicago.  We thank you for the calling you have provided to each of them and the ways you are using them to carry out your mission here in the city and beyond. 

God and Father of the poor, the oppressed, the refugee, and the alien, who inspired these words to be written in our Old Testament, “So you too should love the resident alien, for that is what you were in the land of Egypt”: we invoke the power of the Holy Spirit who inspired those words of Scripture, and the name of Jesus, who descended from a displaced people and was murdered by the state; we ask in Jesus’ name for your Spirit to incline our hearts and the heart of our country towards the needs of refugees. We pray that our nation’s policy towards refugees will always heed the words of Jesus, if you have done it to least of these…. you have done it to me. 

We continue to pray for those who continue to grieve the loss of loved ones.  May you provide comfort and peace to those who grieve and may your love be more evident to them in this difficult time.  

We pray for Nettelhorst School and all Chicago schools.  May you continue to use these institutions to provide an atmosphere that inspires children.  We ask that our systems of government can work together to support, improve and fund the educational needs of all our children. 

Lord in your mercy...Hear our prayer  

 

Salt and Light | Bob Reid

 Matthew 5:13-20 | Salt and Light

 

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in Heaven.” –Jesus

What is the nature of Christian witness? What should Christianity’s witness look like? The images that Jesus uses in Matthew (city on a hill, light in the darkness) have inspired some bizarre applications. The United States has, throughout its history, borrowed the language of Jesus as a rallying cry. Churches have applied Jesus’ words in myriad ways, sometimes in self-sacrificial ways, at other times, in order to justify violent hegemony.

On Sunday, Bob preached a sermon about the nature of the church’s witness. Here are three points I found most significant:

1.     Not you, but y’all.  Bob made the point that Jesus is talking to the church. In other words, Jesus’ audience is not a group of people who are unfamiliar with each other and who will therefore have to go off and apply these truths on their own. Jesus is talking to the community who is following him. He is telling them what their community must look like. Jesus is creating a new community. In his life, death, and resurrection, he redefines what it means to be the people of God. Here, he is telling that community what they will look like. This statement about salt and light isn’t for the context of a you-God relationship. It is for a community of faith wrapped up in the life of Jesus.

2.     Not imperative, but Indicative. Strangely enough, Jesus doesn’t say, “You should be like salt. Or, you should be a light. Or, you should be a city on a hill.” He says that it is simply a matter of fact that the community who follows Jesus IS salt, light, and a city on a hill. We should not deceive ourselves, thinking that we have a choice in whether or not we are light or salt. Being the church necessarily implies that we are witnesses. What there seems to be some variance in is to what extent we point people to God’s love for the world rather than to our own glory.

3.     Following Jesus Visibly. Bob closed his sermon referencing Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is a German theologian who was killed during WWII for being a part of a resistance movement against Hitler. Bonhoeffer had a rich understanding of what the community of faith ought to look like. Being a city on a hill took on significant meaning for German Christians during WWII. He insisted that the church be a visible sign of God’s coming kingdom. Bob mentioned Grace Chicago’s partnership with Breakthrough Urban Ministries as an example of how we practically and visibly seek to live out the gospel.

As the church, we are called to “live in a way that draws all to God’s love for the world.” We do that as we embody God’s love in our own community and as we engage our city in ways that point back to God’s love.

Prayers of the People

We pray for those who have lost family members recently. Many in our community are mourning losses. We pray that you would pour out your Holy Spirit upon them that they may know your presence in this difficult time.

Our prayers go out to the family of a youth who was killed over the weekend to the violence that continues to plague our city. The young man was from the southside and was a former farm worker at the Gary Comer Youth Center. We pray that city leaders can continue weaken the gangs in our communities and that both state and federal leaders can work together in a manner that truly seeks the best for all people in our community.  May we all seek your wisdom to how we can be a part of your vision in this time.

We pray for Andrew, Amy and Irene Fields in Columbia.  We pray for Andrew as he teaches and takes on some new responsibilities.  We pray especially for the students in his class, many of whom are new and adjusting to seminary life. We also want to lift up to you Amy as she has been in poor health since they returned to Columbia.  We thank you for her continued improvement and ask that she can return to full health soon.

Lord in your mercy....Hear our prayer

 

 

 

 

Fishing For People | Pastor Bob Reid

Matthew 4:17-20

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, they left their nets and followed him.”

As a child, I found the idea of “fishing for men” odd. In Sunday School we sang the song, “I will make you fishers of men…if you follow me.” That never sounded like an enticing proposition. If I follow Jesus, I will get to fish for people?I will get to cast out nets in order to catch as many people as I could? No thanks. As a child, the idea of fishing for people was unappealing. It hasn’t grown in appeal over time.

