February 26, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
There’s a story from the days of Abraham Lincoln when he was president. He had a young man on his staff who was an avid church goer and a new pastor came to his church. The pastor was charismatic and a gifted orator. People started flocking to this church, no doubt many of them coming from other churches to hear the newest, latest phenomenon in the community.
Well, every Monday morning the aide would recap the sermon to the president and he would say, “You must come to hear him some Sunday.” Every week he would tell the president what he’s missing and he should join him. Finally, the president, perhaps just to put an end to the badgering, agreed to go with the young man to his church the next Sunday.
The pews were packed. The pastor must have preached an awe-inspiring sermon. The aide couldn’t wait to get into the presidential carriage and ride back to the White House. He quickly asked, “What did you think?” The president rather nonchalantly said, “It was fine.” The aide was disappointed. He said, “Well surely you were impressed with his eloquence and insight to the scriptures.” The president, looking at a newspaper, shrugged and said, “I suppose.” And that was it.
They rode in silence until the aide couldn’t withhold asking, “Mr. President, you seem unimpressed. Do you mind my asking why?” Mr Lincoln took his glasses off, looked at the man and said, “Because he didn’t ask me to do anything.”
There is some speculation as to whether Abraham Lincoln was a Christian. Some believe he was more of a theist. But Lincoln did know his scriptures and the words of Jesus, and he probably believed that the country didn’t need another church full of impressed listeners but followers willing to live out what they heard.
This is must have been what Jesus had in mind when he stunned and probably disappointed a crowd of listeners by asking, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?”
This is the question we consider today in our series for this Lenten season, The Questions Jesus Asks. Jesus asked over 300 questions in the Gospel. Even more than parables, Jesus used questions as a teaching tool. He understood that the lessons that stick with us are not the ones handed to us. They are brought out of us, and good questions draw out the best lessons. So what might Jesus want to draw out of us by asking, “What do you call me Lord and do not do what I tell you?”
Well, let’s start by noting that this question, like the one we considered on Ash Wednesday, is not for everybody. This question is for religious people; people who call Jesus “Lord,” people who perhaps spend a lot of time in church, people like many of us. Jesus is pointing to what is a gap between professed beliefs and actual behaviors.
Kenda Creasy Dean recognized this years ago with her research at Princeton University. With churches becoming concerned with why young people are leaving, she studied youth who grew up in church but didn’t stay with church. Her research pointed out some surprising and startling insight. She found that many youth don’t stick with church because of the disconnect they see in adults who are plenty religious but their faith doesn’t carry over into daily life. The values and ethic of Jesus don’t show up in everyday choices and behaviors.
As she asks rather sharply in her book Almost Christian: “What if the blasé religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down Gospel so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit, that it might not be Christianity at all?” Listening alone can lead to losing our faith.
So one of the first things we can note about this question is that Jesus isn’t calling us to be religious. He’s calling us into a way of living. And what is that way?
This question comes at the end of Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. Listen to some of calls to action:
Love Your Enemy
Do Good to Those Who Hate You
Pray for Those Who Mistreat You
Give to Everyone Who Asks of You
Do to Others as You Would Have them Do Unto You
Do Not Judge
Give to the Poor
Do Not Defraud Anyone
Do Not Hate
Do the things that Make for Peace
Clearly these are not easy things. This way of life Jesus calls for is a demanding one. It is a challenging one. And true discipleship understands that challenge is a part of obedience.
Let me give a fascinating example from Indiana judicial history. Back in 1977 in Elkhart, a Vietnam War veteran named Harry Palmer was struggling to make ends meet. He was working jobs but found it hard to provide for his family. In a moment of desperation he stole. At that time there was a mandatory sentencing in Indiana, meaning that sentences for such crimes, in this case 10-20 years for burglary, was mandatory regardless of the circumstances. The state legislature had overturned this rule but it didn’t take effect until 18 days after Palmer’s arrest.
During this time Palmer became a Christian, confessed to his crime and appeared before Judge William Bontrager for sentencing. Judge Bontrager was also a devout Christian. He was raised Amish and later joined the Church of the Brethren, two faith traditions highly committed to living out the biblical call to be peacemakers. Bontrager had become intrigued by a concept called Restorative Justice, which focuses on rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.
Bontrager knew that Palmer had never committed an offense. Taking everything into account, he reduced the sentence to one year of restitution. He met with the victims and agreed to make compensation by doing manual labor for them until restitution. By the end of the year the victims and community were well pleased and all saw a changed man in Palmer.
And this is where things got interesting. Acting on the prosecutor’s appeal the Indiana Supreme Court got involved. They overturned Bontrager’s decision since mandatory sentencing had still been in effect. They ordered Bontrager himself to readminister the sentence and send Palmer to prison for 7 years. But Bontrager wouldn’t do it and his faith was a key reason. He said, “Mandatory sentences destroy the application of individual justice. Christ cared for the individual. So must we.”
The State Supreme Court then brought charges against Bontrager, fining him and also sentencing the judge to jail time! But by this point Bontrager resigned his judgeship and the jail time was dropped. (One of our members, Judge Steven David, just retired from the Indiana Supreme Court this year, and if you’re watching right now Judge David, how I wish you had been on the court in 1983!) As William Bontrager said, (Picture) “It just wasn’t right. I couldn’t obey the court and serve my God. They were in conflict. I had to take my stand.” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1983/february-4/taking-stand-when-law-and-justice-conflict.html)
Living the words of Jesus is a challenging thing. It reminds me of something
G.K. Chesterton (pic) said: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
Is it easy to live the words of Jesus? Absolutely not! Jesus didn’t come so that churches would be packed with interested listeners. He came so that people would be inspired to put his teachings into practice. Jesus isn’t calling us to a comfortable life but a compelling one.
