[Manuscript of sermon preached 11-21-21 at New Song Church]
“You have heard it said…but I say to you…”
We just completed our walk through the beatitudes. Blessed are the… Blessed are you.
Now Jesus shifts in his Sermon on the Mount, as we call it.
He has a series of points he makes and he uses this structure repeatedly: “You have heard it said”—something out of the law—“But I say to you” a new reading or interpretation of that law.
When people say, “being a Christian is like the easy way out,” I’m always thinking “Not the Jesus part. If you decide to be a quote ‘Christian’ without the Jesus part, then sure, you can make it pretty easy, quite self-centered, health and wealth, kind of whatever you want. Choose your own adventure. But if you take Jesus at his word, it changes everything. It should change everything.”
A popular word in many circles right now is “deconstruction.” As usual, a bunch of people don’t know what it is but know that it’s really bad and will quickly tell you so.
You know me, I never want to be controversial, so let’s not use the D word. Let’s say “unlearning.”
Where I grew up, in a small town in Illinois, pedestrians waited for cars to pass. Always. The only exception was going to school where the crossing guards would walk out with their flags and force cars to stop. We all know that’s legit. But I don’t remember once–anywhere else in my 18 years of growing up there–that I came to a crosswalk where cars stopped for me. There just weren’t that many cars. And you didn’t worry so much about crossing at the crosswalk, because at most you had two or three cars to wait for, then you crossed wherever you wanted. No, we didn’t have a stoplight. Not one.
Now, imagine if you will, that I internalized the lessons from my childhood—as we all do—and concluded that pedestrians have no right of way. If a pedestrian steps out into the road, it’s going above and beyond to stop for them instead of run them over. Like, that’s a real act of mercy that they don’t deserve, because pedestrians are supposed to wait for cars. Period.
That makes sense, right? That’s what I learned.
Is it true? Why not?
Where I grew up, I heard Blacks called the N-word, casually, in conversation, in jokes. We had no Black people living in town. When I was a junior and senior in high school we had one Black teacher who was also a coach, but he didn’t live in our town. And I heard his players refer to him, behind his back, with that same word.
Certainly many people in my town were not racist and I hope those who were have unlearned and relearned since then, as I have. I love my small town and that was not the only thing I learned about Blacks and race relations and the N-word. But let’s say it was. Let’s say I left my hometown to go out into the wide world with this knowledge of pedestrians and Black people.
Now let’s say that, sometime in my adult years, God willing, I’m confronted with the truth that my ideas are wrong. What do I do?
Do I seek out a group of people who will reinforce what I learned and help me to hunker down and not change? Do I insist that people trying to change me are trying to ruin me and my country? Do I find buzzwords that might serve as dog whistles to upset those, like me, who don’t want to change?
Or, God willing, Jesus hear our prayers, do I realize that “I have heard it said these things, but God says to me: don’t run over pedestrians and don’t call anyone the N-word. Ever.”
Before you decide that my examples are a little too obvious, how many of you have seen this picture [child in KKK hat] or something similar? How many people saw the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson and remember the scene in which the father and son go to the Dodgers’ game together and the father starts calling Jackie Robinson the N-word, so his son first watches his father, then joins in? In pictures of Ruby Bridges entering the previously all-white school, you see young and old people screaming at her, spitting on her, holding signs up saying how wrong this is.
What happened to that kid in the KKK hat? What happened to the child who learned from his dad to scream the N-word at a baseball player? What do the people who protested Ruby Bridges attending a “white” school believe now?
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48
We’ve talked before about enemies, and concluded that it’s much easier to pretend we don’t have any enemies than to try to love the ones we legitimately have. So this is the point in the sermon where I always remind you that when I preach, I’m just here to make the mess, not to clean it up.
Jesus confronts people who have learned what sounds very reasonable: I need to love my neighbors because they live next to me and we’re interdependent, much more so in 1st century Israel than we are today. Love your neighbor is a good, biblical teaching. Then go ahead and hate your enemy, which is absolutely reasonable, right?
But as you see when Jesus is teaching, there’s a desire in others to limit, to narrow this command. “And who is my neighbor,” asks the lawyer, hoping for a good, lively debate that will help chop that requirement down to size. But what does Jesus do? He tells this parable about a Samaritan, the absolute despised enemy of the Jewish people, and it’s not a parable about a Jew loving an enemy Samaritan but about a Samaritan enemy loving an injured Jewish man—and then Jesus says, “Okay, like that, that’s how you love your neighbor; go and do likewise.”
Unlearning is recognizing and admitting to ourselves, “I have heard it said…” and I have believed it. That’s the belief I’ve carried up until now, and I’ve figured out a way to integrate or reconcile this with my other beliefs about following Jesus—or maybe I just compartmentalize them, so they never have to bump into each other and force me to recognize my own inconsistency or hypocrisy.
Unlearning is biblical. It’s possible there is nothing more biblical than unlearning, because recognizing our need for grace always involves recognizing what in us needs to change—what we have to unlearn so that we can learn Jesus’ truth in its place.
Now I’m going to get offensive. Every time I preach at New Song I think, “Maybe this’ll be the last time, after I say these things,” but here I am, still being asked to preach. Another theme of mine is to try not offend you with me but only offend you with Jesus. Put better, if you’re going to get offended, I want Jesus to offend you with what he says and does, not Mike. I know I have dozens of ways I might offend you, but then you can just write me off. If Jesus offends you, I hope you can’t just write him off as easily. I hope you won’t.