The church’s interpretation of Jesus’ proposal to Simon and Andrew to make them fishers of people has taken on some dangerous forms in the church’s history. I've seen evangelism tracts that 'fish for people' by expounding upon the terror of what might happen if you don't jump into Jesus' net of salvation. Entire centuries have been dominated by Christian crusades that seek to convert through violence and manipulation.  Subtler versions of guilt and coercion can be found in Christian churches all over the world, justified by the command to fish for people. 

On Sunday, Pastor Bob reframed Jesus' command. What is Jesus truly inviting Simon and Andrew to be a part of? What is at the heart of Jesus’ missional longing to fish for people? Bob suggested that what Jesus is interested in is flourishing joy for his disciples and for the world.  Jesus teaches his disciples “the true value of a human life.” The ministry of Christ and his disciples is not characterized by aggressive evangelism or coercion. It is characterized by Jesus’ great love for each person he comes in contact with.

Joy, Bob suggested, was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. Christ came that human beings might have life, and life to the full. The joy of the flourishing life is at the core of what Jesus and his disciples are about. 

Two weeks ago, Miroslav Volf preached on two infinities that keep us from true joy. On Sunday, Bob talked about two nihilisms that we must avoid in order to experience true joy.

Nihilism is simply extreme rejection. The first rejection, or nihilism, that Bob mentioned is the rejection of this world for an eternal and spiritual world. American Christianity has offered a brand of this nihilism. People with this posture view the world as a sinking ship. The world is going to “Hell in a hand basket.” The Christian's task is to save as many souls as one can before the ship goes down. Jesus is the life jacket of salvation that keeps us floating.

The second nihilism is a complete rejection of God or meaning. The earth and all that is in it has no purpose beyond the sensations of pain or pleasure. This nihilism leads to complete self-absorption. Since there is no purpose beyond my own experience, I should eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I will die. This nihilism leaves victims in the wake of its selfishness. It leads to restlessness and anxiety that can be masked for a moment but can never be quenched apart from God.

Jesus offers us truth and life in between these two worlds. At the heart of Jesus' ministry and his desire to "fish for men" is a longing for human beings to experience true joy in the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants us to be fully human, living profoundly in this present world, seeking its shalom, while also resting in the reality that God holds all things in his hands. Jesus will make his disciples followers who experience true joy, and who point others towards the same joy that can only be found in Christ. 

Prayers of the People

We continue to lift up to you our nation in this time.  As we enter a time of transition and uncertainty we ask that your people would continue to lift up prayers for those in power.  We thank you for our nation of freedoms and pray you would continue to raise up leaders who desire your wisdom, grace and power to be the true guider of our people.  

Gracious God, we lift up to you those who are searching for employment.  May you open doors to new and promising opportunities.  Give wisdom to the search so that each finds fulfillment in the opportunities the job provides.  

Lord in your mercy....Hear our prayer

Miroslav Volf Guest Preaching

*Audio of Volf's homily from Sunday is available here

Grace Chicago was honored to host Dr. Miroslav Volf this Sunday. Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale, is regarded as one of the most important political theologians in the world today. Few theologians or authors have influenced Grace's mission and vision as profoundly as Dr. Volf. In Pastor Bob's introduction, he specifically referenced the role of Soft Difference, an article Volf authored about how the church ought to exist alongside of culture. If you're interested in hearing more from Volf, we recommend the article mentioned above, his classic work Exclusion and Embrace, or the interview below with Krista Tippett.   

Homily Recap |  Luke 10:25-28 | Written by Caleb Schut

Volf began his homily by quoting Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Look at the birds." Human beings are not much like chirping contented birds. We are, Volf suggested, more like scurrying rats or marching ants. The culture that we live in rewards scurrying and marching. It does not reward the rejoicing contentment of chirping birds. The world that we live in warps our habits and even our desires in such a way that experiencing joy is quite difficult. "Joy crowns a life lived well," Volf suggested. It stands beside righteousness and peace as foundational qualities of the Kingdom of God (Romans 14:17). 

Living the good life (a flourishing life) has everything to do with right action (righteousness), the right circumstances (peace/shalom; Volf pointed out that God is a circumstance. Being love by God unconditionally is the most important circumstance), and joy (inner satisfaction). While there are feel-good pills, there are no feel-joy peels because feeling good and experiencing joy are two very different things. "I can just feel good, period," Volf said, "but I can never just rejoice, period. You always rejoice or experience joy over something." Experiencing joy is related to, and in some ways dependent upon peace (circumstance) and righteousness (acting rightly). But, as Volf sees it, there are two major inhibitors to joy. Volf described them as two bad infinities. 