Maybe this is why Jesus compares the living out of his teachings to the building of a house. If you build a solid foundation then when a flood comes, the house will be secure. But if you don’t take that time and trouble to build a solid foundation the floods will wash it away. Jesus is saying that our lives are like building a house. If we want convenience we will sacrifice dependability. But if we want dependability we will be willing to sacrifice convenience.
But this is where I want to acknowledge something of my own discomfort with this question of Jesus, “Why do you not do what I say?” It feels judgmental, preachy; almost as if a finger rises from the page pointing at you.
I have a friend who says, “My first wife used to point her finger at me all the time and Rob, when you point your finger from the pulpit I stop hearing what you say.” None of us likes having a finger pointed at us. And this is what that passage feels like.
I read numerous articles and maybe dozens of sermons dealing with this passage to get ready for the sermon, and each one gave the same feeling, “Christians today don’t put Jesus words into action better. That’s what’s wrong with the church!” But then I read a sermon by Wallace Hamilton I found very helpful. He was a Methodist preacher in the middle part of the 20th century. He appreciated Jesus identifying the two builders in the parable as wise and foolish rather than good and bad. He said too much of religion puts things in a good-bad, right-wrong dichotomy. But wise and foolish helps him understand the demands of Jesus better.
What sounds preachy, like Jesus is condemning sins, is really about helping us understand what is sensible. When Jesus talks about not misusing the Lord’s name, that’s a good point, but the real point is “let your yes be yes and your no be no.” Just be honest. That’s a smart way to live.
When Jesus warns against adultery, he’s not just running down illicit sexual behavior, though that is valid. He’s really saying, “be aware of the cost of broken relationships. Be aware of the pain and torment it causes. It doesn’t make sense.
When he talks about not just blessing those who bless us, he’s saying stand up for people others don’t. Bless people who can’t bless us back. It makes the world better. It lessens hatred and divides. It’s simply a good way to live.
That thought was a game-changer for me about this question of Jesus. Why don’t you do what I say? Jesus isn’t pointing fingers at anyone. It’s more like he is saying, “Mind the gap.” If you’ve ever been on the Underground in London you know that when the train pulls up to a station and the doors open a mechanical voice says in a British accent, “Mind the Gap.” In other words, take note of the gap between the train and the platform. You can trip and fall. Mind the gap.
When it comes to living the words of Jesus we all have gaps. We all have spaces where we fall short. This can’t be about living the words of Jesus perfectly. Do you? I know I don’t. And so what I need is a religion that will challenge me to mind the gaps. I don’t need a religion that just tells me what I want to hear. I don’t need a religion that pats me on the back on Sunday and says, “Now, now, you’ll be just fine,” and doesn’t help me think about applying that faith the rest of the week. I need a religion that will get personal, maybe even invasive, so that my life is impacted by these words I say and believe.
So before we conclude, I want to offer a few thoughts to help us think about our own gaps. You might consider which of these are most relevant to you and use in your small group discussions this week.
Thinking about Jesus question, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” What could be some reasons?
Comfort? Maybe you want a faith that just comforts you. Provides solace and relief. That’s not a bad thing, but by itself, it can create a gap where a call to practice justice or advocate for others feels controversial or uncomfortable and we just want a faith that keeps life peaceful. Or maybe we live with so much turmoil already, we’re just tired and don’t have the energy to do more. It may be helpful to understand that there are some comforts that doesn’t come from hearing. When our lives are in turmoil and we wonder where God is, sermons and prayers start to become flat. There is a peace and energy that comes from doing.
Time? Could a gap between our beliefs and actions have to do with the fact that we are just plain busy. We don’t take time to think much about how our faith might play a role in our work and everyday life. We are too busy living. If so, we might need to ask, “Are the things that occupy so much of my life going to give me everything I’m looking for in life?”
Fear? Maybe you have a good idea of what living Jesus’ words mean in the world, but there is a fear of what would happen if you did that? What would others think? Might it cost you friendships? Might it have more practical costs? If so, then remember, cost cuts both ways. What is the cost of not doing?
Interestingly, Judge Bontrager, after he left the bench, went to work full-time doing restorative justice work with the Mennonite Church. Now, he’s back in Indiana and does legal mediation for churches in conflict! I imagine United Methodist congregations alone keep him busy! And I imagine he would say he is very happy doing what he does.
Only when we get beyond the fear of what could be lost, can we embrace what could be gained.
Inattention? Living your faith just hasn’t been something you’ve given much attention to. Faith has been one of many things going on in your life but not necessarily greater than all the others. But don’t wait until the storms come and wash things away. Maybe now is the time to say, “I want to make my faith a larger part of my life.”
Other? Is there something else that might be the reason for any gaps between your beliefs and behaviors?
Again, I know so much of this feels judgy and preachy, but it’s not. Jesus wants to help us build lives that matter, lives that make a difference, lives that stand strong when storms come. And the storms will come. But a faith that gets put into action finds strength that withstands storms.
(story of someone responding call to do something. Maybe Steve Claffey. He had said yes before but he wanted to say yes to more…)
Has God been whispering into your heart to do something? If so, let your doing be the Amen to this sermon.