We have learned wrong things about following Jesus. All of us. All of us because we live in the United States. All of us because we’re human and we’ve been in churches where—sorry—sinful, broken people have taught us about God. The offensive part is when I start making the list of what wrong things we’ve learned.
I’m not going to do that.
You know why? Because I’m right—sinful, broken people have taught you about God, and I’m just another one of those. Perhaps the only difference is I’m sometimes a bit more upfront about how sinful and broken I am, which generally serves to freak people out a little.
Nope, here is where New Song church is today—and I gotta tell you, I love New Song! I love our church! I love that, though we’re small and in this huge transition, I never, ever feel embarrassed or cringy about our church or wish I hadn’t brought a guest here on a given Sunday. I mean, yes, Pastor Tim’s jokes are pretty bad sometimes, but other than that. And his taste in baseball teams. But other than that, this is a wonderful, miraculous church, not because we do everything right, but because we’re willing to see the things we’ve done wrong and change them! That’s why I’m still here. Well, that and I love you people! That’s why I keep trying to bring other people I love here.
Okay, we’re almost to discussion time.
I was at a pastors’ group with Tim and three other pastors whom I will not name. This was about…sixteen or seventeen years ago, back when I was sort of a pastor at Wenatchee Fellowship. We were on a pastors’ retreat together, the five or six of us. I remember this all very clearly. 😉 So we were done with our structured time and just sitting talking, and I asked, “What if we’re wrong about the whole homosexuality issue?” If I recall correctly, they each took turns reassuring me that we weren’t.
But we were. I was wrong about that. It took me many more years to face, acknowledge, and integrate that unlearning and relearning. Jesus doesn’t love people who are homosexual “if” or “when,” or “as long as,” or unless they.” You know why? Because Jesus doesn’t love any of us that way! Jesus loves us right now, as we are. Period. I had been taught that God did not love gays and lesbians and transgender people the same as he loved us straight, cis people. I mean, God loved them and wanted them to repent of being who they are. That’s different than how I believed God loved me and Kim.
“Okay, that’s fine, Mike, but what about sex? What about if they’re promiscuous? God can’t be okay with that? What about…”
Ready for this? God doesn’t put me in charge of other people’s decisions about having sex. I know, right? Brain exploding now. That isn’t what Jesus assigns me in loving my neighbor. But the crazy part is, we’ve been taught so strongly that that is our job—or at least judging them for it if they don’t do it right (the way we believe they should)–that unlearning this is taking me years.
You’ve probably heard me say this before, but Jesus never, ever, ever tells me explicitly in the Gospels how I’m to judge or look down on homosexuals; Jesus does, however, say a ton about how we use our wealth, how greed and love of money and putting money over other people can literally cause us to hate God. Offensive? Sure. But Jesus’ own words.
What kind of church teaches little to nothing about money and possessions and loving those with less than we have when Jesus can’t stop talking about these, but instead teaches all the time about the “sin of homosexuality” when Jesus never mentions it?
A church that needs to unlearn. And relearn. That’s my answer.
I’m not going to make this sermon ridiculously long, but in case you don’t believe me—or just want to verify what I’m saying from Scripture—read the Gospel of Luke and keep a little hashmark chart, how many times Jesus mentions wealth and possessions versus how many times Jesus mentions homosexuality—or even sexuality in general. Spoiler alert: there will be a few more in this former column than that latter one.
Discussion question: What do you need to unlearn, or have you had to unlearn? I mean a belief or something related to your faith. Of course in the larger sense, everything is connected to our faith, so feel free to share something like that. I’m going to challenge you to share something a little deeper and more vulnerable than “I used to think broccoli was evil but now I like it!” That is definitely an unlearning and relearning. It may even quality as controversial in some circles. But….you know what I mean.
Let’s gather back together for a couple more minutes.
You know another name for “unlearning and relearning?” Growth. Growth, I promise you, is biblical.
It’s not some shameful thing to be wrong about something. We need to get over that. We need to get over the idea that perhaps young people need to grow by learning and unlearning and relearning, but when we reach whatever age that we imagine makes us adults, we are done with that process.
I would say it is perhaps the diametric opposite of following Jesus to decide we are simply right about everything and commit all our time and energy to buttressing and defending our positions. I mean diametric opposite because hunkering down and refusing to move is the opposite of following, isn’t it? And never changing is the opposite of growing.
“But Mike, what if I’m already right about everything and I’m following Jesus with all my right beliefs?’
You aren’t. There, now I may have offended you with me instead of Jesus. But I think I can make a pretty good biblical argument that believing we know the mind of God so perfectly we have no need to change is…what’s the word I’m looking for here? “Sinful?” “Prideful?” “Foolish?”
My guess is, all of us here have been through so much unlearning and relearning that this no longer shakes us. I hope so. Personally, I see this as good news, like evangel good news, that the God of life keeps leading us and loving us and helping us to unlearn and learn anew. If we’re running down pedestrians, it’s good news to be taught a better, more compassionate way of life. If we’re racist, being confronted with our racism is loving, even if it offends us. If we’re homophobic or transphobic or hate the New York Yankees, we can still learn better ways to live and love our neighbors. That’s grace.
Remember, grace is always greater.