The first bad infinity is the infinity of desire. Human beings are insatiable. John Rockefeller's famous quote comes to mind. When asked how much money is enough, he responded, "just a little bit more." The story of Adam and Eve not being satisfied with their lot in the garden is another example of how discontent is, perhaps, in our nature. Volf suggested, though, that modern markets also stoke the fire of insatiability. "The more cake you eat today, the more you will want tomorrow," Volf said. Markets do not simply respond to needs and wants, they create them. The market cripples contentment.  This infinity of desire makes joy impossible. We are never content with what we have or how much we have, and we are therefore unable to rejoice at the gifts we have received. We constantly long for more and better. We even ordain this desire and admire it in people.

The second bad infinity is the infinity of responsibility. We live in an intensely competitive world in which we sense a moral responsibility to do more and to be more. We view it as a sin to be doing as little as we are or to be content with amount of good that we are doing. We feel guilty about not doing enough. On the rare day that we don't experience this guilt, we feel guilty about not feeling guilty! We are unable to experience joy because of the pressing moral responsibility of doing more. We cannot find any rest or delight in the idea that what we have done is enough, or in the truer reality, that we are not God and cannot save the world. This insatiable guilt of responsibility "bleaches the color out of life" and "shrivels the muscles of joy." 

The infinities of desire and responsibility keep us from experiencing contentment and joy. The deception that we never have enough nor do we ever do enough constricts our ability to rest and rejoice. Volf commended the practice of Sabbath as a beacon leading towards true joy. However, Sabbath is not primarily rest from work. It is more fundamentally a rest from striving. It is a break from the endless striving that keeps us from experiencing true joy. We live in a world of scurrying and marching, but joy will come from looking at the birds of the air and learning to be a bit more like them. 

Prayers of the People

We pray this week for our country as we have a presidential transition.  We pray for our president elect, his family and for all those who will be seated in leadership around him.  We pray that God would soften hearts and allow grace, mercy and wisdom to seep in at every possible opportunity. We also pray for many who experience fear in this uncertain time.  May you take the burden of our fears, the uncertainty of our hopes and the anxiety about our future into your hands. 

Lord Jesus, we pray for protection to those who have fled their homes because of violence or unrest in their communities. Give them strength on their journey and we ask that they may find places of compassion at which to rest.  Ease their fears as they have thrown their lot with strangers.  And keep alive the vision of having a secure and welcoming home. 

Open our eyes Lord to the world around us.  Show us what we should see but from which we hide our eyes.  Open our eyes to to the shape of our kingdom.  Show us what life should be if only we could see in wisdom.  Open our eyes to the people around us.  Show us what we should see, but we fail to notice. 

Lord in mercy......Hear our prayer

Service Recap; December 25

Homily Recap| Luke 2:1-20

This year, the meaning of Christmas has been clarified for me by people who have no chance of winning Caesar’s game. Who, no matter who gets elected, will have a very slim shot. The meaning of Christmas has been shown to me by 2nd Graders at Breakthrough who taught me how to do the Juju on that Beat dance.

It was shown to me by an elderly man at the Green Tomato Café during our Christmas party who came up to me near the iced tea, and said, “How’d I get it so good this side of Heaven?” I paused and looked at the man. I studied him to see if he was being sarcastic or not. This man was poor. His Christmas party was on the 11th of December at the Green Tomato Café. And while I was darn proud of the Christmas party we threw that day, I couldn’t believe that he would be so thankful for his lot, this side of Heaven.  “Thank you,” he said looking me right in the eyes. I don’t remember what I said back, but I wiped tears out of the corners of my eyes as he walked back to his seat at the table with the Christmas wrapping paper runners.

At Christmas God, does not enter on a stallion to win the game of Caesar, even though I really wish he would. No, at Christmas the transcendent breaks into the imminent, the divine breaks into the mundane. God speaks his most authoritative Word in a tiny child.  In an act, in the specific act of a woman giving birth, God rejects the game of power and control that dominates our understanding of how the world works.  In Christ, God reveals to us the true order of the cosmos: The first shall be last. Blessed are the poor. It is better to give than to receive. Pray for your enemies.

“Oh, give to Caesar what is Caesars,” Jesus says. “His image is on the currency, whatever, give it to him. I don’t care. I’m not in the game of sending mortars into the walls of Herodium or RPGs into the streets of Rome, I could call down 10,000 angels if I wanted, but I’m not in that game. I came to serve. To wash feet. Don’t you get it? If you want to save your life, you have to lose it. Trust me…I know it’s hard to believe. It might be the hardest thing to believe, but Herod, Caesar, they’ve got it backwards, and I’m here to tell you: Do not gain the whole world and forfeit your soul. Don’t be afraid. Trust me.”

I was asked to write a reflection on what Christmas means for a blog. I thought I’d end today with a bit from it.

Christmas means that the wind has picked up and the streets are cold. Melissa, a woman I often see asking for money on Michigan Avenue, is more desperate than usual. She is responsible for 8 kids who often sleep outside. Melissa is earnest. She goes up to people one by one, asking them, “could you please help me?” She doesn’t have a sign like others who ask for money in Chicago. I have stopped to help Melissa twice. The first time, I made a point to remember her name. The second time she approached me, I responded, “Melissa, how are you?” 

“Bad,” she said.

I hoped that my using her first name would surprise her; catch her off guard; mean the world to her. She hoped it meant I would help her find lodging for the night. I bought her sandwich fixings at Walgreens, three bottles of Dr. Pepper, and one can of Fancy Feast for a kitten that her children have taken to caring for. I avoid walking down Michigan Avenue at night now, unless I’m willing to run into her.

Christmas means that the man who does taekwondo on the corner of State and Van Buren is no longer shirtless. He is there every day in the summer slowly moving from pose to pose, breathing deeply. When I first saw him, I thought he had lost his marbles. I passed by him on the other side of the street. In December he is there less often, but I still see him every now and then, and I wonder what would happen if I joined him.

The Advent of Christmas coincides with the advent of wind and cold. Christmas brings its harsh climate and December’s deadlines. Deals to get done, papers to write, three kids to manage, three Christmas parties that you’d rather not attend, and two you wish you could look forward to.

Loss is churned fresh at Christmas, too. It stirs up pain like grounds that had settled at the bottom of a cup of french-pressed coffee. The job that didn’t work out is felt keenly in the lack of presents under the tree. Dad’s empty chair at the dinner table is gaping, and almost too much to handle.

Before Christmas is joy and peace and love and hope, it is cold. It is Chicago-in-December cold. And who can bear it?

Before Christmas is anything like silent nights, calm or bright, it is busy, chaotic, shortened days. Its characters are neither meek nor mild, and thank God, too! The unkempt vagabond shepherds, the blood thirsty Herod, the insatiable Caesar, the tired Mary and confounded Joseph. These are the characters of Christmas.

The shirtless man doing taekwondo, the child staring blankly across the table at dad’s empty chair, parents celebrating a baby’s first Christmas, the couple who cannot get pregnant, and Melissa moving earnestly from one person to the next. These are the characters of Christmas.

In Christ, God meets all of it at the front door. Holding the door back with one arm he waves us in with the other. “Come in! Come in!” he shouts. The whole mess of humanity-the shirtless, the begging, the grieved, the rejoicing, the one who has lost her marbles, and the one who has yet to-all of it comes trapesing through the door. We are welcomed to the manger, unedited like the shepherds, by the same refrain that the angels proclaimed so long ago, “Do not be afraid! Good news!”

The first snow has come and gone, here in Chicago. The cold has set in. On a walk home, I come to the place where I must decide whether to take the direct route home on Dearborn or stay on Michigan Avenue. It is bustling with shoppers, people out on the town, locals who cannot refuse the beauty of The Bean covered in snow, and somewhere in the crowd Melissa is there, too. Christmas means that although it is not easy, I throw my lot in with her, and take the long way home. 

At Christmas, God changes the game. The Word becomes flesh, but not a strong, hard, callous flesh. A soft infant. God throws in his lot with us. Christ is with us and for us, and we can cease our striving.

The soul feels its worth

The weary world rejoices.

Christ is born.

Hallelujah.

 

Prayers of the People

God of life, we thank you this day for the gift of light who came into the world.  We long expected this child to come and be to us a savior.  Breathe new life into us. May we reflect Jesus light into the world and may others come to know Jesus' love through our life and actions. 

We give you thanks for the children you have brought into our church. Lord, give us as a church the grace, love and wisdom to nurture them in your love and teach them in the wisdom and knowledge of Jesus Christ.  We pray that each of them may grow into the full stature of Jesus Christ, being conduits of your love into your world. We thank you for all those who volunteer in our Grace Kids ministry.  please bless them in and through their work.

We pray for the community of Nettlehorst School.  We thank you that this place is a place of learning during the week and a place for worship for us each weekend.  We pray that you would continue to provide wonderful teachers and administration who would continue to seek the best for all of its students under their care.

We pray for those who grieve this time of year as it is a reminder of those who they just recently lost.  As many face this season for the first time without their loved ones by their side, we ask for encouragement and hope. May peace and comfort rest upon them in these days.

Lord in your mercy...Hear our prayer